Saturday, June 25, 2016

Phil. 2:6... A Proof For or Against Christ's Divinity?: A Response to a Jehovah's Witness

Recently, my wife and I had our first run in with a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses. They actually came back twice after my wife asked a question regarding their less than accurate New World Translation. However, the discussions were amicable, our guests were very well-mannered and nice, and I was surprised that some of the stereotypes that are given to Jehovah's Witnesses didn't stick. For example, we both used our own translations of our Bibles, and they even compared theirs to others on their tablet. I was even able to pull out the Catechism at one point in order to rebut a point from one of their publications. But that will be another post. Right now, I'd like to focus on one particular claim they made before they left earlier this week. It was a claim I wasn't knowledgeable of and wasn't exactly sure on how to respond to it.

For starters, Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in the divinity of Christ. Actually, they believe He is a created being and that He is one in the same with St. Michael the Archangel. Much of our discussion focused on the divinity of Christ, going a little bit into the Trinity, which they also, obviously reject. The one verse that I wasn't able to accurately reply to at the time was from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, which reads "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped..." Apparently, this was supposed to be a proof that Jesus Christ was not equal with God the Father, a position held by the Arians. Below is the rebuttal I sent to them, and I have sources that I used linked throughout, so hopefully this will help someone else when the Jehovah's Witnesses come to discuss our faith in Christ, and they may be better prepared than I was.
Christ Pantocrator

Thanks for coming over again yesterday. It was great having such an intense and amicable discussion yesterday, and I hope you received spiritual enrichment from it as I did. I wanted to offer a reply to your claim that Phil. 2:6 proves that Christ was a created being, and therefore is not God. You mentioned before you both left that I may come away from my research of this section of Scripture and find that my faith is even more validated than before, because it was obvious I was caught off guard with this verse, unable to fully comprehend its meaning in just one sitting with you last night. For as the Ethiopian eunuch said in reply to Philip the Evangelist who had asked him if he knew what he was reading, "how could I ever do so unless someone guided me?" (Acts 8:30)

So after doing some research last night and today, I can report that, yes, I've come away from this even more validated in my faith in Christ's Church than I was before. It's clear that from the earliest days of Christendom, before even the death of the last Apostle, Christians did not read this selection from Scripture as Jehovah's Witnesses do, that is, a proof that Christ was not divine and not fully God, meaning He was a created being. In fact, on the contrary, Christians have always held that Phil. 2:3-11 is a proof for Christ's divinity and preexistence before all, specifically, verses 6-11 which make up an ancient Christological hymn. Here, I would like to delve more deeply into this selection by backing up a bit from where you originally started at verse 4 to verse 3; to explore what the word "form" means in the original Greek; to compare what the earliest Christians wrote on this selection from Philippians to each other; and to demonstrate how this selection, which had been understood as a proof of Christ's divinity for over 18 centuries in all Christendom, has been taken out of context in only one out of the many different Bible translations available, that being the New World Translation. I hope you will give me the courtesy of reading through my reply, despite it taking from you a little of your time to unpack the richness of this Scripture selection, as I was unable to answer you properly with a justification of the traditional Christian interpretation last night.

First, I want to look at the preceding verses so as to put this passage a bit more in context. From the NWT, Phil 2:3 reads "Do nothing out of contentiousness or out of egotism, but with humility consider others superior to you". Obviously, Paul is exhorting us to be humble and to not get a big head, even when we're doing something charitable. He goes on to say in verse 4 that we should "look out not only for [our] own interests, but also for the interests of others." That's all well and good, but this is a difficult thing to do as we are fallen humans. It'd be great if we had someone concrete to model ourselves after. What greater model than our Lord Jesus Christ! Paul tells us in verse 5 to “Keep this mental attitude in you that was also in Christ Jesus”, since Christ perfectly embodied the attributes that Paul describes in verses 3-4.

That brings us to verse 6 which is what you asked me to read, and was where I was initially confused. I remember reading it over several times, but not really letting it sink in. As it turns out, this is the beginning of a canticle, or hymn, which lasts from verses 6-11. Some scholars divide these verses into six three-line stanzas for better clarity. Many scholars believe that this Christological hymn predates Paul, and was being used by the early Christians as early as the year 40 A.D. Paul includes this hymn in his letter to drive home the point about Christ’s divinity. I also now learned that we Catholics actually use this hymn in our Liturgy for Vespers, Vespers being our evening prayer. So my thought was, why would Catholic Christians use this in the liturgy if it disproves the divinity of Jesus? In short, it doesn’t, and I will demonstrate why. First, I’ll put the rendering of verse 6 from my Bible translation (the New American Bible), since this is what we were reading from when you were over: “who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” For comparison’s sake, the NWT reads: “who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God.” Other translations say “robbery” instead of “to be grasped” or “a seizure”. But what does this mean? If it’s a denial of Jesus’ divinity as you have interpreted the passage, then it directly contradicts John 1:1 which says “the Word was God”. But as we have seen from our first visit, the NWT is the only translation which renders this section “the Word was a god.” We both agree that the Bible can’t contradict itself, as it is the word of Almighty God. I argue there is indeed no contradiction here between Phil. 2:6 and every other Christian rendering of John 1:1.
St. Paul in Prison- Rembrandt

The beginning of verse 6 is the best part to zero in on. It talks of Jesus “existing in God’s form”. I was asking for the Greek during our last visit, not for the interlinear, but to find out what the word “form” actually means. “Form” is translated from the Greek word “morphé (or μορφή, Strong’s Word 3444). When used in this manner, “morphe” does not only describe the shape or outward appearance of a certain thing, but most properly, it describes form (the outward appearance) that embodies essential (inner) substance so that the form is in complete harmony with the inner essence or nature. Since Jesus embodies the inner nature of God, he is thus equal with God. For what could possess the nature of God and yet not be God Himself?

Jesus is often called “the new Adam”. If you are familiar with biblical typology, Adam is a type of Christ (cf. 1Cor. 15:45-49). This is very important to our understanding of Phil. 2:6. We see a contrast between Adam and Jesus Christ. Where Adam, created in the image of God, had rejected God by eating of the forbidden fruit in an attempt to be like God, Christ did not hold his divinity in such high regard that it stopped him from lowering Himself to become man. While Adam grasped at divinity, he tried to seize or steal divinity by eating that fruit, Jesus freely decided to humble Himself, and not grasp on to his equality with God the Father, which was due to Him by nature and not from seizing by force.  As it says in verse 7, he “emptied himself and took a slave’s form and became human.” This is why Christians of all creeds, not just Catholics, can say that Jesus Christ is “true God and true Man.” Augustine of Hippo, who lived during the 4th century, can put it more eloquently than I as he does his own study of this Scripture passage in Philippians:
“Christ, ‘though his nature was divine, did not jealously keep his equality with God to himself'.’ What would have become of us, here below in the abyss, weak and attached to the earth, hence, incapable of reaching God? Could we have been left to ourselves? Absolutely not. He "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant', but without abandoning his divine form. Consequently, he who was God, made himself man, taking on what he was not without losing what he was; thus, God became man. Here, on the one hand, you find help in your weakness, and on the other, you find what you need to attain perfection. Christ raises you up by virtue of his humanity, he guides you by virtue of his human divinity and leads you to his divinity. All Christian preaching, O brothers, and the economy of salvation centred on Christ is summed up in this and in nothing else: in the resurrection of souls and the resurrection of bodies. Both died: the body because of its weakness, the soul because of its wickedness; both were dead and both, the soul and the body, had to be raised. By virtue of whom is the soul raised if not by Christ as God? By virtue of whom is the body raised, if not by Christ as Man?... Your soul rises from wickedness by virtue of his divinity and your body rises from corruption by virtue of his humanity.” (Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, 23, 6)
As we can see, the phrase “equal to God” does not regard the relation of the Son to the Father, but the relation of the Word to the nature which He chose as man. We don’t disagree that the Son is subordinate to the Father insofar as His human nature. The Son did the will of the Father by becoming man, but retained His divinity as well. Other early Christian theologians such as Gregory Nazianzen, Theodoret of Syria, John Chrysostom, and Ambrose of Milan (for starters) all interpret this in the same way. John Chrysostom wrote in his 7th Homily on Philippians, “That the Son of God feared not to descend from His right, for He thought not Deity a prize seized. He was not afraid that any would strip Him of that nature or that right, wherefore He laid it aside, being confident that He should take it up again. He hid it, knowing that He was not made inferior by so doing… This equality with God He had not by seizure, but as His own by nature.” Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on Philippians writes on verse 6:
“But why does [Paul] say, in the form, rather than ‘in the nature’? Because this belongs to the proper names of the Son in three ways: for He is called the Son, the Word and the Image. Now the Son is the one begotten, and the end of begetting is the form. Therefore, to show the perfect Son of God he says, in the form, as though having the form of the Father perfectly. Similarly, a word is not perfect unless it leads to a knowledge of a thing’s nature; and so the Word of God is said to be in the form of God, because He has the entire nature of the Father. Finally, an image is not perfect, unless it has the form of that of which it is the image: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature (Heb. 1:3).  
“…Hence, in order to show the greatness of Christ’s humility and passion, [Paul] says that He became obedient [Phil. 2:8]; because if He had not suffered out of obedience, His passion would not be so commendable, for obedience gives merit to our sufferings. But how was He made obedient? Not by His divine will, because it is a rule; but by His human will, which is ruled in all things according to the Father’s will: “Nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt” (Mt. 26:39). And it is fitting that He bring obedience into His passion, because the first sin was accomplished by disobedience: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous (Rom. 5:19).”
St. Thomas Aquinas
I put these examples of exegesis for you to look at so you can see that the whole of Christianity has been on the same page with this verse, that is, up until the 19th century when we see the interpretation given from the translators of the NWT. I wanted to demonstrate how Christians could logically show that the verse you quoted me does not disprove Jesus Christ’s divinity, but instead proves it.

Finally, let’s look at the final two verses (10-11) of this selection: “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Here, Paul gives a paraphrase of Isaiah 45:23 where God says “To me every knee will bend, every tongue will swear loyalty”. God the Father prefaces this in verse 22 by saying “For I am God, and there is no one else.” Therefore, it was no mistake that this allusion was put in Philippians. Jesus is being directly pointed out as God. The Son is not the Father, and the Father is not the Son; however, the Son is God just as much as the Father is God.  Paul hasn’t undermined the divinity of Christ in Phil. 2:3-11, but acknowledges it.

In conclusion, if this selection in Philippians were to be a proof of Jesus’ lack of divinity, then it would contradict John 1:1 and Hebrews 1:8. Of course, the way that these verses are rendered in the NWT show no such contradiction. I think at this point it’s important to ask why the NWT is the only translation to change these and other verses, mainly John 1:1. For the NWT translation, is it the theology that determines what the Scriptures mean, or is it the Scriptures that determine how the theology is understood? To me, and many other Christians, it appears that the NWT is reading a very new theology into a text that has been understood in a completely different way for 18 centuries prior. I believe that I have made a compelling case from Scripture, and the original Greek definitions of certain words, as to why the Christian position on Christ’s divinity from this selection is defensible. You felt that your position was absolutely defensible and you wanted to demonstrate it to me; I wanted to do the same for mine. Our exchanges have been very enriching for me, and I hope it was for you as well, and that by this reply, you can at least see that Christians such as myself have good reason to believe in Christ’s divinity from this selection.

There were a number of sources that were helpful to me in finding these answers. As an aside, it's great to know that we have nearly 2,000 years of tradition on our side, while most other religions that use the Bible have 500 at best, and Jehovah's Witnesses have only been around since the 19th century with their very unique theology. Some of those sources I didn't get to use, but it's worth mentioning that Pope St. John Paul II gave some great catechesis on this selection in Philippians, as did Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The links below will take you to these and other writings if you wish to delve into more on what St. Paul was trying to convey in Phil. 2: 3-11:

St. John Paul and Pope Benedict's catechesis:
More by St. John Paul:

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