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Harpagmos V: what it means to faith

March 3, 2012

I had not intended to just let the series on harpagmos drift off, and I still plan to write about Roy Hoover’s article in the near future. It is one of those pieces of writing which needs to become better known so it can serve as a paradigmatic example of how to do exegesis. A lot of the focus on this word, harpagmos, has fallen back onto N. T. Wright’s work, whereas, it was Hoover who transformed the approach to Phil. 2:6. It was disappointing to me that Denny Burk’s paper on harpagmos did not take on Hoover at all, but responded rather to a minor point in a paper by N. T. Wright. Often it is the more popular works which draw fire, which become important contributors to debate, rather than the papers which produce the most significant and relevant new research.

As a reminder, here is Phil. 2:6 as it appears in the Greek, Latin and KJV, three versions which underly our theological thinking on this verse.

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

qui cum in forma Dei esset non rapinam arbitratus est esse se aequalem Deo

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

For now, here is a well thought-out passage written as a personal testimony to the importance of this verse to one’s faith and life. Thanks to Bill Grover for this, I have reformatted the paragraphs, and added bolding to the passage outlining Hoover’s contribution.

The Esoteric and Our Faith

Within **Evangelicalism** today ,(NOT in its conflict with liberalism, I mean within itself!), there is a debate re the Person of Christ and His role within the Trinity! There is a debate , I am saying, about the God we love!

Let the reader understand: The Evangelical Church ITSELF DOES NOT agree on the relationswhips of the Persons of the Trinity and on the Person of Christ Himself! Now I, for one, think this is very important! IMO, this is quite important enough to research and also relates, at least in my own case, and I explain why shortly, to “getting on with living”! Many Christians are not aware of this conflict over belief about something so central to Christianity, however, it should not be “esoteric” since it is central to our faith! If the discussion is “esoteric” perhaps the fault is in the Church not in the discussion.

The Esoteric , Evangelical Views on Christ

One position following the ancient belief of the Church expressed by such as Tertullian and the Nicene Creed, includes modern writers as Kitano,Berkhof, Wiley, Shedd, Williams, Lewis, Demarest, and Dahms in both ThM theses, systematics, journal articles, book reviews, and so forth . These take the position that as the “Person” or “essence” or “hupostasis” of the Son is eternally, unendingly, and necessarily generated by the Father, God the Son is therefore, because of that process, immanently and eternally in second place IN RANK. The Father is eternally “the Boss” of the Son–they say.

These mainly base their eternal generation doctrine on John’s several applications of the adjective monogenes to the Son which the KJV renders “only begotten.” My dissertation also discusses that adjective which only John applies to Christ, but that discussion too likely would be deemed too esoteric for any any practical good –even though it is about an inspired word! There is, these think, a relational hierarchy IN God (as opposed to economic,outward relations only) because the Father orders the Son about due to the Father causing the Son’s existence (but not in time).

Such literature may be “esoteric” in the sense that only a small portion of the Church reads it. Yet, the subject these discussions IS important because it is about the God of the Bible Whom we say we are to love! It relates to living because it is about the One we live with and for!! These evangelicals are talking about God the Son and what the Bible says about Him! The Son, it is thought by them, does not have life in the same manner as does the Father, neither has He knowledge, neither He has sovereignty as does the Father!! In other words, one Trinal Person has divine attributes the Other does not.

I don’t agree with that. IMO attributes reside in essence ,and as each “Person” in God has the identical essence, it follows that Each has the identical attributes. While such thoughts may be “esoteric,” that does not IMO mean that they SHOULD BE esoteric. Esoteric means read by few! That few in the Church consider these ideas important is not a measure of the worth of these ideas. It is instead a measure of the doctrinal instruction , or the lack of it, in the Church IMO Christians need to think about God, and Christians need to understand the Scriptures about Him– not just “Get on with living” !!

A second position expressed by such as Grudem is that while the Son is not eternally generated by the Father, the Son nevertheleass is eternally role subordinate to the Father. The earthly submission of Jesus is but a prolongation of God the Son eternally flittering around the emptiness of precreation carrying out dutifully the will of the Father. One effect of this notion is that it would then appear that in God there are multiple faculties of will since the will of one Trinal Person is subservient to the will of the Other. I don’t agree with that. IMO there is only one faculty of will in God.

A third position, taken ,in general, by Erickson , Buswell, Bilezikian, Derickson, Feinberg, Giles, BB Warfield, and me in my dissertation, is that the obedience of the Son began in His incarnation. The Son is not eternally and immanently role subordinate but only temporally and economically so.

I go possibly in this third position a bit further than some and say , following such as the Antiochenes, Theodoret, Leo, Chalcedon (IMO) , the Damascene, and Anselm that only the human nature in Christ is role subordinate not the divine.

Application of the Esoteric to My Living

I think Jesus is fully human with a human mind and will , and that in these He obeyed– not in His nature as God. In God, IMO, there only can be equals, and in God there can only be one mind and one will. Now as for me, this DOES have to do with my living for God, and the issue of harpagmos being an idiomatic expression relates to this. I’ll try to explain:

Were harpagmos in Phil 2:6 taken, as do Wallace in his Grammar, and Burk in his paper to the ETS, and Martin in Carmen Christi, NOT to indicate that the Son has the “equality with God,” then support is given to the position that the Son’s incarnational obedience is simply an unbroken prolongation of the Son’s eternal obedience and is carried out by the Son’s divinity through His humanity–not BY the humanity!

But Hoover’s research instead gives strength to the idea that the Son has both the form AND equality with God because harpagmos with some verbs is idiomatically used and indicates possession of the object (in this case equality) of the verb . Hoover’s research is a piece in a Christological puzzle that scholars deal with, and that I attempt to assemble in my dissertation. But that piece also has practical importance.

To me, it is practically important, despite it being “esoteric,” that the Son has equality with the Father in His form of God. That would imply,then, that it is in His humanity that Christ is obedient. Then, no hierarchy of authority IN God is necessary. Then, in Philippians 2, the Son additionally takes the form of a Servant to God. I think this “form of a Servant” is TRUE Man including human mind and will. IMO HERE is where Christ’s obedience occurs–not in the form of God. Obedience IMO is accomplished BY His humanity NOT by His deity through whatever His humanity may be.

Now this distiction of “by the humanity” vs. “through the humanity” may be “esoteric,” but it much relates to who and what Christ (the One we love) is:

1) Is Christ God working through mere human behavior patterns as say Buswell, and IMO Athanasius and Cyril too ,


2) Is Christ TRUE Man (who also is God) experiencing as TRUE Man the human condition including temptation as say such as Hodge and Clark?

[in case Hoover’s findings in all of this has not been noticed, or understood, that ‘harpagmos point’ supplies the premise that in His deity the Son is EQUAL to God, and therefore just as sovereign as the Father]

How is all this practical to me so that I can “GO ON LIVING”?? How does help me to “LOVE” Christ?

In this manner:

If Christ is true man (Jo 8:40; Acts 2:22) made like His brethren, ie, made like me (Heb 2:14,17) who grew in knowledge (Lk 2:52) , and if Christ in His humanity earned my salvation (Rom 5:15) and if it were in His humanity that He resisted temptation( Heb 2:18 ;4:15) , THEN, indeed, is He my example (Phil 2:5; 1 Pet 2:21) .

BUT if Christ is REQUIRED by the generated and/or submissive nature as Son to obey the Father, if the earthly obedience of the Son merely is an unbroken prolongation of an immanent and necessary Trinal relationship, if Christ obeyed AS GOD , then IMO my example is lost! I cannot attempt to resist temptation as God does as God cannot even be tempted!

I love Christ for that: because He is LIKE ME in His humanity , free (sidestepping predestination now) to chose obedience as Man, and He has experienced some of what I do, genuine temptation, yet He was without sin.

Hoover’s research is related to this, don’t you really see?

I’m sorry that my theological exploration of these issues ,and my exegetical research on releated texts , is deemed unprofitable by some who only need to “go in with living.”

alla ekenosen heauton,


One Comment leave one →
  1. March 4, 2012 7:51 am

    Thanks for reposting (and highlighting) Grover’s notes. Since he references Hoover, I hope the following quotation (my emphasis) from Hoover’s essay might help (especially since you get us anticipating a post on Hoover):

    Because the question has dogged the interpretation of Phil. 2:6 since the time of the Christological controversies of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, it should be observed that this understanding of the ἁρπαγμός statement carries with it the assumption that τὸ εἶναι ἶσα θεῷ represents a status which belonged to the pre-existent Christ. While this can be persuasively argued from comparative uses of μορφη and ἴσος in Hellenistic religious literature, it is bound up with the idiomatic character of the ἁρπαγμός remark itself: in every instance which I have examined this idiomatic expression refers to something already present and at one’s disposal. The question in such instances is not whether or not one possesses something, but whether or not one chooses to exploit something. Likewise, the discernment of the idiomatic character of the ἁρπαγμός expression renders untenable the view that it intends to say that Christ did not regard equality with God as something to be held fast. Neither in this idiomatic phrase nor in any other usage does ἁρπαγμα, ἁρπαγμός, or ἁρπάγζειν, or any of their compounds or cognates mean to retain something. That idea, it appears, has always been commended by theological interest rather than by philological evidence.

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