< September 28, 2008 >

Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13

 

Philippians 2:6 might be translated: "He did not regard snatching as worthy of a god."

This revision of a hallowed text throws a monkey wrench into the inner workings of Christian theology. So, let's do it.

Although scholars fret around the doctrinal edges of kenôsis (emptying), they agree that the customary translation of 2:6 ("he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped") supports the exemplary condescension of the Second Person of the Trinity. Although Christ Jesus possessed all the properties that constitute divinity ("form of God" and "equal to God"), he did not grasp them for his own advantage ("thing to be grasped"). Instead, he limited his divine powers and privileges ("he emptied himself"). He lowered himself to human status ("he humbled himself"). As the New Adam, he demonstrated what is demanded of us: voluntary submission to the Father's will ("form of a slave" and "obedient unto death"). In brief, the Son set aside the privileges of divinity and demonstrated humble obedience, even slavery, to the Father.

This way of telling Christ's story obviously has appealed through the ages to those at the top of hierarchies. Speaking to monks about progress in faith, Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) illustrates how even a deeply spiritual person could be taken in.

Those who, in fear and trembling, have laid the good foundation stone of faith and hope in the hall of righteousness, who have planted their feet immovably on the rock of obedience to their spiritual father, who listen to his teachings as if they came from the mouth of God, those who with humble souls raise an unshakable edifice on this foundation of obedience, these will succeed immediately. It is they who succeed in that basic and all-important goal of self-renunciation. To do another's will instead of one's own leads not only to a denial of one's own life, but even makes a man dead to the entire world. A man who contradicts his [spiritual] father makes the devils rejoice, but when a man humbles himself even to death, he makes the angels stand amazed. For this man performs the work of God by imitating the Son of God who was perfect in obedience to his own father, even to death, death on a cross. (tr. Paul McGuckin, Symeon the New Theologian, 48-49)

My tinkering with 2:6b interrupts this story of obedience to divine sovereignty. A new story emerges (underlined for clarity) that undermines the very idea that God's Godness comes from God's Sovereignty. Though in the form of God [Divine beings were thought by the Greeks to be extremely beautiful. Beauty was youthfulness. The gods were forever young and therefore could do whatever they wished, since death posed no obstacle for them], Christ Jesus did not regard snatching [The rare Greek word is harpagmos; it had a very specific meaning: erotic abduction. Stories of abduction conveyed the idea that humans are powerless and completely vulnerable to the gods' intentions and whims.] to be worthy -- or equal to -- God, but having taken on the form of a slave [To whom was he a slave? Humanity, perhaps. If so, then this is an example of servitium amoris, the slavery of love, a widespread motif in Greek and Latin poetry expressing the complete dedication of the lover to the beloved.] he emptied himself [the phrase in Greek always refers to a bodily occurrence preceded by melting; liquefaction of the body and subsequent draining away of the once solid self was the poetic way of describing longing, the desire for union with an absent beloved.].

I said that this was a new story. That is not entirely true. Martin Luther asserted that Christ's slavery was directed to humans; without it, there would be no "happy exchange," no sharing of all things between Christ and believers. But Luther stole boldly from the tradition. Good for him. Paulinus of Nola (354-431) had written:

Out of love for that likeness, His son took on my limbs, was conceived and born of a virgin, bearing all the attributes of men, and though He is the Lord of all He became a servant to undertake in one body the burdens of all. He who dwelt on high took the likeness of a slave, though he was reigning as God with the likeness of God, in company with His regal Father. He took on the likeness of a slave, and destroyed that guilt by which man of old was a slave to punishment and death. Bearing the form of slave, the Lord became our flesh and restored His servant to freedom, so that through Christ's plundering of the earthly Adam on the cross, my heavenly form might return to me. (tr. P. G. Walsh, The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, 310-311)

But did tradition also teach that Christ jumped the gap between divinity and humanity out of his longing to be near us? Or was the incarnation and crucifixion an exercise in humility meant only to show us humans how to behave toward the sovereign Father? To this latter view a handful of Christian writers said no. Instead, they remembered Christ though love poetry. Amor militat omnia. Love conquers all - even God. So said Bernard of Clairvaux, Gilbert of Hoyland Nicholas Cabasilas, and Hadewijch. The Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi (first half of 13th century to about 1306) retold the story of Philippians 2:6-8 in this way:

You did not defend Yourself against that Love
that made You come down from heaven to earth;
Love, in trodding this earth
You humbled and humiliated Yourself,
Demanding neither dwelling place nor possessions
Taking on such poverty so that we might be enriched!
In Your life and in Your death You revealed
The infinite love that burned in your heart.

You went about the world as if you were drunk,
Led by Love as if You were a slave...

Wisdom, I see, hid herself,
Only Love could be seen.
Nor did You make a show of Your power --
A great Love it was
that poured itself out,
Love and Love alone, in act and desire,
Binding itself to the cross
And embracing Man

Thus, Jesus, if I am enamored
And drunk with sweetness,
If I lose my sense and mastery of self,
How can you reproach me?
I see that Love has so bound You
As to almost strip you of your greatness;
How, then, could I find the strength to resist,
To refuse to share in its madness?

For the same Love that makes me lose my senses
Seems to have stripped You of wisdom;
The love that makes me weak
Is the love that made You renounce all power.
I cannot delay, nor seek to --
Love's captive, I make no resistance...
(tr. Serge and Elizabeth Hughes, Jacopone da Todi: the Lauds, 262-263)