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Harpagmos IV: Ralph Martin’s Carmen Christi

January 21, 2012

Ralph Martin’s Carmen Christi had already proposed that the equality with God that Christ refused was not the same as Christ being in the form of God, and yet Martin defended Christ’s equal authority with God. Martin’s position was somewhat different from previous traditional views, and similar to Burk’s in terms of syntax, but remained fully orthodox. Here is a brief review of traditional translation options first.

The Vulgate had “non rapinam arbitratus est esse se æqualem Deo:” translated as “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God,” and Erasmus and Calvin had the same. John Owen also defends this position. This was the firm opinion of the Latin Fathers, as well as Chrysostom. This is the one which we usually hold to be orthodox, the armor against Arianism and heresy.

But in the 19th century, and possibly earlier, alternatives appeared. Thayer’s Lexicon had “a thing to be seized upon or to be held fast, retained,” and variations on this theme appear in many translations today, RSV, ESV, NASB, NET, NIV 1984, to name a few. Of course, this could be understood as seizing on something one does not have, or, conversely, retaining something that one does have. The Liddell, Scott, Jones Lexicon had “robbery, rape” and “prize to be grasped.” These are different possibilities that appear legitimately in many Bible translations.

While the traditional translation, “robbery” was grafted into the collective consiousness as an unequivocal armament against heresy, later translations became open to multiple interpretations. Was Christ “not seizing” something that he had no right to, or “not retaining” something he had every right to? I can find no commentator, previous to Denny Burk, who claims that Christ was grasping for something he had no right to and who is also within the orthodox tradition. Of course, this is why Burk says that he is opening the way to a new intepretation. However Ralph Martin defends the view that “equality with God” is not the same as “in the form of God” and therefore precedes Burk in this respect.

Ralph Martin’s position is described by Wright in this way, The Climax of the Covenant, 1993, pages 65-68,

Christ existed eternally in the form of God, but refused to snatch at the further honour of world sovereignty (‘being equal with God’), choosing instead to receive it as the result of obedient suffering and death.

His view is that Christ was always in the form of God, but that he did not yet possess equality with God. Refusing to snatch at this hgher state, he attained it instead by the path of humble suffering and death.

But in Martin’s own words, he still retains belief in the original orthodox interpretation as well. Martin writes, (cited from Wright)

His installation as Kyrios betokens that “equality with God” which he refused to aspire to in His own right. Yet it properly belonged to Him;

He had the equality with God as His Image, but refused to exploit it to His personal gain.

Ultimately, it seems that Martin’s view is not so different from the traditional. However, he wants to emphasize, not the right of Christ to equality with God, but the path of suffering and death leading to sovereignty. The important thing is that Martin agrees with Burk’s grammatical point, but disagrees with Burk on the sovereignty of Christ. For Martin, Christ is sovereign Lord, a position attained through the path of suffering. For Burk, Christ is eternally and immutably subordinate to God, causing him to be the one in the Trinity who must suffer.

Martin concludes, Carmen Christi, page 237 (unfortunately I have used an electronic version for the first citation that does not exactly match the edition I link to. I hope the sense is the same. )

In the light of verse 11, the supreme name is that of ‘Lord’. The root meaning of this term (kyrios), used in the LXX to translate the divine name Yahweh, though with a possible Christian influence at work, denotes rulership based upon competent and authoritative power, the ability to dispose of what one possesses. In view of its special connection with the name of God in the Old Testament the giving of the name in this context declares that Jesus Christ is installed in the place which properly belongs to God himself as Lord of all creation. Of this fact there are, according to the subsequent verses, two outstanding proofs.

He continues still on page 237,

The train of argument is that Christ in his pre-existance, declined to grasp what might have been his possession, viz. equality with God. At the close of His mission He returns to His Father’s presence and is given the exact counterpart of what proved the substance of His choice. He is exalted to the rank of dignity of God as God’s equal, exercising the very authority which God alone may properly exercise.

My understanding is that for Martin, ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων and τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, are considered to refer to two different things. In this Martin agrees with Burk. But in his theological implications, Martin is orthodox regarding Christ’s authority.

Contrary to my expectation, I truly cannot find any commentator that I have ever heard of, at any rate, who suggests that Christ was being commended in this passage for not grasping at something which he had no right to. That doesn’t mean that this does not exist, but at least that it is not well known, or was never commonly accepted, or I simply can’t find it.

In writing this post, I have taken a bit of an excursion to read passages of Martin’s Carmen Christi, 2005, and also his A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in recent interpretation & in the setting of early Christian worship, 1997. In the latter, on page lxx in the preface to the 1997 edition, Martin responds to the very paragraph in N. T. Wright’s article*  that Burk also takes exception to. While Burk wrote his entire paper in 2000 on the articular infinitive, Martin was able to summarize the argument in a footnote. He writes,

I don’t actually understand why Denny Burk did not cite Martin or why he presented his paper as if it contained new information. It appears to me, having spent many hours reading about ten scholarly papers and articles on this topic, it is not a dicusssion of substance. To my eyes, Burk’s entire thesis is summed up in Marin’s footnote. However, Martin draws from it opposite conclusions regarding the sovereignty and authority of Christ.

Compare Burk’s conclusion with Martin’s footnote,

Likewise, the article in the articular infinitive in Philippians 2:6 functions to distinguish the grammatical object from the accusative complement. Indeed, the article is required in this case in order for the clause to be grammatically intelligible. Notice the word order in Philippians 2:6, oujc aJrpagmoVn hJghvsato toV ei ai i[sa qew’/. Without the article, by virtue of word order we would naturally be more inclined to consider aJrpagmovn as the grammatical object instead of the infinitive. In such a scenario, there would be some confusion as to how to view the object aJrpagmovn in relationship to the infinitive. The infinitive would not be the complement, but the neuter plural i[sa would. Of course this would make almost no grammatical sense as aJrpagmovn is singular and i[sa is plural. The syntactical confusion that would accompany the absence of the article in such a hypothetical situation illustrates the necessity of the article’s presence in this clause. In Phil 2:6 we have an example of a reversed order object-complement construction. Therefore, the article serves to mark the accusative infinitive phrase (toV ei ai i[sa qew’/’) as the grammatical object of the finite verb (hJghvsato), thereby distinguishing it from the accusative complement (aJrpagmovn).

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 (toV ei ai i[sa qew’/’) with form of God (morfh’/ qeou’) 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.

Now compare their conclusions regarding the authority of Christ. Burk writes,

On the one hand, Millard Erickson writes that the Son’s “equality with God” is a reference to the Son’s “equal authority” with the Father—“something he already possessed” in his preincarnate state. On the other hand, Wayne Grudem writes that “equality with God” refers to the Son’s “equality in glory and honor in heaven, which Christ gave up in coming to earth.”  For Erickson, the Son temporarily laid aside his “equal authority” with the Father in the incarnation in order to submit to the Father during his earthly life only. The Son’s equal authority was restored to him after the resurrection. Thus in Erickson’s view, there would be no eternal subordination in role of the Son to the Father. For Grudem, the text still allows for the Son to be submitted to his Father from all eternity.

And Martin writes,

The train of argument is that Christ in his pre-existance, declined to grasp what might have been his possession, viz. equality with God. At the close of His mission He returns to His Father’s presence and is given the exact counterpart of what proved the substance of His choice. He is exalted to the rank of dignity of God as God’s equal, exercising the very authority which God alone may properly exercise.

I would appreciate thoughts from others on what has happened here. I don’t understand why Denny Burk did not acknowledge Martin’s work in his paper. I have spent a lot of time tracking down something that should have appeared in the literature review.
* Tom Wright’s 1986 JTS article “hARPAGMOS and the Meaning of Phillipians 2:5-11″ (vol 37, pp. 321-352)
6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 21, 2012 7:02 am

    Why the neuter plural ἴσα? There is nothing neuter plural in the preceding context (except for σπλάγχνα!) for this to agree with, and one would surely expect a masculine singular here, referring to Jesus. Is there some subtle implied referent which might cast new light on what equality with God means here? Have Burk, Martin or the others you read explained this?

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    January 21, 2012 9:06 am

    Here is one answer, elsewhere called the adverbial use of the neuter plural.

  3. January 21, 2012 9:20 am

    Thanks for the link. The case doesn’t exactly fit Buttman’s supposed rule, which seems unlikely to me. But if the phrase with the neuter plural was in fact a well known idiom going back to Homer, that would explain why it doesn’t decline.

  4. January 21, 2012 5:42 pm

    I find the difference in the conclusions of Burk and Martin to be extremely scary. Martin emphasizes what I’ve always thought of as a central Christian dogma with deep impact on how we approach the Christian life: Christ’s victory comes about not through frying his enemies with fire from heaven and having statues made of his victory but through suffering and death. Martin underlines this Christian mystery: victory through suffering and death. It is suffering and death that exalts Christ who is our model. We should not look on suffering for others as lesser but as the highest calling.

    Burk, on the other hand, suggests that Jesus suffers exactly because he doesn’t hold the heavenly clout to get out of it. I hate to think what path that would lead one down.

  5. January 27, 2012 2:47 am

    Gerard Ellis has just submitted a thesis on the word harpagmos. You could email him and chat. He’s very friendly.

    ‘IwlIj jachjaj

  6. Ken Banks permalink
    December 12, 2015 5:52 pm

    Excellent article

    Burk does briefly address Martin in his initial masters thesis. One reason for not giving Martin such a prominent place is that Martin is largely repeating the ideas of others who have argued for a passive sense here (notably Lightfoot). The unique positions are those of Moule (an active sense like the Latin Church Fathers), Hoover (who argued for idiomatic usage) and Wright who argued that Paul was repeating what had said in the previous statement (I would argue that this could be considered an active sense as well).

    Burk is even more troubling since you wrote this article where he has argued for outright Subordinationism (while claiming to still be orthodox).

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