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Paul - The Deity of Christ

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  January 2, 2002

First, I must point out that there is a wealth of material about Paul and his views regarding the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I am under no illusion that I can adequately cover the terrain here, and I have no wish to construct a lengthy analysis of this topic.  I do, however, want to lay out the main  arguments as clearly and succinctly as I can.

It is universally acknowledged that the Apostle Paul wrote Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Philippians, and so a passage from Philippians, which I am discussing here, is directly representative of Paul.  What were his views about the deity of Jesus?

True Incarnation

According to the Metaphorical Gospel theory, Paul saw the deity of Christ not as an attribute of the man Jesus but as a metaphor that at most describes the Risen Christ, or 'Christ of Faith', in some way.  Remember that one kind of statement that would indicate a "factual" understanding of Jesus' deity would be a statement of his pre-existence.  This is exactly what we find in Philippians 2:6, written during Paul's imprisonment in Rome, approx 60 A.D.

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should by the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature [morphe] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing [emptied himself],
taking the very nature [morphe] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death -
even death on a cross!

This is usually taken as a classic description of the true and factual incarnation.  Jesus, already in the "form" of God, emptied himself, humbled himself, taking on human flesh. The whole point of the passage depends upon Jesus' pre-existence - otherwise there is no emptying. 

This is not a random statement in an obscure letter.  It stands out as a startling definition of the incarnation in a letter universally acknowledged to be Paul's.  Because of its poetic form, most commentators views it as a hymn, or a creed, which preceded even Paul's earliest letters - taking us back very, very close to the beginnings of the Christian faith. 

Together [several points made earlier] they demonstrate beyond doubt the fact that these verses comprise an early hymn, or at least part of an early hymn that had as its subject Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; and the interesting remark of Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia-Pontus, written to the Emperor Trajan A.D. 112-13, that Christians were in the habit of singing hymns "to Christ as to a god", Epistles 10.96)  (Word 77)

Because of its centrality and importance, this passage has been scrutinized and fiercely debated by scholars.  One commentary even admits that everything that can be said, has been said:

The number of genuine exegetical problems and the sheer mass of books and articles it has called forth leaves one wondering where to begin, despairing about adding anything new, and well-nigh stricken with mental paralysis.  It quickly becomes apparent, however, that although much has been written on these verses there is little that can be agreed upon  (Word 76)

However, the mainstream conclusion is that Paul is pointing to the real and true deity of Christ - including pre-existence in the 'form' of God, emptying himself of divine prerogatives, and becoming a man:  the incarnation.

Philippians 2 is the earliest passage in the Pauline literature to raise in our minds serious questions about the pre-existence of Christ. ... we have moved a step beyond statements that 'God sent his Son' to an emphatic declaration that Christ's incarnation was a deliberate act of self-emptying  (New 502)

Paul begins his hymn by remarking that Jesus, because he existed in the form of God, did not consider this high position as a prize to be held on to, but rather to be surrendered in order that he might serve  (Word 79)

There are three crucial words, describing this motion, this humbling:  form, grasped, emptied.  Let's look at them briefly:

Form [morphe]
The Greek word for 'form', like the English 'form', typically refers to the shape, visible form of something.  Since God is spirit, it seems obvious that a metaphor is being used here.  And since the word is intentionally used to describe the 'form' of a slave, the commentaries have generally settled on something like 'nature' to describe this mode, condition, or state - with caveats that perhaps 'nature' does not perfectly do justice to the word. 

Why, then, in Philippians 2 does Paul use the particular term morphe, whereas similar statements in Romans 8 and Galatians 4 refer to God's Son?  The basic meaning of the word seems to be 'visible form', and since children are often like their parents, it has been suggested that the phrase is comparable to the title 'Son of God.' ... Or perhaps it is the expression of the inner reality that is at one and the same time concealed by and revealed by the glory.  This presumably lies behind the NIV's 'in very nature God', a translation that is nevertheless misleading.  (New 506)

Morphe theou, then, may be correctly understood as the 'essential nature and character of God'.
    To say, therefore, that Christ existed en morphe theou is to say that outside his human nature Christ had no other manner of existing apart from existing 'in the form of God', that is, apart from being in possession of all the characteristics and qualities belonging to God.  This somewhat enigmatic expression, then, appears to be a cautious, hidden way for the author to say that Christ was God, possessed of the very nature of God, without employing these exact words.  It appears to be a statement made by one who perhaps, although reared as a strict monotheist and thus unable to bring himself to say, 'Christ is God', was compelled nevertheless by the sheer force of personal encounter with the resurrected and living Christ to bear witness as best he could to the reality of Christ's divinity.  (Word 84)

Furthermore, when the hymn says that Christ took the 'form of a slave' after his kenosis, it is not likely that its author had in mind that Christ merely looked like or had the external appearance of a slave.  (Word 82)

What was it that Jesus had, in his pre-existence; and what was it that he gave up?  This turns, in part on the word harpagmos, which can mean either (a) something one has that he does not cling to, or (b) something that one could acquire but chooses not to acquire.  Commentators are somewhat divided on this, but generally settle on the first interpretation. 

The meaning of the word harpagmos, 'something to be exploited/grasped', has proved even more contentious than that of the word morphe. From the time of the church fathers, there have been many different interpretations of it.  The main dispute has been about whether the word referred to something Christ already already possessed, but did not cling to, or whether it referred to something he did not yet possess, but might have clutched at.  (New 507)

It now seems, however, that the most likely interpretation of harpagmos is that it refers to 'something to be exploited.'  In this view, equality with God was something that Christ already possessed, but which he chose not to use for his own advantage.  (New 507)

Finally, of what did Christ empty himself?  In one radical 'kenotic' theory of the 70's, it was put forward that Christ completely emptied himself of his divinity, becoming not the God/man, but simply a man.  This interpretation has been abandoned.  Commentators generally agree that this is not the meaning of 'emptied.'

he emptied himself ... Christ did not cease to be 'in the form of God.'  (New 508)

For the purposes of this discussion, there are two separate questions:  (a) Is Paul claiming pre-existence in at least some super-angelic state for Jesus?, and (b) Is Paul claiming here full deity for the pre-existent Christ? 

Let's look at the deity claim.  It should be understood that the meaning of 'exploited/grasped' will not turn on fine distinctions in Greek, for this was debated by the Greek fathers themselves, and Greek was their everyday language.  The best approach is simply to look at the context.  If Jesus was in the 'form' of God, and 'emptied' himself, then it seems perfectly clear that harpagmos refers to something that Jesus had which he gave up!  Thus, his pre-existence did not involve, according to the context, the future possibility of being divine, but the reality.

However, even if we were to grant that in this hymn the full deity of Christ is ambiguous, we still have something which directly contradicts the MG Theory - the pre-existence of Jesus.

And if we can fully settle on the fact that Paul really thought Jesus was a pre-existing being who came into the world in human form (and especially if we take 'form of God' seriously), this will open up the meaning of many, many other prima facie deity references that permeate his letters.

Objections and Answers

I have found no objections in the commentaries to this interpretation.  However, the most promising line would assuredly be to simply ignore the analytical meaning of the passage, and focus instead on the fact that this is a piece of poetry, a hymn.

It is conceded on all sides that Paul is, here, not doing a theological analysis or argument concerning Jesus' deity.  He is quoting an existing hymn.  The point of this section is humility, not (primarily) Christology.  Jesus is our example here because he didn't lord it over people, even though he was (in some sense) Lord.  Therefore, we simply should not press the details of the illustration.  It is the mystical majesty - the spiritual mastery, perhaps - of Christ, which Jesus did not flaunt, which counts. 

Answer.  This sounds good, but is it fair?  Look at the form of the passage. 

1.  A poem or hymn might use metaphor and analogy, as:  'Jesus is the Vine', or the Good Shepherd, or the Solid Rock, the Lamb, or the Door - and we do find exactly this kind of imagery throughout the New Testament.  Or even something like 'the Brightness of Heaven', 'Glory of God', 'King of Kings.'  His humility could be expressed poetically as we see in Suffering Servant passages.  In poetry, we use our 'poetic license' when emphasizing and coloring our points, and the exegete must be on the lookout for hyperbole.

Is this passage an example of hyperbole, of a fantasy illustration?  I find that it actually reads more like a statement of faith - in fact, a creed - than a hymn of the type that is sung in church or read, or poetry found in devotional booklets.  In fact, it reads suspiciously like a sober, careful, thoughtful description of the Incarnation. 

Purely as a matter of form, it has more in common with 'God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten not made, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven ...' than with 'A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing ...'.

2.  Are the types 'hymn' (poetic hyperbole) and 'creed' (assertions to be taken factually) mutually exclusive?  One Lutheran hymn comes immediately to mind:  'Beautiful Savior, king of creation, Son of God and Son of Man ...', which contains creedal phrases - 'Son of God' was intended literally to express Jesus' deity.

3.  Finally, which interpretation makes more sense?  Note, for instance, that there are two movements of humility in the passage - one more than is needed to make the point.  (1)  Jesus first empties himself to become a man; (2) then he humbled himself to become a crucified criminal.  Paul could easily have made his point using either one.  In fact, why introduce the super-hyperbole of emptying, when Jesus' human humility ('greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friends') is more than sufficient? 

If I were to use, say, Albert Schweitzer as an example of humility, I would rightly mention his purposeful  'emptying' of his career (as both a world-class scholar and accomplished organist), in order to labor as a doctor in the jungle.  Wouldn't that be enough?  Would it occur to anyone to introduce the imagery that Schweitzer somehow pre-existed in the 'form of God', but emptied himself to become a man?  If that is ridiculous today, how would that be seen by a first-century Jew?


Convincing to me are:

I have to conclude that Paul was not just waxing poetic, but making a serious assertion - that Jesus pre-existed as divine in some sense, and that he become a man.  Furthermore, this is most probably an existing formula, or hymn, or creed, that expresses the common Christian understanding, and possibly goes back to the earliest days of Christianity.