A hymn of praise to the anti-Caesar

Think this among yourselves which (is) also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God did not consider being equal to God a thing to be grasped at, but made himself of no account, taking the form of a servant, having become in the likeness of men; and having been found in outward appearance as a man, he humbled himself, having become obedient to the point of death, and death on a cross.

Therefore also God highly exalted him and favoured him with the name which is above every name, in order that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is kyrios to the glory of God the Father.

This is a much debated passage, a good part of the discussion having to do with the question of whether it reflects a “high christology”. Is Jesus presented here as a preexisting divine figure who becomes incarnate as man, who dies (for the sins of the world), and who then is re-identified with the divine kyrios? The part about preexistence and incarnation I have my doubts about, though I wouldn’t rule it out—it appears to rely far too heavily on the single phrase “being in the form of God”. The climactic identification of Jesus as kyrios is clear.

But the standard high christological or incarnational reading in most cases completely misses the Jewish-narrative-historical-eschatological-whatever import of the passage. In other words, Philippians 2:6-11 is not another iteration of the evangelical divine redeemer myth; rather it speaks of the significance of Jesus in the historical clash between YHWH and ancient paganism. To recover this perspective we simply need to suppose that Paul, or whoever wrote this extraordinary hymn to the anti-Caesar, was thinking both biblically and contextually.

1. There is a prominent type of pagan ruler in scripture who does think that equality with God is a thing to be grasped. For example, the king of Babylon said in his heart:

I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High. (Is. 14:13-14)

God says to the ruler of Tyre:

Because your heart was exalted and you said, “I am a god; I have inhabited a habitation of a god in the heart of the sea,” yet you are human and not a god, and you rendered your heart as a god’s heart. (Ezek. 28:2)

Antiochus Epiphanes “will be exalted over every god and will speak strange things against the God of gods” (Dan. 11:36). Paul describes a “man of lawlessness”, who will be revealed at the time of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, who “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thess. 2:3-4). Philippians 2:6-11 directly contrasts Jesus with this blasphemous, self-aggrandizing type of pagan ruler who, in direct antipathy to YHWH and his people, makes himself equal to God.1

Remarkably, neither Gordon Fee nor Larry Hurtado considers the significance of these texts for the development of christology in their respective books on the subject.2

2. There is perhaps a further implicit repudiation of pagan idolatry in the statement that Jesus became “in the likeness (homoiōmati) of men”. The true God cannot be represented by a “likeness” manufactured by an artisan:

To whom have you likened (homoiōsate) the Lord, or with what likeness (homoiōmati) have you likened (homoiōsate) him? Has an artisan made an image (eikona), or has a goldsmith, after casting gold, gilded it—prepared a likeness (homoiōma) of it? (Is. 40:18-19; cf. 44:13 NETS)

Having chosen a piece of wood, the artisan set it up with a measure and arranged it with glue; he made it like the form (morphēn) of a man, like human beauty, to set it up in a house. (Is. 44:13 NETS)

The God who is powerful to act both to save his people and to judge the nations is represented by this “likeness” of humanity, who has made himself of no account, who has humbled himself, who is obedient.

3. As the “servant” or “slave” (doulos) who humbles himself and suffers, in the end being executed on the Roman cross—a detail not to be overlooked in this anti-imperial paean—Jesus fulfils the role of the servant Jacob. The servant will not only be instrumental in restoring Israel, not least through his suffering (cf. Is. 53), but will be “a light of nations… for salvation to the end of the earth” (Is. 49:5-6 LXX), so that the pagan nations will also participate in the extraordinary restoration of the people of God (Is. 49:22-23).

4. The anti-pagan thrust of the passage is further indicated by the assertion that God “highly exalted” (hyperypsōsen) Jesus (2:9). On the one hand, the Psalmist sees an impious person “being highly lifted up and being raised up like the cedars of Lebanon”, but the next time he passes by he is no longer there (Ps. 36:35-36). On the other, the nations which worship idols will be judged, but the Lord is “most high over all the earth, …exalted (hyperypsōthēs) far above all the gods” (Ps. 96:7-9). This is not the language of an abstract christology; it is the language of eschatological conflict.

5. It is emphatically stated that it will be by virtue of the exaltatation of Jesus and at the name of Jesus that the pagan nations which threatened Israel will come to acknowledge that the God who saves his people is the only true God. This is what will constitute “salvation” for the idolatrous Greek-Roman world.

Turn to me, and you shall be saved, you who are from the end of the earth! I am God, and there is no other. By myself I swear, “Verily righteousness shall go forth from my mouth; my words shall not be turned back, because to me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall acknowledge God, saying, Righteousness and glory shall come to him, and all who separate themselves shall be ashamed.” By the Lord shall they be justified, and all the offspring of the sons of Israel shall be glorified in God. (Is. 45:22-25 NETS)

So here’s how I would read this hymn, setting aside for now the tricky but background question of preexistence. Jesus has pursued a course quite contrary to the hubristic aspirations of pagan rulers such as the king of Babylon, the prince of Tyre, Antiochus Epiphanes, or the Roman Caesars. By making himself of no account, he assumes the role of the Isaianic servant through whom, and through whose suffering, YHWH will both restore his people and ultimately overthrow the imperial paganism that dominated Europe, Asia Minor and the Near East. Because Jesus was faithful to the point of death at the hands of the pagan oppressor, God exalted him and gave him authority above all pagan powers, giving rise to the conviction that eventually the pagan world would confess Jesus as Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God.

peter wilkinson | Sun, 05/08/2011 - 13:41 | Permalink

Perhaps the crucial evidence in the passage for a high christology is the direct echo, in verses 10-11, of Isaiah 45:23 - "Before me every knee shall bow; by me every tongue shall swear". But now, this is expressed towards Jesus. The high christology is emphasised, if we were in danger of missing the point, by the preceding verse: "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him a name that is above every name".

This preface to the verse which then echoes Isaiah 45:23 makes a direct identification of Jesus with YHWH impossible to avoid. There is no suggestion at all that Jesus was YHWH's representative or proxy.

The anti-imperial theme of the passage is quite plain to see, and very helpfully augmented by the OT parallels, and therefore contrasts, you cite. I can't see, though, that "the Jewish-narrative-historical-eschatological-whatever import of the passage" in any way here contradicts a high christology. The two surely here go hand in hand - much to the consternation of those approaching the passage, and Jesus himself, from your standpoint.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, the passage does not identify Jesus with YHWH. What it says is that YHWH exalted Jesus and graciously bestowed on him the name which is above every name—that is, the name “Lord”.

God has made Jesus Lord or King by raising him from the dead. That cannot be taken to mean that God made Jesus identical with himself.

God makes Jesus his Son, he gives him the nations as an inheritance, he gives him authority over the kings of the nations (cf. Ps. 2:7-9). He has been given authority by God to reign until all his enemies are suppressed (1 Cor. 15:25). He is seated at the right hand of the Father; he is never identified with the Father.

What Isaiah 45:23 says is “to me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall acknowledge God”. That prospect is changed in Philippians 2 to the extent that the clash with paganism will reach its climax at the moment when the nations confess that Jesus and not Caesar is Lord.

YHWH formerly claimed direct sovereignty over the nations but he has transferred that sovereignty to Jesus because it is through Jesus’ faithfulness—and the concomitant faithfulness of his followers—that the victory over paganism will come about.

That entails a repudiation of Caesar’s divinity and, therefore, in some sense, an affirmation of Jesus’ divinity. But I think it is premature here to claim that this amounts to an identification of Jesus with YHWH.

It seems to me that this anti-pagan ruler interpretation provides the key for understanding how the apocalyptic narrative gives rise to a high christology and even potentially a trinitarian theology. I’m not sure it directly explains or requires the notions of preexistence and incarnation, which is partly why I hesitate at that point.

But nobody is consternated. Honestly.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew - I think your interpretation of the passage is more eisogesis than exegesis.

The parallel of verse 10 with Isaiah 45:23 says something quite different from God  bestowing a name on Jesus which makes him distinct from YHWH. It describes Jesus in terms of YHWH himself. Paul has no authority to take an unambiguous reference to YHWH in Isaiah, and then insert Jesus where YHWH should be, which is what he does without any qualification at all here.

Again, if we hadn't got the message, verse 9 speaks of Jesus being given the name that is above every name -without any qualification that YHWH's name alone was to be excepted.

Verse 10 reinforces the same message. Every knee in the cosmos, heaven - earth - the underworld, will bow, not at the name of YHWH, but at the name of Jesus.

Kyrios in verse 11 is an unreconstructed repetition of the title given for YHWH in Isaiah 45 and elsewhere in the LXX.

It really couldn't be clearer, from whichever angle you look at it. Paul was either being blasphemous, or very careless with words, or identifying Jesus with YHWH himself. 

Even the Jehovah's Witnesses have had to wriggle out of the implications of this passage by saying that Jesus was somewhere in between human and divine - not God himself, but a god. But the passage will not even allow for that - the association of Jesus with YHWH could not have been clearer.



@peter wilkinson:

Well, I notice at least that you’ve changed from “direct identification of Jesus with YHWH” to “association of Jesus with YHWH”.

You may be right—my original hesitation, as I said, was not with this point but with the preexistence/incarnation argument. On the whole I am still inclined to think that the identification of Jesus as kyrios here is a statement about the authority that has been given to him by YHWH and not a direct identification of Jesus with the one God who will be confessed by the nations in Isaiah 45:20-25. But the fact that this one God is also the Lord who saves and justifies his people (4:15, 25), there is admittedly only a very short theological distance to be bridged.

@Andrew Perriman:

With regard to the pre-existence/incarnation argument, I think the JW's get around "being in the form of God" by interpreting it "being in the form of a god". I can't imagine you approving of that.

The subsequent phrases don't seem to encourage a view of Jesus as nothing more than a human emissary of YHWH: "having become in the likeness of men; and having been found in outward appearance as a man" (your translation).

Apart from the implications of "likeness of men" and "outward appearance as a man", how could Jesus 'become in the likeness of men', or 'be found in outward appearance as a man', if he had already been a man?

"association of Jesus with YHWH" has to be read in the light of  my describing a direct identification of Jesus with YHWH in the preceding paragraphs of my comment!

Anyway, you shouldn't be raising these questions, Andrew. It's disturbing my Sunday afternoon.

Andrew,  I need a little help in understanding. This is not a question as challenge but for clarity. Are you trying to deconstruct the way we ARRIVE at the conclusion that Jesus is divine/God? I think I get where you are coming from regarding his divinity, for instance, you said you are not excluding the POSSIBILITY of the divinity of Jesus, but that you are simply trying to exclude the presumption that Jesus must be interpreted in such a way as to support certain traditional formulations. From that I surmise you support his divinity(?) Also, what do you see about Jesus as preexistent? In your thinking is he a preexisting divine figure who becomes incarnate as man and who then is re-identified with the divine kyrios? You said something about preexistence and incarnation, that you had your doubts but that you wouldn't rule it out. Could you explain? Thanks.

@Jim :

Jim, there’s too much in that to deal with it properly here. I’ll try to get round to it sometime, but for now:

1. There is an issue regarding how we construe “divinity” in the New Testament. This passage may suggest that Jesus’ divinity is thought of as some sort of counterpart to Caesar’s “divinity”. It is unlikely, in any case, to correspond very closely to our own ideas of what it means to be God.

2. There is an issue regarding the frame within which it becomes possible to talk about the divinity of Jesus. This passage suggests that apocalyptic narratives are more pertinent than later Hellenistic, neo-Platonic narratives, or our modern philosophical conceptualities.

3. I’m not at all sure about the preexistence/incarnational part of this. There are certainly strong statements that associate Jesus with creation, but whether they can really be interpreted in straightfoward incarnational terms I’m not sure.

Two quick comments:

1. Andrew is WRONG when he says this is a much debated passage. Evangelicals agree that this passage points to the divinity of Christ without ambiguity.

2. Andrew knows full well I have pointed out the Greek Syntax in this passage and he has yet to deal with it. “Thing to be grasped” does not mean something to be reached for as if one does not possess it. It means something to be retained by force. Something to be hung on to by force. Not something to be taken hold of. 

@Ed Dingess:

This is most certainly a much debated passage.  It is debated in the countless kenosis theories proposed, tweaked, reproposed, retweaked, as well as the non-incarnational prosposals by those who do not see preexistence material in this passage.  Scholars who opt for a non-incarnational model include Dunn, Berkhof, Kushel, Harnack, Flesseman, Schillebeeckx, Robinson, Macquarrie, Hick, etc.

The weakness in incarnational/kenotic proposals of this passage lies in the assumption of:

a) atemporality of erchomai in vs. 6

b) inherent divinity implied by morphe in vs. 6

c) inherent non-humanity by morphe in vs. 7

d) the possession of the equality “snatched at” (arpazo) in vs. 6

e) ontological identity with Yahweh in the Isaiah quote of vs. 10

And f) the partial reading of vs. 11.

All these assumptions above have been shown to be lacking serious hermeneutic basis and have proven to be circular in their proofs.


The debate is not over divinity, which is my point, which is Andrew’s implication. You cannot kenosis without divinity. Good greif!

the word ἁρπαγμός means:

that which is to be held on to forcibly—‘something to hold by force, something to be forcibly retained. (Louw-Nida)

The reason this definition is preferred is, as usual, context! Existing (present active participle) continuously in the form of God he existed (aorist participle) in the form of a servant and a man. To regard the word to mean to reach up for and snatch violates that syntax of the verse.

The debate has been around how did Jesus retain divinity and still became man. In what sense did He empty Himself. Empty Himself of what? That is where the debate lies, not in oneness theology and certain NOT in the idea that Jesus was not divine.

@Ed Dingess:

Ed Dingess,

The debate is not over divinity, which is my point, which is Andrew’s implication. You cannot kenosis without divinity. Good greif!

Well no.  The debate has gone beyond the endless tweaking and re-formulating of an assumed theology (Kenosis theology) in desperate attempts by prima traditione   zealots to squeeze their theology into the Scriptural mould.  Whether incarnation was intended by this section at all has been the topic of discussion in scholarly circles for decades now.  The later invented and imposed idea of Christ’s “divinity” is therefore also of concern here.

And of course one can undergo kenosis without divinity.  If the “emptying” in the person is of reputation, prestige and deserved status, then the kenosis described in the Philippian hymn will achieve precisely that.

that which is to be held on to forcibly—‘something to hold by force, something to be forcibly retained. (Louw-Nida)

No, several other scholars, commentaries included,  indicate the active grasping or snatching as the central nuance of the verb.  In none of its other occurences in the NT (derived forms included) has the idea of passively retaining what which is already possessed.  This is forced upon the word due to traditional assumptions.

“So this text would have been a piece of Adam christology, of the kind that also emerges in other contexts in the New Testament. It would be a further example of the widespread two stage christology of the earliest Jewish-Christian communities…and thus would not be in the context of mythical tradition, but of Old Testament tradition. So there is no question here of a pre-existent heavenly figure. Rather Christ is the great contrasting figure to Adam.” Born Before All Time, p. 251.

“Since the hymn deals with Christ in his concrete terrestrial condition, one should begin with the working hypothesis that the author views Christ as man…The anthropology of Wisdom provides an appropriate background on the assumption that the author of the hymn was thinking of Christ as man. ” (Murphy O’Connor).

“[T]hese passages were written in the middle of the first century, and the most obvious and really clear meaning is the Adam theology and christology widespread in earliest Christianity. In short, Adam christology provides not only a plausible context of thought for Phil 2:6-11 but also the most plausible context of thought. Alternative explanations in terms of a Gnostic or proto-Gnostic Primal Man speculation are not only unnecessary but also unconvincing…we have uncovered no real evidence that the concept of a heavenly archetype of Adam had developed beyond that of a Platonic idea by the time of Paul – no real evidence, in other words, of an already established belief in a heavenly first man who became the redeemer of Adam’s offspring.” -Christology in the Making, pp. 125,126.

“[T]he point of the hymn is not a comparison between Christ’s pre-existent state as the divine son in glory and his state of humiliation as a servant. Rather, it is a  comparison between Christ and Adam in which the term “form of God” is the equivalent of saying “Image of God.” — Trinity and Incarnation: In Search of Contemporary Orthodoxy   

If tradition is assumed, instead of Scripture, the result is the convoluted kenosis theories we see from traditionalists…


In addition, I am not sure who you mean by “Berkhof” in your list of liberal scholars above. But if you mean Louis Berkhof, you would be flat out wrong. Louis Berkhof is a reformed theologian and most certainly holds to an incarnation of the God-man, Jesus Christ.


Hi Jaco,

There are many other NT scholars of excellent reupte who would argue for Jesus’ pre-existnece (and his divinity by virtue of that) in Philippinas 2:5-11. These scholars are neither conservative nor reformed. They are well-established in their field and emphasiese on reading the text within its hisotrical context. Here are some quites:

‘[Philippians 2:5-7] makes the two points that are crucial to NT Christology: (a) Christ was both in the “form” of God and equal with God, and therefore personally preexistent, when he chose to “empty himself” by taking the “form” of a slave; (b) he took the “form” of a slave by coming to be (yevouevoi;) in the “likeness” (ouoicoua) of human beings. Thus, in Christ Jesus, God has thus shown his true nature; this is what it means for Christ to be “equal with God”: to pour himself out for the sake of others, and to do so by taking the role of a slave. Hereby Christ not only reveals the character of God but from the perspective of the present context also reveals what it means for us to be created in God’s image, to bear his likeness and have his “mind-set” ’ (Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology, p.388).

Against Dunn, N.T. Wright convincingly shows that Wnding elements of an Adam-Christology in the hymn in no way means following Dunn by squeezing everything into a purely Adamic pattern and ruling out a Christology of pre–existence and incarnation: ‘The contrast between Adam and Christ works perfectly within my view: Adam, in arrogance, thought to become like God; Christ in humility became human’ (N.T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, p. 91; see also 90–7).

‘Philippians 2: 6–8 suggest a pre-existent, divine state, contrasted with Christ’s ‘subsequent’, humble, human existence. Being ‘in the form of God’, Christ took on human form and did not exploit the right to be recognized for what he was (Gerald O’Collins, Christology, p.250.’ ‘Philippians 2: 10–11 echoes Isaiah 45:23–4, a classic Old Testament passage celebrating YHWH, the one and only God of Israel and of the whole world: ‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Kyrios)’ (Gerald O’Collins, Christology, p.144).

‘This passage [Philippians 2:5-7] is particularly important…precisely because it combines an amazing description of the exalted status of the risen Christ together with a clear commitment to the uniqueness of God. Consider the following observations. First, there is the unusual and intensified Greek verb form to describe God’s exaltation of Christ (huperypsosen, v. 9), which seems intended to set off this exalted figure
from all others. Then, the heavenly Christ is described in terms that liken him to God. That Christ has a name “above every name” (v. 9) suggests that the divine name itself (Yahweh) is meant. And of course the acclamation, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” gives him the title that was also a Greek translation of Yahweh. Also, in w. 10-11 the language of a classic monotheistic passage in the Old Testament (Isa. 45:23) is used to describe the eschatological acknowledgment to be given to Jesus.
At the same time, this stunning description of the exalted Christ is
clearly not intended to make him a rival to God. Christ’s unparalleled
status has been given to him by God (v. 9), and the universal acclamation
of Jesus in v. 11 i s 4 ‘to the glory of God the Father.” That is, Christ holds his exalted heavenly status by the pleasure of God the Father, and the acclamation of Christ which is mandated by God is thus an affirmation of God’s supremacy and sovereignty. To be sure, the status of the risen Christ is unsurpassed in any of the ancient Jewish references to God’s chief agents. Further, if this passage was originally a hymn sung in early Jewish Christian gatherings, then it provides evidence that Christ was an object of cultic veneration, something unparalleled in the Jewish treatment of chief agents’ (Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord, p.96-97).


Thank you, TW

I am very well aware of scholars who prefer a pre-existence reading of the Philippian hymn.  But there are various assumptions to be made in order to uphold that conjecture.

Considering Fee, in (a) above he assumes that Jesus was equal with God, while harpazo/harpagmon carries an active nuance, not a passive one (as in, “retained”).  Next assumption, he leaps from “form of God” and “equal to God” to “therefore pre-existent,” ignoring the much more likely understanding, namely functional identity with YHWH while human, perfectly in line with First-Century Judaism.  He also assumes a literal emptying, while it has been convincingly argued, even by conservative theologians, that the emptying was of his reputation or honor, not of some metaphysical property.  In (b) he assumes (as in (a)) that form must be some inherent or implicit property, while this nuance is never associated with morphe, particularly since it is also said of other undisputably non-divine individuals, such as Adam.  External appearance is the prototypical meaning associated with morphe.  Fee continues by applying the kenosis event and the morphe Christ had (which we can also have) metaphorically and not literally.  There is therefore serious inconsistencies in Fee’s exposition of the hymn, as well as a priori assumptions he simply slips into his interpretation.  What is rather disingenious in reading Fee is the impression he leaves, namely that his picture is picture-perfect.  Apart from the Two Natures doctrine formulated in the 5th century, kenosis theories have been logically probably the most troubling and problematic of all the proposals of post-biblical Christology.  A great book discussing these very issues is John Hick’s The Metaphor of God Incarnate.  Professor Dale Tuggy’s blog, http://trinities.org/blog, takes many of these trinitarian proposals apart and should be a MUST for anyone interested in systematic theology.

I found NT Wright’s weighing of Dunn’s arguments eloquent but unconvicing, again due to presuppositions carefully introduced into his assessment.

Gerald O’Collins commit the same circular fallacies as Fee does above.  He also leaves the reader hanging in what he means with the Isaiah 45 passage.  He is very cautious here, and should be, since ontological identity with YHWH will create endless trouble with his interpretation.  Functional identity is the best explanation.  If he wants YHWH’s rule, he has it!  Jesus represents and executes that rule, without requiring the troubling insistence upon ontologically identifying Jesus with Yahweh.

Hurtado’s assessment is also problematic in that he focuses so much on Jesus’ exaltation (again suggesting Jesus’ ontological identity with YHWH), but tiptoes around the purposive clause, “to the glory of God the Father.”  This very clause settles matters in that the executor of divine rule, the bearer of divine authority (as implied by bearing the Name, cp. Ex. 23:21) ultimately brings glory to the one he represents, precisely since Jesus is the legitimate, authentic and faithful emissary of Yahweh.  This was NOT unparalleled in ancient Judaism.  Angelic messengers were addressed as Yahweh, even “Creator.”  In the Apocalypse of Abraham an angel is called “Yahoel” and in the Enochs, Metatron is called, the “second Yahweh;” somewhere else Abel is shown as sitting upon Yahweh’s own throne.  Humans act as “God” to others in Exodus 4:16 and 7:1.  The OT text acting as a preface for the Philippian hymn is Ps. 110:1 assuming a human second lord and nothing more, which was also consistently applied to humans in the pseudepigrapha, and later to Jesus as someone other than Yahweh in the NT and in the ante-Nicene fathers.  James McGrath’s The Only True God provides a very welcome critique of Hurtado’s position.  On veneration, I recommend Dunn’s Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?



Hello Jaco,

I was wondering, since the Philippians passage is in your discussion thread here, would you mind commenting on 2 Corinthians 8:9:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you by his poverty could become rich.

I see a parallel with the Philippians passage, but not sure how I’d remove the presumption of pre-existence here. I’ve looked on several of the Biblical Unitarian websites to see what is said about this, but the verse is not among those addressed. I may be missing something obvious, but each time I venture a guess, it does not work out.



@Mark Nieweg:

Hi there, Mark

You are quite correct, namely, that the text in 2 Corinthians is popularly used as support for Christ’s pre-human existence in heaven.  The argument goes like this:  Christ performed an act of grace when he renounced his riches and became poor.  This act, it is argued, involves his renouncing heavenly glory by assuming the human condition (assuming poverty).  The text then says that this act of grace resulted in spiritually enriching the saints.  There are clearly a few assumptions here, namely, that the incarnation is Christ’s act of grace; that his renouncing of his riches meant his incarnation (his becoming human); and that his incarnation lead to the spiritual enrichment of the saints.  As if the incarnation is the only possible way of understanding the text, there are some other issues which do not fit with Paul’s soteriology and christology.  Dunn sums it up superbly:

  1.  When Paul elsewhere speaks of ‘grace’ (=’gracious gift,’ or ‘gracious act’) in connection with what Christ has done he was always thinking of his death and resurrection (see especially Rom 5.15, 21; Gal. 2.20f.; Eph. 1.6f.).  Nowhere else does he talk of Christ’s ‘gracious act’ as his becoming man.
  2. The salvation effecting act in earliest Christianity is always the death and resurrection of Christ.  We should notice in particular the equivalent ύπἑρ…ἵνα (‘for the sake of…in order that’) formula in II Cor. 5:21, Gal. 3:13f., I Peter 3.18, and the close parallels in Rom. 4.25, 8.3f., Gal. 4.4, Heb. 2.14 and I Peter 2.24 (cf. Rom. 15.3; Heb. 12.2).  These are the closest parallels to the διἁ… ἵνα formulation of II Cor. 8.9.
  3. We should not assume that the contrast is between spiritual wealth (pre-existence) and spiritual poverty (incarnation).  The regular contrast then current was between spiritual wealth and material poverty (Tob.4.21; II Cor. 6.10; James 2.5; Rev. 2.9; cf. I Cor. 1.5; 4.8; II Cor. 9.11), and this would have been a not unexpected sense in the context of II Cor. 8.

[T]he parallels referred to above make it more likely that the allusion is to Jesus’ death – the richness of his communion with God (expressed in his Abba prayer and his full confidence in God – Matt. 6.25-33) set in sharp contrast with the poverty of his desolation on the cross (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – Mark 15.34).

Alternatively we may simply have here a variation on the Adam Christology…Adam’s enjoyment of God’s fellowship could readily be characterized as a ‘be rich’, just as his fall resulted in his ‘becoming poor.’  The rabbis certainly speculated about the contrast between Adam’s created state and his state after his sin, and characterized his fall as a loss and deprivation of what he had previously enjoyed (particularly his glory, his immortality and his height).  Paul would not think of creatureliness as poverty over against the riches of deity.  But he could readily think of Adam’s fallenness as poverty over against the riches of his fellowship with God, just as the reverse antithesis, becoming rich (despite our poverty), presumably denotes a coming into fellowship with God (cf. Rom. 11:12; I Cor. 1.5; 4.8; II Cor. 6.10; 9.11; and the not so very different profit and loss imager in Phil. 3.7f.).  Though he could have enjoyed the riches and uninterrupted communion with God, Jesus freely chose to embrace the poverty of Adam’s distance from God, in his ministry as a whole but particularly in his death, in order that we might enter into the full inheritance intended for Adam in the first place. – James D.G. Dunn, Christology in the making, pp. 121-123.

John Macquarrie agrees:

[Adam Christology] is not only the most ancient, it is also the most intelligible, and on ehwat is relatively free from speculation and mythology, so that right at the beginning of Christian theology, in the earliest written witness to Jesus Christ, we find a theology of his person which can serve as a model even for our post-Enlightenment mentality two thousand years later.  For, put at its simples, the career of Jesus Christ is seen as a rerun of the programme which came to grief in Adam but has now achieved its purpose in Christ and in those who are joined with him in the Christ-event. – John Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought, p. 59.

This makes good sense…


Hi Jaco,

Thank you for your customary completeness in answering my question. Those references you provide continue to allow me to understand your position more and more.

As if the incarnation is the only possible way of understanding the text…

Your observation above can be applied to any number of controversies I’ve encountered over my years as a Christian. Andrew’s insights on this blog are a case in point, and why I enjoy frequenting here, even if the challenges presented are “uncomfortable.”

Lastly, the quote from John Macquarrie resonates with me, especially as he shows how the scriptures — “free from speculation and mythology” — can actually address our age as it was meant to:

…the career of Jesus Christ is seen as a rerun of the programme which came to grief in Adam but has now achieved its purpose in Christ and in those who are joined with him in the Christ-event.

I have found this to be of singular importance in reinstating a discipleship of faithfulness that actually reflects the Jesus of the Christian scripture. That those outside with whom I am engaged can point out the disparity better than my Christian brothers and sisters has been a challenge that I think can be met by getting back to the scripture’s focus.

Again, thank you,


@Mark Nieweg:

Hi Mark

Thank you.  Just consider what happened nearly immediately after the apostles’ demise.  Adolf von Harnack showed that the first deviation from the earliest christological understandings was that of alienating Jesus from his human roots:  Jesus was no longer fully and utterly human, but pre-existed his birth — not metaphorically or mythically, but literally.  The next deviation was reclassifying this pre-existent being as an angel.  So Jesus was no longer primarily human, but an angel who merely assumed humanity.  The next deviation was his being assumed into the Godhead — one of the Persons of the Trinity and even later, as having Two Natures.  This had debilitating effects on Christians’ self-appreciation.

After that came Calvin with this TULIP fabrication.  Humankind was totally depraved (practically utterly valueless) and unconditionally elected (again reiterated humankind’s utter valuelessness, even in will and intention).  If, indeed, a person feels saved, this might in effect only be a temporary, fake experience of salvation.  If the person is not truly elected, and outside God’s limited scope of atonement, the Christian may after all merely end up as firewood for satan’s hell.

Step by step, the immense value of Jesus’ saving work, the rerun of the programme which came to grief in Adam aimed at uplifting humankind, demonstrating mankind’s great value in God’s eyes and demonstrating in Jesus what humankind can achieve if they’re open to God’s will; gradually this awesome truth got sabotaged and even manifested in untold cruelty throughout Christian history.  First by removing Jesus from his human roots.  The prototype of Man was no prototype anymore.  Humankind could no longer fully relate to this icon of human achievement and value anymore.  When Christ was finally severed from his human family, the attempt was to compensate this move by formulating the Two Natures doctrine.  Sadly this did nothing to the dwindling appreciation of mankind’s value either.  Jesus’ human nature was associated with weakness, while his awesome achievements were ascribed to his divinity.  Mankind was still useless.  Calvin hit the final nail in the coffin of human value when he presented humankind as so bad, so debauched and so depraved, that, had it not been for God, there would not even be the desire in humans to want to seek their Maker.  In the end we arrive at an appreciation of mankind utterly opposite the immense value the Christ-event ascribed to them.  The spiritual and emotional damage done to whole nations and cultures has been irreparable.

How different this is from the true value the human family has in God’s eyes, as reflected in the biblical understanding of Jesus and God’s great initiative, captured in the Christ-event.  The great theologian, Dutch Reformed Scholar Hendrikus Berkhof, summed it up beautifully:

[To Jesus:] “You are the true Man, as God has intended you from the beginning; the true, obedient Son, the man of love who, accepting all consequences, was willing not to keep but to lose his life for others, and who, by this exceptional life of love and obedience, has started the counter-movement of resurrection in this world.

“And as the true Man, you are also the Man of the Future. You are not just a strange exception, for then you would only be an accusation against us. God has given you as the Pioneer and Forerunner, as the Guarantee that through your sacrifice, your resurrection, and your spirit, the future is opened for us, obstinate and enslaved people.”

Hendrikus Berkhof, “What Do You Say That I Am?” Reformed World 32 (1973), 291-305

Putting Jesus in his divinely-determined place repairs our unbiblical impressions of both God and humanity.  The invitation is out there and the achievements are real, since Jesus, the MAN, utterly one of us, has been there before.  He enables us to access our full moral potential reserved for us in God’s generous hand.  How different life and the future look when we get the identity of the Messiah right!

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