The Theme and Structure of Philippians -- By: Robert C. Swift

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 141:563 (Jul 1984)
Article: The Theme and Structure of Philippians
Author: Robert C. Swift


The Theme and Structure of Philippians

Robert C. Swift

Among exegetes, Philippians has been sort of a “Rubik’s Cube” of the Pauline literature. Many times it has been twisted, turned, and rearranged as scholars have attempted to make the best sense they could of it. They have sensed that the book has no central theme systematically developed in a logical argument throughout the epistle. “Since the early days of historical critical research, exegetes have had difficulty finding any main theme or a line of argument in Philippians.”1

While there have been exceptions,2 this difficulty has generated three responses among interpreters.3 With the exception of Lohmeyer,4 most interpretations of the epistle can be categorized as follows.

First, many commentators hold that because of the emotional and hortatory nature of the letter, no central idea or inner logical coherence is really necessary. Being a personal and friendly letter, Paul skips from one subject to another as various topics come to mind.

To anyone reading this epistle as a familiar letter of Paul to a greatly beloved church, intended to inform them concerning his own circumstances, to thank them for their generous care for him, and to give such counsel as his knowledge of their condition might suggest, its informal and unsystematic character and its abrupt transitions from one theme to another will appear entirely natural.5

Eadie suggests, “The transitions depend upon no logical train—as the thoughts occurred they were dictated. And we can never know what suggested to the apostle the order of his topics.”6

A more recent advocate of this same view is Hendriksen.

Attempts have been made repeatedly to construct a formal outline for Philippians, a central theme with its subdivisions…. But such themes either lack distinctiveness…or comprehensiveness…. What we have here is a genuine letter from Paul to his beloved church at Philippi. The writer passes from one subject to another just as we do today in writing to friends…. What holds these subjects together is not this or that central theme, but the Spirit of God, mirrored forth, by means of a multitude of spiritual graces and virtues, in the heart of the apostle, proclaiming throughout that between God, the apostle, and the believers at Philippi there exists a blessed bond of glorious fellowship....

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