Crucial to one’s apprehension of Pauline theology is an understanding of St. Paul’s christological ethic. A prevailing melody which suffuses the symphony of Paul epistolary writing is the exaltation and enthronement of the Lord Jesus Christ. His lionization of the Son of God, however, appears in radically paradoxical form. That is, Christ’s eminence is profoundly known and seen in his crucifixion. One is able to discern the intricacies and corollaries of this mysterious tension between the humiliated and exalted Lord, which forms the fulcrum upon which Paul’s christology is balanced, nowhere better than in Philippians 2:5–11. An examination of this passage, commonly referred to as the “Christ Hymn,” will not only give one a deep appreciation for Pauline christology but also a profound awareness of the immensity of Christ Jesus’s reconciliatory work on behalf of sinners.
In the article “Letter to the Philippians” by G. F. Hawthorne in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, the modern exegesis of the hymn is primarily defended. That is, the “Christ Hymn” is seen as archetypal of Jesus’s ethical example of humble service. The episode of Jesus washing his disciples’ feed reveals a striking display of servanthood indicative to Jesus’s messiahship. (Jn 13:1–17) Consequently, the upside-down lordship of Christ in Philippians 2:5–11 provides the only ethical paradigm for bona fide leadership. “For Jesus Christ, who shared the very nature of God and acted out of that nature,” Hawthorne insists, “showed by what he chose to do and by what he in fact did that God’s true nature is not characterized by seizing, grasping or attaining, but rather by sharing, by open-handed giving and by pouring oneself out for others in order to enrich them.”1 However, the implications of the “Christ Hymn” cannot be distilled into a tidy “either-or” explication of St. Paul’s design behind the christological anthem.
In the Tyndale Bulletin, I. Howard Marshall reviews Carmen Christi: Philippians ii. 5–11 in recent interpretation and in the setting of Early Christian Worship by Dr. R. P. Martin. Marshall’s critical analysis of Dr. Martin’s trenchant examination of the “Christ Hymn” results in a comprehensive homogeny of arguments and counter-arguments surrounding the early Christian context and the contemporary upshots of Paul’s introit. “In summing up these approaches,” Marshall maintains, “Dr. Martin makes plain his own view that the hymn is not a piece of dogmatic theology; it contains neither an ethical example nor a piece of christology but ‘a piece of Heilsgeschichte,’”2 that is, an irrefragable component of salvation history. “Philippians 2:5–11 does not seem to be, as some scholars have argued, merely an ‘ethical’ passage, nor is it only a ‘kerygmatic’ one,” writes Jason Eaglen, “but instead appears to actually be a coherent and complete faith manifesto that articulates, in poetic fashion, Paul’s gospel, which he preached to all the churches.”3
The congruity of the hymn’s substitutional and ethical strophes is especially ascertained in Jesus’s “emptying of himself” of the divine prerogatives rightfully his because of his preexistent equality with the Father. (Phil 2:6–7) This, though, he set aside in order to assume the status of sinful men and die a sinner’s death as the “ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45; Is 53:12; Rom 5:18–19) “The Christ hymn portrays Jesus in his self-giving,” asserts Ben Witherington. “He did not consider being equal with God a matter of taking full advantage of his rights (or glory), but rather of giving them up and taking on the form of a servant.”4
Accordingly, the “Christ Hymn,” therefore, is not only crucial to the tenets of Paul’s christology but is also pivotal to the apostle’s rationale for ecclesiastical unity. That is, with an understanding of the “attitude of Christ Jesus” who loved them to such a degree so as to become “obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), the Philippians would, then, be all the more incited to have that selfsame attitude not only articulated in their doctrine but also animated in their devotion. The exaltation of the humiliated Christ is both the pattern and the panacea which would mend the schismatic “selfish ambition” and “conceit” of the Philippian Christians. (Phil 2:3–5) There would be little room for self-admiration and self-aggrandizement when “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus” was held as the foremost incentive for faithful Christian service. (Phil 3:8–11) Such is the lifestyle to which St. Paul calls the Philippians everywhere to evince.
G. F. Hawthorne, “Letter to the Philippans,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 712.
I. Howard Marshall, “The Christ-Hymn in Philippians 2:5–11,” Tyndale Bulletin 19 (1968): 108.
Jason Eaglen, “The Presence of ‘High’ Christology in the Letters of Paul the Apostle” (M.A. thesis, The University of Georgia, 2004), 28.
B. Witherington III, “Christology,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 107.