Taking Phil 2:7 (“he emptied himself”), along with 2 Cor 8:9 (“he became poor”), has led some to develop a kenosis theory, according to which Christ’s becoming human necessarily entailed a renunciation of some of his divine qualities. Otherwise, how could he share in those limitations of space, time, power, knowledge, and so on, that are part and parcel of human existence?
According to one version of the kenosis theory, Christ emptied himself of his ‘metaphysical’ attributes (omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience and so on), but not his ‘moral’ attributes (love, justice, holiness, and so on).
Kenosis theory was invoked by Bishop Gore in 1899 to explain how (in Gore’s view) Jesus could be morally perfect, and mistaken with regard to matters of fact (such as the historical truth of the Old Testament).
But kenosis theory is not supported by the texts that are thought to support it. The present verse, for example, does not refer to Christ’s giving up of his divine powers and attributes, but rather to his divine glory and dignity.
Furthermore, if it is assumed that humanness is incompatible with divinity, then we should have to accept that Christ since he continues to be human, has forever lost his divine attributes.
Again: it is not possible to separate out, as Gore attempted to do, Jesus’ knowledge from his moral and spiritual qualities. He declared that all his teaching was from God, Jn 7:16; 8:28, 40;12:49–50.
Kenosis theory, then, cannot be accepted, at least in the form and with the implications that Gore and some others have given it. What shall we say then?
We can say that Jesus’ knowledge was indeed sometimes limited, Mk 5:30; 6:38; 13:32. But at other times he displays supernatural knowledge, Jn 4:17f; 11:11-13; Mt 17:27, and supernatural power. So it is not that Jesus was bereft of supernatural knowledge and power, but that he drew on both from time to time, being content at other times not to do so. It was not, then, that his deity was reduced, but that restrained his exercise of his divine capacities.
It is the nature of the Second Person of the Trinity to subject himself to the will of his Father. Therefore, he did not do everything that he could do, because some things were not his Father’s will (see Mt 26:53f). He did not consciously know all that he could know, for a similar reason.
The real self-emptying, or kenosis, therefore, is not an attenuation of divine attributes, but a voluntary restraint of divine glory and power.
(See the discussion in J.I. Packer, Knowing God, ch 5)
Concerning 19th-century kenosis theories, James Orr wrote: ‘The self-obliteration of the Logos to the point of surrender of His conscious life in the Godhead (which is their salient feature), is more than ‘self-emptying’—it is practically self-extinction.’ (The Progress of Dogma (Hodder and Stoughton, 1901)