Karl Barth and N.T. Wright Side by Side on Philippians 2:5-11 and the ‘Emptying’

Here is the pericope under consideration by both Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, respectively:

kenosis5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~Philippians 2:5-11

Here is how Barth comments on the reality of this passage:

Positively his self-emptying refers to the fact that, without detracting from his being in the form of God, he was able and willing to assume the form of a servant and go about in the likeness of a human being, so that the creature could know him only as a creature, and he alone could know himself as God. In other words, he was ready to accept a position in which he could not be known in the world as God, but his divine glory was concealed from the world. This was his self-emptying…. His deity becomes completely invisible to all other eyes but his own. What distinguishes him from the creature disappears from everyone’s sight but his own with his assumption of the human form of a servant with its natural end in death, and above all with his death as that of a criminal on the cross…. He can so empty himself that, without detracting from his form as God, he can take the form of a servant, concealing his form of life as God, and going about in the likeness of a human being…. It all takes place in his freedom and therefore not in self-contradiction or with any alteration or diminution of his divine being…. This means that so far from being contrary to the nature of God, it is of his essence to possess the freedom to be capable of this self-offering and self-concealment, and beyond this to make use of this freedom, and therefore really to effect this self-offering and to give himself up to this self-humiliation. In this above all he is concealed as God. Yet it is here above all that he is really and truly God. Thus it is above all that he must and will also be revealed in his deity by the power of God. [Karl Barth, CD II/1, 516-17 cited by George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 86-7, Nook version.]

And then N. T. Wright on the same passage and reality:

Let’s clear one misunderstanding out of the way in case it still confuses anybody. In verse 7 Paul says that Jesus ’emptied himself’. People have sometimes thought that this means that Jesus, having been divine up to that point, somehow stopped being divine when he became human, and then went back to being divine again. This is, in fact, completely un-true to what Paul has in mind. The point of verse 6 is that Jesus was indeed already equal with God; somehow Paul is saying that Jesus already existed even before he became a human being (verse 7). But the decision to become human, and to go all the way along the road of obedience, obedience to the divine plan of salvation, yes, all the way was not a decision to stop being divine. It was a decision about what it really meant to be divine. [N. T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 84, Nook version.]

Critical Reflection

Both Barth and Wright affirm the traditional (and dare I say contextual) sense of this text; that is, that the ground of Jesus’ person, the ground of his humanity is Godself. As Barth elaborates further on the implications of this, one of those has to do with the way this is perceived by those of us creatures who are confronted by this God who became human; for Barth–according to Hunsinger–what has happened in Christ is not an ontic (at the level of his ‘being’ the Son of the Father, eternally) change, but instead, because of this veiling and/or limiting of himself in human form, there is a noetic challenge that occurs. When we, as humans, encounter Jesus, we might superficially perceive that Jesus is simply another human, and might fail to recognize the reality, that far greater than simply being human (which he is fully), he is Godself, Light of light. And yet God in his own self-determined freedom, and gracious outlook, is willing to be mis-taken by the many (the ‘broad road’) if only to be recognized by the few (those who ‘have eyes to see and ears to hear’).

For Everyone Reflection

The way this most dignified reality impacts me is to wonder, radically, at who this great God of our’s is. I often struggle (most recently) with trying to bring together the pictures of the warrior God we so often come across in the Old Testament, with the Shepherd God we encounter in the New Testament. One thing that viewing God from this self-sacrificing angle does is to orient God in such a way that even his more bodacious activity is able to be calibrated and grounded by his ultimate passion for his creation exemplified most clearly by the fact the he himself entered the very judgment that he inflicts and enacts on the nations, and by entering takes upon himself the depth of anxiety and desperation that it seems is a self-inflicted one, but one that he is compelled to by his being of love and holiness (so mystery).

The more basic, and yet profound reality that is revealed by Jesus is that our lives ought to be dominated by the same kind of self-less, self-given, putting others first attitude as Christ’s. The good news is that even though this is terribly impossible left to ourselves, that because of Jesus’ penetration of our dead hearts, he has saved us from the inside/out, providing his life and his heart as the foundation of our’s (see I Cor. 3:11 and II Cor. 3), and genuinely providing us with the means, by the Holy Spirit (where there is Liberty, see II Corinthians 3:17), to seriously put others before ourselves; in the same posture toward God, that Jesus had/has (a posture of ‘not holding onto ourselves’ but being able to truly spend ourselves, and as Paul ‘pour our lives out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and faith of others’).

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2 Responses to Karl Barth and N.T. Wright Side by Side on Philippians 2:5-11 and the ‘Emptying’

  1. Hi Bobby! Interesting reading, engaged as an attempt at sedative, as I can not sleep. The passage itself may be directly applicable to a current personal situation, which I typed out a long reply about, but I’ve copied that reply and have to pm you on facebook. Thanks!


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    I’ll look for your PM, Duane. Thanks.


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