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Harpagmos III: Burk’s Articular Infinitive

January 19, 2012

Here is the core of Denny Burk’s work on the articular infinitive. He rightly demonstrates that the article τὸ in the following phrase does not prove that “to be equal with God” necessarily relates back “being in the form of God.” There is no internal necessity from the presence of the article for these two phrases to be synonymous.

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

Wright had made the claim,

A further reason, not usually noticed, for taking to einai isa thew in close connection with os en morfh theou uparchwn is the regular usage of the articular infinitive (here, to einai) to refer ‘to something previously mentioned or otherwise well known.

Burk correctly responds with a complex grammatical analysis, which I have read, and don’t have any points of discussion with at this point. He writes in his student paper,

For this reason, the syntactical use of the article as a function marker is the primary reason for the article’s presence in Philippians 2:6. Indeed it is a necessity. Thus, certainly in this situation it is clear enough that the grammatical/structural significance of the article is far more prominent than any supposed semantic significance. Whereas there is really no evidence to attribute a semantic force to the article, there is every reason to attribute a syntactical one to it. This being said, we should not equate equality with God (to einai isa thew) with form of God (morfh theou) simply because of the presence of the article. If one is going to equate these two phrases, he/she must argue for this identification on other grounds. The presence of the accusative article simply does not support equating the two phrases.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Hoover’s article is only briefly mentioned by Burk in a footnote, and it contains substantial grounds for arguing that harpagmos refers to something that one already has. (I have just finished reading Hoover’s paper and I will write about it soon.) However, Burk does not elaborate on the fact that there already exists other grounds for identifying “being equal to God” with “being in the form of God.”

In his student paper, Burk then goes on to say,

I propose that if the author had intended to equate the two phrases he could have simply stated, although He existed in the form of God, He did not regard being in the form of God as a thing to be grasped for (ejn morfh’/ qeou’ uJpavrcwn oujc aJrpagmoVn hJghvsato toV ei ai ejn morfh’/ qeou’/). However, the very fact that the author chose to use different phraseology indicates that he wishes to denote differing realities, not synonymous ones.

This particular argument does not reappear in any of Burk’s later revisions of this paper, so I assume that he does not intend to defend it. Therefore I will not argue against it.

In the2004 version in the Tyndale Bulletin, Burk writes only,

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 paper as it was recently posted on the CBMW website, Burk writes,

The primary theological implication of this exegesis is that we have removed any grammatical basis for a necessary semantic link between “form of God” and “equality with God.” In the absence of an explicit link between these two items and in the absence of evidence showing that they are linked on other grounds, we should not assume too quickly that the two phrases are synonymous. There is no prima facie basis to regard them as synonymous, and it is therefore possible that they refer to two separate realities.

What Burk has done is open up the possibility that “being equal to God” may not be the same thing as “being in the form of God.” What Burk has not done is demonstrate that it is more likely that these two refer to separate realities. In fact, previous exegetes had not relied on the grammatical argument that the article made the second phrase refer back to the first. Wright introduced this notion, only as a brief addition to other arguments that are substantial.

In additon to this, Burk does not acknowledge the work of Ralph Martin, who also believes that “being equal to God” does not refer to “being in the form of God.” However, Martin certainly does not come to the same theological conclusions as Burk. Therefore, Burk’s theological implications do not necessarily flow from his grammatical argument. He opens up the grammatical possibility, and then leaps straight into an assumption that Christ is subordinate.

In the papers that I read, Burk has not engaged with Hoover’s article, or with any commentary other than with one paragraph of Wright’s paper. He has, in my view, responded to an argument of Wright’s which comprises no more than a drop in the bucket of Wright’s overall treatment of the topic. Burk may open up a way to argue his point for a subordinate Christ, but he does not address the substantial literature on this verse which spans 2000 years.

I find it odd that he was able to progress to the conclusions that he did in his student paper and in his paper on the CBMW website. Those two papers, with their discourse on the subordinate Christ and the obedient wife, are merely a case of preaching to the converted. Burk is defending the possibility that Christ is subordinate, but he does not prove Christ’s subordination.  The more restrained article published in the Tyndale Bulletin, does no more than it should in concluding with “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.” It ends there, as it should.

Yes, I agree, it is grammatically possible. This does not necessarily support the sweeping theological implications that Burk sets forth. More on Hoover and Martin later.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2012 5:19 am

    My reaction on seeing this verse discussed in Greek is that we have a Hebrew-style poetic parallelism, of the kind which builds from the first line to the second (I forget the technical term). I see a clear XY-YX type of structure, with ὑπάρχων linked to οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν by strong alliteration (which could explain the word choice here), and the two X’s linked semantically. If this were a couplet of Hebrew poetry, this would be taken as a strong argument that ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ and τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ are essentially synonymous. Can it be used as a similar argument in Greek poetry written (or at least quoted) by Paul, a Hebraic Jew?

  2. January 20, 2012 9:14 am

    Your point is important and powerful. There are very good reasons — as you show — to consider what Paul has written here as Hebraic poetry in Greek form. At the very least, we all tend rightly to read poetry as more or less ambiguous, and I think Suzanne is right to concede that Denny Burk does “open up the possibility” of another view.

    Now, if we all were to be as dogmatic as Burk seems to be (i.e., actually closing up the reality of the view that Jesus is both ontologically and functionally equal to God in Paul’s view), then we have to wrap our heads around this rather narrow conclusion.

    Burk’s conclusion, as I see it, is that Jesus is a demigod, that is not really fully God in function. And this half-divine being is really okay with that, doesn’t grasp for all-divine functioning, and therefore becomes an example for Christians in hierarchy:

    Female Christians shouldn’t grasp for all of the functions that male Christians have. Females may be ontologically equal, and yet there’s something not quite the same as males — and actually an unequalness as demigods are unequal to gods — that would argues that women, in home and in church, must not grasp for certain functions only for the fully men.

    (On poetry and argument, Sir Philip Sidney has already said much that’s helpful in his “The Defense of Poesy.” Rather ironically, nonetheless, we all have to notice that Sir Philip is hardly using poetry to defend it. Poetry works on so many other and different levels and in very many different dimensions than does rhetorical prose. And, just this morning, I was listening to a song by the rock group Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nix singing. Her poetic chorus is written and sung as consolation, as sure knowing — and yet, in Denny Burk style we might “open up the possibility” that the lyrics are actually contradicting the facts of pure science and therefore are really saying there is no consoling going on, rather a mocking by Ms. Nix of the one she is singing to:

    Thunder only happens when it’s raining
    Players only love you when they’re playing
    Women, they will come and they will go
    When the rain washes you clean, you’ll know

    Well: thunder happens sometimes, in fact, when it’s not raining. Therefore, the rain washing you clean is just a logical fallacy of begging the question. Therefore, the firm conclusion must be: you will never know when to get over your lover who’s hurt you. More than that: you will not know anything ever. Period.

    Fortunately, Paul makes clear what he’s doing with the poetic lines by writing an entire epistle, and within that — around the lyrics — appealing rather clearly to his fellows all on equal footing already, both ontologically and functionally.)

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