Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6 -- By: Joseph H. Hellerman

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 52:4 (Dec 2009)
Article: Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6
Author: Joseph H. Hellerman


Μορφη Θεου As A Signifier Of Social Status In Philippians 2:6

Joseph H. Hellerman*

* Joseph Hellerman is professor of New Testament language and literature at Talbot School of Theology and pastor of Oceanside Christian Fellowship, 343 Coral Circle, El Segundo, CA 90245.

Philippians 2:6-11 has attracted more scholarly attention than any passage in the Pauline corpus. One does not need to read far into the text to run up against the first of several highly debated expressions: ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων (v. 6). I will maintain that Paul has used the expression ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ in Phil 2:6 as a status marker with no inherent ontological component.1 Translations like the NIV’s “in very nature God” erroneously import an ontological element into a text concerned to address matters of power and social status. Reading μορφῇ in terms of status is hardly new. The interpretation can be traced back at least as far as the seminal work of Eduard Schweizer.2 A good deal more remains to be said in favor of Schweizer’s view, however, and it is timely to do so in light of current attempts to revive the traditional interpretation of μορφῇ that equates the term with οὐσία, or (God’s) essential nature.3

This is not to say that a secondary argument cannot be made from the text for the deity of Christ. I am confessedly Nicene in my Christology and do not intend in what follows to challenge or otherwise compromise the doctrine of the deity of Christ. Indeed, for Paul to assert that the preincarnate Christ somehow participated in God’s exalted status fairly invites further reflections about the nature of this Messiah.4 Such reflections are rather beside the point, however, in the present connection. I wish to suggest that Paul’s designs in the passage are not primarily Christological. They are ecclesiological. Or, perhaps more accurately, what we have in Phil 2:6-11 is Christology in the service of an overarching ecclesiological agenda. Accordingly, Paul’s point in verse 6 is not that Christ was somehow ontologically “God” before the incarnation. Paul’s a...

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