Theology found – and not to be found – in Greek participles

Part II: Philippians 2:7–8

The importance of Philippians 2:5–11 can hardly be overestimated. The text is cited in places where it does not seem to belong and is mentioned even at moments one was not anticipating any mention. So, in preparation for a class on the Pauline Epistles, I was reading the entry on “God” in the recently released second edition of the Dictionary of Paul and his Letters (2023). You don’t expect a lengthy discussion of Christology, but then again how can you say, “God our Father” and not immediately add “and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The quote that struck me is the following:

Philippians 2:6–11 may have its origin in liturgical, hymnic traditions before Paul, but if so, Paul has added his distinctive touches and made the theology of the hymn his own. The passage begins with a description of Christ Jesus being in the form of God. Rather than considering his preexistent equality with God as something to be used to his own advantage, he interpreted that equality in his human life of self-emptying. That humiliation is spelled out as Jesus’ taking the form of a slave, becoming human, and subjecting himself to the horror of death on a cross (see Gal 2:20).

DPL, 378; emphasis added

This is the standard Reformed reading of Philippians 2:5–11. Catholics and Lutherans have a different understanding. By the way, the passage is read (every year) on the Sunday of the Passion, and not on Christmas! It has nothing to do with the preexistent Son of God, for Paul would hardly say that God sent “Christ Jesus.”

Regarding the hymnic nature of the passage, this has been challenged in recent times (see, for example, Charles H. Cosgrove, “The Syntax of Early Christian Hymns and Prayers,” Early Christianity 9 [2018], 158–180.). Assuming that it is a hymn of some sort, the point I like to make is that exegetes pay lip service to the hymnic character of the passage, because it has no bearing on their reading of the text. For it to be hymnic—biblical poetry, for that matter—it must show poetic features. And, if poetic features can be identified, they must be taken into account (and not simply mentioned in passing). When trying to spot biblical poetry, one begins looking for parallelism. And behold, there is a parallelism: “Being born in the likeness of men and being found in human form.” However, translations and exegetes normally destroy the parallelism, ripping it apart and saying, “(he) emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself.” Differing from what is found in Nestle-Aland28, for example, translations (KJV, RSV, etc.) even transfer the second half of the parallelism (“And being found in human form”) to a new verse, verse 8!

The structure of Philippians 2:7–8 is the following: finite verb #1 (ἐκένωσεν, “he emptied himself”); participle #1 (λαβών, “taking the form of a servant”); participle #2 (γενόμενος, “becoming as human beings are”); participle #3 (εὑρεθείς, “being found in human form”); finite verb #2 (ἐταπείνωσεν, “he humbled himself”); participle #4 (γενόμενος, “becoming obedient to the point of death”). In short, it is finite verb, participle, participle, participle, finite verb, participle. Two finite verbs, which seem to be parallel (ἐκένωσεν, “he emptied himself,” and ἐταπείνωσεν, “he humbled himself”), and four participles. And now the participles come into play. Yes, there is theology found—and not to be found!—in participles. The general rule for Greek participles says that “participles that precede the main verb have the effect of backgrounding the action with respect to the main verb of the clause; most participles that follow the main verb elaborate on the main verbal action” (Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 101). If this is true, two participles (#1 and #4) clearly elaborate on the main verbal actions: he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant; he humbled himself, becoming obedient. The question that remains is, What about the participles of the center portion, participles #2 and #3, the participles that constitute a parallelism (“being born [γενόμενος] in the likeness of men and being found [εὑρεθείς] in human form”), but are normally ripped apart?

If “becoming as human beings are and being found in human form” constitutes a parallelism—and this is to be expected in a “hymn”—the parallelism should be taken seriously. And since the parallelism precedes a main verb, it has the effect of backgrounding! In light of this, Philippians 2:7–8 must be translated as follows: “Christ Jesus (the incarnate Son of God) emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Born in the likeness of men and found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.” This exegesis (and translation) was put forward by Joachim Jeremias (himself a Lutheran), in an article in Novum Testamentum in the year 1963. However, since the article is in German and does not tally with the “critical orthodoxy” in this case, it is solemnly ignored. However, Charles Cosgrove (in the essay mentioned earlier) provides the same translation: “(he) emptied himself, taking (λαβών) the form of a slave. Being (γενόμενος) in human likeness and being found (εὑρεθείς) in form as a human being, he humbled himself, becoming (γενόμενος) obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Cosgrove, 169; emphasis original.)

Dr. Vilson Scholz is a visiting professor of Exegetical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis

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One response to “Theology found – and not to be found – in Greek participles”

  1. Paul Raabe Avatar
    Paul Raabe

    Many thanks for this very helpful explanation, Dr. Scholz.
    I have noticed also in other places that the Apostle Paul can
    refer to the incarnate Son and then back up in time to refer to
    his incarnation (e.g., Romans 1:1-3; 8:1-3).
    In Colossians 1:13-16 Paul begins with the incarnate Son and then
    backs up to refer to him as the agent of creation. The Nicene Creed
    does this as well. Thanks again.

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