Second Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Once a rule-follower, always a rule follower.

December 9, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 1:3-11

Once a rule-follower, always a rule follower.

There seems to be something hardwired to the human condition in this regard. Psychologists tell us that first-borns are often very concerned with decorum and go to great lengths to maintain it. As a first-born myself, I have always resonated with this bit of psychological wisdom. I don’t break rules. Bend them? Yes. Stretch them right to the line of fracture? Sometimes. But break them? No.

Though I have zero scholarly corroboration for this assessment, and I’m aware of the dangers associated with this line of analysis, nevertheless I believe that Paul was a first-born. As support for this claim I would point you to Paul’s own account of his temperament: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous (perissoteros zelotes) for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). Luke’s narration of Paul’s conversion/commissioning experience bears commensurate witness to Paul’s own declaration of slavish rule mongering (see Act 9:1-2). Indeed, all of Paul’s letters reveal a man operating under a clear sense of right and wrong and he is not afraid to makes sure that others follow suit — another first-born trait.

Bearing in mind Paul’s temperament, we may see something profound about how he decides to open his letter to the Philippians. Our epistle lesson for this week employs the formal conventions of Greco-Roman epistolary rhetoric. The rules associated with this form of discourse were laid out clearly by Aristotle in his Rhetoric, Cicero in his Treatise on Rhetorical Convention, and in Quintilian’s The Orator’s Education.

Philippians 1:3-11 is the first part of what rhetoricians call the exordium, which is the opening element of arrangement that primes the audience for the conversation to follow (the rest being comprised of verses 12-26). Here Paul employs deliberative rhetoric to establish rapport and credibility with his audience. As Duane F. Watson convincingly argues, “A lengthy exordium is used with deliberative rhetoric when the audience does not fully perceive or attaches too little importance to the exigence, something the remainder of the epistle indicates is true of the Philippians.”1

Watson explains that there were two types of exordium and Paul choses the form of principium, or prooemium, which directly appeals to the magnanimity and attention of one’s audience. We preachers need little reminder of the importance of gaining an audience’s attention. So Paul, the good preacher, opens with this traditional rhetorical convention in order to set the stage for what was to follow.

This introductory thanksgiving paragraph follows the classical sevenfold framework of the exordium. It consists of 1) an opening word of thanksgiving (“I give thanks”/eucharisto) followed by 2) an indication to whom the author gives thanks (“to my God”/to theo mou) and 3) a temporal adverb (“always”/pantote). This leads to 4) a pronominal phrase denoting those for whom thanks is given (“for all of you”/hyper panton hymon) conjoined with 5) a temporal participle and an adverbial phrase indicating how the writer prays for his/her audience (“making supplication with joy”/ meta charas ten deesin poioumenos).

At this point Paul breaks the rules. According to strict exordium form, one should expect 6) a causal participle clause or an adverbial phrase that enumerates the reason for the author’s thanksgiving. Instead of one warrant, Paul offers three in verses 3-6. He gives thanks to God for the Philippians on account of the fact that
• they haven’t forgotten him (“because of your remembrances [of me]/epi pase te mneia hymon)
• they have persevered together in their gospel work (“because of your fellowship in the gospel”/epi te koinonia eis to euangelion)
• and because Paul was convinced that God would continue to work in and through them (“being confident that the one who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion”/pepoithos auto touto hoti ho enarxamenos en hymin ergon agathon epitelesei).

The final feature of the exordium is expressed in 7) a subordinate clause intended to spell out the content of the letter writer’s intercession. Again, bending the rules of rhetorical convention, Paul includes not one subordinate clause but two (“[so] that your love might doubly increase in knowledge and discernment”/hina he agape hymon eti mallon kai mallon perisseue) and (“[so] that you might be pure and blameless”/hina ete eilikrineis kay aproskopoi).

Why might Paul, this rule-followers rule-follower, break with convention in these opening verses? By attending to these subtle divergences we may gain deeper insight into Paul’s apostolic purpose in Philippians as a whole.

By offering three reasons for thanksgiving in verses 3-6 Paul is outlining his argument against those who preach out of envy, rivalry, and partisanship (verses 15-18). Themes of joy (1:25; 2:2, 29; 3:1; 4:1), partnership (2:1; 3:10; 4:14-5), love (1:16; 2:1-2; 4:1), the defense of the gospel (1:12, 16, 27; 2:22; 4:3), and confidence of God’s abiding presence (1:25; 2:24; 3:3) are key themes in the epistle. Moreover, Paul’s double subordinate (hina) clause in verses 9-10 spells out what we might deem the thesis of the letter: those who abound in Christ’s love put aside petty disputes in love for one another and in service of the gospel.

This pericope functions as a kind of tuning fork for the rest of the letter and its sonic vibrations carry Paul’s theological freight with resonant frequency. Paul’s rule-bending is in the service of his message of love, unity, and a vigorous and unrelenting defense of the gospel. Paul isn’t breaking with rhetorical decorum haphazardly; his modifications conceal a purposeful intention to persuade the Christians in Philippi follow Paul’s own example (3:17), becoming slaves of Christ Jesus (1:1). By relinquishing their freedom for the sake of the gospel they will find the freedom to remain unified and faithful to it (1:27). Paul clearly breaks the rules in Philippians 1:3-11. Perhaps, just this once, for the sake of the gospel, we can let him slide.

1Duane F. Watson, “A Rhetorical Analysis Of Philippians And Its Implications For The Unity Question,” Novum Testamentum, XXX/1 (1988): 57-88.