Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Phil 2

Phil 2:5-11: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

For many, the only proper place to start this discussion is Phil 2:6-11, which is the scene of the most intense fighting over the question of pre-existence in Paul, especially 2:6-8. As Dunn observes, “Phil 2.6-11 certainly seems on the face of it to be a straightforward statement contrasting Christ’s pre-existent glory and post-crucifixion exaltation with his earthly humiliation.” Yet, he and others argue that this natural reading is in fact mistaken and that pre-existence has been read into the hymn by its subsequent interpreters. The most convincing argument for a purely human Christ is one which contends that Adam-theology is the hymn’s context: that the self-sacrifice of the human Jesus is contrasted with the Genesis story of Adam’s hubris in grasping at divinity. Like Adam, Christ was in the form/image of God, but instead of choosing to grasp at equality or likeness to God, Christ emptied himself, freely receiving the form of a slave (i.e. Adam’s condition after the fall), and became in the likeness of men who are now subject and enslaved to sin and corruption. Thus, Christ humbled himself, choosing “to embrace Adam’s lot, the fate which Adam had suffered by way of punishment”, being obedient even unto death. Therefore, in contrast to Adam’s condemnation and disgrace, God exalted Christ to cosmic lordship, which fulfils the destiny God had always intended for humanity. Thus, according to Dunn, it follows that “If Christ walks in Adam’s footsteps then Christ need be no more pre-existent than Adam.” Indeed, the very notion of pre-existence is more a “distraction than a help to interpretation.” However, this construal is riddled with difficulties.

As Dunn admits, his interpretation is “not immediately obvious.” In fact, “No mention is made of Adam” and his case is entirely based on “the recognition of allusions to Adam”. Thus, firstly, showing that μορφή and εἰκών are “near synonyms” is insufficient to demonstrate that ‘form of God’ is intended to refer to Adam as in the ‘image of God’. As Hurtado makes clear, the issue is whether “the specific expression en morphē theou is actually used interchangeably with eikōn theou in Greek texts.” And while ‘image of God’ is consistently used by subsequent writers to allude to this idea, “By contrast, morphē theou is never used anywhere in any allusion to Adam… [nor] in any other pre-Pauline Greek writing.” Dunn’s attempt to surmount this linguistic difficulty by appealing to poetic allusion will not do, for how could this be caught as an allusion, when even the prepositions of Gen 1:26 and Phil 2:6 are different (κατά; ἐν)? Secondly, for a purely human Christ, τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ must connote something which neither Adam nor Christ possessed, but at which Adam grasped (ἁρπαγμός), while Christ did not. However, as Wright points out, this is unlikely, for τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ must be held “in close connection with ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων [which] is the regular usage of the articular infinitive (here, τὸ εἶναι) to refer to ‘something previously mentioned or otherwise well known’.” Thus, as they function in a “nearly appositional way”, Christ already possesses equality with God. Furthermore, although “ἁρπαγμός” has been much debated, a growing consensus has emerged around Hoover and Wright’s analysis, which treats οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο as an idiomatic expression which refers to “the attitude one will take towards something which one already has… specifically, to the question of whether that attitude will or will not consist in taking advantage of this possessed object.”

Therefore, in this case, 2:6 indicates that Christ already possessed divine equality but refused to take advantage of it, thus affirming both his divinity and his attitude toward it. On this basis, 2:7 (‘but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness’) must be interpreted as the pre-existent Son choosing to become incarnate. Thus, as ‘emptying’ is the consequence of Christ’s free choice, it is also the crucial factor marking off a pre-existence that is truly personal from one that simply amounts to being elected, with respect to role and destiny, in the mind or purpose of God. Furthermore, the dramatic sequence of Christ ‘being in God’s form’ to ‘having taken a slave’s form’ does clearly seem to imply in this context the transition from one state (divine pre-existence) to another (human existence). Dunn recognizes this problem and argues that taking a slave’s form reflects Christ’s entire life, but this blurs the clear-cut nature of the exchange and the three aorist participles make this intrinsically unlikely. A traditional three-stage Christology (form of God, form of slave, exaltation) makes the best sense of the hymn. It is unnecessary to rule out completely any echo of Adam grasping at that to which he had no right by contrast with the humble Christ who refused to exploit what was already his. However, using an Adamic framework as an interpretive straightjacket to deny pre-existence, in the end, seems untenable. Dunn himself even admits that it is possible to conclude there is an allusion here to Adam without that ruling out pre-existence. Overall, in contrast to oriental despots, the pre-existent one who became known as Jesus understood his divine equality, not as something to exploit, but as involving self-negation even to the point of redemptive suffering and death. His humility thus serves as the supreme example for the squabbling Philippians to follow (2:1-4).

Next up: 1 Cor 8:4-6. Series Link.

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3 Responses to “Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Phil 2”

  1. Week in Review: 10.29.10 « Near Emmaus Says:

    […] Jonathan Brown addresses the pre-existence of Christ in Phil. 2 and 1 Cor. […]

  2. Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Conclusion « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] analyzing the major texts (Phil 2; 1 Cor 8; Col 1; Gal 4/Rom 8; 1 Cor 10), it is clear that Paul manifestly did present a […]

  3. Pre-existence of the Son of God in Paul? Series Link « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] Phil 2; 1 Cor 8; Col 1; Gal 4/Rom 8; 1 Cor 10; […]

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