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March 25, 2011


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Last Sunday morning (3/20/2011) we were studying Philippians 1:27-2:11, a section that contains a generally recognized early Christian hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. The “Christ Hymn” is an artfully arranged structure of six stanzas of three lines each (one line in 2:8c “even death on a cross” disrupts this order, and many regard this phrase as Paul’s single addition to the hymn). The hymn appears to have originated in gentile Christian churches sometime before Paul; it reflects Greek religious concepts—in particular it reflects the traditional ancient near east mythical three storied universe—heaven above, earth in the center (flat, of course), and the underworld below. The hymn also reflects language and concepts that are surprising when compared to views of the modern Christian church and, in particular, Baptist belief. During the Sunday morning discussion, I commented on some of the views reflected in the first three stanzas of the hymn.

     Here is the text of the first three stanzas (Philippians 2:6-8); these verses are set out in poetic format, as I have done below, in modern critical editions of the Greek New Testament and in most modern translations in order to show its difference from Paul’s prose.

….Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
Did not count equality with God
A thing to be held on to,

But emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,
Being born in the likeness of men;

And being found in human form,
He humbled himself,
And became obedient unto death
[even death on a cross].

     I pointed out that “being in the form of God” and being “equal with God” was not quite the same thing as “being God.” Apparently the hymn stresses a distance existing between Jesus and God—a situation also suggested by the second assertion in John 1:1 (1:1b): “the word was with (i.e., face to face) God”—i.e., close but not synonymous. The words in Philippians assert that Jesus, while co-equal with God, was not God.

     Apparently, he was not really a human being either. He took the form of a slave, and was born in human likeness. And in human form was crucified. In other words he was a divine figure who took on the form of a human being—that is, he appeared in the guise of a human being. He was not born human but was a divine figure “born” into a human likeness, which form he occupied for a period of time.

     Both of these ideas suggested by the language of the hymn rub rather abrasively against contemporary Baptist theology in which Jesus is generally identified as God.

     Surprisingly, the last three stanzas do not mention the resurrection of Jesus but rather his exaltation—that is, his restoration into the divine world, which he had left behind when he “humbled himself” by assuming human form. He apparently ascended as mysteriously as he had assumed human guise. Several parallels to these two ideas in the hymn exist in other early Christian texts that were not included in the Christian canon of Scripture, and (not surprisingly) they were not mentioned in the literature the class was using for study. The lesson writers for the student’s quarterly and the teacher’s guide provided no information about the early Christian hymn, or the parallels, and did not address the issues raised by these powerfully provocative statements in the hymn.

     Some in the class felt that the words meant something different from what they appeared to say, and insisted that they quite clearly affirmed that “Jesus was God.” But the only translation that supported this reading was the Living Bible, which actually rendered Philippians 2:6 like this: “Jesus, who though He was God did not demand and cling to His rights as God...”

     One should remember, however, that the Living Bible is not really a translation but rather a paraphrase. The Holman Bible (a Baptist translation) and the King James, which were printed in the student’s quarterly, translated the Greek much as the translation above—in this way: “who, existing in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be used for his own advantage” (Philippians 2:6, Holman Bible). They both (as virtually all translations) preserved the language that reflects a subtle distinction between God and Jesus—that is, Jesus, although divine and equal with God, is not actually God, and, although in human form, is not really human.

     Jesus and his earliest followers lived long before the Christian canon and the creeds, which finally emerged in the 4th/5th centuries. They were Jewish and used only the Jewish Bible. Their Jewish spark scattered out into Gentile lands igniting multiple responses of faiths and theologies. One of those responses was the “Christ Hymn” and its view of Jesus. Another was the group that gave us the canon and the creeds, which celebrate another view of Jesus. Their view has become the dominant view of modern Christianity. The truth is that the canon and the creeds have made modern Christianity the custodian of diverse responses to the Jewish spark, for the Bible reflects different theologies. Not to acknowledge these other faiths that appear in canonical literature will appear disingenuous to neutral readers—no matter how well meaning.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 12:46pm