Paul and the “Lesser” Divinity of the Preexistent Christ?

Paul and the “Lesser” Divinity of the Preexistent Christ? August 17, 2016

Flavian of Constantinople, opponent of Eutyches. Source

(Part 1 of 2)

The second chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Philippians contains one of the most scrutinized and debated sequences of verses in the entire Bible, with significant differing theological implications depending on how exactly they’re understood.

This section, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, reads

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

A few different things here have been the subject of great dispute among scholars.

For example, there’s a lot of disagreement as to how the word harpagmos in the original Greek text of 2:6 is to be translated—this is what was rendered as “something to be exploited” above—and what exactly this means in context.¹ And although I included verse 2:5 for context here, many scholars believe that 2:6-11 is a sort of self-contained unit; that this in fact comes from an originally autonomous composition, written by a very early Christian, which Paul has incorporated into his epistle. But here, there’s debate over how exactly to classify this independent text, whether as a hymn or as something else, or even whether it’s truly an independent composition at all.² (Or, if so, whether Paul has modified it from its original form in any way, etc.)

Maybe the best way to start parsing all this is to note two different approaches in a major debate pertaining to how the nature of Jesus is portrayed within these verses; one of these approaches taken up by the majority of scholars, the other representing the leading alternative, held by a small but impassioned minority.

The first approach here can fairly be called the traditional one, and in most ways comports with the theology of historic Christian orthodoxy, where Jesus Christ is and always has been fully and truly God.

To explain Philippians 2:6-11 specifically in the language of this orthodoxy then, here God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, became incarnate in a human body which had its own human nature, distinct from his divine nature—though these natures were obviously joined together in the same body. This condescension of God to dwell in a human body, then, is what’s thought to be signified by Christ’s having “emptied himself,” as it’s worded in 2:7. And recall also NRSV’s rendering of his apparent state before this incarnation, that he “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” with whatever that was understood to mean. In any case, as the orthodox understanding goes, after his death and resurrection Christ ascended back into heaven to continue reigning in the full divinity that he had always had (even when incarnated); the only difference being that he now brought with him his new humanity, itself glorified.

In the second approach, however, the main story of these passages is not one of Christ’s eternal identity as God and its persistence through time and despite having assumed a human nature—the latter of which happened “without change” (in Christ’s fundamental nature as God), as the orthodox account would have it.³ Instead here, it’s suggested that Christ originally possessed the form of God, the image of God, in somewhat the same way that the first man, Adam himself, did. Consequently, perhaps true and full divinity wasn’t something that Christ always had from the very beginning—and, importantly, it also wasn’t something that he consciously sought to “win” or attain—but rather, this would be bestowed on him by God the father.

Much of this approach has been inspired by an alternate translation of the Greek word harpagmos in Philippians 2:6. Instead of being translated as “something to be exploited” as NRSV had it, or as “something to be used to his own advantage” as NIV does, other translators understand this to denote something that Jesus didn’t “seize,” or otherwise seek—perhaps presumptuously or arrogantly—to attain.⁴

And this, too, has been related to the story of Adam in the book of Genesis; the idea being that in Philippians 2, Jesus is being contrasted to the first man, who had selfishly transgressed God’s command—which has been understood to have been motivated, at least in part, by his desire for divine power. Recall in particular the serpent’s words in Genesis 3:5: in tempting Eve to eat from the forbidden tree, he promises that “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”

On this second interpretation, then, even the first verses of this passage in Philippians can be understood to be about Jesus in his earthly, human nature: being in the “form of God” in terms of his righteousness, he was humble and obedient, even so far as to his brutal but perfect death; and as a result of this, he was exalted by God, joining him in his nature. (Which differs markedly from the progression full divinity  disguised or subordinated full divinity “return” to full divinity, as assumed in the first interpretation.)

However compelling this all may seem, it remains the case that there are problems with this second approach.⁵

But there are also problematic things in the first interpretation, the orthodox one, as well. For example—and perhaps above all—what does it mean that “God . . . highly exalted [Christ] and gave him the name that is above every name”?

Almost all scholars agree that this “name above all names” is none other than the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH; that is, the true name of the one God himself. Yet in orthodox theology, Christ the Word—which/who “became flesh and lived among us”⁶—has since the very beginning of time shared this name and essence⁷ with the other two divine persons of the Trinity, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.

At the same time though, couldn’t we be forgiven for thinking that, when all is said and done, the latter verses in Philippians 2:6-11 most naturally appear to suggest that Christ was exalted to a status and nature that he hadn’t had before his incarnation?

Interestingly, this issue seemed to present somewhat of a challenge even in the early centuries of Christianity, too.

Above, I mentioned the idea of the distinction between the human and divine natures of Jesus in his earthly incarnation. And very few early Christian theologians were more influential in charting and delineating the distinctions here than Athanasius in the fourth century. Overall, Athanasius stands as one of the most important early church fathers, whose theology played a pivotal role in the landmark First Council of Nicaea, which in many ways set the course for all orthodox theology in its wake relating to the nature of Christ.

Athanasius is particularly relevant here because at one point in the course of his fleshing out the Biblical basis for his theology, he specifically deals with Philippians 2:6-11. As scholar Christopher Beeley describes Athanasius’ interpretation here, and the broader perspective and context from which he approached it,

Athanasius argues repeatedly that Christ’s human experiences, and especially his death on the cross, were not the experiences of the Word, but of his human flesh alone. It was the Word’s humanity that was exalted after suffering death (Phil 2:9), since the Word is always divine and needs no exaltation. Statements such as these [in Philippians 2], Athanasius explains, are made “humanly” (ἀνθρωπίνωϛ), with reference to the flesh that the Word took on, while others are said “divinely” (θεϊκῶς), such as “the Word was God” (John 1:1). Athanasius presses the distinction so far as to say that the human statements do not really apply to the Word but to us, and Philippians 2 does not indicate that the Word is exalted, but that we are exalted (C.Ar. 1.41).⁸ 

On the last point here, in case there’s any doubt, it’s important to note that the idea that interpretive problems like these can be resolved by proposing a radically different subject than the one that the text plainly appears to be speaking of—e.g. that, as Athanasius suggested, statements like this in Philippians 2 were intended to refer to humans in general, and not to Jesus—has been totally abandoned in modern academic interpretation.⁹

Lacking recourse to this sort of outdated interpretive strategy, then, modern Christian theologians still have to grapple with the dilemma posed by the belief that “the Word is always divine and needs no exaltation”—as both orthodox theology and other Biblical texts themselves suggest (and the latter the original basis for the former)—vis-à-vis what Philippians 2 seems to be getting.

Could it be, though, that Athanasius was on point in his contention that the exaltation in Philippians 2 referred solely to Jesus’ humanity?

The problem with this is that the best interpretation of Philippians 2:6-11 itself doesn’t easily permit the idea of both the simultaneity of and also the clear distinction/division between the human and divine natures of Jesus.

In line with the two approaches I delineated at the beginning of the post, when we’re looking at Philippians 2 itself and how its original author might have intended it—that is to say, setting aside here later orthodox interpretations of this, read through the lens of a more developed theology as they were—on a strict reading it appears either that 1) Christ exists in his divinity pre-incarnation, in his humanity during the incarnation, and in his divinity again post-incarnation; or 2) he simply exists in his humanity, and then in his divinity post-incarnation.  

It might seem trivial to note, but… when we’re truly conscious of how the text itself reads, bracketing out our preconceptions as best we can, one of the main things we notice when reading 2:6-9 is the consistent and undifferentiated use of third-person pronouns speaking of Christ. Quite simply, the subject here always appears to be one undifferentiated person. And so, in light of this unity, perhaps the two best options here are either that 1) both the humanity and the divinity of Jesus were exalted to a new status/essence—that is, if we grant that these two indeed co-existed in Jesus’ person—, or 2) simply the humanity of Jesus is exalted.

Yet I think one thing re: the latter that’s overlooked is that, if it’s primarily Philippians 2 itself which is in significant ways the very origin of the idea that it was merely Jesus’ humanity that was transformed/exalted, and not any part of his divine nature (an idea which, again, was/is so pivotal in orthodox theology), then when we actually look at the text itself, the “him” who’s exalted in 2:9 is clearly the same subject as in 2:7-8. But this “him”—the one given “the name that is above every name”—is the human person of 2:7-8. 

And if this is indeed one of the clearest places where we find the very idea of Christ’s “mere humanity”—and even if it’s granted that Christ’s humanity is joined together with his divinity in (the unity of) his person, and is glorified post-resurrection—then it’s important to note that in orthodox theology, Christ’s humanity has not been subsumed by his divnity, even in heaven. Yet in light of what’s been said about the unity of his person throughout Philippians 2:6-9, this would seem to inevitably follow when looking at Philippians 2 itself, so far as bearing “the name that is above every name” indeed means possessing the fullness of divinity

In orthodox theology, the incarnate Jesus is God so far as in his person¹⁰ he bears the divine essence. And “Jesus is God” can be said as convenient shorthand for this; though obviously if by “Jesus is God” someone meant “Jesus is only divine” and nothing else, this would be unorthodox, as this denies his humanity. Worse still, theologically and philosophically speaking, would be to somehow acknowledge that his humanity is divine, which at least in orthodox theology yields a kind of bizarre (and clearly heretical) monophysitism

So in sum, I find it hard to avoid the prospect that, in the end here—through what appears to be the plainest reading—Philippians 2:9 either entails that Christ’s divinity was made more divine or that his humanity was made fully divine: both of which being irreconcilable with unorthodox theology/dogma. 

Yet I think that in the original conception of the original mind behind Philippians 2:6-11, whether this was Paul or someone else, it’s probably the case that he or she meant to suggest both of these things: that Christ’s original divine nature was amplified and made even more divine; and probably, along with this, that his humanity was metamorphosized into a divine, spiritual matter, too—the latter of which was something that Philo of Alexandria suggested had already happened for Moses before him (befitting for Moses, being a “god”): something that, most importantly, would for Paul be a fitting prelude to the eschatological transformation awaiting all humans at the end of history (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:35f.).

To wrap up here: I had originally intended for this to be one big post, but I’ve decided to break it up into two. I hope this current post stands on its own in some way; though the next post is really going to get much more deeply into Philippians 2:6-11—particularly 2:6—in terms of its wider religious and mythological/ideological context and background, really supporting the idea that, contrary to late orthodox theology—and perhaps in contrast to elsewhere in the New Testament itself, too—Paul and/or the author in Philippians 2:5-11 saw Jesus’ divine preexistence as capable of becoming greater still.

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] This word is translated quite differently elsewhere, as I’ll discuss later. On the issue in general, see most recently Martin, “ἁρπαγμός Revisited: A Philological Reexamination of the New Testament’s ‘Most Difficult Word’.”

[2] Similarly recent, cf. Edsall and Strawbridge, “The Songs We Used to Sing? Hymn ‘Traditions’ and Reception in Pauline Letters,” and some discussion of this article by Hurtado here. (Cf. also an older article by Fee, “Philippians 2:5-11:Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose?“) Though for another recent affirmation of its hymnic nature, see Martin and Nash, “Philippians 2:6-11 as Subversive Hymnos: A Study in the Light of Ancient Rhetorical Theory,” with comments again by Hurtado here.

[3] The “Hymn to the Only Begotten Son” in the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom expresses quite well the lens through which Philippians 2:6-11 is seen here.

[4] A lot of translation render harpagmos as something like “a thing to be grasped”—which preserves the ambiguity of whether this means holding onto something that he already had, or grasping in the sense of something he wanted to attain.

[5] If anyone’s interested in looking at this in greater depth, this approach is perhaps most closely associated with the eminent scholar James Dunn; and you can find plenty of criticisms of his arguments too, and responses to these criticisms, and so forth. Cf. especially Wanamaker, “Philippians 2:6-11: Son of God or Adamic Christology?”; and also the volume by Martin and Dodd (eds.), Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2.

[6] John 1:14

[7] And I’m particularly thinking here of the well-trodden issue of the relationship between “name” and “essence” in various cultures and ideologies of antiquity, especially Semitic ones.

[8The Unity of Christ: Continuity and Conflict in Patristic Tradition, 153.

[9] We see similar explanations elsewhere in patristic apologetics—where other New Testament texts that are problematic for the idea of the divinity of Christ in his incarnation are explained on the basis of the idea that Jesus himself wasn’t speaking of himself so much as about human nature in general.

[10] I think this issue presents what has to be among the most problematic paradoxes that exists in Christian philosophical theology. Clearly there must be a sense in which Christ’s full divinity during the incarnation was concentrated around his body in some way, even if his full spatial omnipresence is normally entailed in full divinity. Cf. Wessel, Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy, 227: “These paradoxical notions of place and containment . . . partially defined the contours of the Arian controversy…” For Pseudo-Athanasius in Sermo Major de fide, “Jesus took his human body from Mary and rendered it ‘capable of giving room for/to the fullness of the Godhead bodily’.”

(I’ll touch on the issue of kenotic Christology a little in my next post.)


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