The Problematic Translation of 'emptied himself' as found in Philippians 2.7

by G. W. Anderson

Many modern versions have created grave theological problems in Philippians 2.7. Translations such as the New American Standard Bible, the American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, the Revised Version, the J. N. Darby Version and the Modern Language Bible claim that Jesus "emptied himself" in this verse. This rendering has produced numerous problems for the Christian church.

Many translators of the Bible during the Reformation and after recognized the problems with translating the verb kenow as "emptied". Men such as William Tyndale, Cranmer, the translators of the Geneva Bible and the translators of the Authorised (King James) Version rendered this word metaphorically or figuratively rather than literally. They, as we, endeavour to translate "as literally as possible, as free as necessary". Even the translators of the New King James Version New Testament, following the problematic and incorrect reading of some of the modern versions, at one time had "emptied Himself" (this was later changed to "made Himself of no reputation").

The Problem Stated

Some current modern versions have made an attempt to avoid the problems associated with "emptied himself". The New International Version, the New English Bible, the Revised English Bible, the New Century Version and the New Living Translation have "made himself nothing". Thus they attempt to express the idea of "making void" or "of none effect". However, the problems associated with the idea of making oneself "nothing" are probably more than those of "emptied himself".1

Translating kenow as "emptied himself" introduces problems which liberal, neo-orthodox and conservative commentators have wrestled with for years. The pages of commentaries and annotated study Bibles are filled with all manner of heresy and speculation to try to answer this question. If the word "emptied" is used, it must be asked, of what did Jesus empty Himself in order to be able to take "upon him the form of a servant" (Philippians 2.7)? Various possibilities have been offered. Some say He was emptied of His glory. Others say it was of one or the other of His Godly attributes or abilities, such as divine privileges, divine majesty, divine power and divine nature, riches, His favorable relationship to the divine law, the independent use of His divine prerogatives, His glory or the environment of glory. Some even believe that He emptied Himself completely of His deity or Godhood. Since these explanations are not to be found in the context of Philippians 2.1-11, the only limit to speculations is the imagination. The translation "made himself of no reputation" eliminates the need for these distracting arguments.

Reformed Commentators

The figurative translation of kenow is not without precedence in Scripture. This verb is found in only four other New Testament passages: Romans 4.14 "is made void"; 1 Corinthians 1.17 "should be made of none effect"; 1 Corinthians 9.15 "should make...void"; 2 Corinthians 9.3 "should be in vain". Thus, this verb is not translated literally "emptied" in the New Testament. Dr. Louis Berkhof2 and commentator William Hendriksen3 acknowledge that the reformed theologian B. B. Warfield claimed that the translation "emptied himself" is "a mistranslation".4 These comments together with that of John Murray are that much more significant in that they did not hold to the same Greek text and translational position as that of the Society.

Warfield's View

B. B. Warfield states:

"And here it is important to observe that the whole of the action adduced is thrown up thus against this background -- not only its negative description to the effect that Our Lord (although all that God is) did not look greedily on His (consequent) being on an equality with God; but is positive description as well, introduced by the 'but...' and that in both of its elements, not merely that to the effect (ver. 7) that 'he took no account of himself' (rendered not badly by the Authorized Version, He 'made himself of no reputation'; but quite misleading by the Revised Version, He 'emptied himself'), but equally that to the effect (ver. 8) that 'he humbled himself'... In other words, Paul does not teach that Our Lord was once God but had become instead man; he teaches that though He was God, He had become also man."5

"The verb here rendered 'emptied' is in constant use in a metaphorical sense (so only in the New Testament: Romans. iv.14; I Corinthians i.17; ix.15; II Corinthians ix.3) and cannot here be taken literally. This is already apparent from the definition of the manner in which the 'emptying' is said to have been accomplished, supplied by the modal clause which is at once attached: by 'taking the form of a servant.' You cannot 'empty' by 'taking' -- adding. It is equally apparent, however, from the strength of the emphasis which, by its position, is thrown upon the 'himself'. We may speak of Our Lord as 'emptying Himself' of something else, but scarcely, with this strength of emphasis, of His 'emptying Himself' of something else. This emphatic 'Himself', interposed between the preceding clause and the verb rendered 'emptied', builds a barrier over which we cannot climb backward in search of that of which Our Lord emptied Himself... 'He made no account of Himself', we may fairly paraphrase the clause; and thus all question of what He emptied Himself of falls away. What Our Lord actually did, according to Paul, is expressed in the following clauses; those not before us express more the moral character of His act. He took 'the form of a servant', and so was 'made in the likeness of men'."6

"...The term 'form' here, of course, bears the same full meaning as in the preceding instance of its occurrence in the phrase 'the form of God'. It imparts the specific quality, the whole body of characteristics, by which a servant is made what we know as a servant. Our Lord assumed, then, according to Paul, not the mere state or condition or outward appearance of a servant, but the reality; He became an actual 'servant' in the world. The act by which He did this is described as a 'taking', or, as it has become customary from this description of it to phrase it, as an 'assumption'. What is meant is that Our Lord took up into His personality a human nature; and therefore it is immediately explained that He took the form of a servant by 'being made in the likeness of men'."7

Murray's Agreement

John Murray claims that:

"Warfield has shown with a directness and cogency that scarcely leave anything else to be said that to render the verb [ekenosen] by the word 'empty' is a misinterpretation,... Warfield was not, of course, the first to recognize the true import of Philippians 2:7, but no one has marshalled the arguments against the literal rendering of the verb [ekenosen] and in favour of the figurative as well as he has done in respect of succinctness and conclusiveness. The verb is, therefore, to be rendered, 'He made no account of Himself' and so 'all question of what He emptied Himself of falls away' ([Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ], pp. 42f.)... It is the type of exegesis which Warfield adopts in this article which divests the passage of every remnant of kenotic Christology. This interpretation represents and sums up the best of Christian thought on this passage, and there is no reason why the text should any longer be perplexed or obscured by the literal rendering of the verb."8

"When we read that 'he made himself of no reputation', a literal rendering would be that 'he emptied himself'. But there is not one whit of good reason for a literal translation. Usage elsewhere and the context here require the figurative rendering, 'he made no account of himself' or 'he made himself of no reputation'. Versions which have adopted a literal translation have imposed upon English readers a rendering which has ignored the demands of good translation and interpretation and has introduced a question which the context neither requires nor permits. The thought is simply that Christ Jesus did not make his own self the all-absorbing and exclusive object of interest, concern, and attention. He became absorbed in concern for others."9

The Problem Avoided

The simple rendering "made Himself of no reputation" or "He made no account of Himself", when coupled with the following modal participle, easily solves the problem. "He made Himself of no reputation by taking [labwn, "having taken"] the form of a servant. In other words, He did not "empty"; He "took on" the form of a man -- i.e., was fully God and fully man -- God manifest in the flesh.

The Trinitarian Bible Society is dedicated to formal equivalence translation. However, as anyone who has dealt with the translating from language to language (regardless of what the two languages are) is aware, idioms, metaphors and figurative language are not meant to be rendered literally. The Authorised Version and translations in many other languages, such as those in Spanish and Hebrew which follow the conservative, traditional rendering of this passage, avoid numerous "kenosis theory" problems which are found in many of the modern versions. The rendering "made himself of no reputation", whilst not strictly literal, nevertheless expresses the true meaning of the passage and the true doctrine of the incarnation in a biblical, reformed and conservative way which contributes to the honour and glory of God. It points men and women to the truth of the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, who made Himself of no reputation by taking on the form of a servant in order to bring salvation to His people.



(1) See the section entitled Unusual Translation in the Society's article New International Version: What today's Christian needs to know about the NIV, for more information.

(2) Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. revised and enlarged (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1976).

(3) William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Philippians, Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Book House, 1979).

(4) Berkhof, p. 238; Hendriksen, p. 106.

(5) B. B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrines (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), pp. 178-9.

(6) Ibid., pp. 180-1.

(7) Ibid., p. 181.

(8) John Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vols. (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 3.359-60.

(9) Ibid., 3.238.

This article was originally published in the Quarterly Record no. 538, January to March 1997.

Copyright © 1997 Trinitarian Bible Society

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