Fully God and Fully Man: The Incarnation and Philippians 2:5ff.

Fully God and Fully Man: The Incarnation and Philippians 2:5ff.
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 9:10pm

QUERY: We speak of the dual nature of Christ, i.e., His divinity and His Humanity; and how when He walked upon the earth, He was fully God and fully man. This raises the question of Philippians 2:6-7, which says that “although He existed in the form of God,” He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” How can we reconcile the idea that the incarnate Christ was fully God, if in His human form He “laid aside his ‘equality’ with God?”

MY RESPONSE: This text does indeed say that the eternally pre-existing Logos, in his prehuman state, was fully divine. However, it does NOT say that the Logos LAID ASIDE his equality with God when he became a human being. I have explained the words of this passage in my book, “The Faith Once for All,” in chapter 13, on “The Person of Christ.” The following excerpt is from pp. 248-249:

In Phil. 2:6 two phrases are applied to the pre-existent Christ: “in the form of God” and “equality with God.” The word for “form” is “morphe.” Sometimes in English we used the word “form” to represent the outward, non-essential, changeable aspects of something, as opposed to its essence or content. But that is definitely not the connotation of “morphe.” This Greek word actually refers to the intrinsic, essential nature of a thing, its unchanging essence. It refers to the sum of those characteristics that make a thing precisely what it is. Thus that Jesus existed in the “morphe” of God means that in his prehuman state he possessed all the attributes of deity, all the intrinsic characteristics that make God GOD. The other expression is parallel to this: he existed in a state of “equality with God.” This phrase “expresses the God-equal existence of our Lord Jesus Christ in His prehuman state, and He has this condition of existence because He is very God from all eternity” (George Lawlor, “When God Became Man” [Moody 1978], p. 61). His deity is complete.

Paul’s main point in this text has to do with the Logos’ preincarnate state of mind or attitude toward his equality with God, an attitude we are exhorted to emulate (v. 5). Exactly what was this attitude? He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” “A thing to be grasped” translates “harpagmos,” which occurs only here in the NT. It is from the verb “harpadzo,” meaning “to steal, to seize, to snatch up, to take away forcefully.” This is why the KJV says he “thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” But robbery is not the point. Here the noun refers to an act of grasping or clutching. Thus it could mean that the Logos did not consider his equality with God a thing to be grasped after, since it was already his by nature. The contextual emphasis on the attitude of the Logos suggests another meaning, though. I.e., he did not consider his status of equality with God as something to be selfishly guarded or clutched or clung to, but he was willing to set it aside in some sense in order to accomplish salvation for lost mankind. Herein lies his exemplary unselfishness.

As a result of his unselfish attitude, the Logos “emptied Himself” (v. 7). The verb here is “kenoo,” which means “to empty, to make void.” This is related to the noun “kenosis,” which, though not found in the NT, is usually used in discussion of this verse. What does it mean to say that the Logos “emptied Himself”? One major approach, represented especially by 19th-century kenosis theology or kenotic theology, is that in the incarnation the Logos emptied himself of some or all of his divine attributes. He “laid aside his deity,” or at least divested himself of certain metaphysical attributes such as omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. As the TEV translates it, “He gave up all he had.” The result is that the incarnate Logos is less than fully God. Such a view is, of course, impossible, because it requires the rejection of certain basic attributes of God, especially his unity of simplicity and his immutability (see Cottrell, “God the Creator,” 35-37). It also contradicts Heb. 13:8, as well as Col. 2:9. The latter says that in Christ Jesus “all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form.” Lawlor rightly says (p. 89), “Thus it is impossible for Christ to cease to be God, to divest Himself of any or all of His attributes, to empty out of Himself His essential nature, or even to exchange it for another, at any time. The self-emptying must conform with this fact; hence, it does not, cannot, teach that our Lord surrendered, laid aside, exchanged, emptied out, or divested Himself of His deity or of any part of it.”

What, then, does it mean to say that the Logos “emptied Himself”? Basically it has to do with function, not essence. Though the Logos continued to be equal with God in his nature, as the incarnate Son of God he voluntarily laid aside the prerogatives, privileges, and advantages of deity and chose instead to experience the limitations of human life, even in the role of a servant. He did not selfishly insist on his “rights” as a divine being. He did not cling to the glories and luxuries of his divine status. Instead the unselfish Prince volunteered to live as a pauper (2 Cor. 8:9). As Lawlor puts it, he did not give up “the possession of the divine attributes, nor entirely their use, but rather the independent exercise of those attributes” (p. 85). As the KJV says, he “made himself of no reputation.” He “made himself nothing” (NIV).

How did he do this? Not by SUBTRACTING something from his divine nature, but by ADDING something to it, i.e., by “taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (v. 7). He added to it not just the full human nature of Jesus of Nazareth, but also the subordinate role of a servant who was unselfishly willing to go to his death on the cross for our salvation (v. 8). As Lawlor says, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, in becoming man, entered into the experience of human limitation, human weakness and impoverishment, human dependence, and human subjection. This was in singular contrast with the glory and plenitude He possessed in the form of God” (p. 82). But through all of this, “He did not thrust aside and renounce his Godhead”; “He never ceased to be God” (pp. 80, 82).

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