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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The “Christ hymn”: true humanity or true kingship?

The new Story of God Bible Commentary series is another encouraging sign that the narrative-historical approach to the New Testament is building up a head of steam, even if it is not entirely clear which track it is heading down or how far it might go. Interpretation is about telling the story, application is about living the story:

The authors of this series study and probe the Bible as God’s story, to discern and then articulate how we can live the Bible’s story faithfully and creatively in the culture today.

The Koinōnia blog has an excerpt from Lynn Cohick’s Story of God commentary on Philippians in which she discusses the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11. It gives an idea of the level and style that the series is aiming at. Her main point is that the passage should not be read merely as a proof-text for the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. Rather the hymn “describes the person of Jesus Christ and, in so doing, develops a vision for what it means to be fully human before God”.

There is nothing especially narrative or historical about that, but she goes on to highlight the “social implications” of the passage, arguing that for the Philippians the “worship of Jesus Christ as God has the concomitant position that Caesar is not Lord”. Augustus, his wife Livia, and her grandson Claudius, had been granted an apotheosis after their deaths and were, therefore, worshipped in the imperial cult in Philippi. Christ is presented as the antithesis to this deification of the imperial family—as I’ve said before, he is the anti-Caesar.

But the hymn of Christ speaks of kenosis (emptying), not apotheosis; the hymn declares humiliation/death rather than earthly glorification/divination.

I understand what Cohick is trying to do here. It is good to affirm authentic human life and not merely right belief as the end of Christian formation, and it is good to acknowledge the political and social implications of Christ’s lordship. But I’m not sure that we can get both these good things from this passage, for good narrative-historical reasons. I think that the “eschatology” of the Christ hymn and its place in the argument of Philippians dramatically constrain the scope of the “humanity” that is envisaged.

God and/or Lord?

First, it is probably too much to say that this passage speaks of the worship of Jesus as God. If he is worshipped in any sense, it is as “Lord”, and lordship is a status that has been bestowed (echarisato) on him by God. The verb charizomai consistently in the New Testament implies an unequal relationship between the one who gives and the one who receives. For example, Jesus “bestowed” sight on the many who were blind (Lk. 7:21). It implies the granting of favour or grace and often has to be translated “forgive” (eg. 2 Cor. 2:10; Col. 3:13). In Philippians 1:29 Paul writes that “it has been granted” (echaristhē) to the Philippians to suffer for Jesus’ sake.

So the argument of the “hymn” is that because Jesus did not seek to be equal to God, he was favoured with the status of Lord. This is a necessary distinction whether or not we think that “being in the form of God… having become in the likeness of men” indicates pre-existence.

The “worship” or honouring or acclaiming of Jesus as Lord precludes the worship or honouring or acclaiming of Caesar as Lord, but Cohick’s contrast between kenosis and apotheosis, between humiliation/death and earthly glorification/divination is misleading. The passage clearly affirms both some manner of apotheosis for Jesus—an elevation to divine status—and earthly glorification. The whole point of the allusion to is that the nations finally acknowledge that YHWH has established his rule by doing this for his Son—that is, he receives “earthly glorification”. Jesus differs from the type of the blasphemous pagan ruler not in that he chooses humiliation rather than equality with God but in that he attains a position of authority and glory by way of humiliation rather than self-aggrandizement.

Humanity and/or kingship?

But setting these issues aside, there is still a discrepancy between the first statement about being fully human and the second statement about Christ and Caesar. It has certainly been argued that the Christ hymn reflects an Adam christology (eg. Dunn, Wright), but it seems to me that this misses the point of the passage for just the reason that Cohick identifies in the second statement. The implicit contrast is not between an authentic humanity and an inauthentic humanity, or between an old humanity and a new humanity, but between two styles of kingship.

There are pagan kings in the Old Testament and in Jewish apocalyptic tradition who harbour ambitions to be equal to God. The Prince of Tyre is one:

…you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas’… (Ezek 28:2)

And it is important to note that the drama of his self-exaltation and fall is described metaphorically in terms of the expulsion of Adam from Eden (Ezek. 28:12-16):

Human one, raise a dirge over the king of Tyre, informing him that the message of the Lord Yahweh is as follows: You were once a seal of intricate design, full of wisdom, perfect in beauty. You used to live in Eden, God’s garden. You wore precious stones of every kind—sard, topaz, moonstone, gold topaz, carnelian, jasper, lapis lazuli, garnet and emerald—and the mounts and settings you wore were made of gold and had been fashioned on the day you were created. With a winged guardian cherub I set you. On God’s sacred mountain you lived, and amidst blazing gems you walked about. Your conduct was blameless from the day you were created until wrongdoing was discovered in you. Your extensive trading filled your habitat with violence and you committed sin. So I removed you in your sullied state from the divine mountain, and the guardiand cherub banished you from the habitat of the blazing gems.1

So yes, the story of Adam’s hubris is in the background, but the antithesis at the heart of the passage is between Christ and the falsely deified oriental despot, not between Christ and Adam. In taking the form of a slave Christ does not become authentically human. He becomes the sort of king upon whom YHWH will bestow the status of Lord.

This is reflected in the use that Paul makes of the hymn in the context of the letter. The Philippians are urged to have the mind which Christ had in order to stand firm in the face of persecution, to work out their own salvation, to remain “without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation”, to hold fast to the word of life, so that on the day when Jesus is finally revealed to the world, confessed by the nations, Paul will have the satisfaction of knowing that he “did not run in vain or labour in vain” (Phil. 1:27-30; 2:12-16).

Jesus, therefore, I suggest, is presented as the authentic eschatological king in order that the church in Philippi may be an authentic eschatological community, the concrete social-religious means by which YHWH will eventually annex the empire for his own glory.

  • 1. Translation from Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20–48 (WBC 29, 1990), 90.
Image of Philippians (The Story of God Bible Commentary)

On Amazon (US):

Lynn H. Cohick
Zondervan (2013), Hardcover, 304 pages, $29.99

Comments

Very good points Andrew. Here’s my question: Is God still bringing about His plans through the church having the same mind as Christ as communicated by Paul in the Christ Hymn?

No and yes. I think it is important to recognize that the Western church is not in the same political-religious or eschatological or historical situation that it was in between the resurrection and the overthrow of Greek-Roman imperialism. We have to make sense of our own circumstances on the basis, first, of a sense of the preceding narrative, and secondly, of a realistic and honest appraisal of how things currently are. How do things stand today in the light of what happened in the period envisaged by the New Testament?

To the extent, however, that the church today faces similar circumstances to the church in the first centuries, it seems fitting that believers should be urged to have the mind of Christ as illustrated by the Christ hymn. That may be a matter of how we respond to persecution, but I would argue that we actually face a bigger crisis to that faced by the early church—not a crisis of European paganism but a crisis of global culture. This is where it becomes important to recognize that Christ is not merely the one who became judge and ruler of the nations in the ancient world but also the one who embodies our hope of new creation.

I really enjoyed this post. Thinking about this, and the choice of the de Grebber painting to illustrate it, causes me to wonder how Paul’s Christology differs from orthodox trinitarianism. I realize that’s too much to unpack in a blog comment, but I’d be interested in any recommendations for further reading on this.

Hi Bill

I recommend Karl-Heinz Ohlig’s “One or Three?”; Mark Nanos’ “The Mystery of Romans”; JAT Robinson’s “The Human Face of God” and John Hick’s “The Metaphor of God Incarnate.”

Andrew, do you think the Σὺ ἀποσφράγισμα ὁμοιώσεως of Ezekiel 28:12 provides any additional context for ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων in Philippians 2?

The problem is working out what “signet in likeness” means. The prince of Tyre is portrayed as being like Adam, but does the phrase refer back to God—the signet bears the likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26)? Or does it refer forwards—he constituted the likeness from which other humans were impressed? Or both? To complicate matters further the Hebrew has “seal of proportion or measure or perfection”. Aquila and Theodotion translate “seal of preparation”.

Then, of course, we have to decide what Paul meant by en morphēi theou hyparchōn. Commentators generally struggle, I think, to associate morphē theou with eikōn theou.