It happened late one night in the early eighties, five, maybe six, years after I graduated from Simpson. I was sitting in the living room of our first apartment in San Diego.
At that time I still had my small student library of Bibles, Bible commentaries, and Bible helps. I also had a set of Kittel’s. “Kittel’s” is an encyclopedic dictionary of New Testament words, and my in-laws had given me the entire ten-volume set, one-by-one, for birthdays and at Christmas time. The series eventually fell into academic disfavor, but for many years Kittel’s was quite the rage–a personal status symbol to have on your shelf, for me at least.
The Kenosis Theory
Let me briefly explain the problem of the kenosis theory. The word kenosis (κενωσις) literally means “emptied.” More literal translations like the NASB say that Jesus “emptied himself,” took the form of a servant, and was born in the likeness of men (Philippians 2:7). Servanthood is the center of this passage. The question of what kenosis means here, what got emptied when Jesus “emptied” himself, is controversial because it suggests that Jesus emptied himself of what are called his “divine attributes” of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, and if you don’t have these “essential” attributes, you’re not God.
The traditional definition of God, according to the Greek philosophers, says that these attributes are essential to deity, and that without them, whatever “being” under discussion is not God. So, in the minds of some, the kenosis theory jeopardizes the doctrine of the deity of Christ. And in the fundamentalist GARB church of my adolescence, the deity of Christ was a really big deal. Pastor Jimmy preached on the deity of Christ a lot. Jesus’ miracles demonstrated his omnipotence, and were proof of his deity. Jesus’ miracles = Jesus’ deity.
It Happened One Night
I don’t remember what exactly led to the incident that night, but I was curious about the word “emptied.” What had Christ emptied himself of? One by one I took the books off the shelf. I work into the wee hours of the morning, surrounded by various Bible translations, several commentaries on Philippians, and most of Kittel’s.
The translations and the commentaries preferred virtually any circumlocution to avoid the literal rendering “he emptied himself”: “But made himself of no reputation,” “made himself nothing,” and “gave up his divine privileges.” They said he cloaked, hid or temporarily laid aside his divine powers or prerogatives, which he was able to freely pick up and exercise at any time. The scholars were adamant that Jesus was continuously omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent–in order to be God.
I made a list of all the words and phrases that the translations and commentaries offered as the “actual” meaning of the kenosis passage. I sat on the living room floor with my books spread out around me. Relying on the English index, I thumbed through Kittel’s and found perfectly good Greek words, words that Paul himself had used, that he could have used had he intended to mean hidden, cloaked, laid aside, or any of the other meanings insisted upon by the translators and commentators.
As a fundamentalist teenager I had been taught, in no uncertain terms, that we had to take the Bible literally. We weren’t supposed to twist it to say what we wanted it to say, not explain it away because we didn’t like what it actually said.
The scholars were adamant, and I was disgusted.
It’s Scary to be a Heretic
There on the floor, I was following one of the cardinal rules of fundamentalism, “Interpret the Bible literally,” and thereby become a heretic. I’m sure I must have heard about the so-called “Kenosis Theory” (κενωσις) from professor Don Connor in my Christological Epistles class, but I hadn’t retained it. I later discovered that many Christians subscribe to the Kenosis Theory, but at the time it seemed I had discovered something brand new, something they didn’t talk about where I came from.
For the first time I saw how loyalty to theological traditions interfered with intelligent Bible-believers from interpreting the Bible–if I may say–accurately. The consistency of their theological system and the approval of their co-religionists was apparently more important than an honest reading of the Bible. For the first time I realized that I could trust my interpretive and theological judgments no matter what any theologian or translator wrote.
But at the time, I was mainly scared. It’s a scary thing to be a heretic, to feel like a real, bona fide heretic. I had a sense of competence I hadn’t had before, which was exciting, but the result was frightening, a kind of mild panic. I didn’t stop believing in Christ’s deity, but I now stood outside the belief system of the only Christian community I had ever really known. I’d gone off the reservation.
Once the Dust Settled
As the years went by my understanding of kenosis deepened, of course. I eventually realized that Jesus was still God, because “God is love.” Jesus was the perfect incarnation of God’s love–Love Incarnate. I came to know that Jesus was an actual example for me to follow, not an example who was impossible to really imitate because of his unfair advantage (being God). I realized that his life and ministry were possible, not because of omniscience, omnipotence, or omnipresence, but because of the presence of love and the Holy Spirit in his life. We have direct access to the same “resources” that Jesus did. When Jesus did something out of the ordinary, he didn’t reach under his cloak and press the secret God button on his utility belt. He lived and ministered with the same resources that are available to you and me, love and the Spirit of God.
I eventually came to understand that Jesus really is my exemplar, my example, that I really can be like Jesus. When I am fully taught, I really will be like my Master. No more, “Of course Jesus was perfect, he was God,” or “Of course Jesus performed miracles, he was God.” I really can be “Christ-like.” Nothing Jesus did or said is outside the realm of possibility for me, or any of us–not his miracles, not raising the dead, not his prophetic rebukes, not his teaching style.
My spiritual journey began in fundamentalism. If we start on a thousand-mile journey, our journeys will differ depending on where we start. A thousand-mile journey from San Francisco will differ from one begun in Saint Paul. A spiritual journey begun in fundamentalism will differ from a journey proceding from agnosticism. The nature of the journey depends on where you start.
They say, “You never forget the first time.” I’ll never forget the first time I became a heretic.
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See Also: Something I Learned from My Dad.