Baillie and Packer on Kenosis



In an article entitled Still Docetic (see also my The Ecclesiastical Christ) I have argued that when Paul says that Jesus as the Word originally had the nature of God and was equal with God but emptied himself, he meant precisely what he said, that is, that he divested himself of his divine nature but obviously not his personal identity (1* Cf. 1 John 5:18b which would appear to differentiate Jesus’ natural birth of God his Father, cf. Heb. 10:5, from our new birth referred to in 1 John 5:18a.) in order to become a real flesh-and-blood man (Heb. 2:14) born of woman (Gal. 4:4) with a view to gaining the complete image and likeness of God which the rest of mankind found to be beyond their natural capabilities. Needless to say, this is widely, almost universally denied in the church. The orthodox traditional view is that Jesus was simultaneously both God and man in two natures or what is sometimes known as Chalcedonian Dyophysitism. As we might expect, after rejecting ‘kenosis’ Baillie in his God Was In Christ takes this position.

Having rejected anhypostasis, the idea that Jesus adopted human nature but not human personality (p.85), Baillie is at pains to maintain that the Jesus of the New Testament was a real man by producing ample evidence to support his case (e.g. pp.125-132). On page 151 he insists that Jesus is ‘wholly human’ but then avers that what was incarnate in him was of the essence or nature of God. If this is true, then Jesus was not wholly human after all. Apart from the fact that a man in his natural state as flesh and blood ‘made by hand’ could not possibly ‘house’ the essence or nature of God (cf. 1 K. 8:27; Acts 7:48-50; 17:24) (2* For the same reason it is impossible to accept Mary as the mother of God (theotokos) on the hypothesis that God the Son had the nature of God when he was conceived!), he was docetic, not truly man, but a freak, a hybrid or a third alternative. To put the issue otherwise, if Jesus was truly man, there could be no complete communicatio idiomatum or transfer of attributes till he had been transformed and glorified at his ascension. As man Jesus like all other men needed to begin at the beginning, be perfected (cf. Mt. 5:48; 19:21; Phil. 3:12-14, etc.) and gain God’s complete image (cf. 1 Cor. 15:50-53) in order to exercise the delegated powers of God and rule at his right hand (Rev. 3:21). This we might well infer from Matthew 11:27; 28:18, John 13:3, Romans 1:4, and so forth.

The truth is that like so many others Baillie,  conditioned and inhibited by tradition, fails to listen to what the Scripture says, that is, that the Word who was God and so had the nature of God in eternity (Col. 1:16) became man (John 1:1-14). He was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26f.) so that he might gain his complete likeness. To do so he who was equal with God (John 1:1; Phil. 2:6) and definitely not subordinate to him (which he would have been if he had been his eternal Son) was born in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:8, cf. Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). For a while, that is, until he had been perfected (Heb. 7:28) and glorified (Heb. 1:4,6; 1 Pet. 3:22), like all other men he was made lower than the angels (Ps. 8:4-6; Heb. 2:7,9). Bluntly, he did what we are constantly told he could not do, that is, change his nature. If John 1, Philippians 2 and Hebrews 1 and 2 mean anything at all, they deny the immutability of the nature of the Word which is to place an unacceptable restriction on the God who we are told can do all things (Luke 1:37) except lie and deny himself. In plain words, Chalcedon’s two-nature theory denies the incarnation and is therefore heretical.

This of course raises other questions. First, Baillie along with others seems to think that if Jesus became exclusively man in nature, he could not possibly be God. But the idea that God cannot become man is expressly rejected by Scripture which in light of later teaching plainly implies as early as Genesis 1:26 that he can. It not only imposes limits on the Almighty but also in effect denies the doctrine of the Trinity. Such denial, however, seems to be an inference from the Greek philosophical notion of the utter transcendence, immutability and impassibility of a strictly monadic or ‘monochrome’ God. It ignores his complex tri-personality.

Second, however, it resembles the thesis of some (e.g. Geisler, p.122, etc.) that man who is flesh and blood cannot change his nature without ceasing to be man.  Put simply, the argument is that if man loses his flesh and blood, he is no longer human. In the event, Baillie implicitly rejects this idea since he clearly recognizes that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven man must of necessity shed his flesh and blood which is by nature incapable of being eternalized (1 Cor. 15:50). Paul leaves us in no doubt about this, and his ‘dei’ (Gk) in 1 Corinthians 15:53 is every bit as emphatic as that of Jesus in John 3:7 regarding the new birth. The apostle’s claim that Jesus himself brought to light both immortality and ‘incorruption’ (imperishability, Gk. 2 Tim. 1:10, cf. 1 Cor. 15:53) implies basic change and transformation in accordance with God’s eternal plan for man who was purposely made in the potential image of God (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5).

Next, Baillie’s assumption, like that of Archbishop Temple, that if the Word changed his nature, he would cease to be God leads him to believe that the creation which was his own handiwork would collapse. The obvious answer to this problem is the old adage which he himself concedes is a sound principle (p.96) that the works of the Trinity with respect to outsiders are undivided (opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa). Here Baillie seems to have a somewhat different understanding of the expression from others who take the view that since the three persons of the (immanent) Trinity are consubstantial and equally God, they can each perform the functions of the whole Godhead. If this is true, then Archbishop Temple’s question about what was happening to the rest of the universe during the days of the incarnation is superfluous. God as Creator, now Father, and Spirit performed the divine functions of or on behalf of the Word with whose person as Son they obviously retained their relationship (cf. John 10:30,38; 14:10, etc.) in executing the plan of salvation. During his incarnation, Jesus, the man made lower than the angels (Heb. 2:7,9), who as the Son of God born of woman was clearly dependent on his Father (see especially Heb. 5:7) could not possibly have received the incommunicable attributes of God. As noted above, it was not until he had been perfected, transformed and received the generic nature of God as a man who was the image of God (Col. 1:15, etc.) that he received the power to rule the universe (Mt. 28:18; Rom. 1:4; Eph. 1:20-23; Heb. 1:3).  In other words, God did not abdicate during the incarnation; rather, he undergirded and maintained it and thereby ensured that the Word, his now human Son, received all the support that he needed as a genuine human being. This is made clear especially in the letter to the Hebrews. Not for nothing does Professor Bruce Ware lay strong stress on Hebrews 5:7 (ch. 4). Indeed, if Jesus did not receive the indispensable support that all we human beings need, he could not have been fully incarnate. He could not have been as weak as the rest of us (Mt. 26:41; 2 Cor. 13:4) and our elder brother to boot (Heb. 2:10-13, cf. Rom. 8:29).

The fact is that Baillie appears to contradict himself for he implicitly denies any separation in the Trinity. Given the evidence, the reductio ad absurdum he claims is involved is itself absurd. To solve his conundrum he needs to admit the separation in the sense that the persons of the Trinity are distinct, that they perform different functions and divide their labour. Yet salvation or redemption remains a work in which the entire Godhead is involved.  At this point there is divine solidarity (3* Packer in George, p.102, Writings 1, pp.147f.). Thus it is that the incarnate Jesus Christ who died and was raised by God is proclaimed Lord to the glory of God (Phil. 2:11). Romans 10:9 and 14:9, like Acts 2:33,36, can hardly mean anything else. And this is the consistent message of the NT brought out by the familiar if somewhat misnamed covenant of redemption dear to the hearts of the Reformed. The death of the Son as flesh, that is, as human not divine in nature (Acts 3:15; 1 Cor. 2:8; Col. 1:22), is what is involved, and the idea that the divine nature could die is scouted. Alan Richardson, an Anglican, also maintains in his Introduction to New Testament Theology, that all the persons of the Trinity act in every divine work but perform different functions (p.123). For all that, his exposition at this point appears to confuse the immanent with the economic Trinity. The result is that having asserted that ‘Son’ implies derivation, subordination and dependence, he goes on to insist on both the equality and the subordination of Jesus as eternal Son. The truth is, however, that the Son cannot be both equal and subordinate, both divine and human in nature, at one and the same time. To borrow Warfield’s words, Christ’s equality as God is essential, a necessity of nature; his subordination is economic, a matter of arrangement (p.154).  While Paul (Phil. 2:6), John (1:1) and the author of Hebrews (ch. 1f.) all by implication insist on original or immanent equality, they teach sonship and subordination only at the incarnation. The whole point of Hebrews 1, contrary to the assertion of Lane who says especially with regard to verses 7-12 that they substantiate the conclusion that the Son is superior on account of his eternal unchangeable nature and role in creation (p.24), is that in fact they testify to the superiority attained by the victorious incarnate Son. (4* Hughes, with reference to the aorist participle genomenos, having become, in verse 4, concurs with Spicq who says it points to a dated event in history and “designates a superiority which was achieved and clearly indicates that the theme here is not the Son in his eternal existence but Christ with his glorified human nature”, p.50 n.3, cf. p.48). Verses 1-4 can hardly mean anything else. After all, in his divine pre-existence as Creator he was by nature superior to angels – a point that hardly requires substantiation. Unsurprisingly therefore, all three apostolic writers also insist on Jesus’ accomplishment of victory (John 16:33, etc.) in the flesh (John 19:30, cf. 17:1-4; Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.). In view of this, Richardson’s affirmations are mutually contradictory. Like all Chalcedonians he is trying to make a distinction without a difference. What the Word performed as God in his pre-existence, that is, creation (Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:10-12), and what he achieves as flesh (John 16:33; 2 Cor. 5:18f.; Heb. 2:14f.) are fundamentally different. At bottom, for Chalcedonians the incarnation did not really occur but only appeared to. They are cryptic docetists.

Baillie’s problem is that he adheres uncritically to the widespread but innately contradictory idea that Christ has two natures at one and the same time. He writes that the kenotic theory appears to him to be a story of a temporary theophany in which the one who was formerly God has been changed temporarily (sic) into a man and in effect to have relinquished his divinity or divine nature. From this he draws the conclusion that having divested himself of his distinctively divine attributes in becoming human, he has ceased to be divine. What he, Baillie, fails to add is that in nature but definitely not in personal identity this is precisely the case, a point that no one to my knowledge despite all the evidence to that effect seems prepared to admit.


Change in Nature

Change in nature, however, is basic to the plan of salvation. If man as created in the image of God is intended to attain to glory but in the event proves incapable of doing so because he cannot fulfil the precondition (Lev. 18:5), then change in the nature of the Word himself as Rescuer is inevitably the divine intention. This is implied by Jesus himself when he is reported as saying that he descended in order to ascend (John 3:13; 6:38,62; 13:3, cf. Eph. 4:9f.). Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that like the new birth corporeal transformation is naturally necessary, that is, divinely ordained and inherent in the plan of salvation. (5* See my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities .) Flesh and blood cannot by nature go to heaven (15:50) but must undergo transformation both as such and as being inherently temporary and corruptible. So if the Word was capable of change in order to become flesh and blood, he, Jesus, was also capable of change to enter the kingdom of heaven and become the first born of all creation (Col. 1:15, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45b). Indeed, he himself on occasion (e.g. John 3:13; 13:3) insisted that as the one who had descended and implicitly changed his nature (or, as Paul put it, emptied, humbled (Phil.2:7) and impoverished himself, 2 Cor. 8:9, cf. Heb. 2:7,9), he would ascend and change his nature once more and take on as man the generic nature of God which was his purpose from the start. How could he fill all things if he remained flesh (Eph. 4:9f., cf. Col. 1:19; 2:9)? The point of all this is that change in nature is, as already intimated, basic to the plan of salvation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:5). Our own resurrection transformation means that as God’s sons by adoption we must of necessity take on the generic nature of God himself or, to be more precise, we must be conformed to the image of his Son Jesus (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21) who has become the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8) and hence our hope of glory (Col. 1:27).

Thus it is that when  Jesus still in the flesh is raised, transformed and exalted in power (Rom. 1:4, cf. Mt. 28:18),  like Joseph in Egypt he is appointed Lord (Acts 2:33,36). As the exact or perfected image of God (Heb. 1:3, cf. 2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15) he takes his place at his Father’s side (Heb. 1:3,13; 4:14; 7:26; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; Rev. 3:21). And just as Joseph remained subordinate to Pharaoh (Gen. 41:40, cf. Acts 7:10), so the human Jesus, though still God, the eternal Word, by identity, remains subordinate in nature to his heavenly Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28). As for us, the redeemed, we acknowledge Christ as Lord too, all to the praise of God our Creator and Redeemer in Christ (cf. Phil. 2:9-11; Rev. 4 & 5).



J.I.Packer (Writings, p.38) suggests that some Chalcedonians sensing the smell of Docetism speculate (‘guess’, sic!) that in order to experience genuine human limitations Jesus had to abandon some of his divine powers when he became man. One would have thought that this was obvious. If not, the incarnation was a sham and Jesus as God was able to rely on his own divine powers (cf. Jud. 6:31). (6* See above on Baillie and my Still Docetic.)

On page 72 Packer astonishingly says that there is no hint of any such forfeiture and that the very suggestion seems to undermine Jesus’ authority as a teacher and thus dishonour him. Just how is not made apparent. Apart from noting that explicit evidence can be mustered to counter this (e.g. John 8:28f., 10:38), it would appear at this point that the very incarnation is at stake. The NT writers are adamant that Jesus was truly human and depict him as such. Denial is heresy (1 John 4:2f.; 2 John 7). The author of Hebrews goes so far as to say that he differed from the rest of us only in that he did not sin (Heb. 2:17, cf. 2:14f.; 4:15).

Packer goes on to posit a rather strange and muddled dilemma relating to Jesus’ temporary abandonment of his heavenly omnipotence and omniscience (cf. Heb. 2:7,9). He suggests that on the assumption of kenosis it would seem to follow on the one hand that Jesus’ present heavenly experience is not now fully human or if it is, he has not regained the powers he abandoned at his incarnation and never will. But surely this is precisely what Scripture denies. What could be clearer than texts like Matthew 11:27,28:18, John 3:13,13:3, Romans 1:4 and Ephesians 4:9-10? The whole purpose of the incarnation was for Jesus as man to achieve for man the complete image of God that eluded the rest of us because we could not keep the law which was the precondition of eternal life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5). According to Scripture, in his humanity Jesus was perfected (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28) and became the exact image of God (Heb. 1:3, cf. 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). As such he took his place at his Father’s side and proceeded to exercise as man all the powers characteristic of God. That is why he is described as Lord (Acts 2:33,36; Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:11,  and compare Rev. 5:11-13 with  4:8-11).

Next, Packer, conceding Jesus’ acknowledgement of ignorance of the time of his return, weakly suggests in effect that he suppressed or held in abeyance his knowledge at his Father’s behest. The evidence for this seems to be entirely lacking in view of his own assertion that his words were always words he derived from his Father (John 12:49; 17:8, cf. Rev. 1:1). As a genuine man he was as dependent here as he was for the works or signs he performed (John 5:19,30; 8:28f.). Even contemporaries like Nicodemus were so impressed by him that they concluded God must be at work in him (John 3:2; 9:16,33; 10:38; Acts 2:22; 10:36-43, etc.). (7* See also my Did Jesus Perform Miracles?)

Packer further claims that Jesus’ human limitations should be explained not in terms of the incarnation but of the eternal life of the Trinity. But surely they should be explained in terms of both, for the Trinity and the incarnation are indissolubly linked! In view of the NT’s strong stress on the reality of the incarnation, Jesus’ consequent humiliation (Phil. 2:7), his human weakness (2 Cor. 13:4), his impoverishment (2 Cor. 8:9) and the plan of salvation in general, Packer’s comment constitutes a false dichotomy. Apart from the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, which was planned in eternity by the immanent or essential Trinity which means that by definition all the persons were equal, was impossible. The so-called covenant of redemption demands complete equality. Without it Jesus was to all intents and purposes a subordinate creature which is simply intolerable.

Yet another point must be made. If Jesus as flesh and therefore physically part of creation was not self-sustaining but had to be sustained by his Father like the rest of mankind, by the same token creation itself must have been sustained by his Father during his incarnation. In other words, Archbishop Temple’s original question was for a Christian believer really superfluous and misconceived. As Jesus himself said, God continued to work (John 5:17a). And this enabled Jesus himself to work (John 5:17b) for he did what he saw the Father doing (John 5:19,30, etc.). As Baillie might have expressed it, God was at work in Christ! So when the Jews claimed that Jesus was illegally healing on the Sabbath, they were implicitly accusing the God they claimed to worship of breaking his own law, thus rendering him unrighteous.

Elsewhere (p.227) Packer rightly says that, in view of Jesus’ ascension to glory and his sending of the Holy Spirit, the Acts of the Apostles might well have been called ‘Acts of the Holy Spirit’. Even more obviously relevant to my thesis, however, is Alan J.Thompson’s contention evident in the title of his book ‘The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus’. This draws attention to God’s unfolding plan of salvation which necessitated, first, the Word’s incarnation to trial and temptation in human weakness (8* This, like his crucifixion, Acts 3:15; 1 Cor. 2:8; Col. 1:22, was impossible in his divine nature, James 1:13.) and, given his victory over the world (John 16:33) in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.), his subsequent transformation to power and lordship and consequent enthronement as man at his Father’s side. Here we can hardly fail to see that the once dependent Jesus has been exalted and become King of the universe in fulfilment of the Davidic promises and lives and reigns for evermore as the Lamb of God (Rev. 4:10; 5:12f.). As appointed Lord he now applies the salvation he achieved on earth. The Jesus the original apostles saw and the one Paul ‘saw’ on his way to Damascus has undergone a dramatic change. The difference is surely the difference in nature but certainly not in person (Acts 9:5). And even if we acknowledge with Paul his permanent subordination to God (1 Cor. 15:24-28), it is as man which he ever remains in nature but not as deity. While in person he is both God and man, as man in nature he can never become God, only his image (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3) as Joseph to all intents and purposes became the image of Pharaoh (Gen. 41:40-44; 44:18). We must never forget the ‘ad extra’ and the difference between the immanent and the economic Trinity.  After all, just as Joseph was a foreigner to Pharaoh, so was Jesus the man distinct from God. Of course, the relationship between Jesus and God was closer than that of Joseph and Pharaoh, for Jesus at his incarnation became the very Son of God, human but not divine.*  In the final analysis all the glory is God’s (Rev. 4:11). Soli Deo Gloria.

* Perhaps a better analogy than Joseph’s experience is that provided by Nebuchadnezzar. He, in contrast with Jesus who freely experienced personal humiliation, was sentenced against his will to undergo a change of nature (Dan. 4:28-37). Again like Jesus after a fashion, he eventually enjoyed restoration. The difference is, however, that though remaining, like Nebuchadnezzar, the same person throughout his experience, Jesus’ change in nature was permanent. He remains forever man the complete image of God (Heb. 1:3, etc.) and it is to his image that we are conformed (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:21). In his love, he has for our salvation assumed human nature. Just as Nebuchadnezzar remained the same person, so Jesus remained and remains God in person. In this sense alone he is both God and man at one and the same time. It is for this reason that God and the Lamb occupy the same throne (Rev. 3:21; 5:13). Pace Chalcedon!

See further my Eternal Son? Still Docetic, The Ecclesiastical Christ.




D.M.Baillie, God Was in Christ, London, 1956.

N.Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection, Nashville, 1992.

T.George, ed., God the Holy Trinity, Grand Rapids, 2006.

P.E.Hughes, Commentary of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids, 1977, repr. 1987.

William L.Lane, WBC Hebrews 1-8, Dallas, 1991.

J.I.Packer, Collected Shorter Writings, Vol. 1, Carlisle, 1998.

A.Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, London, 1958.

Alan J.Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, Nottingham/Downers Grove, 2011.

Bruce A.Ware, The Man Christ Jesus, Wheaton, 2013.

B.B.Warfield, The Saviour of the World, Cherry Hill, repr. 1972.