In our last article, we explored whether the “Carmen Christi” of Philippians 2:6-11 is an early Christian hymn. That post is sort of a fly-over of the relevant issues so I would suggest checking out the works cited for further analysis. The main point, however, was that the “Christ-hymn” view of the text in Philippians 2 is far from settled amongst New Testament scholars.
Another quotation will help in this, this time from Morna Hooker:
The fact that different scholars produce different poetic structures makes one slightly hesitant about the value of this exercise; I myself have produced six or seven different analyses – and found each of them convincing at the time…there is a dangerous circularity in this kind of method; I suspect that often those who analyse the lines have decided which words are Pauline glosses before they start their poetic analysis (Hooker 1975:157; as cited in Peppard 2008: 326)
Today, I will provide another interpretation of the text. I would like to suggest that the text in Philippians 2:6-11 is an encomium to Christ. What is encomium? An encomium is “praise speech” common in the Greco-Roman world in honor of a person. It may also be for a thing. It may be directed toward a man or a god. It was common for rhetoricians to praise the acts of men in war, Olympiads, etc.
There are many manuals of rhetoric from which we can draw our understanding of the form. Some address the content of the form more heavily; others, the stylistic elements. Gorgias (485 BC – 380 BC), Greek rhetorician, wrote his famous “Encomium to Helen” in which he defined poetry as “speech with meter”, distinguishing it from the rhetoric he himself was using. Aristotle wrote a chapter in his own Rhetoric; it is his section on the encomium where I will concentrate my study.
When describing the form of an encomium, Aristotle commends the following rules:
1. Praise a man for his noble virtues (not for his possessions, nor vices, nor physical appearance).
2. Praise a man for his acts and demonstrate that the intentions of those actions were noble.
3. Praise a man if his deeds were unique or he was the first to do them.
4. Praise a man’s future deeds if we know He is the one who would do them.
4. Praise a man in such a way that it urges other men to do the same.
That last point is especially important for our reading of this text of Scripture. As such, I will quote the section:
To praise a man is in one respect akin to urging a course of action. The suggestions which would be made in the latter case become encomiums when differently expressed. When we know what action or character is required, then, in order to express these facts as suggestions for action, we have to change and reverse our form of words. Thus the statement “A man should be proud not of what he owes to fortune but of what he owes to himself,” if put like this, amounts to a suggestion; to make it into praise we must put it thus, “Since he is proud not of what he owes to fortune but of what he owes to himself.” Consequently, whenever you want to praise any one, think what you would urge people to do; and when you want to urge the doing of anything, think what you would praise a man for having done.
So let’s turn back to our text with these principles in mind:
5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus:
Praise a man in such a way that it urges others to do the same
6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,
Praise a man for his noble virtues…and what greater nobility or virtue could there be than the highest good, which is God?
7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.
Praise a man for his acts and his noble intentions…and here Paul is subverting the logic of the form in a brilliant way. He is taking those things which would seem less noble – being of no reputation, being a bondservant, condescending as man. However, Aristotle also comments that “inappropriate actions are noble if they are better and nobler than the appropriate ones would be.” It would be appropriate for God the Son to not take on flesh on the one hand, since He has no need to do so in and of Himself. Yet, He graciously condescends to do so. His incarnation – His giving of Himself – is for the Christian one of the highest virtues.
8 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.
Same as the above for verse 7. However here I would also add that Paul is praising Christ for doing something unique: having perfect obedience even unto death.
9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name,10 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,
Christ is here praised for doing something unique: having the name above every name, being the one true King of the nations.
11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Implied here is that all will confess that Christ is Lord, therefore he is worthy of praise in the future and will bring all nations to himself. He is praised for his future acts on the basis of what has come before. It is also urging others to confess the name of Christ. Through all of this, he gives glory to the Father, who is the ultimate end of all praise.
We see based on the above, that it is a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that Paul intended to praise Christ according to a Hellenistic form which would have been known to his audience. This was not uncommon for Paul to do and what we see him doing elsewhere