Friday, April 21, 2006

Emptied himself of all but love? A strange error

The very popular hymn by Charles Wesley, “And Can it be That I should gain,” originally entitled "Free Grace": contains several serious heresies in the following words.

Amazing love!
How can it be?
That thou my God shouldst die for me!
'Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies:
Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the first born seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
'Tis mercy all!
Let earth adore
Let angel minds enquire no more!

He left his father's throne above,
So free, so infinite his grace,
Emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.

The first error is Theopaschitism, a heresy from the 5th century which emphasises the idea that God suffered. Wesley revived this idea with his assertion "Amazing love! How can it be - that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" and "’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies". The divine nature cannot suffer, though a divine person in a human nature can suffer. It is dangerous to express the idea that God died or suffered The second heresy is in the words "Emptied Himself of all but love" which is the error of kenoticism, that Christ laid aside either the possession or exercise of divine attributes at the incarnation. Wesley"s words seem to lean towards the former. This idea is also known as the kenosis theory and is derived from a false interpretation of Philippians 2:6–8. Kenosis comes from the Greek word to empty which is behind the translation "made himself of no reputation". The third heresy is that of Universal Atonement that Christ died for all mankind in all ages. This is against the testimony of Scripture which teaches that Christ died for His people. It is also against justice since it asserts the double punishment of sin, those who are eternally punished are punished for sin that has already been punished in Christ. The danger of devising, using and approving human, non-inspired materials of praise in the worship of God in place of those inspired and provided by the Holy Spirit (Psalms 1-150) is clearly demonstrated by such heresies. All put together it makes little theological sense. Few may realise what errors they take on their lips in singing such hymns, others imbibe them through an emotional attachment to such words.

What is the kenotic theory?
Wesley may well have derived the second error from Moravian influences, particularly Count von Zinzendorf (1702-1760). Dorner, summarises the Moravian"s views "we assume Zinzendorf's idea to have been that the self-conversion into a human germ, which then appropriated to itself material elements from Mary, so that the Son of God woke up to life in Mary a man." Charles" brother John Wesley seems to have had a more orthodox view of Philippians 2:6–8 stating that Christ "veiled his fullness from the eyes of men and angels; "taking," and by that very act emptying himself, "the form of a servant; being made in the likeness of man," a real man, like other men... "becoming obedient" to God, though equal with him" Sermon 85 "On Working out our own Salvation". Charles Wesley's view appears to be similar to the Lutheran theologian Gottfried Thomasius (1802 - 75), who argued that there are two kinds of divine attributes, internal/ethical (love, joy) and external (omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.). The eternal Son "set aside" the external attributes and revealed the internal “love”. This was also the view of A M Fairbairn in “The Place of Christ in Modern Theology” (1893).

There have been various ways of asserting kenoticism. All in some way maintain the idea that the divine nature was in some way essentially adjusted and limited by the incarnation. The kenoticism of the 19th century Tübingen theologians was that the divine Logos limited himself in becoming incarnate. For instance, kenotic theorists maintain that Christ as God was not omniscient and did not know the time of the end of the world (Mark 13:32) he was limited by his human limits of knowledge. The eternally pre-existent Logos was brought within the limitations of finite personality. There is therefore a connection between kenoticism and theopaschitism since the latter also teaches that the incarnation has changed the nature of Deity, in this case that it imports passibility or the ability to suffer into the divine nature. These are a selection of the variations among those that espouse some form of kenotic theory:

1.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself of His divine consciousness,”
2.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself of the eternity-form of His being,”
3.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself of the relative attributes of His Deity (omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence),”
4.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself of the integrity of infinite Divine existence,”
5.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself of the Divine activity,”
6.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself of the actual exercise of His Divine prerogatives.”
7.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself of all the divine attributes”
8.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself by giving up the independent use of His divine attributes.”
9.The Eternal Son “emptied Himself because self-limitation was a natural principle within the eternal trinity between Son and Father”

Some of these are not at all easy to follow. The Baptist theologian A H Strong in his Systematic Theology, took the view that this self-emptying referred to the laying aside of “the independent exercise of the divine attributes”. He continues to elaborate on this however, “Omniscience gives up all knowledge but that of the child, the infant, the embryo, the infinitesimal germ of humanity. Omnipotence gives up all power but that of the impregnated ovum in the womb of the Virgin. The Godhead narrows itself down to a point that is next to absolute extinction”. The kenotic theory has led to many unguarded rhetorical remarks that are unfitting in dealing with the mystery of godliness, that God was manifest in the flesh. It is still very popular at the present time. The Macarthur Study Bible comments: “Though Christ had all the rights, privileges and honours of deity...His attitude was not to cling to those or His position but to be willing to give them up for a season”.

Some paraphrases taking liberty with the very words of God, have sought to enforce the kenosis theory. J B Phillips renders this, "For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his privileges as God"s equal, but stripped Himself of every advantage by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born a man." Moffatt makes it to read, "Though he was divine by nature, he did not set store upon equality with God, but emptied himself by taking the nature of a servant; born in human guise and appearing in human form."

It is vital that we understand that this does not so much concern the interpretation of Philippians chapter 2, rather it concerns the fundamental question as to how the Lord Jesus Christ is God and Man and what the nature of God is. The kenotic theory amounts to a redefinition of God. If the Eternal Son "suspended" His omnipresence and omniscience until His ascension then such attributes must be able to be limited indeed put in abeyance without affecting the true divine nature of God. How can kenotic theorists be sure that these attributes were resumed after the ascension? How could one member of the Trinity suspend such aspects of the Godhead since the Trinity work in harmony rather than independently? Presumably the theory does not maintain that the whole Godhead suspended omnipotence etc. during the incarnation yet it allows for this as a possibility. The truth is that omnipotence, omniscience etc. are not "rights" or "prerogatives" that God possesses but rather what He is. The divine essence is immortal, invisible, only wise. Moreover, God is unchangeable He cannot change in His divine being and essence without ceasing to be God. Any suggestion that through the incarnation the divine nature changed can only mean the claim that God ceased to be God.

The kenotic Christ is not truly the Eternal Son, "by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb 1:2-3). It was only the one who was God omnipotent creator and sustainer of all things who could have "by himself purged our sins". He was the "fullness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9). Christ could refer to Himself as the “Son of Man which is in heaven” (John 3:13). How was this so if he was not omnipresent?

The Chalcedonian Creed expresses the orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ "at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead... one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ". The kenotic theory seriously errs from this because it does not confess the incarnate Son to have been complete in Godhead and to have had the same substance with the Father as regards his Godhead. The kenotic theorists also regard the natures as being subject to change (contrary to Heb 13:8) and confusion.

The Eternal Son emptied himself of nothing. He did not leave behind Him His divinity or His power, or any of His attributes. He made himself of no reputation by taking the form of a servant, He emptied Himself not by subtraction but by addition, by taking a human nature into union with His own divine person. It was not the essential glory, the glory which He had with the Father before the world began, that he laid aside but only the manifest revealed glory before men. The essential glory remained while the external revealed glory was veiled but not limited in any significant or essential way. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. Despite the veil of flesh those with Spirit-given faith could perceive the essential glory, "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, (the glory as of the only begotten from the Father) full of grace and truth". “No man can see God at any time” in His essential glory, thus His glory was revealed in various ways at different times. “The only begotten son which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him”. The theophanies of the Old Testament where the Eternal Son appeared as the Angel of the Lord and in the likeness of human flesh are instances of a different revelation of that glory. His glory was revealed through his miracles (John 2:11). There was a glory revealed at the transfiguration yet Christ was hid from even his disciples on the road to Emmaus. We can speak therefore of the revealed divine glory of Christ being in part concealed or veiled by flesh as it were, and so to some extent laid aside before men when he took the form of a servant.