The Christ-encomium of Philippians 2:6-11 and “Christian” formation

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It was put to me by Crispin Fletcher-Louis on Facebook that my argument about being—or rather not being—transformed into the image of Christ is at odds with the general scholarly view these days that the so-called “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:6–11 is “determinative of Christian identity at every stage”. The objection is basically that Paul makes the story of Jesus’ suffering and vindication a universal model for Christian formation and ethics. Christian faith is inescapably cruciform. Crispin certainly knows a thing or two about these matters, but I will try to explain why I disagree.

First, a quick review of my argument about Christlikeness.

In the Gospels Jesus calls, trains and empowers a group of disciples to proclaim to Israel that the kingdom of God is at hand, and to attest to the truth of that proclamation by healing the sick and casting out unclean spirits. The end-point for the mission will be the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which will constitute judgment on sinful Israel and the deliverance, vindication and reward of the faithful servants. As far as the narrative goes, the ethic and praxis inculcated in this group—in the Sermon on the Mount, for example—are confined to and determined by this specific eschatological purpose.

Modern readers have a hard time registering the prominence, urgency and realism of Paul’s apocalyptic vision.

I make the same basic claim for the mission of Paul to the nations. The main contextual differences are 1) that the eschatological horizon has widened to include judgment on “the Greek” and not on “the Jew” only (cf. Rom. 2:9-10), and 2) that it is not only itinerant Jewish disciples but also local communities of believing Jews and/or Gentiles, patiently formed by the apostles, which must bear witness to the coming judgment and rule of YHWH, through his Son, over the nations.

I think that this distinction is consistent both with the historical character of the prophetic testimony of scripture as a whole and with expectations diversely expressed in non-biblical Jewish writings.

The model of Christlikeness—being conformed to / transformed into the image of Christ—is applied in the context of these overlapping missions.

First, the disciples had to take up their own crosses and follow Jesus, in the hope of being vindicated with him when the Son of Man came in his glory (eg. Mk. 8:34-9:1). They would be treated in the same way that their master had been treated (Matt. 10:24–25).

Secondly, insofar as they shared more or less literally in the sufferings and dying of Christ, with the hope of being raised if necessary and glorified with him, the apostles and the saints, scattered across the empire, are conformed to his image and he becomes the first among many martyred brethren (Rom. 8:17, 29).

The eschatological outlook of Philippians

Philippians, I suggest, shares the restricted eschatological outlook of the apostolic mission to the nations. The parenesis of the letter—the practical-ethical material—is framed by the idea that God has begun a good work in them which he will bring “to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6; cf. 1:10; 2:12-13, 16). Modern readers have a hard time registering the prominence, urgency and realism of Paul’s apocalyptic vision.

Their job is to shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, until the day of Christ (2:15-16). The phrase “crooked and twisted generation” in this passage may reference the current generation of Jews—Paul is clearly quoting Deuteronomy 32:5: “blemished children, not his, have sinned, a generation, crooked and perverse” (Deut. 32:5 LXX). But regardless, the language suggests that he has the immediate historical context in mind.

The “day of Jesus Christ”, in my view, is not equivalent to the final judgment and remaking of heaven and earth that we find in Revelation 20:11-21:8. It was the day when Jesus would be revealed to the pagan nations and confessed as Lord. This is perhaps not explicit in Philippians, but we are repeatedly made aware of a contrary imperial setting, and more importantly the allusion to Isaiah 45:22-23 in Philippians 2:10-11 points to the realisation of a regional-political rather than cosmic vision of the kingdom of God.

The empire or oikoumenē or civilisation that has “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23) will sooner or later abandon its idols and turn to the living God (cf. Acts 17:31; 1 Thess. 1:9-10). In historical terms that would be the establishment of Christendom—and what is scripture but the story of God’s engagement with his historical people as nations rose and fell, for the sake of his glory?

Called to suffer for his sake

The vocation of the “saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi” was that they should not only believe that God had raised Jesus from the dead and made him judge and ruler of the nations but that they “should also suffer for his sake” (1:29). In this way their experience was conformed to the experience of Paul (1:30; cf. 3:17), who in turn sought earnestly to be conformed to the experience—and we might say “image”—of Jesus (3:9-10).

Paul expresses very clearly his desire to know Christ and the power of his resurrection—not in a general figurative, spiritual, mystical or “Christian” sense, but as the concrete emulation of his sufferings, death, and if at all possible, his resurrection from the dead (3:8-14). This is Paul the apostle expecting, if not actively seeking, martyrdom (cf. 1:20-23; cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5; Col. 1:24).

For the saints in Philippi to be “mature” (teleioi) meant for them to think in the same way, to imitate Paul, to “walk according to the example” that they had in the apostles. They were to be friends, not “enemies”, of the cross—they were to embrace the cross—knowing that at the parousia the Lord Jesus Christ would “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:21).

It is then the certainty of suffering as part of their eschatological witness to the coming rule of Israel’s God over the nations of the pagan oikoumenē that constitutes the ground for the exhortation in Philippians 2:1-5 to a single-minded concern for the interests of others: “If then (oun) there is any encouragement in Christ…”.

An eschatological ethic of Christlike suffering

So the story about Christ Jesus is put forward as a model for the frame of mind that the church in Philippi needed if it was successfully to endure suffering for the sake of Christ in the period leading up to the day of Christ, which Paul expected to come in a foreseeable future. It was through their being conformed to this “image” of the self-denying, obedient Jesus that God would bring his good work to completion at the parousia.

In the context it seems likely that the “image” to which they were to be conformed did not include the story of what God had done in response to Jesus’ faithfulness (2:9-11). There is no mention of resurrection in verses 9-11, and the bestowal on Jesus of the name which is above every name positively excludes the many brethren who were being conformed his image. But the future public vindication of Jesus and his confession as Lord would naturally entail the vindication and reward of those who had suffered for his sake.

I have argued before that what we have in the passage is not an Adam-christology directly but an anti-divine-ruler christology that draws secondarily on the Adam typology. Jesus is portrayed, in effect, as the anti-Caesar who will eventually usurp the rule of divine Caesar.

The Christ-encomium, therefore, serves not a general Christian ethic but an eschatological ethic designed to sustain the integrity of a believing community, faced with suffering, through to the historical moment when the nations ruled by Caesar would abandon their idols, desist from persecuting the churches, and confess Jesus as Lord, resulting in YHWH being glorified across the ancient world.

How we do ethics

This is part of the broader biblical and post-biblical story of the historical experience of the people of God endeavouring to bear faithful witness in the midst of the nations.

In the broader story that people is now ruled by Jesus as God’s Son or king. Strictly speaking, its “ethic” is no longer determined as a matter of imitation of Jesus, of conformity to the image of Jesus, of Christlikeness—except, perhaps, in a secondary sense, when Christians today face persecution comparable to that experienced by the early church.

Rather, how we live is determined by the terms and conditions of the new covenant, written on our hearts by the Spirit of God. We are God’s people, we walk in his ways, and we do so, not according to the Jewish Law, but according to the Spirit.

A kingdom-historical ethical example

This reading, finally, might be regarded as a resolution of the old antithesis between Käsemann’s salvation-historical interpretation and the now dominant view that Christ is presented by Paul as a general ethical example.

I would substitute, in the first place, “kingdom-historical” for “salvation-historical”—the passage has to do not with salvation but with how God’s rule over the nations would be established, through his obedient Son. Käsemann was badly misled both by his dogmatic concerns and by his assumption that the hymn replicates the course of a Gnostic Urmensch-redeemer myth.

I would then argue that the ethical imitation is precisely for the purpose of including the Philippian believers in the long and difficult historical process of faithful witness by which that rule would, in real terms, be established. The two themes—kingdom and formation—work hand-in-glove.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 03/15/2017 - 08:16 | Permalink

Thanks very much Andrew. As usual, you present your case coherently, and each time you revisit the argument (in this case, the argument concerning Philippians 2:6-11), it becomes more forceful.

I’m still inclined to question the binary nature of your presentation, which is that the NT in general, and the Philippians passage in particular, can only be seen in either/or terms. It either applies only to the 1st century situation, or has a metaphysical meaning which is universal. Seen this way, it is easy to dismiss the latter in favour of the former.

The reality is that readers of the NT have found it to be appropriate and applicable in all ages. That phenomenon cannot simply be dismissed as misguided and wrong.

I also wonder, in an imaginative/historical exercise, what Paul would have made of the idea that the eventual transition of the Roman Empire from paganism to “Christendom” represented the fulfilment of the “Christ hymn” in Philippians. If he had been around, I cannot think anything other than that he would have strenuously criticised the new empire which arose out of the collapse of paganism, and would have travelled Europe creating havoc  — if he had survived that long before being imperially done away with as a mischief-maker.

@peter wilkinson:

My response to your first point would be:

1. That the narrative-historical approach seeks to understand the New Testament from the perspective of the first century communities for which it was written. The New Testament gives every impression that these communities were presented with foreseeable horizons in the not too distant future. So there is no reason to expect the text to directly or deliberately take into account the interests and perspective of believers living nearly 2,000 years later.

2. It is then a secondary consideration as to whether what was said and what made sense within that original context can have more or less the same meaning for readers today.

3. My view is that the narrative logic requires us to allow for the possibility that the story moves on. We are not now preaching the coming of God in judgment to Israel. We are not now hoping for the victory of Christ over pagan Rome. We are not waiting to be vindicated at the revelation of the Son of Man to the nations of the empire. All that’s in the past.

4. On the other hand, we are facing our own set of historical challenges—the global success of secular humanism, the captivity of the church to consumerism, the spread of Islam, the normalisation of homosexuality, and so on. I think that we will respond better to these challenges if we do not simply reassert first century solutions to first century problems but ask seriously how the narrative has brought us to this point, and how the Spirit of the living God is guiding his people towards new ways of existing in the world under Jesus as king.