Philippians 2:6-11: A Creedal Hymn Reflecting Proto-Trinitarian Theology

Introductory Remarks

Philippians 2:6-11 is perhaps the single most written about pericope in the entire New Testament. In it, one finds a tight-packed theological reflection on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, exaltation and, finally, one finds what it means to reflect Christ’s attitude. It is, in the words of Gordon D. Fee, “the very heart of Pauline theology.”[1] Moreover, being “one of the most exalted, most beloved, and most discussed and debated passages in the Pauline corpus.”[2] This “creedal hymn” has had virtually every aspect of it debated—words, grammar, authorship, structure, redaction, history, etc.—not a single rock was left unturned. Given the fact that such is the fate of this pericope, I will merely selectively mention things that I find of particular importance. I presuppose the pericope to be a creedal hymn that was, in one way or another, either written by Paul or, at the very least, edited by him. Many such things are, at best, speculative, and I will not, therefore, spend much time dealing with them here. My main interest here will be to look at the Greek grammar, syntax, and vocabulary used in the hymn—at times interacting with other scholars, too. I will, finally, reflect on the theological implications of this hymn and how it relates to Christian ethics and Trinitarian thinking.

Verse 6

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ

“Who, because of his being in the ‘form’ (μορφῇ) of God, he did not consider equality with God as something to be seized upon.”

Prior to verse 6, Paul admonishes the Philippians to have a certain frame of mind while being Christian. He tells them to have the mindset of Christ. But what is that mindset? What is it like to follow and be like Christ? Verse 6 thus follows on the heels of an imperative (φρονεῖτε, “you all have this mind set”) and begins by laying out what Paul exactly means. Paul begins verse 6 with the relative pronoun ὃς. “The Christ-hymn proper starts here. Its initial word, the relative pronoun ὃς, “who,” recalls the way other hymnlike confessions in the NT begin (cf. Col 1:15; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:3[)]….”[3] Following this is the difficult noun (dative singular feminine) μορφῇ, “form,” which is further modified by the adjectival (descriptive) genitive θεοῦ (“of God”). This noun occurs only twice in Paul (here and verse 7) and once in Pseudo-Mark (16:12). The noun μορφῇ can be translated best as ‘form’ (in quotation marks). Fee argues that it should best be translated as “that which truly characterizes a given reality.”[4] “[I]t denotes ‘form’ or ‘shape’ not in terms of the external features by which something is recognized, but of those characteristics and qualities that are essential to it.”[5] Furthermore, when the hymn will later on say that Christ took the form of a slave, “it is not likely that its author had in mind that Christ merely looked like or had the external appearance of a slave.”[6] That is, μορφῇ does not necessarily retain the simple meaning of “form”—in fact, it cannot. The word should be seen, as Fee suggests, meaning something along the lines of that which truly characterizes a given reality.

            Contra Fee,[7] the author of the hymn—Paul or somebody else—“did not wish to say that Christ was θεός, ‘God.’”[8] Moreover, the author did not say that Christ was “the form of God” (ὃς μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων) but rather ἐν (“in”) in the form of God. Clearly, the author is not saying that Christ is the God.[9] Christ is a preposition away from being θεός. At least in this verse. In verses like these, one gets the sense that the author of the hymn was not, by any means, intending for Christ to be identified with God the Father; rather, the intent appears to be to exalt Christ to divine status—as the following verses will reveal—but not at the expense of having the Father lose His place of paradoxical supremacy. Only Trinitarian theology, I believe, can make any systematic sense of this verse, as we will later see.

And, finally, the author’s use of the participle ὑπάρχων “is a widely used substitute in Hellenistic Greek for εἶναι, ‘to be.’”[10] On the other hand, despite this usage, many argue that ὑπάρχων here has a more precise meaning. “[T]hough often simply be, the exact sense is be from the beginning, w[ith] ref[erence] to God would mean being from all eternity.”[11] Fee, noting that the term ὑπάρχων is interchangeable with εἶναι (the infinitive “to be”), further suggests that the term could mean “to exist (really).”[12] He also disagrees with Zerwick’s A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament and states that “in the koine period the word on its own w[ould] hardly bear that weight [i.e., that the word would imply prior existence].”[13] Because of the disagreements, and the subjectivity of the conclusions, I believe it best to simply translate the participle with the neutral term “being.” There is, however, further ongoing debate about whether the participle is concessive or causal. Concessive participles should be translated with “although” and causal would be translated with the conjunction “because.” “[I]f ὑπάρχων is causal, ἁρπαγμὸν means robbery (“who, because he existed in God’s form, did not consider equality with God as robbery”); if ὑπάρχων is concessive, then ἁρπαγμὸν means a thing to be grasped (“who, although he existed in God’s form, did not consider equality with God as a thing to be grasped”).[14] Daniel B. Wallace believes, grammatically speaking, that “[o]nly the concessive idea for the participle and a thing to be grasped translation for ἁρπαγμὸν fit well with v 7.”[15] Or, if one wants to simply ignore such strict dichotomizing of the grammar, one could—as Fee will below—simply translate the participle as “being”; being preceded with neither an “although” (concessive) or a “because” (causal).

We now come to the difficult term, a hapax legomenon in the NT, ἁρπαγμὸν, which could be translated as “a thing to be grasped” or “robbery.” The noun is from the verb ἁρπάζω, which can mean “I seize spoil,” “I seize a prize by force,” “I snatch away [not in secret]” or “I obtain by robbery”—it can have any of these similar range of meanings. While the verb occurs in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Amos 4:11; Zech 3:2; Matt 13:19; 2 Cor 12:2, 4, etc.), with a range of meanings—not all with the implied meaning of “robbery,” as in 2 Corinthians, where Paul describes his ascent into heaven with the aorist passive participle ἁρπαγέντα (“having been caught, snatched away”)—it is, therefore, unclear as to what the noun actually means. Fee mentions C. F. D. Moule’s argument that the noun, being a noun which end in -mos (the noun ἁρπαγμὸν is the accusative singular masculine from the nominative ἁρπαγμός, hence the -mos ending), should be seen not as a noun referring to the “concrete expression of the verbal idea but to the verbal idea itself.”[16] Carrying this line of thought, Fee continues, “In this view harpagmos is not to be thought of as a ‘thing’ at all…Rather it is an abstract noun, emphasizing the concept of ‘grasping’ or ‘seizing.’”[17] Fee also, rather in a syncretic manner, sees the phrase “not harpagmon” as “correspond[ing] to ‘not looking out for one’s own needs.’”[18] John Reumann points out that W. Jaeger saw the entire phrase as being an idiom meaning to “regard something as a stroke of luck, a windfall, a piece of good fortune.”[19] However, this idiom occurs in much later documents (such as Heliodorus’ Ethiopian Story [3rd or 4th century]). Some scholars look for the noun’s meaning in the OT. The phrase τὸ ἅρπαγμα  (Lev 5:23) is used to translate the Hebrew noun  הַגְּזֵלָ֜ה (Lev 5:23), which is from the Hebrew Qal verb  גָּזָ֗ל (“to seize, plunder, steal”). The neuter verb occurs in the singular and in the plural in the OT 18 times (including Sirach [16:13] and the Psalms of Solomon [2:24]). In all the OT contexts, the terms clearly denotes “robbery” and “plundering.”) Finally, the noun could be taken as a synonym of its cognate term harpagma (“booty” or “prey”). If this is the case, it could be translated, in Paul’s context, as “‘a matter to be seized upon’ in the sense of ‘taking advantage of it.’”[20] Adding to the chaos, some scholars see the nouns (harpagma and harpagmos) as being identical; they “were used synonymously in the Hellenistic period.”[21] Despite the difficulties, as it should be obvious by now, the differences between the different approaches are, in some ways, rather negligible. I agree with Reumann’s conclusions: “The difficult (and rare) word harpagmos (6b) is probably to be taken as equivalent of harpagma, ‘a thing seized.’”[22]

It is time for us to look at some interesting grammar issues present in this highly contentious text. In Greek the structure of the clause ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ is a double accusative; that is, the verb ἡγήσατο (“he deemed, considered”) has both ἁρπαγμὸν (“robbery, something to be grasped”) and the definite article with the infinitive τὸ εἶναι (“the to be”) as its objects. “[B]y putting ‘not harpagmon’ in the emphatic first position, Paul indicates that the infinitive that follows refers back to the initial participle phrase, in a kind of A-B-A structure. Thus, ‘in his being in the form of God (A), not harpagmon did Christ consider (B) his being be equal with God (A’).’”[23] Fee then also sees the article before the infinitive not as marking out the infinitive as the object of ἡγήσατο but as functioning as “anaphoric.” Thus, the text should be translated as:

“Who, although being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped; he did not consider [τὸ] being in the form of God [the anaphoric definite article functioning here to refer back to “being in the form of God”] to be [εἶναι] equal to God.”

Hence the more paraphrastic translation:

“Who, although being in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped; he did not consider his being in the form of God to mean that he was equal to God.”

The above are my own interpretations of Fee’s suggestions. He does, however, offer up his own version, which reads:

Being in the ‘form’ of God as he was

Christ did not consider a matter of seizing upon it to his own advantage,

this being equal with God we have just noted,

but he emptied himself.[24]

Interestingly enough, Martin & Hawthorne’s commentary also takes this definite article preceding the infinitive as anaphoric. In their view, “a function of the definite article here is to point back to something previously mentioned.”[25] That is, this article is not to be identified as an article that stands modifying the infinitive, making it a direct-object articular “substantival infinitive.” Despite the above views, Wallace maintains that “[i]n this text the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term, ἁρπαγμὸν, is the complement. The most natural reason for the article with the infinitive is simply to mark it out as the object.”[26]  He continues: “This is an example of a direct object infinitive in an object-complement construction. Here the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term ἁρπαγμὸν is the complement, in keeping with the normal structural pattern of object-complement constructions.”[27] Thus, you have this translation: “He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped.” In this case, the infinitive is functioning as nothing but a noun, which is then complemented by another noun ἁρπαγμὸν (“something to be grasped”). While both Fee and Martin & Hawthorne’s commentaries argue for taking the definite article as anaphoric to μορφῇ θεοῦ (“form of God”), grammatically speaking, Wallace offers some potent critiques. In the same epistle, Paul uses the articular substantival infinitives as direct objects. For example, in 2:13 Paul writes:

θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας

“For the one working in you all both the willing and the working for his good pleasure is God.”

Notice, then, that in the above citation, Paul is using articular substantival infinitives as the objects of the participle ἐνεργῶν (“working”). The problem with Wallace’s position is that not all substantival infinitives take a definite article. However, from the context, Wallace, Fee, and Hawthorne & Martin are correct in seeing the infinitive as an object. To be fair, in the NT direct-object infinitives are rare. J. L. Boyer only lists two such direct-object occurrences (2 Cor 8:11 and Phil 4:10).[28] Wallace goes on to list, in addition, John 5:26, Phil 2:6, and maybe 2:13. Despite their rarity, it is reasonable that the infinitive in 2:6 is most certainly an “articular-less” direct-object substantival infinitive (the article before the infinitive being anaphoric). Thus, we would translate the infinitive as merely: “to be equal to God”; this being equal to God would, then, be functioning as the object of the verb ἡγήσατο (“he deemed, considered”).

Last but not least, to finish this verse, we must deal briefly with ἴσα θεῷ (“equal to God”). The nominative pleural neuter adjective ἴσα is from the word ἴσος (“equal”). As in John 5:18 the adjective is functioning as a predicate adjective, further telling us something about the noun—the ὃς who is clearly to be identified with Jesus Christ. Already in John, Jesus is accused of calling God his own father, thus making himself equal to God (ἴσον ἑαυτὸν ποιῶν τῷ θεῷ). Following a similar vein of thought, the Philippians hymn is stating that Jesus “although being in the ‘form’ of God” did not attempt to consider equality with God as something to be grasped. On the other hand, Jesus took the road less travelled, which brings us to verse 7.

Verse 7

ἀλλ᾽ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος·

“But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, in the likeness of men becoming, and being found in the likeness as man.”

The fascinating verb ἐκένωσεν is the aorist active indicative third person singular from κενόω (“I empty”). The verb is found five times in the NT (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3; and our passage). Romans speaks of those who are heirs if they depend on the law and not on faith—if such is the case, then the promise is κεκένωται (“it has been emptied”). As one can see from the occurrences in the NT, the word is thoroughly a Pauline word. This would support Fee’s position that the hymn originated with Paul (though he does not think it is a hymn!). But of what did Christ empty himself? “[O]n grammatical grounds it is impossible for ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ to be the object of ἐκένωσεν; the former is separate from the verb by the strong adversative ἀλλά.”[29] Those who argue that Christ emptied himself of his divinity (if that is what ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ implies) are arguing from a much skewed theological perspective (not grounded in the Greek text itself). It is best to simply read the text in a straightforward manner and see it as basically stating that Christ emptied himself in the sense that he took on the “form” or “nature” of a servant/slave.

The phrase μορφὴν δούλου (“form of a slave”) is set into direct contradistinction to the earlier phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ (“form of God”). “It is not as though Christ simply took on the external appearance of a slave or disguised himself as such. Instead, he became a slave, adopting the nature and characteristics of one.”[30] It is for this reason that some would be inclined to translate Fee’s ‘form’ (in quotation marks) with nature instead.

Verses 8-11

καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ. διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός.

“And being found in the appearance as a human being, he humbled himself; becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him and has granted him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, unto the glory of God the Father.”

The rest of the verses are relatively straightforward. The dative noun σχήματι (“outward appearance”) is to be contrasted with the phrase μορφῇ θεοῦ. The noun means “changeable outward shape, contrasted with morphe” which means, according to Reumann, “sphere” or “inner essential form.”[31] This is as close to Docetism as Paul ever comes.

Some interpreters see the textual variant for this verse, which occurs in Codex A, amongst other relatively late manuscripts (5th century onwards), as being the likely original reading. Most ancient texts have—most notably Papyrus 46—the finite verb aorist active subjunctive indicative (third person singular) ἐξομολογήσηται (“might confess”), whereas the variant is the aorist active future indicative ἐξομολογήσεται (“will confess”).[32] In Romans 14:11, Paul writes that κἀμψει πᾶν γόνυ (“every knee will bow”) and καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσεται (“every tongue will confess”), echoing Isaiah 45:23.[33] However, in Philippians, Paul has changed the aorist active future verb κἀμψει (“will bow”) to κἀμψῃ (“might bow”). There is, then, good reason to suppose that Paul changed the second future finite verb to a subjunctive—which further corroborates the idea that Paul wrote this hymn.

Theological Reflections

This creedal hymn is Christian theology in a nutshell. As can be seen from the exegesis, or attempt at such an enterprise (!), one can sense what Paul was trying to do here. First, Paul attempts to place Christ as close to God the Father as possible. He remains a preposition away. Second, however, he goes on to say that Christ while being in the form of God (the only present verb in the pericope), did not think that equality with God is something to be grasped (whether he had it or was in the process of obtaining does not matter much and will probably never be settled). Christ is humble because he is “in the form of God.” Third, Paul, in verse 5, wants the Philippians to attempt to have this frame-of-mind in view. Of course the text is not saying that we, too, should “empty” ourselves by taking on human form—we already are human; rather, the text is saying that if Christ has such a character, what are we to do as his slaves? In this way, Christian ethics are clearly grounded in this passage. Fourth, and finally, Christ is given “the Name” which is above all other names. In his humiliation he is vicariously identified with Yahweh, as in Isaiah 45:23. Thus, though he remains distinct from God the Father, as the preposition so implies, he is, nevertheless, seen somehow as God.

As a side note, theologically speaking, some have seen an Adam-Christ theme being played out in this hymn. That is, unlike Adam, who was made in the “image of God,” Christ, though being in the “form of God,” did not do precisely what Adam did: that is, Christ did not try to be equal to God but, because[34] he was equal to God, Christ humbled himself (actively; he was not humbled by some external means) and emptied himself out. While, theologically, from a canonical perspective, this may make sense—and probably should be seen as a thoroughly possible possibility—as Fee remarks, while this is an “intriguing analogy” it is to be noted that “its basis is altogether conceptual, since there is not a single linguistic parallel to the Genesis narrative.”[35]

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

Bibliography

O’Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Fee, Gordon D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Edited by Ned B. Stone, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Martin, Ralph P, and Gerald F. Hawthorne. Philippians: Revised. Word Biblical Commentary. Vol. 43. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004.

Reumann, John. Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Yale Bible. Vol. 33B. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.

Zerwick, Max, and Mary Grosvenor. A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010.

Footnotes:

[1] Gordon D. Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, eds. Ned B. Stone, F. F. Bruce, and Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 217.

[2] Ibid., 192.

[3] Ralph P. Martin and Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Revised, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 43 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 109.

[4] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 204. Italics original.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Martin and Hawthorne, Philippians: Revised, 110.

[7] Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 204.

[8] Ibid., 110.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2010), 595.

[12] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 202, n40.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 634. Italics original.

[15] Ibid., 635. Italics original.

[16] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 206.

[17]Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 208.

[19] John Reumann, Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 33B (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 346.

[20] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 207.

[21] Reumann, Philippians, 346.

[22] Ibid., 367. Italics original.

[23] Ibid., 207, n62.

[24] Ibid., 207.

[25] Philippians: Revised, 114.

[26] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 186.

[27] Ibid., 602.

[28] Cited in Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 601, n38.

[29] Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 218.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Reumann, Philippians, 351.

[32] That debate goes on about this textual variant is undeniable, contra the assumption of some scholars, there is certainly a difference between the future and the subjunctive—however tedious the debate may seem, see Reumann, Philippians, 373. Grammatically speaking, does the subordinating conjunction ἵνα [hina] (usually translated “so that”) express purpose (with the subjunctive) and does it later express result (with the future)? Or: should the hina express purpose in both the subjunctive κἀμψῃ and the subjunctive ἐξομολογήσηται. Clearly, the translations would be different.

[33] קְדָמַי תִכרַע כָל בַרַך תְקַיֵים כָל לִישָׁן

[34] Notice my causal translation of the participle.

[35] Fee, Pauls Letter to the Philippians, 209. Italics original.