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Jesus Christ Has Been The Subject Of Attention Religion Essay

The incarnation of Jesus Christ has been the 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] If that is the case then it makes 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 come to a more perfect understanding of 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 states:

“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 of 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’ 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 18 56 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 thyat is regareded as the mature and authoritative statement of Thomasisu’s kenotic Christology.” [18] 

Subsequent publications showed Thomasius’ 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 reformulation 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 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, through the act of kenosis or any other such theory, represent a self-limitation, which resulted in Christ giving up the characteristics of his divine nature.

Kenotic Theology

In kenoticism, “The second Person of the Trinity laid aside his distinctly divine attributes (omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.) and took on human qualities instead.” [23] In this view, Jesus is not God and man simultaneously, but successively. [24] Jesus is both God and man, just not at the same time.

“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…”. [25] 

“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.” [26] 

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