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The Kenosis Of Christ

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#1 Evangelion



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Posted 14 January 2012 - 11:12 PM

The Form of God

From the NET Bible:

Philippians 2:6
who though he existed in the form [morphē] of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped

Trinitarian scholar A. T. Robertson (Word Pictures of the New Testament, reprint, Holman Reference, 1958) wants us to believe that morphē means "the essential attributes as shown in the form". It's a typical Trinitarian interpretation, repeated by the NET translators in their footnote ("The Greek term translated form indicates a correspondence with reality. Thus the meaning of this phrase is that Christ was truly God"). Other Trinitarian commentators have taken the same view (e.g. Daniel L. Akin, Jack Cottrell, M. R. Vincent, Glenn Miller, B. D. Smith, J. B. Coffman, James White).

This use of morphē comes from Aristotelian metaphysics. Aristotle used two words for "form" — eidos ("visual image") and morphē ("shape.") In simple terms (for example, a piece of bronze being made into a statue), the "form" is actually is a visual appearance or shape; more often, however, it is some quality of that object.

To illustrate this point, Aristotle uses the example of an axe. The "form" of the axe is not only its shape; it is also the power of the axe to cut wood. Of course, the axe only has this power by virtue of its shape (and we might add other qualities), so the two are closely related. Aristotle regards them as a unity and calls them both together the "form." However, while the Aristotelian definition of morphē is helpful to the Trinitarian interpretation, it does not reflect the broader usage that Paul is drawing upon in Philippians 2. For a more accurate definition we need to consult some standard authorities.

The Liddell-Scott-James Greek Lexicon defines morphē as "form, shape, fashion, appearance, outward form, kind, sort" (definition and semantic range here) and lists Philippians 2:6 under the secondary definition of "fashion, appearance, outward form."

We find the same word in Mark 16:12 ("After this [Jesus] appeared in a different form [morphē] to two of them while they were on their way to the country") and the only other occurrence is in Philippians 2:7. In all three verses the meaning clearly denotes outwards appearance, not "nature", "substance" or "the essential attributes as shown in the form." Standard lexicons such as BDAG, LSJ, EDNT, TDNT, ANLEX, LEHLXX, Louw/Nida and Spicq, do not support the Trinitarian interpretation of morphē as "nature."

Rodney J. Decker (Professor of NT and Greek, Baptist Bible Seminary, PA) is one Trinitarian scholar who candidly admits that the traditional Trinitarian interpretation of morphē is largely the result of theological bias. In an online article (Philippians 2:5-11, The Kenosis) he says:

Lightfoot is a classic example of those who base the meaning of morfhv [MORFH] on Greek philosophy. He explains that it refers to "the specific character" (129); that "morfhv [MORFH] must apply to the attributes of the Godhead" (132). "In Gk philosophical literature, morfhv [MORFH] acquires a fixed and central place in the thought of Aristotle. For him the term becomes equal to a thing's essence (oujsiva) [OUSIA] or nature (fuvsi") [FUSIS]."

Decker also quotes Robert B. Strimple (Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Studies: Some Exegetical Conclusions, 1979) who was forced to give up the traditional interpretation after realising its futility:

"For years I tried . . . to maintain the view of Lightfoot that Paul here uses morfhv [MORFH] with the sense it had acquired in Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotelian, and which Murray speaks of as 'existence form . . . the sum of those characterizing qualities that make a thing the precise thing that it is.'

Lightfoot wrote: 'though morfhv [MORFH] is not the same as fuvsi" [FUSIS] or oujsiva [OUSIA], yet the possession of the morfhv [MORFH] involves participation in the oujsiva [OUSIA] also for morfhv [MORFH] implies not the external accidents but the essential attributes.'

But I have had to conclude that there is really very little evidence to support the conclusion that Paul uses morfhv [MORFH] in such a philosophical sense here and that my determination to hold on to that interpretation was really rooted in its attractiveness theologically.

In a footnote, Decker quotes another authority who reached the same conclusion:

Feinberg, likewise, notes that "Frankly, the attractiveness of the Gk philosophical interpretation of morfhv [MORFH] is that it gives the theologian about as strong an affirmation of the deity of Christ as is possible. One must, however, be careful that he does not read his theological convictions into the text when they are not there" ("Kenosis," 29-30).

Thus we can reject any suggestion that morphē refers to "nature" or "essential properties" in Philippians 2. Rather than making statements about ontology, Paul is telling us that Jesus was "in the form of God" in exactly the same way as Adam:

Genesis 1:26
Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness"

The Hebrew words for "image" and "likeness" in this verse are tselem and demûth, which correspond to the Greek words morphē and eikōn. The latter is used by the LXX in Genesis 1:26; cf. Matthew 22:20-21, where Jesus refers to the eikōn of Caesar on a coin ("...the thought of Phil. 2.5ff. relates primarily to the Genesis story and can be understood only by reference to it. The morphe concept presupposes Gen. 1.26...", Oscar Cullman, The Christology of the New Testament, SCM Press, 1959, p.175). None of these words suggest a reference to nature or "essential attributes". The significance of the parallel with Adam will become clear in my next section.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#2 Evangelion



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Posted 14 January 2012 - 11:12 PM

Equality with God

Returning to the text:

Philippians 2:6
who though he existed in the form [morphē] of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped [harpagmos]

Note that the NET replaces the old, flawed reading ("thought it not robbery to be equal with God") with the more accurate "did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped." The theological impact of this correction is immediately clear: verse 6 is not saying that Jesus already possessed equality with God, but that he did not possess equality with God, and made no attempt to seize it.

This is demonstrated by Paul's use of harpagmos, which some Trinitarian commentators interpret as "retained" to support their belief in an eternally pre-existent Christ who was co-equal with the Father. But that is not what the word means.

The Liddell-Scott-James Greek Lexicon provides this definition:

A. robbery, rape, Plu.2.12a; "ἁ. ὁ γάμος ἔσται" Vett.Val.122.1.
2. concrete, prize to be grasped, Ep.Phil.2.6; cf. "ἅρπαγμα" 2.

Other lexical authorities concur with LSJ.


ἁρπαγμός , οῦ, ὁ (rare in nonbibl. Gk.; not found at all in the Gk. transl. of the OT; in our lit. only in Phil 2:6).
* a violent seizure of property, robbery
* As equal to ἅρπαγμα, someth. to which one can claim or assert title by gripping or grasping, someth. claimed


In the NT this is found only at Phil. 2:6: οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ. In common with other subst. formed with -μός, ἁρπαγμός first means a. the activity of ἁρπάζειν.1 In non-Christian writings it is found only in this sense. Plut. Lib. Educ., 15 (II, 11 f.); in the form ἁρπασμός, Plut. Quaest. Conv., II, 10, 2 (II, 644a).

As a variant, Paus., I, 20, 3; Phryn. Ecl., 302, p. 407, Rutherford; Vett. Val., II, 38, p. 122, 1, Kroll accord. to V. Stegemann in the same sense. The word then took on the sense of the more common ἅρπαγμα and came to mean b, "what is seized," esp. plunder or booty.

Paul is saying that Jesus did not possess equality with God, and recognised that it was not something to be stolen, seized or clutched at. Here he consciously evokes the theme of Genesis 3 to present a contrast between Adam and Jesus. Adam was the first son of God (Luke 3:38); his pride led him to grasp at equality with God, and he fell. Jesus is the unique and only begotten Son of God; he obediently humbled himself before God, and was exalted. The first Adam brought death; the last Adam brought life. Paul exhorts us to follow the example of Jesus, the last Adam ("The association of thought is the Old Testament, and there is an implied contrast between the two Adams", Ralph P. Martin, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians: an introduction and commentary, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002, p.103).

We can be certain that Adam's experience is the counterpoint in Philippians 2 because Paul establishes this connection in other epistles, where he presents Adam as a typological Christ:

  • Romans 5:14
    Yet death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the same way that Adam (who is a type of the coming one) transgressed.
  • I Corinthians 15:22, 45
    For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive... So also it is written, 'The first man, Adam, became a living person'; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit."

This parallel was understood by many of the early church fathers (e.g. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus). Modern theologians refer to it as "Adam Christology", and many Trinitarian scholars — including N. T. Wright, Robin Scroggs, Daniel L. Akin, Gerald O'Collins, Seyoon Kim, Brian O. McDermott, C. Marvin Pate, Sang-Won Son, T. M. Mauch and Oscar Cullmann — recognise it as a primary concept in Pauline theology. However, they remain divided about its connotations.

Some take the view that Adam Christology is compatible with the deity of Christ and poses no threat to Trinitarianism (e.g. Stephen E. Fowl, "...one can argue both that some sort of 'Adam christology' lies behind this passage and that the passage strongly asserts Christ's preexistence", Philippians, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005, p.114).

By contrast, others reject Adam Christology because they fear its implications for the deity of Christ and the basis of Pauline soteriology (e.g. Porter, Tombs & Hayes, "This Christology appeals to Macquarrie, inasmuch as it does not suggest anything superhuman about Jesus, who as the New Adam is contrasted with the first Adam and with his failure to attain appropriate human status. ...the totally 'Adamic' or merely human interpretation of the hymn that Macquarrie argues for does not command general agreement", Images Of Christ, T. & T. Clark Publishers, 2004, pp.133-4.).

Those who take the latter view understand correctly that if human salvation is predicated upon a strict Adam Christology, the Trinitarian "God-man" is theologically redundant and ultimately irrelevant.

Trinitarian Frank J. Matera (New Testament Christology, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999, p.95) is one who affirms a positive connection between Adam Christology and Pauline soteriology:

There are two places where Paul explicitly employs a comparison between Adam and Christ. The first is Rom. 5:12-21, where he contrasts the destructive results of Adam's disobedience with the salvific effects of Christ's obedience, and the second is 1 Cor. 15:1-58, where he contrasts the first Adam who brought death into the world with Christ, the new Adam, who has become the source of resurrection life. In both cases Paul's "Adam Christology" is in the service of his soteriology.

By casting Christ in the role of a new Adam, Paul shows that the obedience of Christ resulted in acquittal for all (Rom. 5:18), and through his resurrection all are brought to life (1 Cor. 15:22). Thus Paul's Adam Christology must not be isolated from his soteriology.

I agree with Matera as far as he goes, but it seems to me his Trinitarian preconceptions prevent him from taking the soteriological theme to its necessary conclusion. Philippians 2 is written within the context of Adam Christology, demonstrating that the saving power of Christ's death is predicated upon his unqualified humanity, thereby precluding the concept of deity. A mortal man brought sin and death into the world; a mortal man was therefore required to bring salvation. Jesus had to be a genuine human being in order to repair the damage of Adam's sin by succeeding where he had failed. This could not be achieved by a divine saviour, for the atonement is impossible if Jesus is essentially different from Adam.

James D. G. Dunn (Christology in the Making, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996, p.120) emphasises the force of Paul's message:

Here then we can see the point of Murray-O'Connor's initial criticism and the danger for good exegesis of assuming too quickly that the phrases 'being in the form of God' and 'becoming in the likeness of men' necessarily imply a thought of pre-existence. For the language throughout, and not least at these points, is wholly determined by the creation narratives and by the contrast between what Adam grasped at and what he in consequence became. It was Adam who was 'in the form of God', Adam who 'became what men now are' (in contrast to what God had intended for them).

The language was used not because it is first and foremost appropriate to Christ, but because it was appropriate to Adam, drawn from the account of Adam's creation and fall. It was used of Christ therefore to bring out that Adamic character of Christ's life, death and resurrection. So archetypal was Jesus' work in its effect that it can be described in language appropriate to archetypal man and as a reversal of the archetypal sin.

'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#3 Evangelion



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Posted 14 January 2012 - 11:13 PM

Why Presuppose Pre-Existence?

The very first thing that jumps out at me every time I read Philippians 2 is that it does not contain a single word about pre-existence. This concept must be imported via eisegesis, because it simply cannot be found there. For example, A. T. Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament:

Php 2:6; Being (huparchōn). Rather, "existing," present active participle of huparchō. In the form of God (en morphēi theou). Morphē means the essential attributes as shown in the form. In his preincarnate state Christ possessed the attributes of God and so appeared to those in heaven who saw him. Here is a clear statement by Paul of the deity of Christ.

Robertson was a notable Greek grammarian, but he was also a Trinitarian, and his interpretation of this verse is clearly imposed upon the text rather than being derived from it. He presupposes pre-existence even though the verse says nothing about pre-existence at all, and claims that morphē is an ontological category which proves that Jesus "possessed the attributes of God." This is blatant eisegesis; Robertson has approached the text with at least two theological preconceptions, so his interpretation is flawed before it even begins.

Standard Trinitarian interpretations of Philippians 2 employ the same presuppositional method. Beginning with an unproved assumption, they move quickly to the desired conclusion without stopping to validate the original claim. This is a common Trinitarian error, as I've already demonstrated.

James D. G. Dunn (Christology in the Making, p.114) observes that the concept of a pre-existent Christ in Philippians 2 is necessarily an a priori assumption:

In fact, as J Murphy-O'Connor has recently maintained, not without cause, 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 Philippian hymn should be understood.

On page 120 he dismisses the idea that pre-existence is central to the passage and shows how this preconception obscures the point Paul is making:

As when reading Rom. 7.7-11 we are not to think of some specific time in the life of Paul or the Jew when he was 'alive once apart from the law', so when reading Phil. 2.6-11 we should not try to identify a specific time in Christ's existence when he was in the form of God and before he became like men.

As Rom. 7.7-11 is just a way of describing the character and plight of all men now, so Phil. 2.6-11 is simply a way of describing the character of Christ's ministry and sacrifice. In both cases the language used is determined wholly by the Adam stories and is most probably not intended as metaphysical assertions about individuals in the first century AD.

Where is the evidence that Philippians 2 is speaking of a pre-existent Christ? Paul's use of huparchōn does not even suggest this, let alone prove it; the same word is applied to Jairus in Luke 8:41 ("there came a man named Jairus, and he was [huparchōn] a ruler of the synagogue..."), King David in Acts 2:30 ("therefore, being [huparchōn] a prophet...") and Stephen in Acts 7:55 ("being [huparchōn] full of the Holy Spirit...") to name just a few of many places. None of these occurrences involve pre-existence. It is simply not what the word means.

Why should we presuppose pre-existence, as A. T. Robertson does? He has given us no reason to do so. What is there about Philippians 2 that even requires pre-existence? Nothing that I can see. Is anything lost from Paul's message if Jesus is not pre-existent? No. Even the translators of the New American Bible (a Catholic translation) concede in a footnote that pre-existence is by no means a sine qua non:

Taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness: or ". . . taking the form of a slave. Coming in human likeness, and found human in appearance."
While it is common to take Phil 2:6, 7 as dealing with Christ's pre-existence and Phil 2:8 with his incarnate life, so that lines Phil 2:7b, 7c are parallel, it is also possible to interpret so as to exclude any reference to pre-existence (see the note on Phil 2:6) and to take Phil 2:6-8 as presenting two parallel stanzas about Jesus' human state (Phil 2:6-7b; 7cd-8); in the latter alternative, coming in human likeness begins the second stanza and parallels 6a to some extent.

So why presuppose pre-existence?
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#4 Evangelion



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Posted 14 January 2012 - 11:13 PM


Verse 7 tells us that Jesus "...emptied [kenosis] himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature."

Paul's words have caused immense difficulties for Trinitarianism. Their meaning hinges upon the question: what did Jesus "empty" himself of? Trinitarians aren't sure, because they can't agree amongst themselves on this point.

In the 19th Century, Lutheran theologian Gottfried Thomasius proposed that Jesus gave up three divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence) as a necessary part of the incarnation process. This hypothesis is variously known as "kenosis theory" or "kenotic theology" and is considered heretical by the majority of mainstream Christians.

But Trinitarian critics of the traditional interpretation have pointed out that kenotic theology is an inescapable conclusion if harpagmos is interpreted as "retained" and morphē as "essential nature", since this requires that Christ lost his "essential nature" (or at least, some aspect of it) when he took upon himself the morphē of a servant.

Decker (Philippians 2:5-11, The Kenosis) highlights the extent of the problem by openly admitting that Trinitarianism currently contains 10 different hypotheses about the meaning of Philippians 2:7, most of which are irreconcilable with each other. According to these theories, Jesus variously:

  • Had a human soul, to which the Logos imparted divinity gradually until he was fully divine
  • Laid aside his deity and received it back again at his ascension
  • Abandoned certain divine prerogatives and permanent characteristics (e.g. omniscience)
  • Lived a "double life" in which his humanity and deity were divided to such an extent that they virtually comprised two individual persons, with his human side completely ignorant of his deity
  • Disguised his deity and divine attributes by limiting them temporarily
  • Gave up the use of certain attributes without actually losing them
  • Pretended that he did not possess his divine attributes
  • Gave up the independent exercise of his divine attributes, being solely guided and directed in their use by the Holy Spirit
  • Limited himself to the voluntary non-use of his attributes
  • Abandoned a substantial measure of independence in the exercise of his divine prerogatives

This lack of consensus is a testament to the unnecessary complications arising from the internal incoherence of Trinitarian Christology. Biblical Unitarianism has no such problems.

Some Trinitarians try to link verse 7 with II John 1:7 ("For many deceivers have gone out into the world, people who do not confess Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh. This person is the deceiver and the antichrist!") The connection is valid, but not in the way that they suppose. Rather than accepting the prima facie evidence of John's words (ie. "came in the flesh" = "was genuinely human"), they try to claim that John is speaking of the incarnation. In their minds, the phrase "Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh" appear as "Jesus as God coming in the flesh."

This subjective mistreatment of Scripture is often accompanied by the erroneous but popular belief that John's words were "written against Gnosticism." Gnosticism was a pseudo-religious ideology which taught that flesh was evil and spirit was good (some Orthodox Christians have argued that Gnostic concepts persist in mainstream Christianity via the Calvinist dogma of "Total Depravity"; a case for this might be made on the basis of Augustine's work in De Civitate Dei, which strongly influenced Calvin's theology).

Unfortunately for proponents of this theory, historical authorities agree that Gnosticism was a second-century heresy (e.g. Unger, "The Role of Archaeology in the Study Of the New Testament", Bibliotheca Sacra (116.462.153), 1996). Thus it was completely unknown to John, who wrote before it even existed. The false belief to which John alludes is actually Docetism, a first-century heresy which taught that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body, but was in fact an incorporeal spirit being (the evangelist refutes it in John 1:14 & I John 4:2-3).

Most lay Trinitarians are unconsciously docetic, since they cannot understand the mechanics of the hypostatic union and find it much easier to believe that Jesus is simply God appearing in the form of man ("In fact, popular supranaturalistic Christology has always been predominantly docetic", J. A. T. Robinson, Honest to God, SCM Press, 1963, p.65).
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#5 Evangelion



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Posted 14 January 2012 - 11:13 PM

From Humiliation to Glorification

The lack of a Trinitarian consensus on the meaning and significance of kenosis and morphe commonly results in divergent interpretations. While most take "form of a servant" as parallel to "form of God", they cannot agree on what this actually means. Some believe it signifies that Christ took on human nature; this relies on the interpretation of morphe as a reference to nature. Others say that "form of God" refers to God's divine appearance; this relies on an accurate yet misapplied interpretation of morphe, and implies that Jesus only appeared to be human (the Docetic heresy).

These interpretations are mutually exclusive. To choose one is to preclude the other, since morphē cannot bear both meanings simultaneously. We've already seen that the lexical definition of morphē precludes the "divine nature" argument. Yet the other option ("divine glory") cannot stand either because it is entirely presuppositional, based entirely on the a priori assumption that Paul is speaking of a divine, pre-incarnate Christ.

Paul says absolutely nothing about a pre-incarnate Christ and makes no reference whatsoever to "divine glory." These are ideas which must be imported to the text. Morphē doesn't mean "divine glory", and the example of Adam demonstrates that it is possible to be "in the form of God" without possessing "divine glory."

A common Trinitarian approach is to conclude that Jesus did not lose anything when he "emptied himself", and that the "emptying" was achieved by taking on "the form of a servant." But this makes no sense.

Firstly, how can Jesus empty himself by adding something to himself, and how can "form of a servant" be equated with "human nature"? Secondly, the decision to go with "human nature" locks Trinitarians into the "morphē = nature" argument, yet we have repeatedly seen that morphē does not refer to nature at all, which is why many Trinitarian scholars reject the morphē/nature hypothesis. Thirdly, the "servant" concept is not equated with human nature; it refers to Christ's ministry, not his ontology. Adam Clarke (Adam Clarke's Commentary, electronic edition):

Lastly, this sense of morfh qeou, is confirmed by the meaning of morqh doulou, Philippians ii. 7; which evidently denotes the appearance and behaviour of a servant or bondman, and not the essence of such a person.

Cf. Isaiah 53, Matthew 12:18 ("Here is my chosen servant!"), Luke 22:27 ("I have been with you as a servant"), John 13:3-5 ("...he began washing his disciples' feet and drying them with the towel he was wearing"), Acts 3:13 ("The God that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and our other ancestors worshiped has brought honor to his Servant Jesus"), Acts 4:2, 30 ("Then they turned against your holy Servant Jesus... work miracles and wonders in the name of your holy Servant Jesus", Romans 15:8 ("I tell you that Christ came as a servant of the Jews").

Likewise, the glorification of the son requires no presumption of deity, and the "name above every name" is the name of Jesus, not Yahweh. M. R. Vincent (Word Studies in the New Testament, electronic edition):

A name Rev., correctly, the name. This expression is differently explained: either the particular name given to Christ, as Jesus or Lord; or name is taken in the sense of dignity or glory, which is a common Old-Testament usage, and occurs in Eph_1:21; Heb_1:4. Under the former explanation a variety of names are proposed, as Son of God, Lord, God, Christ Jesus.

The sense of the personal name Jesus seems to meet all the conditions, and the personal sense is the simpler, since Jesus occurs immediately after with the word name, and again Jesus Christ in Phi_2:11.[/color The name Jesus was bestowed on Christ at the beginning of His humiliation, but prophetically as the One who should save His people from their sins, Mat_1:21.

Theodor M. Mauch (Philippians 2: 1-18: Greek or Hebraic?, lecture at Trinity College, 1968):

In the climax of the Philippian hymn, everyone recognizes the servant (doulos), the man who realized God’s life-style and the man who realized God’s intention in making man in His image; everyone acclaims this man as Lord (kyrios). In the servant God the Father is glorified, as in Isaiah 49:3 Yahweh is glorified in the servant. ...

The Philippian hymn climaxes in interrelated praise of the true man Jesus Christ and God the Father. This Hebraic reading of the Philippian hymn sees the themes as expressing not divine, albeit for a time veiled, ontology. Instead, the emphasis is upon activity, which indeed is the way the Old Testament speaks of God and man.

Trinitarian interpretations of Philippians 2 are contradicted by standard theological and lexical authorities. They are frequently inconsistent, unnecessarily complicated, and built on presuppositions.

I propose a simpler exegesis which retains the OT subtext:

  • Despite being in the form of God and exemplifying His image perfectly, Jesus understood that equality with the Father was not something to be grasped at or stolen (unlike Adam, who hoped to seize it).
  • Instead, Jesus made himself nothing (unlike Adam, whose pride led to his fall), deliberately adopting a humble appearance as if he was merely a servant, and acting obediently in that role all the way to his death on the cross.
  • Consequently, God exalted Jesus and gave him a name above every name, so that everyone will bow the knee at the name of Jesus and confess him as Lord — to the glory of God, the Father.

Paul's triumphant climax echoes Isaiah 45:23 (where the Father declares His supremacy over creation) without quoting or applying it, as he does in Romans 14:11. Notice however, that Paul does not equate Jesus with Yahweh or "reveal" that Jesus is the God of Israel; he merely borrows the imagery of bowing the knee to emphasise Jesus' newly exalted status as king over all the earth. This strictly subordinationist Christology recalls the glorification of Joseph (a typological Christ) to express the glorification of God's Son:

Genesis 41:41, 43
"See here," Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I place you in authority over all the land of Egypt." ... Pharaoh had him ride in the chariot used by his second-in-command, and they cried out before him, "Kneel down!" So he placed him over all the land of Egypt.

(Cf. John 8:54, "Jesus replied, 'If I glorify myself, my glory is worthless. The one who glorifies me is my Father, about whom you people say, 'He is our God''"; also I Corinthians 15:27-28, where the Son is permanently subordinate to the Father).

Central to Paul's theme is his exhortation that we can follow Jesus' example (cf. Matthew 20:26, "Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant") and relate to him because he was just like us. This relationship is utterly destroyed by the Trinitarian view, which presents a "God-man" who merely pretended to be one of us for a few years and had no difficulty facing the trials and temptations of life because he was never properly human in the first place.

As Mauch puts it:

The Fathers countering the Arian dilution of Christ’s divinity clarified the terms "in the form of God" and "he emptied himself" to show that Christ is fully equal and co-existent with God. This dominant theology is evident in Calvin’s explanation of Philippians 2, "For a time his Divine glory was invisible, and nothing appeared but the human form, in a mean and abject condition."

In this Christology, "the truly human" is accomplished by someone who is pre-existent and transcendent. Emptied he may be, but is he truly man? If he is truly "emptied," then why not start there instead of constant reminders about his having the pre-existent context? It is difficult to have a two-nature theory and not re-fabricate dualism. The impact of this kind of Christology is that it confirms the Greek notion, and, one might add, the archaic, Ancient Near-Eastern view, that to be human is a negative condition.

Does a temporary orbit in the realm of the human have to be pasted on to the transcendent, in order for the human to become what it was intended to be? It would be hard to say that Philippians 2:1-18 in its traditional interpretation is causing very many people to become jubilant with the good news of the Gospel.

'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


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