The third verse of Charles Wesley’s magnificent hymn “And Can it Be” refers to the Son’s incarnation (taking on of human flesh) at Christmas:
He left his Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite his grace;
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
In sermons, cards, and Christmas programs, this is a constant theme: “Jesus left heaven to come to earth.” After a while, I begin to wonder if people believe that the Son of God actually left heaven—that he stopped being there—when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Some seem to think that the Son set aside his Godhead or at least some of his divine attributes (e.g., omnipresence) when he became incarnate.
Kenoticism at Christmas
Philippians 2:6–7 says that “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” The word “emptied” is translated from kenoō, from which the word “kenosis” or “emptying” is derived. Full-blown kenosis theology (aka kenoticism) uses this passage to claim that the Son of God actually set aside his divine attributes when he became human.
It may seem as though Charles Wesley’s hymn is promoting kenotic Christology. Not only does Wesley say that “he left His Father’s throne above,” as if Christ was emptied of omnipresence, but Wesley adds that he “emptied Himself of all but love.”
However, consider another one of Charles Wesley’s hymns on the nativity:
See th’ eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of man,
Dwelling in an earthy clod
Whom heaven cannot contain!
In this hymn, Wesley makes clear that the one who dwelled in the flesh on earth was simultaneously filling the heavens as the omnipresent God. If the Son stopped being omnipresent when he became incarnate, then he stopped being God, for God is present everywhere (Ps. 139:7), and does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; Jas. 1:17). When Wesley says that the Son “left His Father’s throne above,” he’s being poetic, not making a metaphysical claim.
Veiled, Not Lost
Sometimes I wish that Wesley would have stuck to the language of Scripture and of the Nicene Creed, which says that the Son came down or descended from heaven (John 3:13), but doesn’t say that he left heaven. When a human being comes down, they stop being in the place from which they came. But when the Son comes down, he makes himself present on earth in a new way without ceasing to be where he was according to his Godhead.
Jesus did not set aside his Godhead or any of his divine attributes in the incarnation.
In hymnody on the incarnation, I much prefer Charles Wesley’s choice of words in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.
In his Notes on Philippians 2:7, John Wesley makes the same point: “Though he remained full (John 1:14), yet he appeared as if he had been empty; for he veiled his fulness from the sight of men and angels.”
The true doctrine of the incarnation is that the divine attributes were veiled (krypsis), not actually emptied (kenosis). In an excellent little article on “What Does it Mean for God to Become Incarnate,” Luke Stamps explains the difference:
The kenotic model is a relatively recent theory of the incarnation, with roots in 19th century German Lutheranism. Older interpretations of Philippians 2 understood the Son’s self-emptying, not as an actual divestiture of deity, but as a refusal to demand that his deity be recognized, if it should interfere with the divine purpose to save. It was, as Oliver Crisp has suggested, not so much an actual, metaphysical kenosis as it was a divine krypsis: a veiling of the Son’s forma Dei (form of God) under the guise of the forma servi (form of a servant). This understanding is consistent with the oft-cited Patristic formula that the Son of God became what he was not, without ceasing to be what he was …. It is also consistent with the so-called extra Calvinisticum: the notion that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature, even in his incarnate state, but instead continues to live out, so to speak, his immutable divine life along with the Father and the Spirit.
Stamps mentions a famous quote from Hilary of Poitiers: “He did not lose what He was, but began to be what He was not. He did not cease to possess His own nature, but received what was ours” (On the Trinity 3.16). Gregory of Nazianzus likewise taught, “He remained what he was; what he was not, he assumed” (Or. 29.19). Augustine says the same: “The word of God became flesh in order to live in us but was unchanged” (On Christian Teaching 1.26).
The church rejects full-blown kenoticism as a heresy since Christ is one person with a fully human nature and a fully divine nature. The incarnate Son is limited to one location according to his humanity, but he is present everywhere according to his divinity. This is a great mystery, and it has captivated Christians throughout history.
“The Most Wonderful Thing”
In his great work On the Incarnation, Athanasius celebrates this “most wonderful thing”: “he was not bound to the body, but rather was himself wielding it, so that he was both in it and in everything, and was outside everything, and at rest in the Father alone.”
In a sermon for the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas), Augustine proclaims the same wonderful truth that the Son remained in heaven with the Father even as he came to earth for us: “Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, the true Sun of Justice, so shone upon the earth as not to leave the heavens, remaining there eternally, but coming hither for a time.” Augustine goes on:
There sitting at the right hand of the Father, here lying in a manger; there feeding the angels, here on earth a hungry Child; there unfailing Bread with perfect powers, here, along with speechless children, needing the nourishment of milk; there doing good, here suffering evil; there never dying, here rising after death and bestowing eternal life on mortals.
Jesus did not set aside his Godhead or any of his divine attributes in the incarnation. He did not actually leave the Father’s throne above. The Son became what he was not (truly human) without ceasing to be what he was (truly God, and thus present everywhere, including with his Father in heaven—filling, sustaining, and governing all of creation). He upheld Mary in existence even as he was nourished at her breast. He filled the heavens even as he was laid in the manger. He hung the stars even as the wise men used a star to seek him. This is a most wonderful thing!
This article was first published on December 16, 2020 under the title “Did Christ Actually Leave His Father’s Throne Above?”