Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name,that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2: 5-11, NKJV)
This passage of Paul’s letter to the Philippians has come to be referred to as the “Carmen Christi”, or Christ-hymn. Since it has qualities of poetry and appears to be material that could be sung; from this, it is concluded that it was a hymn used in the context of corporate worship.
If that is the case, then we see a biblical example of hymnody used by the church and we may infer from this that hymns outside of Scripture – composed by the church and in keeping with the biblical, apostolic witness – are allowed by Scripture.
I may be expanding this into a more in-depth article in the future. For now, I want to just touch on the idea that this text is, in fact, an early Christian hymn for the setting of worship. While this may be the case (though I do not believe it is), we must recognize that this view of the text does not carry the kind of certitude that some suggest it does. The thesis has always been questioned by New Testament scholars since it was first advanced; however, the basic idea that it is a hymn has been widely received.
Origins of the Christ-Hymn Hypothesis
The idea of this text being a psalm or hymn to Christ is first seen in the work of German theologian and scholar Ernst Lohmeyer, whose work Kyrios Jesus (1928), was widely received by New Testament scholars. Lohmeyer suggested that the text has 6 strophes made of 3 lines each and resembles Semitic prayer-songs. He suggests it could have Hellenistic origins as well but ultimately rejects this hypothesis in favor of the evidence of its Semitic origin. Lohmeyer also concludes from this that the work could be non-Pauline in origin; as such, scholarship on this question has revolved around the four topics of authorship, interpretation of the passage based on the authorship, whether this “hymn” has Semitic/Aramaic origins or Hellenistic, and how to divide the lines of the passage to determine its form.
The Christ-Hymn Hypothesis Becomes the Standard
Lohmeyer’s work received the approbation of Ralph P. Martin, New Testament scholar and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. His work, now available from Intervarsity Press under the title “A Hymn of Christ”, set the stage for further scholarship on this passage. Distinguished Arminian New Testament scholar, I. Howard Marshall, has described Martin’s work as “definitive” and “an exhaustive discussion” on the scholarship of this passage. In his review of Martin’s work, he accepts Martin’s characterization of this passage as an early hymn, and thus calls it a “hymn” throughout the rest of his article.
This thesis (e.g. that this passage is a hymn) is in doubt by many scholars and thus warrants further investigation. In an essay collection edited by Ralph Martin, Colin Brown notes the following in his review of Lohmeyer:
In his magisterial review, Klaus Berger observes that the pagan hymn corresponds to what in the New Testament is a prayer, and thus Phil. 2:6-11 is…more like an encomium. Michael Lattke also doubts whether it has the form of a classical hymn, since it lacks a doxological opening…it seems doubtful whether Phil 2:6-11 can be said to correspond to the hymn form of pagan antiquity.
In the meantime, Robert H. Gundry has recommended abandonment of the hymn theory….Gundry divides the passage into paired couplets, noting assonance and euphony, and concludes that it ‘represents an early example of Paul’s own exalted prose…rather than an early hymn whose line of fairly equal length Paul has disequalized with additions.'” (Martin & Dodd, pp.21-22)
Brown goes on to vindicate Lohmeyer’s thesis of the strophic nature of the text (e.g. that it is nontheless poetic and possibly an ode) but is hesitant to maintain that it was a psalm or hymn of the early church, suggesting that it may have been “originally a confession, rather than a hymn or psalm” thus accounting for the “absence of a doxology and reference to the psalmist’s tribulations (p.23).” It’s poetic nature could have been attributed to its use confessionally since the poetic elements would have lent themselves to memorization.
In an address delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1979 on the topic of the “Carmen Christi”, Robert Strimple reviews objections to the notion that this is an early Christian hymn of non-Pauline origin, and then says:
Howard Marshall notes that Martin made reference to such arguments but suggests that Martin should have recognized more adequately their force and should not have reached the conclusion that Paul was not the author. (p.249)
More recently, Gordon Fee wrote a paper wherein he stated the work “almost certainly is not” a hymn. After a discussion of the structure of the passage and how lines that have been constructed by scholars are awkward and uneven, Fee notes:
This is simply not the “stuff” of poetry. Indeed any alleged ‘lines’ of peotry like those listed above are not natural to the text, but are simply the creation of the scholars who have here found a ‘hymn’ (p.32)
Michael Peppard of Yale University has also stated in an (amusing) article the following regarding Martin’s work:
He had not argued for the interpretation of Phil 2.6-11 as a hymn, but instead he assumes it and then comments at length on how appropriate the language is for a hymn: these hymns have verse-form, stanzas, rhythm, and rhyme, and they are lyrical, poetic, rhapsodic and ornate. Which seems to come first: a critical method to distinguish poetry from prose, a hymn from an epistle, or rather Martin’s convictions about what a hymn should look like? (p.323).
So then, if this is not a hymn as has been typically accepted (and which hasn’t been fully proven), what exactly is it?
We will explore this in the next post to come on this subject.
Fee, GD (1992). Philippians 2:5-11: Hymn or Exalted Pauline Prose? Bulletin for Biblical Research, 2:29-46.
Martin, RP (1997). A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation & in the Setting of Early Christian Worship. IVP Press.
Martin, RP, Dodd, BJ (1998). Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2. Westminster John Knox Press.
Peppard, M. ‘Poetry’, ‘Hymns, and ‘Traditional Material’ in New Testament Epistles or How to Do Things with Indentations. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30.3: 319-342.
Strimple, RP. Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Studies: Some Exegetical Conclusions. Westminster Theological Journal 41.2 (Spring 1979) 247-68.