who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.Johannes Weiss first called attention to the rhythmic nature of the above text in 1899. Today, there is nearly universal agreement that Paul is quoting a very early Christian hymn composed in honour of Jesus. The opening word, ὃς ("who"), hints at the same conclusion. "Who" sometimes functions as a kind of pivot introducing hymnlike confessions of faith: see Col. 1:15, 1 Tim. 3:16, and Heb 1:3.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We've been discussing "Adam christology" (see the previous post). What does that mean? In the words of James Dunn,
The divine program for man [was] run through again with Jesus. Christ faced the same archetypal choice that confronted Adam, but chose not as Adam had chosen (to grasp equality with God). Instead he chose to empty himself of Adam's glory and to embrace Adam's lot, the fate which Adam had suffered by way of punishment. (Christology In the Making, p. 117)Consequently, God super-exalted Jesus and installed him to the highest office, Lord of all.
Dunn is fitting the language of Php. 2:6-11 ("equality with God", "emptied himself") into the paradigm, Adam christology. It's a controversial interpretation of the Philippians text.
Evangelicals wouldn't know it, but the interpretation of Php. 2:6-11 is extremely contentious. Gerald Hawthorne writes,
The number of genuine exegetical problems and the sheer mass of books and articles it has called forth leaves one wondering where to begin. … There is little that can be agreed upon, whether the topic discussed is the precise form of this section, its authorship, its place and purpose in the letter, the sources used in its composition, and so on.Most interpreters continue to see a clear reference to Christ's pre-existence in Philippians 2:6-11. But Dunn dares to question that interpretation:
(Philippians, Word Biblical Commentary, ad loc.)
As J. Murphy-O'Connor has recently maintained … the common belief that Phil. 2:6-11 starts by speaking of Christ's pre-existent state and status and then of his incarnation is, in almost every case, a presupposition rather than a conclusion, a presupposition which again and again proves decisive in determining how disputed terms within the Philippians hymn should be understood. (p. 114)Perhaps the easiest way to proceed is to lay out these two possible interpretations of the text side by side.
|was in the form of God (μορφῇ θεοῦ)2||refers to Jesus' divine status in heaven, before his conception in Mary's womb||Refers to Jesus' Adam-like status after his birth. "Form" (μορφῇ) of God is synonymous with "image" (εἰκών) of God. Like Adam before the first sin, the man Jesus bore the image and glory of God perfectly.|
|did not ἁρπαγμὸν [cling to?] [snatch at?] equality with God||Jesus, who already possessed equality with God, did not cling to it||Jesus, like Adam, was tempted to snatch at the possibility of god-like status (see Ge. 3:5) — but resisted|
|emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, γενόμενος [being born?] [becoming?] in the likeness of men||refers to Jesus' incarnation: he divested himself of his deity and was born in the likeness of a human being||γενόμενος is not to be translated "born" but "becoming" (just as it is translated in vs. 8). When Adam sinned, he became estranged from God, a slave to sin and corruption (suffering / death). Jesus, who did not sin, might have claimed an exemption from the universal human pattern (the "likeness of a human being"). He did not stand on his rights but emptied himself: i.e., he voluntarily participated in Adam's state of slavery.|
|being found in form as man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross||emphasizes death by crucifixion as the ultimate expression of Jesus' self-emptying||ditto; with the theological observation that Jesus' suffering and death were a voluntary participation in Adam's suffering and death|
|Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name ("Lord") that is above every name||a return to the status Jesus already enjoyed prior to his incarnation, concluding a pattern of glory/descent/return to glory||elevation to a status Jesus had not formerly possessed: the status that Adam was destined for but never attained because of his sin|
The Christ of Phil. 2:6-11 therefore is the man who undid Adam's wrong: confronted with the same choice [whether to snatch at equality with God], he rejected Adam's sin, but nevertheless freely followed Adam's course as fallen man to the bitter end of death; wherefore God bestowed on him the status not simply that Adam lost, but the status which Adam was intended [but failed] to come to. (p. 119, emphasis in original)Via his obedience unto death, Jesus became God's final prototype, the last Adam.
Am I convinced that Dunn's interpretation of Php. 2:6-11 is the right one? No.
Am I convinced that Dunn's interpretation of Php. 2:6-11 is a legitimate, possible interpretation? Yes.
This controversy is an outstanding example of the difficulty of interpreting the biblical texts. Individual words (μορφῇ, "form"; ἁρπαγμὸν, "cling to" or "snatch at"; and γενόμενος, "born" or "becoming") are ambiguous. Their interpretation turns on our presuppositions: the paradigm we impose on the text.
When we read the text through the traditional lens (trinitarianism, fully articulated only in the post-biblical era), Php. 2:6-11 clearly refers to Christ's pre-existence. It never occurs to us that another interpretation might be possible — one that sees no reference to pre-existence in the text. But then another paradigm is suggested — in this case, Adam christology — and we realize with some shock that it makes sense.
What then? We're left with two divergent interpretations, and it is impossible to know for certain which one is correct.
Postmodernists say that all interpretation is like that: we get out of the text what we bring to the text; therefore no text has a single "right" interpretation. Meaning is always subjective and legitimately contested.
The postmodern perspective is obviously problematic for the concept of biblical authority. But whether or not we're comfortable with its implications, Php. 2:6-11 is a good example of the real challenges of interpreting biblical texts.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Here, Php. 2:6-11 is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. When individual phrases are later inserted into a table, I am not following any one English translation.
2The Greek text is copied from the Online Greek Bible using the font, Athena.