The third stanza of Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can It Be” poses interesting and complicated problems for discerning singers.
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:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
Because of the line, “Emptied Himself of all but love,” many of us would avoid singing this stanza—or would consider changing the lyric. Those who express concern over these words usually do so because the phrase does not seem to accurately reflect their understanding of Philippians 2:5–8, a passage that is sometimes described with the theological term kenosis (self-emptying of Christ). Should we understand “of all but love” to mean Christ gave up all of His divine attributes except “love” at the Incarnation? If this hymn lyric means what we sometimes accuse it of meaning, we are left with a Christ Who seems to be fully man but less than fully God.
I would like to address this concern on two levels: What does “emptied Himself” mean in Philippians 2:7 (NASB, ASV, and RSV), and what did Wesley mean by including this phrase in his hymn?
The context of Philippians 2:7
Regarding the first question, I believe Philippians 2:5–11 is teaching about the humility of Christ, not His attributes. This theme is reflected in the context of 2:3 (“Let nothing be done from selfish ambition or conceit”). This same theme is reflected immediately after the passage: “Do all things without complaining and disputing” (v. 14), and “I am being poured out as a drink offering” (v. 17). Paul went on to warn about those who do not have this attitude of humility (vv. 20, 21) and held up Timothy and Epaphroditus as positive examples (vv. 19–30). The context is humility.
Perhaps the best English rendering of 2:7 is “made himself of no reputation” (KJV, NKJV) or “made himself nothing” (NIV), instead of “emptied himself” (NASB, ASV, RSV).
In addition, though I do not believe this is the main point of the text, it may be possible to derive some additional ideas about divine concealment. (Christ took on human attributes and sometimes concealed divine attributes.) But we must derive these ideas in a way that is consistent with other New Testament teachings about the divine attributes of Christ.
The theologians among us can debate the value of articulating the exact nature of Christ’s self-limiting. Not every evangelical theologian is convinced that this discussion leads to productive teaching points (other than our obvious need to reject heretical positions that deny Christ’s divinity or Christ’s humanity). Frankly, using Philippians 2 to raise the issue of Christ’s attributes is probably more confusing than it’s worth. (For another discussion of this, see Rod Decker’s fine article, “Philippians 2:5–11, the Kenosis.”)
What Charles Wesley really meant
Now I would like to discuss my second concern and raise the possibility that we have misunderstood Charles Wesley. It is likely that he did not believe what we sometimes accuse him of believing. There is no special aspect of Wesleyan or Methodist theology that strips Christ of His fully divine attributes. Further, it is likely that Wesley would be puzzled over the kenosis controversy. Charles Wesley died in 1788, but kenotic theology was not really a hot issue until German Lutheran Gottfried Thomasius raised it as a controversy around 1850. It became an issue among English Anglicans around 1900 as well. But we can’t very well blame Wesley for these errors—he was quite dead by then.
While Baptists in our theological tradition (the New Hampshire Confession) have several differences with Wesleyan theology, I think it is fair to say that both groups pretty much agree on the meaning of Philippians 2:5–8. Further, the hymn “And Can It Be” is a standard statement of the atonement that can be affirmed by all true believers, including Baptist and Methodist.
One worship leader’s conclusion
Here’s my (shocking!) conclusion: We should feel completely comfortable singing “Emptied Himself of all but love,” because, in Wesley’s eyes, it is a plausible statement of Christ’s humility. It is not a statement about which attributes, if any, Christ gave up at the Incarnation.
Postscript: But if all of this is so unclear, why should we even bother singing potentially confusing lyrics? Wouldn’t it be better to skip this hymn, or at least the third stanza? My answer is twofold. First, “And Can It Be” is a significant statement of Christ’s atonement—a treasure that the church has sung for centuries. It would be a mistake to divorce ourselves from this long heritage of worship and theology just because we assigned the lyric an incorrect meaning. And it would be a mistake to arbitrarily interrupt the continuity of thought by skipping parts of the song that we don’t particularly understand. Second, I believe that when we edit the third stanza, our explanations do more harm than that original lyric. In the process of explaining our edits, we force a new meaning into the song (it’s not really about Christ’s attributes) and a new meaning into Philippians 2 (Christ was not “emptying Himself” of attributes; it’s all about humility). —Kevin Mungons
Also in this series of articles on Charles Wesley: