Origen on the form of God

Generative AI summary:

The phrase “being in the form of God” from Philippians 2:6-11 is often translated to emphasize Jesus’ divine nature, but this interpretation is problematic from a Jewish perspective. Jewish texts from the first century, such as those by Philo and Josephus, do not support the idea that God has a visible form (morphē). The term morphē typically refers to outward appearance, not essence. Therefore, the phrase should be translated as “being in the form of a god,” reflecting a pagan or post-pagan viewpoint. Origen’s later interpretations, which argue against attributing a form to God, align with this perspective.

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Origen by André Thevet + Fotor

Nothing much to see here, just a footnote to my argument about Jesus being “in the form of a god,” but some people may find it interesting.

The opening clause of the famous encomium celebrating the strange career of Jesus in Philippians 2:6-11 is usually translated “being in the form of God.” This is sometimes tendentiously paraphrased: “in the form and unchanging essence of God” (AMP), “truly God” (CEV), “like God in every way” (ERV), “by nature God” (EHV), “in very nature God” (NIV), “as God is” (NLV), and so on.

The problem with the translation is that it cannot be explained on Jewish terms. A couple of passages have sometimes been presented as evidence that Jews in the first century thought that God had a “form” (morphē) in which Jesus might have existed, but I think that they have been misinterpreted.

According to Philo, Moses saw in the burning bush “a certain very beautiful form (morphē)…, which one might have surmised to be an image (eikona) of the Being.” But “surmised” (hypetopēsen) in Philo implies a mistaken perception, and he reasons that what Moses actually saw was an angel (angelos) because “in effect it announced (diēngelle) things which were about to happen” (Moses 1:66*). As far as Philo is concerned, morphē is categorically not a word that can be applied to God.

Josephus says of God that he is clearly revealed in his works and in the benefits he conveys, but “form and magnitude are for us not talked about (aphatos)” (Ag. Ap. 2:190*). This has been taken to mean that God really has form and magnitude but that such attributes of divinity are inaccessible to humans. But Josephus means to contrast the essential invisibility of God, who made all things “not with hands, nor with labor,” with physical, manufactured idols. Jews differ from idolators in that they have no cause to speak about the form and magnitude of the object of their worship. Paul would have agreed with him (cf. Rom. 1:19-23).

So here’s the point. The morphē of a person or thing is always the outward appearance—and this is true even in those philosophical texts where it is purported to mean “essence” or “substance.” For the details see my book In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul. Jews do not speak about the morphē of God, first, because God is invisible; secondly, because the term was widely used with reference to the Greek gods and demigods and to the statues and images by which they were represented.

The only way to translate the opening clause of the encomium, therefore, is “being in the form of a god,” which means we must suppose that it has been composed from a pagan or post-pagan perspective.

The difficulty the phrase presented for later interpreters can be illustrated from Origen, though I should warn that I am venturing outside my comfort zone here.

In his refutation of Celsus, Origen more or less repeats Josephus’ argument—and adds weight to my case. Christians do not take material representations of the gods to be “divine likenesses because we do not delineate a form (morphēn) of the invisible and incorporeal God” (Origen, Contra Celsum 7.66*). It is nonsensical to speak about the “form” or outward appearance of God, who cannot be seen and has no body.

Celsus, however, accuses them of contradicting themselves “because we say that the divine is not of human form (anthrōpomorphon) but at the same time believe that God made the human person in his own image and made him in the image of God.” Origen explains that it is the “rational soul” that is in the “image of God,” not the outward form. It is eikōn, therefore, not morphē, that signifies the invisible essence of a person.

Then, having denied that Christians ascribe morphē to God, Origen notes further Celsus’ view that Christians will agree that the statues are “intended for the honour of certain beings, whether they resemble their shape or not” (Origen, Contra Celsum 7.67). The controversy naturally raises the question of whether Greek religious figurative art accurately depict the forms of the gods. Precisely my point.

Finally, in his commentary on John’s Gospel, Origen argues that when it is written in scripture that God has “eyes, eyelids, ears, hands, arms, feet, and even wings,” this must be read as allegory, for Christians despise those who “confer on God a form (morphēn) resembling human persons” (Commentary on John 13.22*).1

But then, having either denied or allegorised any form that God might have, how does Origen explain the description of Jesus as being en morphēi theou? Well, he throws in “The Lord proceeds from his place” from Micah 1:2-3 and deduces that “being in the form of God” is being in the place of God, from where the Son proceeds (Commentary on John 20.18).2 With all due respect, that is not what en morphēi theou means.