Theology Thursday . . . on Friday: The Kenosis as Deliberate Concealment

What is the nature of Christ’s incarnation? How did the Messiah’s divine and human natures work together? Much has been written on this, of course. Theology students (and their teachers) have always been intrigued by this question. When this question comes up, the Bible student’s mind inevitably turns to Philippians 2. As Rolland McCune asked, “of what did Christ empty Himself?”1 One common solution is to answer, “Christ emptied Himself of the independent use of His divine attributes.”

This is what McCune suggests. After some exegetical comments on Philippians 2:5-8 and a survey of various theories, he explained that (1) Christ gave up the independent use of His attributes, (2) became subservient to the Father in a unique way, and (3) depended on the Holy Spirit’s power.2 Augustus H. Strong also favored this view.3

There is another view.

Stephen Wellum, in his book entitled God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, argued against this view. This functional kenotic Christology, as he termed it, actually limits Jesus’ in a fatal way; “the Son’s ability to act as God the Son seems permanently limited.”4 It’s as if the Son was so limited by the incarnation He could, essentially, no longer function as God.

What about the passages which speak of Jesus upholding and sustaining the world (Heb 1; Col 1)? In addition, Wellum criticized an over-emphasis on a so-called “Spirit Christology,” where Jesus’ divine actions are attributed to a unique anointing and empowering by the Holy Spirit, not necessarily His own power – due to the “limitations” of the incarnation.5 ​He pointed out that Gerald Hawthorne’s book, The Presence and the Power,​ has had a large impact on this ”Spirit Christology,” and its conception of the Spirit’s role in Jesus ministry. ​

Wellum firmly believes in the extra Catholicum, and it is central to his understanding. He defined the extra thus:

The extra is the view that, in the incarnation, the Son not only retained his divine attributes but also continued to exercise them in Trinitarian relation. It also insists that, since the Son now subsists in two natures, the Son is able to live a divine life outside (extra) his human nature while simultaneously living a fully human life in his human nature.6

Therefore, he explained, “Instead of the kenosis viewpoints, it is best to think of Christ’s humiliation as krypsis, i.e. hiddenness or veiling.”7 How does this work, then? In this short excerpt, Wellum explains his understanding of how Jesus’ divine and human natures interacted during the incarnation:8

The Son is the subject of the incarnation, who acts through his divine and human natures without violating the integrity of their respective attributes and capacities. But this does not mean that the Son can never act in a way that would be impossible for a mere human.

It is true that, as a man, the person of the Son is limited to the abilities of a normal, sinless, but not supernatural human nature. Yet it is also true that the Son lives and acts according to the perfections of the divine nature.

Traditionally, the church has employed the extra to do justice to the entire biblical presentation of Christ by affirming that the divine Son is not completely circumscribed by his human nature. The Son has ontological priority over his human nature because the divine person is eternal and thus has a divine life independent of the body and soul he assumed at his incarnation.

Moreover, the Son continues to subsist in the divine nature as the second person of the Godhead. The extra, then, affirms that the Son can and does act through the divine nature in ways that he could not act through his human nature.

Contrary to a common caricature, the extra was not intended to diminish Christ’s humanity. The extra, rather, seeks to confess and preserve the integrity of the Son’s full humanity. From conception on, the Son humbled himself by taking on a human nature, and he did not override its limitations.

Yet the Son also continued to exercise his divine attributes ‘outside’ (extra) the reality of his human life. In his humanity, then, we should not think of Christ as going through his days thinking about the entire universe, since all his cosmic functions as done ‘outside’ his human life.

Furthermore, when the extra is combined with the krypsis, we gain a clearer understanding of the nature of his kenosis: the incarnation brought a real concealment but not an abdication of the eternal Son’s divine majesty. The Son became one with us to live primarily as one of us and then to die for us, all in obedience to his Father’s will.

Given how the church has distinguished person from nature, there is nothing contradictory in asserting that the Son can simultaneously act through both natures to accomplish different works, even where the divine works are impossible for the human nature. Some kind of asymmetrical relationship between the Sons living, speaking, and acting in and through his natures must be postulated, which is probably one of the most difficult areas for us to conceive.    

A human being is only one person subsisting in one human nature; we are neither divine persons nor do we subsist in two different natures. Conceiving of the asymmetrical relationship between the Son living and acting in his divine nature and his living and acting in his human nature surpass our comprehension. But that does not mean that this part of the incarnate economy is not true – only that it is largely unknown to us. And even still, the extra helps us to make this theological-metaphysical confession of Christ.

The best way to account for the asymmetrical relationship in Christ is in terms of Trinitarian relations worked out in redemptive history for the sake of the Son’s incarnational mission. The Son lives out his divine and human lives in relation to the Father and Spirit and as our Redeemer. Against all forms of kenoticism, the Son does not renounce his divine attributes or even the use of them.

Instead, the Son’s entire life is best viewed through the lens of his filial dependence on the Father in the Spirit. The Son does nothing except what he knows the Father wills him to do. When the Father does not will that the incarnate Son actualize some divine power or access some information out of his omniscience, the Son obeys and refrains.

The Son did not abandon the use of his divine attributes; he could have turned rocks into bread or come down from the cross, but it was not his Father’s will. Moreover, the Son’s eternal and divine filial relation to the Father can be seen in redemptive history precisely because the Son always lives and acts to fulfill the divine plan of the Father.

In the incarnation, neither the Son’s deity nor his humanity is diminished. As the Father allows, and by the Spirit, the divine Son, the Lord of glory, lives, speaks, acts, obeys, wills, rules, and saves as both the Creator-Covenant Lord and our great Redeemer.


1 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. (Detroit, MI: DBTS, 2009), 2:103.  

2 Ibid, 2:103-110.  

3 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 703.

4 Stephen Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, in Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 415.  

5 See Wellum (God the Son, 380-383).  

6 Ibid, 333.  

7 Ibid, 414.  

8 Ibid, 440-442.  

5075 reads

There are 8 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


I'm with Strong, McCune, et al. on this one. Though there are some difficulties (e.g. the "upholding all things by the word of His power"), the whole of what we have answers better to "empowered by the Spirit as the Father wills" than to "restrained in His own power only as the Father wills."

The death on the cross itself is the strongest argument for the "Spirit's power" view. An actual death means that "upholding all things..." is just as much a problem for Wellum's view as for the Spirit's power view. Second strongest argument might be the the fact Jesus was intended to fulfill the role of the "another prophet like Moses" who "is to come." Functioning in a prophet role normally meant being empowered by the Spirit.

Then you have the realities of daily experience. Every small bit of fatigue, hunger, thirst, etc. would have to be a case of personal power restrained by the Father rather than an experience of normal human living. Wellum's view can handle that, but it seems a better fit with "all points tempted as we are though without sin."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

T Howard's picture

I appreciate Wellum's approach. A Detroit MDiv grad and I taught through Christology at our church this summer, and we both gleaned a lot from reading through Wellum. I think once you accept the concept of two wills (one per nature) and one person, the extra view seems to fit nicely.

As for Spirit Christology, Scripture repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus was enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit in his life and ministry. However, there are certain aspects of Jesus ministry that evidence his own divine power. Therefore, I don't think this is an either/or but rather a both/and situation.

TylerR's picture


I need to read Hawthorne's book The Presence and the Power. I enjoyed Wellum's book and learned a great deal. His approach is very persuasive to me, because it can better make sense of how Christ upheld and sustained the world during the incarnation. I have always had trouble with the idea that Jesus performed His miracles through the power of the Spirit (i.e. an extra-heightened anointing). I always felt that reduced and even destroyed His deity, but I was never sure how else to make the two work.


Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

T Howard's picture

TylerR wrote:

I need to read Hawthorne's book The Presence and the Power. I enjoyed Wellum's book and learned a great deal. His approach is very persuasive to me, because it can better make sense of how Christ upheld and sustained the world during the incarnation. I have always had trouble with the idea that Jesus performed His miracles through the power of the Spirit (i.e. an extra-heightened anointing). I always felt that reduced and even destroyed His deity, but I was never sure how else to make the two work.


Tyler, I'd encourage you to read this article in SBJT: The Son and the Spirit: The Promise and Peril of Spirit Christology

Claunch wrote his dissertation on the topic of Spirit Christology and proposes what he terms a "robust Trinitarian Spirit Christology."

From the conclusion:

Spirit Christology is a complex theological paradigm that has been used to refer to a wide range of models across a number of theological traditions. Some kinds of contemporary Spirit Christology are heresies of the first order, amounting to little more than a re-articulation of the old heresy of adoptionism. However, some Spirit-Christology proposals are self-consciously Trinitarian and cling confessionally to the ontological deity of Christ. These Trinitarian Spirit Christologies bring a number of important theological advantages to the table, but they can bring their share of dangers as well. There is work to be done here, but if a robust Trinitarian Spirit Christology can carefully and coherently avoid the theological dangers identified in this article, the potential advantages will result in a welcome and valuable pneumatological enrichment for evangelical Christology.

TylerR's picture


I appreciate it. Thanks!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Interesting discussion.  Like Aaron, my first instinct is to affirm Strong's view.  But there is something to think about here.  Thanks for sharing!

An intermediate view is possible.  God the Son upholds the world in His deity, while as an incarnate man who chooses not to use His divine power (kenosis), He works His miracles on earth in the Spirit's power with the Father's permission.  

This would be Wellum's view modified by Strong's, essentially.  There is a very good argument for Jesus working His miracles with the Father's permission in the power of the Spirit. 

Is there a reason this intermediate position cannot be true?

Like probably all of us, I am of the view Jesus had two wills, two natures, but is  one Person.  Both Wellum's and Strong's viewpoint would work well with this position -- at least those are my tentative thoughts.

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture


His book is worth getting. It is exhaustive and very helpful. The footnotes alone are worth the price of the book.

I emailed him and thanked him for his work, and he was kind enough to respond back. I make it a habit to always email academic authors and tell them I appreciated their books. They're often grateful for feedback "from the trenches," so to speak. Colin Kruse told me he hardly ever receives feedback from working pastors and teachers. I've had correspondence with Karen Jobes, Matthew Bates, Colin Kruse and Dan Wallace recently. It's always nice to know you're appreciated! Email an author and thank him (or her!) the next time you finish a academic book.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Please consider all these elements:

1. The Kenosis relates to God the Son emptying Himself to become a man and unite (hypostatic union) with the perfect Man, Jesus.  Two natures, two wills, one Person.

2. God is always omnipresent -- all three Persons.  When we discuss the presence of God, we are talking about His LOCALIZED presence.  The Son's divine localized presence DESCENDED, but not the Son's omnipresence, through which He maintains the universe.  

God is present everywhere, He is especially present in the believer and present in a special way when two or three gather; in another sense, we go to be WITH the Lord upon death, experiencing yet another form of God's presence (His localized presence).

3. The human nature of Jesus is added to the Son's nature in the incarnation (and afterward), but God does not change (ever).  As Father, Son, and Spirit, He has always sat as Sovereign and is immutable. Thus God the Son could empty Himself of using HIs attributes while on earth, but He could never cease being omnipresent, etc.  He could, rather, choose not to take advantage of His omnipresence, omnipotence, or omniscience as an incarnate man in a mortal body on earth.

4. Scripture often describes Jesus as doing the Father's will (we agree on that).  And He worked no miracles until after the Spirit came upon Him. I understand that the Scriptures do not state that He worked any or all miracles by the Spirit's power, so it could be co-incidental. I don't think so, but my opinion is not a compelling argument.  

5. God is beyond time, so, in one sense, the incarnation and kenosis is sequential to us and happened in space and time, but we cannot imagine God's administration of the universe other than in a time paradigm.  But God operates outside that paradigm.  So how the Son could maintain the universe while emptied is a moot point because of this.

Conclusion: Whatever viewpoint we take, the idea that the Son never stopped upholding the universe should not really be a consideration, IMO.

"The Midrash Detective"

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.