The Philippians Christology
The Epistle to the Philippians is one of Paul's most genial letters. Occasioned not by heretical teachings, disturbing reports, or persecution, but rather by a generous gift and its bearer's return to Philippi, it may seem likely that the letter would contain precious little theology. In our letters to friends, we seldom dive into detailed discussions of pneumatology or Theology proper. Yet Philippians is unusual in this regard. Consider this excerpt from a letter posted by Doug Jantz to a Biblical Greek mailing list:1
I have been struck by something in Philippians. A very personal letter to the believers in Philippi, friends of Paul. No theological treatise, as is Galatians or Romans. BUT, I notice how many times Paul mentions Christ, Christ Jesus, Jesus, Lord, Savior, etc. I counted them in my study Bible by circling in red each occurrence in 4 pages. 51 times! In a personal letter to friends!
In the 104 verses of Philippians, Paul mentions Christ 51 times, for an average very near once per two verses! Obviously, though merely a letter to friends, the Epistle has much to say about Christ, and we as modern students therefore have much to learn about Christology from these four chapters.
What can we learn about Christology from Philippians? What was Paul's view of Christ as a man and Christ as a deity? How does Paul view Christ as relating to God the Father? These are the issues we shall examine forthwith. We will conclude with a look at how we might possibly apply this Christology in today's church. Interpretation of the Christology of Philippians will be aided by referencing other Pauline literature as well, for a more complete understanding of Paul's views, but the primary focus of our examination will be the Epistle to the Philippians.
An obvious beginning point is the infamous passage from the second chapter. Paul is in the middle of encouraging the Philippians toward unity and submission to one another, and decides to reference the perfect model of Christian humility -- Christ. The result is Philippians 2:6-11, which Kent describes as "a masterly statement of Christology"2:
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death --
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.3
Many scholars contend that this section of Philippians was a contemporary hymn which Paul quotes. Prof. Felix Just points out that "Some of Paul's letters contain what seem to be early Christian hymns with important Christological pronouncements", and proceeds to list as examples both the above passage and Col. 1:15-20.4 Prof. Barry Smith agrees, stating that Paul "likely did not write this composition, for it contains too many examples of non-Pauline vocabulary ... words and usages ... to have originated with Paul."5 But Kent argues that we cannot discard the possibility of Pauline authorship, as Paul "could write highly poetic passages"6 and that he "may well have composed these exalted lines."7
Some scholars hold concretely to neither of these views, holding instead that Paul is quoting the hymn, but that he took a few poetic liberties with it. Their idea is that certain lines, for example "even death on a cross", were inserted into the hymn by Paul. The commentary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) describes another perceived Pauline insertion in verse 10: "into this language of Isaiah 45:23 there has been inserted a reference to the three levels in the universe, according to ancient thought: heaven, earth, and under the earth." Likewise, they hold that Paul may have inserted the final "to the glory of God the Father."
With a view to content, Dulle has pointed out that the passage can quickly be divided into two portions -- vs. 6-8, which describe Christ's activity, and vs. 9-11, which describe God's response. USCCB describes a general pattern of "Christ's humiliation and then exaltation." Dulle goes into greater detail on the pattern, calling it "one of humiliation, then exaltation; loss, then compensation; descent, then ascension."
Now that we have a general overview, we can begin to dissect the passage for Christological meaning. However, we must keep in mind that the major purpose of the passage was not to fully outline or explain the nature of Christ, but rather to show the Philippians the example of Christ. In context, the point of the passage is to encourage the church at Philippi in humility and selfless service, which Kent observes was an unpopular concept in Greek culture.8 "The literary point of this passage," writes Dulle sagely, "is that even as Christ, who did not need to humble Himself, did humble Himself, and as a result was exalted, likewise the Philippian believers should humble themselves so that they too might be exalted." It is good for us to recognize the main literary point of the passage lies in describing Christ's exemplary humility.
However, as Smith has noted, "the hymn says much more about Christ Jesus than this." It is a veritable trove of Christological implications. From this passage we derive insight into Pauline Christology, because whether Paul quoted or authored it, either way the apostle agreed fully with its content.
Beginning with vs. 6, we see that Christ is described as "being in very nature God." This gives us an excellent platform from which to leap. The NIV has translated the original Greek to reflect a certain interpretation. The NAB comes closer to a transliteration by saying "he was in the form (morphê) of God." This phrase has become an item of controversy, due mainly to two different interpretations. The first is the NIV's interpretation, that morphê refers to the essential nature of something. The second is a view that interprets this passage as an Adamic parallel (called the Adoptionist view).
Which view works best? Let's examine the Adoptionist view first. This view sees morphê not as describing the divinity of Christ, but rather as descriptive of his humanity. "In the form of God" is seen as a parallel with Genesis 1:26-27, where Adam was created "in the image of God." Thus the Adoptionists see a contrasted parallel between Christ and Adam, because "unlike Adam, Jesus, though . . . in the form of God, did not reach out for equality with God, in contrast with the first Adam in Genesis 3:5-6."9
This view therefore also depends on a particular interpretation of the second part of vs. 6 -- "he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped" must be interpreted as saying that for Christ, the equality with God that he did not yet have was not something he strove to attain. Kent elucidates two possible meanings of harpagmon ("something to be grasped") -- either it is "something that has been seized, or something to be seized".10 The Adoptionist view obviously interprets harpagmon as something to be seized. Dulle summarizes the Adoptionist interpretation of this passage well:
Christ was merely a man like Adam. Whereas Adam tried to seize equality with God, Christ did not consider this seizing of equality to be right, and thus emptied Himself of his aspirations to be like God. Instead, He took on Himself the form of a servant, dedicating His life to obedience to God, even to the point of death. For this reason God has exalted him. Adam tried exalting himself, so was abased. Christ willingly abased Himself, not trying to seize equality with God, and therefore was exalted.11
We have several reasons for rejecting the Adoptionist view. First, we must consider the word morphê. Smith observes that "morphê in the New Testament, the LXX and second-Temple texts written in Greek has the more common meaning of outward appearance or shape." This might lead us to conclude as the Adoptionists have done. But he then makes an excellent point: if we have contextual clues as to its meaning, these are to be preferred over imported meanings from extrabiblical texts. And, Smith establishes, we have one very significant contextual clue -- "The word morphê appears again in the hymn: Christ Jesus is said to have taken the morphê of a servant, becoming made in the likeness of men."12 This is significant when we consider that neither God nor a servant have a specific outward appearance or shape. This leads us to prefer the philosophical interpretation of morphê -- as does Lightfoot, who contends that by "in the morphê of God" Paul means that he participated in the divine ousia [essential being] or phusis [nature].13
Further evidence supporting this interpretation lies in the contrast between vs. 6 and vs. 7. In vs. 7 Christ is said to have taken the schêma (likeness, or outward appearance) of man. This immediately follows the statement that he took on the form of a servant, which we have determined paralleled the form of God statement. Kent describes the contrast matter-of-factly: "morphê denotes the outward manifestation that corresponds to the essence, in contrast to the noun schêma, which refers to the outward appearance, which may be temporary."14
Our last consideration in disproving the Adoptionist view lies in the word harpagmon. Either it indicates that Christ began as an ordinary man and was later exalted, or that Christ preexisted, became human, and then was exalted. We have seen the possible interpretations, but we must favor the interpretation that supports the preexistence of Christ due to other Pauline literature on the topic. In both Gal. 4:4 and Rom. 8:3, Paul says that God sent his son. And as Smith observes, "to send implies preexistence, because one must already be in order to be sent." In 2 Cor. 8:9 Paul describes Jesus, though rich, becoming poor, in order that the church may become rich. Paul is here evidently referring to the preexistent Son of God taking on human likeness. Further support is found in 1 Cor. 10:4 and Col. 1:15-16.15
Looking at the immediate context, we see that Christ was "being [hyparchôn] in the form of God." Grammatically, hyparchôn implies Christ's preexistence because as Kent observes, it "is in the present tense and states Christ's continuing condition."16 Dulle describes hyparchôn as "a present active particle, indicating that Christ was existing in the form of God before He submitted to His humiliation", and calls this "clear evidence for His ontological deity."
We will now move to the humanity of Christ. Paul obviously viewed Christ as having a physical, human body, as he was "made in human likeness." In Gal. 4:4 Paul writes that Christ was "born of a woman." Several times Paul describes Christ as a man (anthropôs),17 and refers to his physical body (soma).18 In Romans 8:3 he describes how Christ came "in the likeness of sinful flesh."
But how far did the humanity of Christ extend? Was he human in nature as well? If so, that would imply that he had a sinful human nature. Let's look at Paul's wording. In our Philippians passage, Paul describes Christ as being "made in human likeness [schêma]". This refers only to outward appearance, as we have shown. Again, in the above Romans passage, Christ came "in the likeness of sinful flesh", not "as sinful flesh." As Kent puts it, "Paul implies that even though Christ became a genuine man, there were certain respects in which he was not absolutely like the other men." Kent lists as examples the presence of both a divine and human nature, or the lack of a sinful nature.
Now that it is clear that Paul regards Jesus as human yet sinless, let us examine whether in taking on the likeness of humanity, Christ had to abandon his deity. Christ did not consider his pre-incarnation equality with God as something to be used to his advantage, but he "made himself nothing." A more literal translation would be "he emptied himself." Dulle points out two interpretations for kenow, the word behind it all: "Used in a metaphorical sense, it means 'of no reputation' or 'nothing.' Used in a metaphysical sense it means 'to empty.'" These possibilities have led to several "kenosis" theories (i.e. what did Christ empty himself of?).
Some hold that Christ emptied himself of the aforementioned morphê of God. But Dulle protests, saying "This cannot be so . . . how could Jesus empty Himself of His deity, and still be God?" Kent is quick to agree: "God cannot cease to be God."19
Kent holds that though the object of Christ's emptying is not given in vs. 7, the verses following delineate more specifically of what Christ emptied himself. In taking on the form of a servant, Kent maintains that the morphê of the servant was an addition, citing the use of the word "take."20 Smith agrees, saying that "in this state, Christ Jesus appeared to be (nothing more) than a human being, but was much more than that even though he had emptied himself and thereby had renounced the advantages of his equality with God. [...] the point is that Jesus Christ's essential being or nature, his morphę, was God, although he appeared to be only a human being." So Smith claims that the object of Christ's emptying was "the advantages of his equality with God." Kent summarizes his thoughts on the matter by saying that "Christ did not empty himself of the form of God, but of the manner of existence as equal to God."21 Dulle concludes similarly: "He emptied Himself by adding to His existence as Deity, an existence of humanity".
This Philippians Christology is remarkably thorough for its extreme brevity. From it we have established the preexistence of Christ, his eternal divine nature which was not compromised by his taking on human likeness, his sinlessness, and we have a picture of what Christ sacrificed in becoming human. If this passage is in fact an early hymn, the early church would be building sound theology in their worship, something we could stand to learn from today. As Kent eulogizes: "Paul has provided in this concise statement a sublime summary of Christology, from preexistence to exaltation."22
What relevance does all this scholarly discussion have for Joe Christian? Ideally, believers will be able to understand Christ to a greater degree. Pursuing knowledge and seeking understanding are attributes of a wise person, and understanding that Christ was human, was God, was not sinful, did not divest his deity, etc. will allow us to worship Christ more truly, as we now know better whom we have believed. Sometimes learning something new about a loved one leads to increased appreciation, and sometimes having something already known reinforced leads to renewed appreciation.
But probably the biggest point of application for the modern church is exactly the point that Paul was making clear from the beginning -- we are to imitate Christ's humility. Christ modeled what Kent calls "supreme condescension"23 in giving himself up to death -- even death on a cross! What better way to make the point that we are to "consider others better than [ourselves]"? The Christological implications that Christ was already equal to God, yet still took humanity upon himself only serve to intensify the humility and sacrifice of Christ. If he was God, and became nothing, how much should we be willing to sacrifice for others? If he was divine, but was willing not to use it for his advantage, how much should we resist our selfish impulses to serve ourselves?
The message does not have to be only for the Philippians; we need to hear it, too. Humility and servitude may have been frowned upon by a "free man" in Greek culture, but they have yet to become popular even today.
The example of Christ is the powerful theme echoing throughout this section of Philippians. If through explanation of his example we learn more about his nature, or his relation to God, we may count ourselves the wiser. But we must also realize in turn that Christ's example therefore becomes so monumentally selfless, because of his nature and relation to God, that we may have underestimated the humility that we formerly thought was asked of us.
1 The Biblical Greek Mailing List (http://www.ibiblio.org/bgreek) is a mailing list for scholars and students of Biblical Greek.
2 Kent qtd. in Gæbelein, Frank E., ed. The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 11. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI. 1981. p. 123.
3 All citations NIV (© 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society) unless otherwise noted.
4 Just, Prof. Felix, S.J., Loyola Marymount University (http://clawww.lmu.edu/faculty/fjust/Bible/Pauline_Themes.htm)
5 Smith, Prof. Barry D., Atlantic Baptist University, Pauline Studies (http://www.abu.nb.ca/Courses/Pauline/Jesus.htm).
6 Kent, 99.
7 Ibid. pp. 122-123.
8 Ibid. p. 122.
10 Kent, 123 (emphases added).
11 Dulle, Jason (http://www.apostolic.net/biblicalstudies/phil2.htm).
12 Unfortunately, these two uses of morphê are the only occurrences in Paul's letters, so we cannot find greater contextual clues elsewhere in his writings (Smith).
13 Lightfoot qtd. in Smith.
14 Kent, 123.
15 A more thorough proof is given by Smith, but it is quite clear from these Scriptures that Paul viewed Christ as preexistent.
16 Kent, 123.
17 Rom. 5:15, 1 Cor. 15:21, 1 Tim. 2:5.
18 Rom. 7:4. Again, a more thorough proof is given by Smith, but we have given enough evidence to make it clear that Paul viewed Christ as possessing a human body.
19 Kent, 124.
20 Ibid. p. 123.
21 Ibid. p. 124.
22 Ibid. p. 100.
23 Ibid. p. 123.
© 1998-2017 Zach Bardon
Last modified 4.2.2013