by Michael R. Burgos Jr.
The relentless persecution of the early church by Imperial Rome is typified in Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan. Pliny would examine Christians, giving them three chances to recant their faith. When they refused, Pliny ordered their executions. He investigated the former practice of those many turncoat pseudo-Christians, who recanted their faith and gave the requisite offering of incense and wine in accordance with the Emperor cult. What he discovered was an account of the Lord’s day worship of the primitive church:
They were accustomed to meet on a fixed day, to sing an antiphonal hymn to Christ as God, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of some crime, but to avoid acts of theft, brigandage, and adultery, not to break their word, and not to withhold money deposited with them when asked for it. When these rites were completed, it was their custom to depart, and then to assemble again to take food, which was however common and harmless.
Given its chiastic form, the presence of hapax, the unorthodox use of certain terms, and its amazing content, Philippians 2:6-11 has been understood by Christian scholars to be a fragment of a hymn of the primitive church. Interestingly, the traditional title for this passage is The Hymn to Christ as God or just The Hymn to Christ. Could it be that what was referenced to Pliny was that the hymn Paul cites? I wouldn’t put it past God.
This hymn serves as an inspired object lesson intended to achieve unity within the Philippian congregation by means of humility. In v. 2, Paul tells the church: “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” In vv. 3-4, Paul provides some practical instruction to live out the humility that will be portrayed writ large in vv. 6-11.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, ESV)
Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος· καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ. διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα, ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός. (Philippians 2:5-11, NA28)
In an ancient scriptorium one would read aloud a text in a clear voice so that scribes could accurately record the Bible. Similarly, in v. 5 Paul calls forth the Philippians to copy an exemplar, namely Christ. He wrote, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” The first clause, “Have this mind among yourselves” points backward to v. 3 and v. 4, and thus indicates that the “mind” or attitude that is under consideration is the one that appropriates the aforementioned instruction (i.e., counting others more significant than oneself). The second clause, “which is yours in Christ Jesus,” indicates that the “mind” of humility was present in the person of Christ. This is a sentiment that finds continuity elsewhere within the Pauline corpus. Ephesians 5:1-2 states, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” Thus, when Bernard argues
the focus is not on the transcendent nature of God, which humans cannot duplicate, but on the attitude of the man Christ Jesus, which we can imitate,”
Paul’s object lesson begins with the statement, “though he was in the form of God.” Here, the ESV has sacrificed a literal reading. The Greek text reads ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων. The best rendering is that of the Holman Christian Standard Bible, which renders the clause, “Who existing in the form of God.” What constitutes “the form of God”? In Greek texts, μορφῇ refers to the “external appearance,” and “something which may be perceived by the senses.” However, Hawthorne notes that
When this word is applied to God… such an understanding is quite inadequate. For God is the invisible God (Col 1:15; 1 Tim 1:17) and cannot be comprehended by the human senses.
So too, there is no external appearance that is particular to the “form of a slave.” Warfield has well articulates the meaning of μορφῇ θεοῦ:
Paul does not say simply, ‘He was God.’ He says, ‘He was in the form of God,’ employing a turn of speech which throws emphasis upon Our Lord’s possession of the specific quality of God. ‘Form’ is a term which expresses the sum of those characterizing qualities which make a thing the precise thing that it is. Thus, the ‘form’ of a sword…is all that makes a given piece of metal specifically a sword, rather than, say, a spade. And ‘the form of God’ is the sum of the characteristics which make the being we call ‘God,’ specifically God, rather than some other being— an angel, say, or a man. When Our Lord is said to be in ‘the form of God,’ therefore, He is declared to be all that God is, to possess the whole fullness of attributes which make God God.
The accompanying present active participle, ὑπάρχων, demands a certain temporal order to this pericope. Fee notes, “Prior to his ‘having taken the ‘form’ of a slave’ he was in fact ‘in the ‘form’ of God.” Thus, any interpretation of Philippians 2:6-9 that asserts that the “form of God” is something other than the Son’s pre-incarnate state, must also assert that the Son existed on the earth sans the “form of a slave.” Hence, the Son’s existence in the “form of God” occurred prior to and during his self emptying (v. 7).
Although the Son was in the “form of God” and had equality with God, he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (v. 6). That is, being equal with God (τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,), having all of the attributes commensurate with deity, the Son did not cleave to the full exercise of his position. Such a construct itself refutes any unitarian theology. Instead (ἀλλὰ), “he made himself nothing” ( ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν, v. 7). The means by which this self-emptying took place is supplied by the participial phrases that follow. He (i.e., the Son), emptied himself by means of “taking the form of a slave” ( μορφὴν δούλου λαβών), “being made in the likeness of men” ( ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος). The timing of the text in conjunction with the reflexive pronoun demands the personal pre-incarnational existence of the Son.
After having taken upon himself the limitations of human existence, the Son humbled himself further, “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v. 8). Subsequently, God has highly exalted him (v. 9), and this exaltation resulted in the cessation of his humiliation, his reception of “authority over all flesh” and the receipt of the divine glory that he set aside for the purposes of accomplishing the work set before him. Drawing from this same chronology, the Apostle wrote in 2 Corinthians 8:9:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Some Trinitarians say that the word ‘being’ (Greek: huparchon) in verse 6 means ‘originally being, eternally being, preexisting’ and thus speaks of an eternal Son before the incarnation. But the simple meaning of ‘being’ is more appropriate, as all major translations and Greek dictionaries recognize.
This divulges a serious misunderstanding between the theological claims of trinitarian interpreters and Bernard. The lexical definition ὑπάρχων is not at issue, and the verb is most accurately translated in this context as “being” or even “existing.” Rather, at issue is the import that the participle has to the timing of the text. Since the participle places the Son’s existence in the “form of God” before his existence in the “form of a slave,” and since the “form of a slave” is explained by the participial phrase “being made in the likeness of men,” the Son’s existence in the “form of God” is necessarily before the incarnation (i.e., “being made in the likeness of men”).
Norris argues that to understand the phrase “form of God” to mean “that Jesus had a divine nature in a preexistent heavenly existence, from which He would become incarnate” is to presuppose “that specific interpretation into the text.” However, as shown above, a presupposition was not employed to demonstrate Paul’s assertion of a preexistent personal and divine Son, but rather all that is needed is exegesis. For Norris, the “form of God” constitutes an allusion to Adam’s creation in the image of God. Thus, according to Norris, what we have here is Paul’s identification of the man Jesus, who unlike Adam, did not reach for equality with God, but instead overcame temptation and persevered in humble obedience.
Ironically, it is Norris who is importing a presupposition to achieve his understanding of the “form of God.” While Adam is never mentioned in this pericope, even if there was an intended comparison between Adam and Christ, it is an unfounded assumption to assert that the comparison is between the human Christ and Adam. Wright argues that the contrast between Adam and Christ “does not involve merely the substitution of one sort of humanity for another.” Rather, Wright concisely articulates another form of comparison, one that is contextually and exegetically coherent: “Adam, in ignorance, thought to become like God: Christ, in humility, became man.”
Moreover, Fee points out that,
even if Paul might be contrasting Christ with Adam in this opening sentence, this phrase can scarcely be an allusion to Christ’s humanity as being ‘in God’s image.’ After all, it makes little sense to say that ‘being already in God’s likeness (as a human being), Christ emptied himself by coming to be (or ‘being born’) in human likeness.
The overall intention of Paul’s appeal to the example of Christ was to demonstrate humility to the Philippian church. Therefore, to suppose that it was humble for the human Christ not to cleave to equality with God employs a non-sequitur. Hence, Norris’ reading ruins Paul’s illustration. Hawthorne argues that to understand the “form of God” in terms of the second Adam motif “comes to grief fundamentally on the fact that it cannot be adopted for its second occurrence — μορφὴν δούλου.” That is, if one were to take Norris’ reading, there would necessarily be a time in the human life of Jesus wherein he did not subsist in the “form of a slave.” When was that time? So too, the explanatory participial phrase, “being born in the likeness of men,” becomes a redundant and clumsy appendage that has absolutely no relevance to a contrast between the obedient human Christ and the disobedient Adam.
What we have in Philippians 2:5-11 is a concise summary of the ministry of Christ that is not unlike the summary given by Jesus himself.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”(John 13:3-7, ESV)
In the same manner that Jesus removed his clothes, he set aside the prerogatives and the normative exercise of his divine power. Jesus took his outer garment off and put on the attire of a servant, just as he took upon himself the form of a slave. He set these things aside so as to make his people clean.
 Pliny the Younger, Translated by Walsh, P. G., Complete Letters, (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006), 278-279.
 See Martin, Ralph P., “A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11” in Recent Interpretation & the Setting of Early Christians Worship, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 42-62.
 Bernard, The Oneness View of Jesus Christ, loc. 383.
 TDNT, Vol. 4, 742.
 Ibid., 745.
 Hawthorne, Gerald F., WBC: Philippians, (Waco: Word Pub. 1983), 82.
 Warfield, Benjamin B., The Person and Work of Christ, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub., 1950), 39. Similarly, with reference to the use of μορφῇ at Phil 2, Louw-Nida defines the term as “the nature or character of something,” 58.2.
 On the meaning of the hapax ἁρπαγμὸν, see Wright’s extensive study: Wright, N. T., The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, (New York: T & T Clark, 1991), 62-90. For a more concise study, see Fee, Pauline Christology, 381-383.
 John 17:2-5.
 Bernard, The Oneness View of Jesus Christ, loc. 411.
 See Fee, Pauline Christology, 387, and Hawthorne, Philippians, 87.
 Norris, I Am, loc. 2141.
 Ibid., loc. 2149.
 Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, 92.
 Fee, Pauline Christology, 377.
 Hawthorne, Philippians, 82.
 Any soteriology that affirms the imputation of both the active and passive righteousness is at odds with Norris’ reading of Philippians 2:5-11. For instance, see Bernard, The New Birth, 325-328.