Kenosis is one of those Greek words in the New Testament that I wish went untranslated in English. Words like agape, koinonia, kairos, and ecclesia are just great words that maintain an air of gravitas and foreignness by leaving them untranslated.

Kenosis would carry a similar power of mystery if we did not offer an English translation.

Here is how it gets translated in Philippians 2:

 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Translating the Bible is important– in fact the translatability of the Christian scriptures is a major distinction from other religious traditions like Islam. We don’t have to learn the original language in order to read and interpret the Bible.

Lamin Sanneh in Whose Religion Is Christianity: the Gospel Beyond the West, says:

Being that the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are translated versions of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scriptures well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. Translation is the church’s birthmark as well as its missionary benchmark: the church would be unrecognizable or unsustainable without it…  Since Jesus did not write or dictate the Gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. (Sanneh p. 97)

So while I love this translatability aspect of the Christian testament, I also mourn for the loss of deep and mysterious words from the original language.


Kenosis appears four times in the New Testament. Three times in is translated ‘made void’ or ‘to no effect’. The most famous appearance is in Philippians 2:7 when it talks about Christ Jesus and is translated ‘emptied himself’.

The self-emptying of God had become a big topic in the 18th and 19th century – then expanded in the theological work after the Second World War. A popular voice of such work is found in thinkers like Motlmann and the ‘Crucified God’.

The Pocket Dictionary defines it as:

,,,*Christology,which spoke of the incarnation as the self-emptying of the preexistent, eternal Son to become the human Jesus. This self-emptying involved the setting aside of certain divine attributes, or at least the independent exercise of his divine powers. (Kindle Locations 773-777).

While the concept is beautiful … it also gets really tricky really fast.

What exactly did he empty himself of?

Most people go for the low hanging fruit of ‘3 omnis’ (as I call them) of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. Obviously Jesus could not have been those 3 things and been human. This is why ‘C is for Christology’ was an important prequal to this topic.

Once you start down the road of kenosis you quickly run into your first barrier: if Jesus was lacking something that God has … how exactly was he still God? BUT if he had something that no other human had … then he wasn’t really all that like us and thus his being tempted or performing miracles is not really something that we can exactly imitate…

Many times this leads to a ‘Clark Kent’ version of Jesus where he wore a flesh suit and appeared to be human but underneath was a superman who could have done anything he wanted … it’s just that he chose not to! This dangerous notion is rooted in the heresy of Gnosticism.

We want to be careful in talking about Jesus as a different kind of being. Jesus was fully human – what we want to affirm is that Jesus embodied humanity to a different degree

This is part of why there is no end to the work of christology. Depending on your ontology (view of reality), metaphysics (beyond the physical), your view of the Trinity, and your anthropology (view of humanity) … the danger of getting tied in knots is constricting.

What starts out as a beautiful word – kenosis – hides a dangerous concept that can quickly become theological quicksand.

This is the opposite of a different ‘K’ word: kingdom.

We have looked at kingdom language before but I wonder have big of difference it would make in our mental frameworks if we let untranslated: Basileia tou Theou.

From the age of Caesars to the reign of Kings it may have made sense to translate it as king-dom. It no longer does.

Not only does ‘kingdom’ not capture the nuance and possibility of expectation in Basileia tou Theou. It can actually be misleading because people think they know what a Kingdom is and are just waiting for God to take off this Clark Kent costume and take up the rightful claim to the throne!!

There are so many better translations of Basileia tou Theou. I have heard :

  • Kin-dom of God (family)
  • Reign of God (still too royal for me)
  • Common-wealth of God (my favorite)
  • Community of God (no hierarchy assumed)

I wish that we just left it untranslated as Basileia tou Theou.

You can see in these two ‘K’ words that translation is a tricky business and provides a constant supply of new material for the theological endeavor.