Someone I know recently asked me about a preacher she heard on the radio talking about Jesus "losing his omnipotence" when he was with us on earth. I hear this phrase enough that it requires analysis.
So, did Jesus lose his omnipotence?
Where does this phrase come from? The idea that something about the Son is suppressed during the Incarnation is referred to as the "kenosis" doctrine. Kenosis is a Greek term which means "emptying" and is found in Philippians 2:5-11. The point is that Christ, who was in the very form of God, empties himself by taking on the form of a servant.
But here is the tricky thing: the passage does not say of what he emptied himself. He just empties. No more clues. So this is one more case where the Scriptures make affirmations that raise questions for further development.
Enter theological thinking: of what did Christ empty himself?
One common answer is that the Son of God simply dumps his divine attributes during the incarnation. This makes for a straightforward story, but creates all kinds of problems. On the divine side, we might ask how exactly it is that the Son of God can relinquish divine perfections without ceasing to be God. If he simply dumps the very things that make him God, than the proclamation of Christ's divinity is rendered null. On the human side, we might ask how exactly it is that the man Jesus with his human words and actions can speak and act in the place of God (as the Gospels narrate) unless he also has a fully credentialed divine nature. So whatever kenosis means, it means something more subtle than simply dumping divine attributes.
A more complex answer with traditional weight behind it is that the kenotic humbling of the Son of God consists in the addition of human nature to his fully intact divine nature. The Philippians passage points toward this position by stating that Christ, while in the form of God, takes on the form of a servant. The language of taking implies addition, not subtraction. Proponents of this “adding” theory are inclined to point out the alternative way of speaking about the incarnation: assumptio carnis. Not only was God put-into-flesh (incarnation), but also God assumed-flesh-to-himself (assumptio carnis). God is omnipotent, yet adds to himself an impotent human nature. Is this still a humbling? Yes, because God in his glory does not need to add humanity to himself. But by grace he does.
Now I would align myself roughly with this second view of kenosis. However, I would not put it that way, or at least not only that way. Why? Because the appeal to addition alone might give the impression that we are trying to protect God's nature from the messiness of this world. Now Christians have had good reasons for so protecting God: we want to affirm the power of God, especially if he is to save us. But we need to be careful to not put God in a bind that he has shown himself not to be in. Whatever God's assumption of flesh means, it ought not to mean we go on thinking about God as usual and just add a human nature to it. Rather, the incarnation of God must tell us something about God's very nature.
So, what does the kenosis of the Son tells us about God?
At the very least, it should push us to reformulate our understanding of God's omnipotence. Our understanding of God's power is too abstract if he has to lose it to become human. But it is equally abstract if we simply add the doctrine of incarnation on top of an otherwise intact concept of God. It seems to me that the incarnation reveals a new definition of divine omnipotence: God is so powerful that he can even embrace weakness without ceasing to be powerful. Weakness is an aspect of divine power. The two are not mutually exclusive. As the Apostle says, "God's power is made perfect in weakness." Or, put more sharply, "God's power is God's weakness."
Any insights to offer regarding Philippians 2:5-11?
Is an appeal to the "assumption of flesh" a helpful alternative?
Does this method of inferring things about God's nature from the history of salvation work?