The Challoner edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible gives a good description of Philippians 2 at the head of the chapter: “He recommends them to unity and humility, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” In broad overview, what St. Paul delivers in this chapter one of his many exhortations to unity, but he turns the entreaty into a deep meditation on Christ’s humility and sufferings.

The four-verse exordium which opens the chapter has an admirable architecture. The Apostle expresses his wish that the Philippians be of one mind (v. 1-2). To bring this about, there must be humility in each individual (v. 3), for perfect unity will not be achieved unless each subordinates his own personal good to the common good of the Church (v. 4). As an example of this humility, St. Paul points to the Exemplar of all virtue himself, Jesus Christ, whose Incarnation and Passion show in a man the humility of God (v. 5-8). As Christ’s humility was rewarded (v. 9-11), the reader would logically infer that those who imitate him will also be “exalted,” mutatis mutandis. In imitation of Christ’s exinanation, they should obey the Apostle, a joyful and willing “victim” for them, and persevere in good works, with all patience and in the fear of God (12-18). He ends with some practical and intimate missionary details of his fellow laborers, at the same time giving his readers a glimpse of his own humility by praising Timothy (“as a son with the father, so hath he served with me in the gospel”) and Epaphroditus (“for the work of Christ he came to the point of death… that he might fulfill [what] was wanting towards my service”), who are deserving of honor for their service in the gospel (19-26).

Verses 5-11 form the Christological hymn, an anthem of humility in which St. Paul pathetically and powerfully holds up the icon of the Man-God’s redemptive, self-abasing obedience to his Father. At the heart of the passage is what amounts to an a fortiori argument appealing to the gratitude and pity of its hearers: Christ, who is God, took upon himself a nature lower than his own, shedding the external signs of the glory due to him by his Divinity. Yea, more, he plunged himself into a sea of suffering for your sakes. How much more, therefore, ought you to avoid vice and practice virtue for the unity of his Church?

As inspiring as they have been to the orthodox faithful, these words have had a great deal of violence done to them at the hands of heretics. To interpret the passage properly, it is important to keep in mind not only the rule of faith which teaches the theandric unity of the God-Man, but also the lesson of the whole context: humility and the imitation of Christ.

The first wrong interpretation of the passage would be the docetic doctrine adhered to by certain Gnostics and the Manicheans. This heresy denies Christ’s humanity, asserting that he took only an exterior semblance (dokein = to appear) or phantom of our manhood, and did not assume to himself an integral human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. This reading would seem to be strengthened by the words in v. 7, that he was “in the [mere[1]] likeness of men.” However, the orthodox rendering of the passage is clearly enough guarded by the pairing and contrasting of the two natures in a tight linguistic symmetry: forma Dei (morphe Theou) / forma servi (morphe doulou). If he is not truly in the forma servi, then why should we hold him to be truly in the forma Dei?

The second false interpretation is the Arian, which denies that Jesus is truly in the forma Dei. In keeping with their anti-Nicene formulation, the Arians interpret the morphe Theou of v. 6 not as homoousion tõ patri (consubstantial with the Father), but as homoiousion tõ patri – of like substance with the Father. To them, we could invert the question we just proposed to the Docetists, as the two natures are both asserted in the passage. The Arian interpretation is also ruled out by the divine appellation ho kurios (“Lord”) of v. 11, something St. Paul says all must confess of Jesus. (The additional proof of divinity, the “name” of Jesus as “above every name,” will be treated below.)

A third erroneous interpretation is the so-called “kenotic theory,” advanced by Luther and further developed by Lutheran, Anglican, and other Protestant divines. “According to Luther, the Word is said to have transmitted His divine properties to the assumed humanity…, but Christ the Man, except for one or another circumstance of a rather private character (like the Transfiguration), did not use them openly. According to some contemporary Protestants [who further developed Luther’s theory], the Word in His Incarnation stripped Himself of certain divine attributes by a sort of self-limitation.”[2] The manifest absurdity of this theory, in all its variations, is refuted by a momentary consideration of the oxymoron it demands of its adherents: belief in a limited divinity.

The kenosis (exinanition, self emptying), is simply a deliberate putting off of the divine honors due to the Second Person by nature. It is a volitional act, not an ontological mutilation of the Son of God.

In order to elucidate further the orthodox interpretation of the passage, I shall summarize the four points of agreement that Fr. Ferdinand Prat found in the patristic sources treating the text.[3]

1. With only two exceptions, all the Fathers apply the passage to the pre-existent Christ, not to his human will. Therefore, the exinanitio or kenosis was an act of the divine will, not of the human will.

2. The forma Dei is identical to the Divinity of Christ. While this synonymy is variously explained by the Fathers, its existence is a point of complete unanimity. Some (St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and Theodoret) hold that the forma Dei is the “substance of God.” Others (St. John Chrysostom, St. John Damascene, St. Hilary) held that it meant the “nature of God”: “If the form of a servant means, as cannot be doubted, the human nature, the form of God must mean the divine nature.”[4] A third group (including St. Athanasius) applies the text to the Divinity without any further qualification.

3. The kenosis took place at the moment of the Incarnation. In fact, it is the Incarnation. According to Fr. Prat, the Fathers unanimously interpret “taking the form of a servant” as “assuming human nature.”[5] In light of the moral-ascetical exhortation which forms the context of the passage and the focus of this paper, Fr. Prat’s observation on this point is particularly apt: “Consequently the example of self-abnegation which St. Paul proposes to the Philippians is already realized in the Incarnation itself, although it is continued in the life of humiliation and obedience of the incarnate Word.”[6]

4. Without any confusion or admixture, the forma Dei and forma Servi unite in one hypostasis, not diminishing the divinity of the perfect God. “From the fourth century on this was expressed by an almost stereotyped formula: Manens quod erat, assumpsit quod non erat [‘remaining what he was, he assumed what he was not.’]”[7]

Now, some particular themes can be discussed.

“A thing to be grasped” (v. 6). Dr. Dauphinais cites St. Augustine’s interpretation of the passage, which depended on the Latin word rapina: “equality with God was not a thing to be robbed because Christ was already equal to God.”[8] The professor dismisses this as not the best rendering because the Latin text (rapinam arbitratus est = “judged it not robbery”) did not adequately express the Greek. Prat, on the other hand, cites a host of Greek Fathers who interpret it in the same general sense. Whether they read the arpagmon of v. 6 in the active sense (a usurpation, theft, or robbery) or the passive sense (a thing thus usurped, stolen, or robbed) matters little, for the same theological meaning is presented by both senses. That meaning is found in the interpretation of Augustine’s Greek contemporary, St. John Chrysostom, who renders arpagmon in the passive sense: “Whatever has been stolen, whatever is retained unjustly, is clung to desperately, and we dare not relinquish it for an instant, for fear of losing it; it is otherwise with that which is received by nature and is sure to be found again whenever desired.”[9]

The Fathers who interpret arpagmon in the active sense (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Didymus the Blind, Apollinarius of Laodoicea, St. Isidore of Pelusium, St. Cyril of Alexandria) generally render the meaning thus: “Christ has not stolen his equality with God, because he derived it from his nature.”[10]

It should be said that Dr. Dauphinais’ preferred interpretation of “a thing to be grasped” (or “a thing to be clung to”) in the sense of “a thing to be exploited” is not ruled out by this common patristic rendering. The same meaning can ultimately be drawn out of the text, viz., that Christ chose to suffer by refusing to take advantage of the glory due to his divinity, fully confident that these dignities were not “stolen,” but something essential to him as God. This is the sense of Prat’s summary of St. John Chrysostom, which I would synthesize with Dr. Dauphinais’ rendering: “Thus the usurper does not dare to lay aside his scepter nor the tyrant his purple [rather, they wish to exploit them]; while the legitimate king is not afraid to go without [i.e., refrain from taking advantage of] the insignia of royalty.”[11]

“The name of Jesus” (v. 10). In the Old Testament, the concept of the “name of God” was a pervading theme. Deuteronomy 12:11 mentions that the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) is “the place which the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell.” For a man to “know the name of God” is to be in a right relationship with him. Given this Jewish backdrop behind St. Paul’s words, it is a clear testament to Christ’s divinity when the disciple of Gamaliel says that Christ’s is “the name which is above every name” (v. 9). Simply put, if Jesus is not God, then to exult his name “above every name” would be idolatry. Similarly idolatrous would be the bending of the knee at the name of Jesus (v. 10).

The Church’s use of the Scriptures in her liturgy is the most organic and efficacious way for us to assimilate the Scriptures and, through them, to contemplate Our Lord. Holy Mother Church utilizes excerpts from Philippians 2 in the Mass and Divine Office on occasions when she especially recalls the sufferings of her heavenly Bridegroom.[12] The entirety of the hymn (vs. 5-11) forms the Lesson for Palm Sunday’s Mass, which is chanted shortly after the priest changes into violet vestments from the joyful red of the palm procession – a liturgical change of mood unparalleled in the annual cycle. The resultant descent into liturgical pathos, aided by the rubric mandating a genuflection at verse 10, is most moving. On that same day, for the offices of Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers, small portions of the hymn are used for the Little Chapter which immediately follows the Psalms. Again, at None, when verse 10 is read, the rubric directs all in choir to genuflect at the mention of the name of Jesus. The feasts of the Holy Cross (the Exultation on September 14 and the Finding of the True Cross on May 3) also employ the hymn in the Mass and Office.

Ad rem to these liturgical considerations of our passage are the sobering and hortatory words of Abbot Prosper Guéranger, from his commentary on Palm Sunday:

“In obedience to the wishes of the Church, we have knelt down at those words of the apostle, where he says that every knee should bow at the holy name of Jesus. If there be one time of the year rather than another, when the Son of God has a right to our fervent adorations, it is this week, when we see Him insulted in His Passion. Not only should His sufferings excite us to tender compassion; we should also keenly resent the insults that are heaped upon our Jesus, the God of infinite majesty. Let us strive, by our humble homage, to make Him amends for the indignities He suffered in atonement for our pride. Let us unite with the holy angels, who, witnessing what He has gone though for the love of man, prostrate themselves, in profoundest adoration, at the sight of His humiliations.”[13]


[1] Inserted only to give a better sense of the heretical reading.

[2] Parente, Pietro; Piolanti, Antonio; and Garofalo, Salvatore, Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, translated by Emmanuel Doronzo, O.M.I., S.T.D., Ph.D. (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1951) p. 161.

[3] Prat, S.J., Ferdinand, The Theology of St. Paul Vol. I, translated from the Eleventh French Edition by John L. Stoddard. (Westminster, Md.: The Newman Bookshop, 1952), pp. 456-465.

[4] Chrysostom, St. John, Homily VI, 1 and 2., cited in Prat., p. 458.

[5] Ibid, 459.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Class notes: “Lesson 3: The New Testament: St. Paul’s Hymns of Christ,” http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c03703.htm.

[9] Homily VI, I cited in Prat., p. 461.

[10] Prat., 462.

[11] Ibid., 461.

[12] The references here are to the Traditional Roman Rite, the ritual with which I am familiar.

[13] Guéranger, Dom Prosper, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year, Vol. 6: Passiontide and Holy Week, translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. (Fitzwilliam, N.H.: Loreto Publications, 2000), pp. 219-220.

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