Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My Lord and My God: Grasping Equality With God

In the most recent episode of Unbelievable on Premier Christian Radio, Dr. James White squared off against Sir Anthony Buzzard over the doctrine of the Trinity. The debate was concurrently both edifying and frustrating: the former because Dr. White is a powerful defender of the faith, and I always learn something from his appearances; the latter because, as I felt compelled to tweet in the midst of the show, "So frustrating listening to non-Trinitarians debate the Trinity, their arguments are so vapid!"

I highly encourage you to listen to the show, both in general and this episode in particular. You can listen at the link above, or subscribe to the podcast. I like to listen to the podcast on my way to and from work. I wish I was aware of something similar in the States so I could listen to these kinds of debates more often (and not quite so frequently fail to understand some of the cultural references; but I do enjoy the accents).

If you listen, you'll hear Dr. White and his opponent discuss the Septuagint's rendition of Psalm 102. You'll notice that the claim is made that whereas our Bibles, based on the Masoretic text, depict the psalmist as speaking to God in verses 23 and following, the Septuagint has the direction of speech reversed. Buzzard, denying the Trinity, claims this proves that God is calling someone else the eternal "Lord," a verse the author of Hebrews says was spoken of the Son. I felt compelled to email the host of the show, letting him know that Buzzard is wrong. If you're interested, check out my previous post in this series, "You, LORD, in the Beginning." (The host agreed to read my comments on the air next week--all the more reason for you to listen!)

Moving on, during the course of the debate Dr. White presented several texts which, I agree, prove that Jesus is God. These are pretty easy to present, and don't take a lot of time to write up. Since my blog posts have been fewer and farther between than in times past, I figured I'd try and bang out a few posts in an attempt to hold your interest--those few of you, if any, who read regularly :). Today, we're going to look at Philippians 2:3-9. In my preferred translation, this reads as follows:

(3) Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; (4) do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (5) Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, (6) who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, (7) but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. (8) Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (9) For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name. (Philippians 2:3-9)


It doesn't take but a surface reading to see why this text is believed to be a "proof-text" in defense of the Trinity. But we'll get to that. I want to start by pointing out the context of this passage, that which the Apostle Paul is exhorting his readers to do. He tells them, "regard one another as more important than yourselves." This is important, as we will come to see.

But let me ask you a question: Are others more important than you? Yes of course we might say that in certain ways, the President of the United States, or Christian missionaries in third-world countries, and other people are "more important" than you are, but that's not really Paul's point. Paul is telling his readers to regard all others as more important than you, those people with whom you come into contact on a regular basis. Your friends and family, those with whom you fellowship at church. These are, more often than not, the same kind of average joe you are, and are in no identifiable way more important than you.

Thus, Paul is urging us to "regard one another as more important than yourselves" even though they are not objectively more important than you. In other words, treat those who are your equals as though they are not your equal. Keep this in mind as we continue through the text.


Having framed his point as being the consideration of equals as though they were not our equals, but instead as though they are more important than ourselves, Paul tells us to "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus." Now, if the text stopped there, one might think given the context that Paul is saying Jesus, though He is our equal, treats His fellow humans as though they are more important than He is. Certainly, Jesus humbled Himself to serve men throughout His ministry. But that's not what Paul is saying.

He goes on to say, "[Jesus], although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped." You see, Paul's point was not that Jesus treated other men, with whom He was equal, as though they were more important than Him. No, quite the contrary! Paul's point was that Jesus treated God, with whom He was equal, as more important than Him!

Really consider this for a moment. If Paul's point to us is that we should regard our equals as more important than us--and I hope we can agree that we are all, as those equally created in God's image, and as equal sharers in original sin, equals--then in what way does it make sense to have the same attitude towards others as Christ had toward God? The only way that exhortation even makes sense is if Christ humbled Himself to His equal, God.


Those who deny the Trinity often latch on to the word "grasped" here. They might say, "Here Paul says Jesus did not reach for equality with God. There, you see? How could Jesus not grasp for something He already has?" This is an unfortunate consequence of reading modern English translations of the original text.

The Greek word here is ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos) and means, among other things, "a thing to be held fast, retained," or "something to hold onto." It is true that the word can be used in terms of something reached for not already held. But this does not fit the context. If ἁρπαγμός here means "reached for" as meaning something which Christ doesn't already have, then since His attitude is to be our model, then neither would we have equality with our fellow humans to whom we are exhorted to humble ourselves. It just doesn't make sense.

Therefore, the meaning of ἁρπαγμός in this context must be the alternative meaning, "something to hold onto." Jesus' relationship to God, if they are not equal, is utterly irrelevant to Paul's point. He could have left that relationship out of this passage entirely, and instead exhorted us to have the same attitude toward others as Christ had to us, and His point would have been made without confusion. Instead, Paul points to Jesus' attitude toward His equal, and tells us to likewise have that attitude toward our equals.


Paul goes on to explain what he means by Jesus not "grasping" equality with God, proving that by ἁρπαγμός he means "held onto." He goes on to say "[Jesus] emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men." The phrase "emptied Himself" is the Greek ἑαυτὸν [himself] ἐκένωσεν [emptied or made void]. The conjugated verb is κενόω, meaning "to empty, to make empty, to make void." Now, Paul says that there were two ways in which Jesus "emptied" Himself. First, He took upon Himself "the form of a bond-servant."

Had Paul stopped there (and not spoken of Christ's relationship with God earlier), one could surmise that Jesus is a mere mortal man, and "emptied" Himself to His equals--His fellow humans--by becoming a servant to them. But Paul didn't stop there. He gives a second way in which Jesus "emptied" Himself: "being made in the likeness of men." Being made human, then, was an act of "emptying" Himself. If Jesus was created a mere man, having had no preexistent, glorious nature, in what way could being made human be an emptying of anything? It just doesn't make sense.

On the other hand, if Jesus Christ was one with God throughout eternity past (as other passages teach, which we'll come to soon in this series), "being made in the likeness of men" would, most certainly, be an act of "emptying" Himself. The all-powerful Son of God took upon Himself the frail, fragile form of flesh. The creator of man became man and "[became] obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." One can think of no greater act of humbling oneself than this.


Paul goes on to say in verse 9, "God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name." Those who deny the Trinity often latch onto this in defense of their position, saying, "If God had to give Jesus His name, then clearly Jesus did not already have it!" But remember, Paul just finished saying that Christ did not "hold onto" equality with God, but instead "emptied Himself," "being made in the likeness of men." God bestowing upon Jesus "the name which is above every name" was a restoration to a former glory, not an exaltation to a position never before held.

We will stop here and return in my next post, for another passage Dr. White cited in his debate picks up where this question of exaltation leaves off. If you are troubled by Paul's writing that Jesus was "bestowed" with the name of God, and you don't find the "emptying" or "grasping" language satisfying, stay tuned. The next passage we'll look at will make this more clear.

In the meantime, however, reflect upon Paul's exhortation to us. My wife is not objectively more important than I am, yet I am to treat her as though she were. My sons are not objectively more important than I am, yet I am to treat them as though they were. My friends, my co-workers, my fellow church congregants... They are all my equals, and yet I am to treat them all as though they were more important than I am. It is in this that we are to share Christ's attitude toward His Father, which only makes sense if they are, like you and I, equals. Until next time...


  1. This is the best exposition of those verses I have come across, PTL!