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Harpagmos I: Preview

January 16, 2012

This is a first attempt to respond to a question regarding the Greek word harpagmos translated as “robbery” in the KJV of Philippians 2:6. On Jan. 5, here, I received this request,


I don’t think this is the correct place to ask this, but I would be interested in your take on some of the hyper-complimentarian positions regarding the eternal subordination of Christ.

Denny Burk tried to argue in the last issue of CBMW that Jesus the Son is eternally subordinate from God the father, by using Phil. 2:6. He is arguing specifically against Erickson, who is an egal.

But my understanding is that the historical view of this particular passage SUPPORTS the fact that Christ was fully equal with the Father in eternity, but laid aside his right to equality, so that he could submit to the Father in the incarnation.

John Calvin on Phil. 2:6-8 “The consideration of the divine grace and wisdom herein the apostle proposeth unto us, Phil. 2:6-8 . . . Adam being in the form–that is, the state and condition–of a servant, did by robbery attempt to take upon him the ‘form of God,’ or to make himself equal unto him. The Lord Christ being in the ‘form of God’–that is, his essential form, of the same nature with him–accounted it no robbery to be in the state and condition of God, to be ‘equal to him;’ but being made in the ‘fashion of a man,’ taking on him our nature, he also submitted unto the form or the state and condition of a servant therein. He had dominion over all, owed service and obedience unto none, being in the ‘form of God,’ and equal unto him–the condition which Adam aspired unto; but he condescended unto a state of absolute subjection and service for our recovery. This did no more belong unto him on his own account, than it belonged unto Adam to be like unto God, or equal to him. Wherefore it is said that he humbled himself unto it, as Adam would have exalted himself unto a state of dignity which was not his due.”

Would you be interested in addressing Burk and others’ false view of the trinity? Thanks!

Jeff subsequently provided a link to a piece he wrote on the topic. And yes, Deb, any place is the right place to ask questions!

As Deb indicates, this discussion can be focused on the two separate poles – at one end, the Christ who is fully equal to God, who does not think it robbery to be equal with God; at the other end, the subordinate Christ who does not go after being equal with God. Calvin sets forth the first option,

being in the ‘form of God,’ and equal unto him

and Denny Burk the second,

although Jesus actually possessed an identical characteristic of his Father with respect to his deity (i.e., “he existed in the form of God”), he did not want to grasp after another role that was not his – namely “equality with God.”

Here is the relevant passage from Philippians 2,

5Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God,
thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation,
and took upon him the form of a servant,
and was made in the likeness of men:
And being found in fashion as a man,
he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him,
and given him a name which is above every name:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. KJV


5 τοῦτο [e]φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν
ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ,
ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων
οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,
ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών,
ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος·
καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος
ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ·
διὸ καὶ ὁ θεὸς αὐτὸν ὑπερύψωσεν,
καὶ ἐχαρίσατο αὐτῷ [f]τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ὑπὲρ πᾶν ὄνομα,
ἵνα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ πᾶν γόνυ κάμψῃ ἐπουρανίων καὶ ἐπιγείων καὶ καταχθονίων,
καὶ πᾶσα γλῶσσα ἐξομολογήσηται ὅτι κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς εἰς δόξαν θεοῦ πατρός. SBLGNT

In preparing to write on this topic and respond to Denny Burk’s article, I was substantially surprised by three seaprate things. The first is that there is a rich and diverse literature on the word harpagmos which does not give itself to a binary interpretation, an either/or debate between orthodoxy and heresy. There is much to be gained from scanning these historical commentaries. Some of the relevant commentaries are listed at the end of this post. There are significant contributions from both sides of the grammatical argument which Denny Burk presents in his article, and these are not easily lined up as either correct or false.

In order to respond in a fresh way, and in a way that will distance us from highly charged theological language, I propose a discussion of Iphegenia and Alcestis, two women in Greek tragedies who emulate the sentiment of this hymn. The former is a princess who offers herself as a sacrifice for her people, and the other a wife who dies for her husband.  Well-known male literary works which deal with this theme are Prometheus Bound, The Dream of the Rood, and the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

Second, in the article which Deb links to there is no mention of gender roles. Dragging gender roles into the discussion may seem like derailing the analysis of a grammatical and exegetical issue with purely theological implications. However, Dr. Burk’s article as published in the JBMW Volume 16 No. 2 (Fall 2011) on the CBMW website is the third version of this article. The second version was published in the Tyndale Bulletin 55.2 (2004) 253-274 and the first version was presented at the southwestern regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in spring 2000.

In the most rhetorically restrained and academic form of the article, published in 2004 in the Tyndale Bulletin, the conclusion reads,

In conclusion, my argument can be summed up as follows. Many commentators and grammarians see ‘form of God’ and ‘equality with God’ as semantic equivalents. This semantic equivalence is based in part on the erroneous assumption of a grammatical link between ‘form of God’ and ‘equality with God’. This supposed grammatical link consists of an anaphoric use of the articular infinitive, ‘the being equal with God’ (τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ). What I have shown is that this link has little grammatical basis and should be discarded. The exegetical result is that it is grammatically possible to regard ‘form of God’ and ‘equality with God’ not as synonymous phrases, but as phrases with distinct meanings. Therefore, if N. T. Wright and others want to link these two phrases as two ways of referring to the same thing, they will have to do so on other grounds.

In the 2011 version, in the JBMW, the paper includes “theological implications” (this section is not found in the Tyndale version of the paper). The theological implication is found here. No mention of gender.

In his preexistent state, Jesus decided not to pursue “equality,” but to pursue incarnation. Paul argues here that in his pre-incarnate state, Christ’s existed as qeo,j[theos]. Yet in this pre-incarnate existence, Christ Jesus did not seek to be like qeo,j [theos] in every respect. Paul pictures Christ Jesus (Cristw|/  vIhsou|/) as identified with God (qeo,j) in one respect, but distinguished from Him in another respect. Christ, before all time, preexisted in the form of God, but he did not forsake his unique role in order to be like God the Father in every way. The pre-incarnate Christ shared the Father’s deity, but he did not try to usurp the Father’s role. The Father would send the Son, and the Son would submit to being sent. In eternity past, the Son submitted to this plan.

However, in the original version of the paper, presented in 2000, we can read,

There are some ecclesiological ramifications that emerge from this view of the Trinity. First of all, it is neither unbiblical nor disrespectful to say that men and women fulfill different roles in the church and in the home. Because the great apostle has said elsewhere that the relationship of God the Father to God the Son is the paradigm for the relationships that exists between husband and wife in the home and men and women in the church (1 Cor 11:3), there is a great dignity in fulfilling the role that God has appointed for each individual. Just as the Father and Son are One in essence but distinct in their Persons, so there is a corresponding reality in earthly relationships between men and women. For instance, though wives are commanded to fulfill a role of obedience to their husbands (1 Pet 3:1), redeemed husbands and wives are one in their standing before God; they are fellow heirs of the grace of life (1 Pet 3:7). There is no essential inequality here, only a functional one. In this understanding, the man is no more superior in worth or significance over his wife than the Father is over Christ. On the contrary, the fulfilling of the roles appointed by God is ultimately a very glorious thing (Phil 2:11).

It surprised me that this application was made explicit by Burk. But you have his word for it. To my knowledge this is the first time in the history of interpretation that this passage has been used to enjoin wifely obedience rather than humility for all Christians.

The third thing that I discovered – it surprised me and it didn’t, at the same time –  is that Burk wrote this article as his Th. M. thesis while he was an intern of Dan Wallace, with data supplied by Dr. Wallace. This explains the many similarities between this study and the Junia article, which I could not help but notice. Dr. Wallace is also the author of the Biblical Gynecology papers which present man and woman in the home as leader and responder. Dr. Wallace is senior New Testament editor of the NET Bible. He is also the executive director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.

What follows is a list of resources I expect to use in writing on this topic, although it may be a while before I can commit to further posts.

John Owen

R. W. Hoover (I hereby make a plea for help in getting access to this article.)
Rod Decker’s summary of Hoover’s position
Craig Blomberg
Denny Burk 2000, 2004, 2011

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2012 10:36 am

    One has to suspect a “gender” discussion reason for Denny Burk’s posting at the blog of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

    He really may be interested in a wider audience for his thoughts about his interpretation of Philippians 2:6 in particular and all he’s written in his dissertation – “Articular Infinitives in the Greek of the New Testament: On the Exegetical Benefit of Grammatical Precision” – in general.

    Nonetheless, how he frames his post is curious. He starts with this opener:

    Recent years have seen some disagreement between hierarchalists and non-hierarchalists…

    And he ends with this firm, unequivocal conclusion:

    Therefore, in Paul’s Christology “form of God” is something that Jesus possessed by virtue of his deity, while “equality with God” is not. In fact, “equality with God” is best understood as a role that Jesus refused to pursue so that he could pursue his redemptive work in the incarnation.

    Clearly, the interest from beginning to end is to persuade readers that Paul and Jesus and God and the inspired Greek they all use (even translated into ESV English) is hierarchical and is therefore not non-hierarchical. CBMW blog readers may then infer that it’s not only just okay that men and women in the churches equate the following two notions:

    1) “the ontological equality of Father and Son while maintaining the functional subordination

    is equal to

    2) “the ontological equality of men and women while maintaining the functional subordination

    But CBMW readers must also surmise that there may be heresy if one reads Phil 2:6 any other way; therefore it would be equal heresy to assume that “biblical women” should shirk their biblically Christlike “functional subordination” to “biblical men” in their homes and in the church.

    Suzanne, You’re right as we can all see to show that Burke has elsewhere and more candidly made this explicit connection, saying:

    There is no essential inequality here, only a functional one. In this understanding, the man is no more superior in worth or significance over his wife than the Father is over Christ. On the contrary, the fulfilling of the roles appointed by God is ultimately a very glorious thing (Phil 2:11).

  2. January 16, 2012 11:05 am

    Denny Burk says:

    There is no essential inequality here, only a functional one. In this understanding, the man is no more superior in worth or significance over his wife than the Father is over Christ. On the contrary, the fulfilling of the roles appointed by God is ultimately a very glorious thing (Phil 2:11).

    But Jesus (in the gospel of John translated into Greek by John and then into English by the ESV translators) says:

    10:27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

    Then his enemies pick up stones to execute him on the spot. Why? Well, they explain: “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

    And Jesus doesn’t hide behind some “glorious” functional “inequality” here. He has already said “my hand” and “My Father’s hand” function equally. There’s no snatching my own out of my hand, no snatching my Father’s own out of His hand. Nope. Equal grips here. We are not doing different roles here. We have exactly the same and equal role. And John repeats this: οὐχ ἁρπάσει τις αὐτὰ ἐκ τῆς χειρός μου AND οὐδεὶς δύναται ἁρπάζειν ἐκ τῆς χειρὸς τοῦ πατρός. (Notice, this is one of those New Testament Harpagmos passages). The John has Jesus assert: ἐγὼ καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ἕν ἐσμεν.

    But John has Jesus paraphrase this after the threat of the stoning: ἐν ἐμοὶ ὁ πατὴρ κἀγὼ ἐν τῷ πατρί

    So, we imagine an egalitarian biblical model for marriage and a equal-function of parenting focus on the family here.

    The wife says publicly:

    My children hear my voice, and I know them, and they honor me and trust my guidance. I give them life and life’s essentials, and they will never be kicked out of my home, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My husband, by whom I got pregnant, is the greatest man I know, and no one is able to snatch my children out of his hand. I and my husband are one.

    Then the complementarian legalists come in to object:

    “It is not for being a good parent that we are going to question you but for your unbiblical views, because you, being a wife and mother, make yourself a husband and a father.”

    This egalitarian wife and mother then replies in a way equal to Jesus’ repeated reply:

    My husband and I are one. My husband is in my domain, and I am in his.

  3. January 16, 2012 12:03 pm

    Bringing John into the discussion is a nice touch. It would seem that Burk is destroying some rather essential Trinitarian arguments by arguing that one cannot read the equivalence passages as equivalence.

    I see that Burk says, “Therefore, if N. T. Wright and others want to link these two phrases as two ways of referring to the same thing, they will have to do so on other grounds.” Does anyone know whether Burk is referring to some specific work by Wright on this topic? I’d be interested in reading that work.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 16, 2012 12:09 pm

    Tom Wright’s 1986 JTS article “hARPAGMOS and the Meaning of
    Phillipians 2:5-11” (vol 37, pp. 321-352)

    I haven’t been able to access a copy yet. It is frustrating that Burk does not actually cite Wright.

    Also, Burk does not say that you can’t read form of God and equality with God as equivalent, but rather that there is no grammatical necessity to do so.

    I appreciate Kurk bringing another use of harpazo into this discussion. Great touch!

  5. Dana Ames permalink
    January 16, 2012 1:57 pm

    On the list of publications on the N.T. Wrightpage, it says the article was considerably expanded for “The Climax of the Covenant” ch 4. So if you can get your hands on that book, Suzanne, it would probably be of more value to you.

    Incidentally, Wright has changed how he is going to develop the next of his Christian Origins books. It was originally going to be one “big book” on Paul, but instead he now envisions three volumes, combining and setting forth all he has written on Paul *since* “Climax”. So I think he sees “Climax” as both prefatory and paradigmatic.

    In that chapter, he sets forth the interpretations of LIghtfoot, Martin and others, then comes along to Moule’s theology and Hoover’s philology, and says that if Hoover is right (which he thinks is the case), H’s interpretation undercuts everything. You’ll be able to understand the philological argument far better than I.

    What continues to boggle my mind is that some people are so willing to dismantle the Trinity and tamper with the meaning of the Incarnation – “orthodox” Christology if there ever was, over which the same people would presumably be up in arms if it were being undercut in any other way – simply to maintain a hierarchical view of gender relations. Un-freaking-believable.


  6. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 16, 2012 2:03 pm


    Thanks for the tips. I do find this particularly freaky. It is as if some people don’t mind selling their soul to maintain wifely obedience. I understand that they want an obedient wife – that I get. But I am amazed at the price they will pay for such a commodity.

  7. January 16, 2012 2:07 pm

    Suzanne: I am e-mailing you a copy of Wright’s article.

  8. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 16, 2012 2:33 pm

    Perfect. I have it now!

  9. January 18, 2012 5:18 pm

    Suzanne: Email me if you still need Hoover’s article.


  10. Deb W permalink
    January 18, 2012 8:48 pm

    Thank you Suzanne! I’ve just read thru the post again for the second time. I appreciate all that you’re written and the comments in the comment thread as well. Blessings,

  11. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 18, 2012 8:52 pm

    Thanks Nick. I have it now. I also bought Wright’s book. They are all quite dense reading, but this is much more interesting than I originally thought.


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