Phil. 2:7

S. M. Baugh

For quite some time, Phil. 2:7 has been the center of a controversy.[1] In particular it has been the main source for versions of the “kenotic[2] theory” of Christ’s incarnation, which runs afoul of the historic Christian faith. This point of our faith was articulated, for example, in the Athanasian Creed which reads in part:

But it is necessary for eternal salvation that one also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ faithfully. Now this is the true faith: that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and man, equally. He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is man from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely man, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity. Although he is God and man, yet Christ is not two, but one. He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person. For just as one man is both rational soul and flesh, so too the one Christ is both God and man.

In other words, at his incarnation, the Son of God remained fully God while taking to himself a fully complete human nature.

In its extreme form, the kenotic theory states that the Son of God divested himself of his deity at the incarnation and was only man. For example, Charles Wesley expresses Wesleyan kenosis in his popular hymn “And Can It Be” with the line “emptied himself of all but love.” (This line has been altered in some hymnals.)

At this point, note how our English translations attempt to avoid kenosis in various ways (emphasis added to all):

KJV “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men”

NKJV but [footnote] made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.

Footnote: emptied Himself of His privileges

NASB: “but [footnote] emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”

1995 footnote: “I.e. laid aside His privileges”

Current footnote: “I.e., set aside His divine rights in human likeness.”

ESV: “but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”; but a later revision changed to: “but made himself nothing.

The act of translation is necessarily an interpretive process, but note how the NASB in particular adds essentially a comment in its footnote rather than a translation alternative to avoid the kenotic theory. Other versions simply render the Greek verb with something other than “empty.”

The best interpretation of Phil. 2:7, though is now found among various scholars. They take the verb “emptied” to refer not to Christ’s incarnation, but to his sacrificial death on the cross. In line with this, they think that Paul is alluding to Isa. 53:12 here:

Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

The Hebrew verb “poured out” in Isa. 53:12 can also be rendered “to empty,” and is the equivalent of the Greek term Paul uses in Phil. 2:7. Here are two places, for example, where this Hebrew word occurs:

“So she [Rachel] quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels.” (Gen. 24:20; ESV)

“And whenever the chest was brought to the king’s officers by the Levites, when they saw that there was much money in it, the king’s secretary and the officer of the chief priest would come and empty the chest and take it and return it to its place.” (2 Chron. 24:11; ESV)

Furthermore, the three verb forms which follow the verb rendered “empty” in Phil. 2:7b-8a are participles in Greek and are in forms which normallyrefer to events that precede the main verb. We communicate this with the word “after” where it refers to this sequence even if the verb phrase follows the main verb phrase in word order. Distinguish here word order and time sequence of the events. Here is an English example:

Steve bought a boat,                         [second event]

after he retired.                  [first, prior event]

It could be that there is a significant time gap between buying the boat and retirement here, but it is clear that “retire” comes first in time but is second in word order. The three verb forms in vv. 7b-8a fit this same pattern: expressed after the main verb in v. 7a but occuring in time prior to the main verb.

Here then is how I would render the passage.[3]

[7a] But he poured himself out [in death],                                                  CROSS

[7b] after previously taking up the form of a servant,                             INCARNATION

[7c] made in the likeness of men,                                                  INCARNATION

[8a] and after he was found in human form,                                              INCARNATION

[8b] he humbled himself,                                                                                  CROSS

[8c] by becoming obedient to the point of death,                                    CROSS

[8d] even the death of the cross.                                                                   CROSS

Paul is using compressed, semi-poetic language, but the meaning is clear. The divine Son of God not only humbled himself by becoming incarnate—even taking up the form of a servant (e.g., Matt. 8:20)—but eventually in the ultimate act of servitude by pouring himself out in death on the cross for his people. The cross flanks the statements on incarnation in vv. 7b-8a like a dark shadow over Christ’s whole life and work.

[1]See, for example,

[2]The “kenotic” theory or “kenosis” comes from the Greek verb used in Phil. 2:7, kenoō, “to empty.”

[3]To make matters more confusing, what is marked as v. “8a” here is part of v. 7 in the Greek text that I’m working from!