Gottfried Thomasius View Of Kenotic Christology Religion Essay


The incarnation of Jesus Christ has been a subject of attention from the earliest decades of the formation of the Christian Church. It has not been without its subsequent controversies. Several early councils were convened to address the various issues regarding the Godhead and in particular, the person and nature of Christ. Of these, the fourth great council of Chalcedon established the parameters of the person and nature of Christ in the orthodox view. [1] In an attempt to articulate the person and nature of Christ, the German theologian Gottfried Thomasius published a work between 1853 and 1861 entitled: Christi Person und Werk (Christ’s Person and Work). [2] In this essay, Thomasius called attention to the Greek word kenosis found in Philippians 2:7 in demonstrating his theory of the emptying of Christ during the incarnation. Thomasius’ view of kenosis contributed considerably to the interest in the incarnation principles of Christology. His work became the basis for further studies into what is more commonly called Kenotic theology. This paper will attempt to show that Thomasius’ view of kenosis is not completely consistent with the formula of Chalcedon and did not adequately comply with the orthodox principles of the incarnation.

Development of Systematic Theology

As the early church began to grow so did varying opinions as men began to think about the doctrines of scripture in a systematic way. “Was Jesus God? First-century Christians saw that the answer was not simple. Nature is not simple, so why then should we expect the Creator of nature be simple?” [3] 

Within the first four hundred years of Christianity there arose six major heresies and they all involved an aspect of the person of Christ. [4] Then, as now, there are doctrines, which men wrestle with and that still divide themselves over. Even today there are those who would say that some things are too complex to fully understand such as Robertson McQuilkin who said, “As we approach the Bible intent on discovering all the truth God intends for us to understand, we should examine our expectations and attitudes, as there are limitations on what is possible.” [5] 

Not withstanding, it is the obligation of every Christian to search out the truths of God’s word and to faithfully study it in order to build a competent system of beliefs. With regard to the person and nature of Christ, the words of Millard Erickson ring all the more true when he said, “All departures from the orthodox doctrine of the person of Christ are simply variations of one of these [six] heresies. While we may have difficulty specifying exactly the content of this doctrine, full fidelity to teaching of Scripture will carefully avoid each of these distortions.” [6] 

The Council of Chalcedon

The early councils of the Christian church were ecumenical gatherings of church leaders and scholars who were brought together in order to address the issues that divided the church and sought to set forth declarations that defined the proper understanding of these controversial theological issues that had an impact on the church. Each of the great councils formulated certain dogma about these issues of controversy, which then became the orthodox view of the Christian church.

Concerning the first great council of Nicea, Norman Geisler states, “The Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) states the uniform belief of all orthodox Christianity that Christ was fully God and fully Man. All heresies regarding Christ deny one or the other of these.” [7] One of the utmost important issues to the Church was, and rightfully should have been, a proper understanding of the person and nature of Christ. In regard to the council of Chalcedon, which was convened in 451, J. H. Hall wrote:

“The work of Chalcedon can be understood only in the light of a series of Christological declarations beginning with the Council of Nicea (325). The Nicene Creed declared that Christ is of the same divine substance with the Father, against Arius, who taught that Christ had a beginning and was only of similar substance. The Council of Constantinople (381) both ratified and refined the Nicene Creed, in opposition to continuing Arianism, and declared against Apollinarianism, which stated that Christ’s human soul had been replaced by the divine Logos. Moreover, Constantinople declared that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.” [8] 

As questions continued to grow about the nature of Christ in the incarnation, so did controversy. The preceding councils established the churches opinion with regard to the deity of Christ that He is indeed of the same substance as the father.

Later questions arose with respect to the human side and divine side of the nature of Christ. The Nestorian view held to a separation of the two natures of Christ as opposed to the Eutychian view, which theorized that Christ had only one nature. [9] The Nestorian view was rejected at the council of Ephesus but Eutychianism was later embraced. Seeing the continued discord, Pope Leo I instigated Emperor Marcion to call a new council and it was decided that it would be held in the city of Chalcedon.

The Council of Chalcedon achieved three important things. J.H. Hall states, “First, it reaffirmed the Nicene tradition; second, it accepted as orthodox the letters of Cyril and Leo; and third, it provided a definition of the faith.” [10] Hall continues, “There existed two overarching concerns- maintenance of the unity of Christ’s person and establishment of the two natures of Christ.” [11] 

The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril of Jerusalem attribute a section of Epiphanius, Ancoratus, 118, c. AD 374, as being that which contained the Nicene creed which was read and approved at Chalcedon. [12] What Chalcedon effectively achieved was setting forth certain parameters about the nature of Christ. That which is formulated to the understanding of these two natures must therefore fall within these parameters in order to remain orthodox.

In setting these parameters of orthodoxy, certain attributes must be maintained. One of the most important issues involves immutability. The Definition of Chalcedon sustained the continued immutability of Christ. The council declaration was as follows:

“Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus 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, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; 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; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.” [13] 

The Chalcedonian Creed provided the church with a statement that Christ indeed possessed two distinct natures, both a human side and divine side and that he existed in one person in an unchangeable way. [14] 

Gottfried Thomasius’s view of kenosis

In the first part of the 19th century, when Ferdinand Baur became professor of theology at Germany’s Tubingen University, he [following in the footsteps of G.W.F. Hegel] began in earnest to attack the historical credibility of the New Testament and in particular the Gospel of John. [15] But after a series of textual and archeological finds, Adolf von Harnack, who himself once sympathized with Baur, rejected his assumptions stating in 1897 that, “The assumptions of Baur’s school, one can almost say, are now wholly abandoned.” [16] This confrontation sparked by the rise of modern criticism produced many such debates and it serves to illustrate the theological climate within which Gottfried Thomasius and other German theologians wrote.

Gottfried Thomasius was a Lutheran theologian who in the mid-eighteen hundreds, attempted to develop an acceptable Christology that could withstand the criticism of his day. [17] In an attempt to do so, he published his Christi Person und Werk. David Law states,

“The first edition of Christi Person und Werk appeared between 1853 and 1861. Because of the criticism leveled at the early volumes of the first edition, Thomasius began revisions for the second edition before all three volumes of the first edition had appeared. The second edition was published between 1856 and 1863. A third and abridged edition, edited after Thomasius’s death by F.J. Winter, was published between 1886 and 1888, but it is the second edition that is regarded as the mature and authoritative statement of Thomasisu’s kenotic Christology.” [18] 

Subsequent publications showed Thomasius’s efforts to expound on his notion of kenosis. David Law states, “In “Beitrag” Thomasius argued that the tensions within Lutheran Christology could be resolved only by reformulating the doctrine of the person of Christ in terms of a self-limitation of the Logos”. [19] In essence this self-limitation is the idea behind Thomasius’s view of kenosis. Law gives a more defined description of this idea stating,

“It was above all Thomasius’s contribution to kenotic Christology that established him as a major theologian. The noun “kenosis” and the adjective “kenotic” are derived from the use of the term ekenosen in Phil. 2:7, where we read of “Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself [heauton ekenosen], taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.” On the basis of the use of the term ekenosen in this text, “kenosis” has come to be used as shorthand for a series of issues arising from the claim that Christ is both truly divine and truly human. How can divinity and humanity coexist in the one, united person of Christ without undermining the integrity of either nature? “Kenotic christologies” are those christologies which attempt to address this problem by arguing that Christ “emptied” himself of some aspect of his divine nature in order to become a human being.” [20] 

The notion of Christ emptying himself of some aspect of the divine nature in an act of self-limitation has serious significance and questions the immutability of God the Son.

This comes into direct contradiction with the statement of Chalcedon in several key areas.

First, Chalcedon established that the incarnation of Christ did not change, effect or diminish any attributes of deity Christ had before the incarnation. He is “without change…” [21] . Secondly, Chalcedon affirmed “the distinction of natures, being no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature, being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence…”. [22] The orthodox view is that the incarnation of Christ did not constitute a loss of any aspect of his divine nature, through the act of kenosis or any other such theory.

Kenotic Theology

“Although Thomasius’s influence and that of kenotic Christology in general gave way in Germany in the 1880’s to Ritschlianism, kenotic Christology enjoyed a second flowering in Britain…”. [23] In the years following, interest would subside but then unexpectedly grow again as theologians once again reexamine the kenotic theory.

“In recent years there has been a renewed interest in kenotic Christology (see, for example, Evans, 2006). Any current attempt to formulate a coherent and viable kenotic Christology will need to return to Thomasius’s work, above all to his Christi Person und Werk.” [24] .

In Christian Theology Millard Erickson gives his definition of kenoticism stating, “The second Person of the Trinity laid aside his distinctly divine attributes (omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.), and took on human qualities instead.” [25] In this view, Jesus is not God and man simultaneously, but successively. Kenoticism implies that Jesus is both God and man, just not at the same time. [26] 

Others have thought to develop the position of kenoticism in not such an abrogated way. Instead they incorporate the idea into a more mild form of kenotic theology. In a review of Michael J. Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Timothy G. Gombis of Cedarville University states,

“In chapter 1, Gorman develops Paul’s “master story” that demonstrates the kenotic character of Jesus Christ and reveals the very identity of God as kenotic. He focuses on Phil 2:5-11 and argues, based on a thorough exegetical treatment of the passage, that the pattern “although [x] not [y] but [z]” reveals the narrative trajectory of the kenosis of Jesus. By this, Gorman means “although [status] not [selfishness] but [selflessness]” (p.16). Jesus Christ had status as God himself but did not exploit this, using it for his own comfort of personal gain. Rather, he pursued several “progressively degrading” positions on a movement of “downward” mobility,” going eventually to the publicly shameful death on a cross (pp. 16-17). For Gorman, this passage is not properly understood to mean that Christ did this despite the fact that he was in the form of God. Rather, Christ pursued this path because he was in the form of God. In other words, and this is a crucial point for Gorman, Christ’s being in the form of God is most clearly seen in his self-emptying and self-expenditure (p. 25). In this sense, the very character of God is kenotic (self-emptying) and cruciform (cross-shaped).” [27] 

In this passage, the reviewer (Gombis) notes that the author (Gorman) thinks the kenotic passages are not clearly understood. Noting this misrepresentation, he suggests a proper view of kenotic theology. Whether or not Gorman is true in his assumptions remains speculative however it does illustrate the contemporary effort to redefine the implications inherent in kenotic theology.

Classical Theology

The more classical view of the person and nature of Christ are theologies based more on the Chalcedonian formula and are replete in the theological community. Some theologians have attempted to address the problem of formulating an acceptable understanding of the human and divine nature of Christ always keeping a wary eye upon the parameters of the orthodox or Chalcedonian understanding of the incarnation. From the abstract of Robin Le Poidevin’s Identity and the composite Christ: an Incarnational delemma, the author states,

“One way of understanding the reduplicative formula ‘Christ is, qua God, omniscient, but qua man, limited in knowledge’ is to take the occurrences of the ‘qua’ locution as picking out different parts of Christ: a divine part and a human part. But this view of Christ as a composite being runs into paradox when combined with the orthodox understanding, adopting a philosophically and theologically contentious perdurantist account of persistence through time, or rejecting altogether the idea of the composite Christ.” [28] 

Here the author points out a formula of Christology of the human and divine natures but at the same time, recognizes that it conflicts paradoxically with the Chalcedonian parameters of the incarnation. In this respect, many theologians still show deference to and recognize the importance of the Chalcedonian councils definitive statement.

The Chalcedonian parameters have been a staple in guiding theological thought for centuries. George P. Pardington, who was a well-esteemed professor of theology among the Christian Alliance, makes this clear. In his theology primer Outline Studies in Christian Doctrine, He deals with passages in Philippians 2:6,7 and other verses that show the nature of the preexistence of Christ and the incarnations, stating,

“These and other phrases express ineffable relationships within the Godhead, which we cannot comprehend. On Phil. 2:6 Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says: “Form (Greek, morphe) is that by which a person or thing strikes the vision, the external appearance”. There is nothing in this passage, which teaches that the Eternal Word (John 1:1) emptied Himself of either His divine nature of His attributes, but only of the outward visible manifestation of the Godhead. “He emptied, stripped Himself, of the insignia of Majesty” (Lightfoot). “When occasion demanded, He exercised His divine attributes” (Moorehead). [29] 

Pardington’s view of the kenotic passages in no way contradicts the Chalcedonian parameters since Christ did not give up any of his divine nature or attributes.

Contemporary Debate

Roger Olsen has noted that the differing opinions among evangelicals. He states,

“Kenotic Christology-emphasizing the need to take with utmost seriousness Jesus’ true humanity, including limited consciousness- has made significant inroads among evangelicals, while other evangelical theologians have resisted and criticized it.” [30] Olsen continues to describe what he characterizes as a very heated debate among more progressive and conservative Evangelicals stating, “As recently as the mid-1990’s heresy charges were thrown by conservative evangelicals at more moderate and progressive ones who dared to use the kenotic motif in writing about the incarnation.” [31] 

Theologians who reaffirm the Chalcedon formula would be Bernard Ramm and Carl Henry. [32] Examples of some who are more outspoken against kenoticism would be Thomas V, Morris, Donald Bloesch, Millard Erickson and Stanley Grenz. [33] While Grenz is somewhat critical of kenotic theology, he nevertheless does not espouse the traditional Chalcedon formula either. [34] Olsen states,

“Two evangelical theologians who have attempted to push the frontiers of Christology are Clark Pinnock and Stanley Grenz. Both affirm that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human, but they are dissatisfied with the classical expression of that belief in Chalcedonian Christology (hypostatic union). They are not so much interested in rejecting it as in supplementing it with new and more helpful thought forms. People today, they argue, are not as tuned as ancient people were to the substance ontologies of Greek metaphysics, and the times call for a new expression of the doctrine of Jesus Christ’s humanity and divinity.” [35] 

While the purpose of this paper is not to critique the various forms of Christology espoused by many theologians among the ranks of evangelicals (and they are many), it is however concerned with the classical Chalcedonian formula of the incarnation, and whether or not kenotic theology adheres to it and why this is important.

While there are those who strongly support the Chalcedonian formula, there are others who feel that it is flawed. Roger Olsen notes that both Clark Pinnock and Stanley Grenz are “dissatisfied with the classical expression of that belief in Chalcedonian Christology (hypostatic union).” [36] He once again points to the work of Stanley Grenz to illustrate this stating,

“Grenz argues in Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000) that classical Incarnational Christology falls short biblically and logically and revises it using the eschatological ontology (the future as the locus of being) of German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. According to Grenz, Jesus Christ is the Logos, who is not to be thought of as preexisting and then “descending” into human history but as revealing God and therefore belonging to the eternity of God by virtue of his resurrection.” [37] [Emphasis is Olsen’s].

Olsen continues with his critique of Grenz showing how it is at variance with classical Christology. This is where the debate becomes relevant to this research with respect to the Chalcedonian formula. Olsen states,

“The main difference between this Christology and classical Christology [Chalcedonian] lies in its denial of a logos asarkos – discarnate or preincarnate Logos or Son of God. For Grenz, Jesus Christ is the Logos, the second person of the Trinity. Whatever tensions or problems may exist in Pinnock’s and Grenz’s Christology, they are not so much revisions of the hypostatic union as restatements of the basic Christological vision in new terms.” [38] 

The abandoning of the basic tenants of the Chalcedonian formula present some extreme difficulties, particularly in light of the doctrine of the Preexistence of Christ which was affirmed at Chalcedon.

One of the issues in regard to the nature of Christ concerns his Consciousness. When did Christ come to the realization of who he was? Theologians like Myer Pearlman were more content to leave this question open stating, “Just exactly when and how this self-consciousness came must remain a mystery to us. When we think of God coming to us in the form of a man we must reverently exclaim, Great is the mystery of godliness!” [39] Erickson would say, “There were within his person dimensions of experience, knowledge and love not found in human beings.” We must recognize that in dealing with Christ, he was more than just a man. He had and maintained all the qualities of a divine nature and a sinless human nature as well. [40] 

Another important issue that must be addressed is that the hypostatic union is permanent and everlasting. What Christ became in the incarnation is what he shall remain eternally (Heb 2:17, 7:24). [41] This is a problem for the kenotic view of Christ since that in the kenotic view, according to Erickson. [42] Jesus is both God and man, just not at the same time. This would imply a doing away with what Jesus became in the incarnation after his ascension and glorification.


The question that this research is concerned with may be answered by saying that Gottfried Thomasius’s original view of kenosis is not completely consistent with the formula of Chalcedon and did not adequately comply with the orthodox principles of the incarnation.


Bettenson, Henry. Documents of the Christian Church ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Byfield, Ted. ed., The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years Edmonton: Christian Millennial History Project, 2002.

Erickson, Millard J., Christian Theology Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.

Geisler, Norman L. When Skeptics Ask: a handbook on Christian Evidences Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2008.

Gombis, Timothy G. in review of Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society Vol. 52, Is. 4 2009, p. 866.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity vol.1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation New York: Harper Collins, 1984.

Hall, J.H., “Chalcedon, Council of (451),” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

Law, David R. Gottfried Thomasius (1802-1875) in The Blackwell Companion to the Theologians Volume 2, ed. Ian S. Markham Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.

Le Poidevin, Robin. Identity and the composite Christ: an Incarnational dilemma, in Religious Studies, Cambridge: Vol. 45, Is. 2 2009, p. 167.

McQuilkin, Robertson. Understanding and Applying the Bible Chicago: Moody Press, 1992.

Mitchell, Daniel R. “The Unity of the Person of Christ,” Class lecture, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, April 15, 2010.

Olsen, Roger E. The Westminster handbook to Evangelical Theology Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Pardington, George P. Outline Studies in Christian Doctrine Harrisburg: Christian Publications, 1926.

Pearlman, Myer. Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible Springfield: Gospel Publishing, 1981.

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