A Survey Of Exegesis Of Philippians 2:5-11 In The Patristic Period

NT515 – Philippians

Dr. Dennis Johnson

12 / 04 / 09

In this paper my plan is to briefly sketch some of the major contours of Pastristic thought with regard to the exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11.  This passage is sometimes referred to as the “kenotic hymn” because, in addition to being song-like in form, it contains the infamous statement that Christ “emptied himself” in taking on the form of a man.  The Greek word Paul uses here, ekénōse, comes from the word kenós, meaning “empty.”  This term immediately became the center of Christological debate.  How is it that Christ emptied himself?  What did he empty himself of?  If he was truly God before his incarnation, did he totally empty himself of all divinity and become merely human?  How would such an emptying even be possible, and what would it mean for divine immutability?  The simple presence of this one word within this one short epistle meant that such questions could not possibly be avoided; they must be met head on.  And they were.  The answers, however, were varied, and it took several centuries for orthodox Christology to be solidified.

In addition to these difficult questions relating to the concept of kenosis, the Early Church Fathers made frequent use of Philippians 2:5-11 for a variety of other purposes (in fact, it is one of the most commented on passages of all of Scripture in the Patristic period).  These uses can be roughly categorized into three groups:  Christological, Soteriological, and Exemplary.  The Christological comments are generally aimed at defending (what would later become) Chalcedonian orthodoxy, namely that Christ was both fully divine and fully human.  The Soteriological comments have to do with what Philippians 2:5-11 teaches us about why Christ became incarnate and how the incarnation affects our salvation.  The exemplary comments focus on using Christ’s example as a model for the Christian, usually in regard to Christ’s humility.

I will begin by surveying a number of examples of each of these three types of comments on Philippians 2:5-11, in order to give a general sense of Patristic teaching on these issues.   I will then move on to address the kenotic concerns mentioned above, showing how different Fathers attempted to answer such difficult questions.

1. Christology

The most important theological debate of the early centuries of the church was over Arianism.  Arianism taught that Jesus Christ, the Logos, was not fully and truly God, but merely the first and preeminent creation of God.  In light of this teaching, it is easy to see why Philippians 2:5-11 would be so influential in the debates with the Arians.  Philippians 2:5-7 reads,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

If nothing else, this passage suggests that Christ was “in the form of God” and possessed “equality with God.”  As twenty-first century Protestants it is all too easy to read hundreds of years of debate into these short phrases, and wonder how anyone could have missed the true divinity of Christ!  But in the fourth and fifth centuries nothing could be taken for granted, and so the Early Fathers had to meet the challenge of Arianism with persuasive exegesis and argument.  Commenting on verses 6a, Gregory of Nyssa says,

He did not say “having a nature like that of God,” as would be said of [a man] who was made in the image of God.  Rather Paul says being in the very form of God.  All that is the Father’s is in the Son.[1]

Elsewhere he is even more definitive, saying,

The form of God is absolutely the same as the essence.  Yet when he came to be in the form of a slave, he took form in the essence of a slave, not assuming a naked form for himself.  Yet he is not thereby divorced from his essence as God.  Undoubtedly when Paul said that he was in the form of God, he was indicating the essence along with the form.[2]

Gregory uses the parallel drawn between Christ’s being in the form of God and then taking on the form of a slave to argue that Christ must have been truly God.  The word “essence” here might also be translated “nature.”  When we speak of the nature of a thing, we mean its essential qualities or characteristics.  Christ was truly a slave in the sense that he fulfilled all the requirements for having a “salve nature”, so to speak (he was humble, absolutely obedient to his master, etc.).  According to Gregory, it is clear from these verses that Christ’s being in the form of a slave is exactly parallel to his being in the form of God, and so he must also fulfill the necessary requirements for having a “God nature.”  But of course, to have a God nature is simply to be God.

Theodoret, in his commentary on Philippians, makes the same argument, but more clearly than Gregory, saying,

But if [the Arians]think the form of God is not the being of God, let them be asked what they think is the form of a slave….if the form of a slave is the being of a slave, then the form of God is God….Furthermore, let us recognize also that the apostle uses the example of Christ as a lesson in humility….If the Son was not equal to the Father but inferior, he did not obey in humility—he merely fulfilled his station.[3]

Theodoret also adds a new dimension to the argument, one that touches on the “exemplary” uses of the passage (which we will consider below), showing how readily the three categories overlap.  Christ, he argues, cannot truly be an example of humility if he was merely doing what he was designed to do.  If he was not God, his actions were no more humble than those of any other human being.

Commenting on the same verses in his treatise against the Arians, Athanasius says,

What clearer and more decisive proof could there be than this?  He did not become better from assuming a lower state but rather, being God, he took the form of a slave…If [as the Arians think] it was for the sake of this exultation that the Word came down and that this is written, what need would there be for him to humble himself completely in order to seek what he already had?[4]

Here Athanasius is referring to the end of the passage, where God is said to highly exalt Christ for his service in the incarnation.  Athanasius points out that this exaltation cannot be the motivation for Christ’s humbling himself, because he already possessed equality with God beforehand, and what higher exaltation could there possibly be?

Commenting on verse 6b, Marius Victorinus says,

Note that Paul did not say Christ was “similar to God,” for that would imply that Christ possessed some accidental likeness to the substance of God but not that he was substantially equal….Thus Christ is the form of God.  The form of God is the substance of God.[5]

Similar passages can be found in Augustine, Ambrosiater, Eusebius of Vercelli, and others.  The point is quite clear; Paul states in no uncertain terms that Christ had (and perhaps still had on earth) equality with God.  This is precisely what the Arians attempted to reject.

So much for the true divinity of Christ, but what of his true humanity?  While this is certainly less of a concern for most of the Fathers we are considering, since defending his divinity against Arianism was a more present threat to them, Gnostic and docetic tendencies remained ever present, and so his humanity does remain a secondary concern.  Commenting on verse7, Origen says,

In emptying himself he became a man and was incarnate while remaining truly God.  Having become a man, he remained the God that he was.  He assumed a body like our own, differing only in that it was born from the Virgin by the Holy Spirit.[6]

Similarly, Cyril of Alexandria says,

What sort of emptying is this?  To assume the flesh, even in the form of a slave, a likeness to ourselves while not being like us in his own nature but superior to the whole creation.  Thus he humbled himself, descending by his economy into mortal bounds.[7]

In both of these quotations we see again a defense of Christ’s true divinity, which is always the primary concern.  In addition, however, there is an explicit affirmation that Christ was truly like us in every way (barring, as Origen notes, the special circumstances of his birth).  In a way, we may view this as the previous arguments working backwards.  If Christ possesses the true essence or nature of God, then according to this verse he likewise possesses the true nature of a human (in the form of a slave).

An even stronger statement of Christ’s true humanity comes from Marius Victorinus, who says,

It is not as though Paul was in the slightest uncertain about Christ’s identity that he said Christ was found in human likeness.  He did not say in human likeness as though our Lord maybe was not truly a man but a phantom.  Rather he was found in human likeness while still being God yet at the same time being truly a man in the flesh, with a physical human body that he had assumed.[8]

The language of “phantom” is an echo of a similar statement made by Tertullian two centuries earlier in his work Against Marcion (“Suppose the terms figure, likeness and form referred merely to a phantom.  There would then have been no substance to Christ’s humanity….The apostle would not have declared him to become obedient to death if he had not been constituted of a mortal substance.”[9]).  And this vein of argument would be picked up and given even more force later by Augustine, who says,

He did not take on his humanity in the simple way that a person puts on clothes, as something exterior to him.  Rather he took on human form in a manner inexpressibly more excellent and more intimate than that.  The apostle has made it sufficiently clear what he meant by He was made to appear in human likeness.  He was not exhaustively reduced to being a man.  He rather assumed the true human estate when he put on the man.[10]

As is clear from just these few quotations, Philippians 2:5-11 was extremely versatile, and therefore of use against the Arians on all fronts.  Indeed, its statements appear to be so clear that it is no wonder that Arianism finally died out in favor of the Chalcedonian Christology.

2. Soteriology

The second major area of concern addressed by Philippians 2:5-11 is the salvation of humanity.  As Athanasius rightly pointed out in the quotation above, Christ’s purpose in coming to earth in flesh was not to receive a reward from God, for he already possessed far greater riches.  What, then, was his purpose?  As with Christology, the majority of the Fathers  are unanimous in their answer to this question; the purpose of Christ (and the Father, who sent him) was to save mankind from sin and death.  Again commenting on verse 7, Gregory of Nyssa says, “The Godhead is emptied so that human nature may accommodate it.  What is human, on the other hand, is made new, becoming divine through mingling with the divine.”[11]

Strictly speaking, Gregory of Nyssa is here referring only to the specific human nature of Christ, not to all of human nature.  Gregory of Nazianzus, however, takes a further step, saying, “Since he is emptied on our account when he came down (and by emptying I mean as it were the reduction and lessening of his glory) he is for this reason able to be received.”  Gregory Nazianzen defines Christ’s “emptying” as being like a veiling or shielding of his glory, since the glory of God cannot be looked upon by any man.  In this way, he is able to draw the conclusion that Christ’s emptying made it possible for his divinity to be received by all humanity.  Eusebius of Vercelli goes further yet (though still consistent with what the Gregories have said), saying,

The Word was made flesh by bearing and doing what was beneath him in his indulgence and compassion toward us.  All that he possessed by nature is emptied into this his person.  Having been made obedient as a man in the true fashion of humanity, he has restored to our nature by his own humility and obedience what had perished through disobedience in Adam.[12]

Thus Christ’s humanity is seen to have a direct affect upon our humanity, renewing it from the corruption that it had inherited from Adam.  Picking up on the theme of compassion, Eusebius of Caesarea says,

Read the record of his compassion.  It pleased him, being the Word of God, to take the form of a slave.  So he willed to be joined to our common human condition.  He took to himself the toils of the members who suffer.  He suffered and toiled on our behalf.  This is in accord with his great love of humankind.[13]

In summary, then, it was out of love for humanity that Christ became a man, and in so doing he renewed humanity, made salvation possible by the destruction of Adam’s corruption, and freely chose to suffer along with us, that he might know our plight and commiserate with us as he stands before the Father on our behalf.

3. Supreme Example of Christian Humility

The third category of exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11 is essentially a way in which the Fathers sought to apply this grand, though often highly theoretical and obscure, theology to the lives of those in their congregations.  Christ, as truly God, could not possibly be any higher in power or stature.  And yet he humbled himself to the lowest possible position; slavery, humiliation, and death.  If Christ chose freely, under no obligation, to humble himself to such a radical degree, how can we mere mortals, who owe everything to Christ, refuse to humble ourselves to a much lesser degree?  This, at any rate, seems to be the mode of thinking that the Early Fathers saw to be implicit within the text.

In this regard, Ambrosiater comments,

Christ, therefore, knowing himself to be equal to God, showed himself equal to God.  But in order to teach the law of humility when the Jews were binding him, he not only refrained from resistance but emptied himself, that is, withheld his power from taking effect, so that in his humiliation he seemed to be weakened as his power lay idle.[14]

He continues,

He indeed was taken captive, bound and driven with blows.  His obedience to the Father took him even as far as the cross.  Yet throughout he knew himself to be the Father’s Son, equal in divine dignity.  Yet he did not make a display of this equality.  Rather he willingly subjected himself.  This patience and humility he teaches us to imitate.  We are to refrain from making a display of our claims to equal dignity, but even more so we are called to lower ourselves into service as we follow the example of our Maker.[15]

We can see a very personal example of this sort of application in the life of Gregory of Nazianzus.  According to Brian Matz[16], Gregory saw in Christ’s kenosis an example of his own situation as pastor in Nazianzus.  He resisted taking the job for several years, fleeing from Nazianzus once, and only returned begrudgingly to care for his ailing parents.  For Gregory, the practical concerns of pastoral life only brought him down out of the pure bliss of continuous contemplation of God.  To do the work of a pastor was actually painful for him.  However, Nazianzus greatly needed him, especially after his Father’s death, and so out of obligation and humility he elected to remain.  Matz writes,

Gregory can do nothing less than serve the community in its hour of need because Christ did nothing less, in humanity’s hour of need, than give himself as our sacrifice….Gregory wishes the audience [of his Oration 12] to see the anguish of his decision, and yet the resoluteness with which he will proceed to the task ahead….Thus, we have an important exemplary use of Philippians 2:7 in Oration 12 that points to the hard road ahead for Gregory, a road which is no less difficult than that taken by Christ in his kenosis.[17]

4. The Kenotic Problem

Finally we come to the difficult questions raised at the beginning of this paper.  According to Sarah Coakley[18], at the time of Chalcedon there were essentially two major positions vying for the status of Orthodoxy.  One, represented by Cyril of Alexandria, took as its starting point the unity of the Person of Christ.  The other, represented infamously by Nestorius, took as its starting point the distinctness (even opposition) of the divine and human natures.  Coakley finds both potential as well as pitfalls in both approaches.  The Nestorian pitfalls are well known, as Nestorius effectively lost the battle for orthodoxy.  On the pitfalls of Cyril I find Coakley to be unclear, but she may be suggesting that Cyril’s insistence on unity cannot adequately escape a kind of Eutychianism in which one nature (the divine) effectively swallows up the other.  One reason to think this is her meaning is that she faults Cyril’s view for seeming to advocate a divine “takeover” of the human that “trumps” human characteristics such as weakness.[19]

Coakley offers in place of both of these models of kenosis a third way, represented by Gregory of Nyssa, which she describes as “progressive transfusion.”[20] On this model, divinity is gradually transfused into the human man Jesus Christ throughout his life, culminating in the resurrection where, according to Gregory, Christ’s humanity is “absorbed by the omnipotent divinity like a drop of vinegar mingled in the boundless sea.”[21]

Whether or not this model is truly representative of Gregory’s view, and whether or not it actually solves the problems raised against the other two views, are matters that must be left for another time.  Indeed, Coakley herself notes that Gregory’s view has always had a somewhat ambivalent relationship to Chalcedon, and so its orthodoxy may even be in question.  This paper is primarily concerned with a broad overview of Pastristic exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11, and not with the more detailed facets of a single theologian’s view.  There are, however, several concluding observations that can be drawn from our preceding overview.

First, none of the Fathers take kenosis to imply that Christ actually gave up or lost, in an ontological sense, his divine nature and attributes.  For them, the tiny baby cooing in the manger  of a stable in Bethlehem was at the same time truly the sovereign creator and sustainer of the entire cosmos.  Thus the “emptying” of Christ is seen primarily as a lessening of his glory, a kind of hiding of his divine power and majesty from human perception (perhaps, to different degrees and at different times, from the perception of the human nature of Christ himself).  As we saw, even Gregory of Nyssa took this position, which might give us reason to doubt the accuracy of Coakley’s description of his view.

Second, all of the Early Church Fathers we have surveyed have tried to maintain both “poles” of the mystery of the Incarnation.  Regardless of how well (or poorly) they have attempted to explain the mystery, they all affirm the absolute humanity and absolute divinity of Christ, existing simultaneously in the one person, neither doing damage to the other.  What was of primary importance to these pioneering theologians was that the equality of Christ and the Father be maintained, which required him to be identical with the Father in every respect, and also that the equality of Christ to the “form of a slave” be equally maintained, for the reasons we mentioned above.  In that sense, then, the consensus of Patristic exegesis is perfectly in line with Chalcedonian orthodox Christology, which is itself an attempt to maintain the opposite ends of the mystery without proffering a detailed explanation of how it works (which would, after all, defeat the whole notion of mystery anyway).


[1] Mark J. Edwards, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (ACCS 8; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 237.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 238.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 239.

[6] Ibid., 243.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 248.

[9] Ibid., 249.

[10] Ibid., 248.

[11] Ibid., 244.

[12] Ibid., 245 (emphasis added).

[13] Ibid., 246-247.

[14] Ibid., 243.

[15] Ibid., 246.

[16] Brian Matz, “Philippians 2:7 as Pastoral Example in Gregory Nazianzen’s Oration 12” in Greek Orthodox Theological Review (Fall 2004; 49, 3/4), 279-290.

[17] Ibid., 286.

[18] Sarah Coakley, “Does Kenosis Rest on a Mistake?  Three Kenotic Models in Patristic Exegesis” in Exploring Kenotic Christology (ed. C. Stephen Evans; Oxford, UK.: Oxford University Press, 2006), 246-264.

[19] Ibid., 257-258.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

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Filed under Ancient Thought, Biblical Theology, Exegesis, Historical Theology

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