What Does Kenosis Solve and Not Solve? Part 1

What Does Kenosis Solve & Not Solve?                                                                                 David Bruce Bryant-Scott BA MDiv ThM                                                                                     PhD student, Heythrop College, University of London                                                             June 5, 2015 11:00 am The Campion Room


Good morning. My name is Bruce Bryant-Scott, and I am working on a dissertation under the supervision of Professor Johannes Hoff. I am one of those rare things here at Heythrop College,[1] a part-time distance research student. I live 7000 km away in Victoria British Columbia, Canada, where I am a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada at a parish church.[2]

My dissertation is about decolonizing theology. I want to find a theology that does not lend itself to justifying the colonization, exploitation, marginalization, and murder of people in the name of Jesus and progress. Kenotic theology may be a good candidate. This morning I want to talk about kenosis as it is discussed by New Testament scholars and by theologians, and then briefly say how I intend to use it.

  1. Kenosis and the New Testament Scholars

Discussion of kenosis is tied to Paul’s use of the word ἐκένωσεν in Philippians 2.7, as seen in Handout 1. For the record, ekenōsen is a 3rd person singular indicative active aorist of κενόω. Kenosis is a perfectly ordinary Greek word meaning “emptiness”; cognates translate into English as vacate, evacuate, deplete, and deplete.

Hand-Out 1 (Heythrop June 5 2015)

Why does Paul bring in this theme of self-emptying? In the context of Philippians it is evidently a form of encouragement to them, to, as the preceding verses put it,

be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Philippians 2.2-4)

The exhortation continues afterwards:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. (2.12-15)

In the rhetorical structure of a letter the description of Christ’s kenosis is part of the paraenesis or moral exhortation. Paul writes the letter while he is in prison (1.13), and the Philippians are concerned and send financial aid (4.18). As well, Paul is opposed by Jewish-Christians having authority from the Jerusalem church, and this opposition is creating divisions in the churches for which Paul felt responsible.[3] This has not created divisions in Philippi yet, but Paul is worried about it, and so he mentions them in 1.15-17, 1.28, 3.2, and believes that only if the Philippians continue to follow Paul and the example of Jesus will they be able to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (1.12). Paul’s use of this passage, then, is primarily ethical – by being like this, his readers will have God working within them, enabling them “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2.13).

Following Lohmeyer’s essay Kyrios Jesus (1927) a majority of 20th century scholars and current scholarship would argue that Philippians 2.5b-11 is pre-Pauline and probably a hymn sung by the early Christians; this is still the belief of many influential living scholars, such James D. G. Dunn and John Reumann.[4] If this is so, then the immediate ethico-rhetorical use of Paul recedes, and it becomes more of a doxological, soteriological, and thus implicitly a Christological work (as the title of the 1998 collection Philippians 2: Where Christology Began suggests);[5] who Christ Jesus is becomes more important. Handout 2 reproduces a chart created by N. T. (Tom) Wright which presents the variety of opinion about the “Philippian hymn” and the impact it has on the translation into English of key words. Some see the hymn as being derived from pre-Christian gnostic mythology, others accept a Jewish gnostic influence, others regard it as more influenced by a transformation of Adamic typology, and “equality with God” is variously interpreted as referring to attributes, status, and humanity in the image of God.

Hand-Out 2 (Heythrop June 5 2015)

Now, N. T. Wright is not convinced that there ever was a “Philippian hymn”, and on the basis of linguistic and stylistic evidence questions those who construct a pre-Pauline Christology[6] (there is, of course, no documentary evidence for a pre-Pauline hymn). Likewise, Gordon D. Fee points out five problems with the case for the “pre-existence” of the hymn: 1) there’s really nothing like it in either Greek or Hebrew poetry; 2) poetic language is not necessarily poetry; 3) ὃς (hos or “who” in 2.6) is perfectly normal and not an awkward connective indicating a quotation (as in other supposed parallels); 4) these passages read as structured prose, not poetry; and 5) some of the “lines” lack verbs, and are likely more the product of biblical scholars than any ancient writer.[7] [8]

In a measured statement Peter Oakes (currently Greenwood Senior Lecturer in the New Testament at Manchester) writes:

I think that Paul has taken his beliefs about Christ’s self-lowering (2 Corinthians 8.9), his obedient death (Rom. 5.19), and his exaltation (1 Corinthians 15.24) and has carefully crafted a rhetorically powerful Christological reinforcement to his call in 1.27-2.4 to stand firm and united.[9]

While the New Testament scholarly consensus is less monolithic than it once was, it is clear that the passage does several things: it is doxological, an exhortation to particular ethical behaviour, and Christological.

Regardless of what one makes of the original text in Philippians, it is evident that the theme of humility and lowering oneself for others is present in other parts of the New Testament. Thus, Paul writes:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. 2 Cor 8.9

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 1 Cor 1.22-29

The synoptics have the theme as well:

Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Mark 9.35 & parallels

To the rich young man: You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. Mark 10. 21 & parallels (A very literal understanding of letting go!)

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Mark 10.42-45 & parallels

Throughout the Gospel according to Luke Jesus is presented as humble, obedient, and meek, and this quality is extolled in Mary and others. The Gospel according to John is fundamentally a gospel of glory, but glory is coincident in the cross. Kenotic humility, then, whether by that name or implicit, is found throughout the early Christian writings.

What is not clear is whether Paul has a belief in the pre-existence of Christ, and if so, what the nature of that pre-existence is. It is also not absolutely clear what the nature of “form” of God is and what “equality with God” entails; one can read a reconstruction of Middle Platonism into it, but that just begs the question.[10]

Next Post: Part 2, Kenosis and the Theologians.

[1] http://www.heythrop.ac.uk/

[2] The Parish of St. Matthias, Victoria, The Anglican Diocese of British Columbia
600 Richmond Avenue, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada V8S 3Y7
Parish Website: http://stmatthiasvictoria.com/
Cell: 250-889-8917    Parish Office: 250-598-2833
bbryantscott@bc.anglican.ca    Twitter: @bbryantscott
Blog: https://brucebryantscott.wordpress.com/

[3] Gerd Lüdemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg Press,1989), translated from Paulus, der Heidenapostel. Bd. 2: Antipaulinismus im frühen Christentum (Göttingen 1983).

[4] Carolyn Osiek calls it the “general consensus” in Philippans Philemon (Nashville TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), p. 56. See also R. P. Martin, Carmen Christi, Philippians ii.5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1967); F. W. Beare, A Commentary on The Epistle to the Philippians (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1959); Ralph P. Martin & Brian J. Dodd, eds., Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998) (which includes an essay by James D. G. Dunn which affirms the pre-Pauline character); John Reumann, Philippians (Anchor Yale Bible Vol. 33B) (New Haven CN & London UK: Yale University Press, 2008).

[5] Ralph P. Martin & Brian J. Dodd, eds., Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2 (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).

[6] N. T. Wright, “ἁρπαγμός and the Meaning of Philippians 2.5-11”, Journal of Theological Studies, New Series Vol. 37, Pt. 2, October 1986, pp. 321-343; 342-343.

[7] Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament) (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company), pp. 40-46.

[8] A further problem for those who claim influence from “Gnosticism” is that the “Gnosticism” to which they refer in all probability also never existed as such, but is a scholarly reconstruction of the 19th and 20th Centuries that collects into one category a vast variety of writings that in retrospect came to be seen as not “orthodox” and “catholic”, thus reproducing the biases of the modern scholars. See Karen King, What is Gnosticism (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

[9] Peter Oakes, Philippians: From people to letter (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 210.

[10] Probably the way forward into understanding the context of Hellenistic Judaism for Paul on this is found in Daniel Boyarin, “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John”, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Jul., 2001), pp. 243-284.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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