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Amy L. B. Peeler

Every Tongue Should Confess

Three commentaries on Philippians.

For the writing and reading of commentaries, it is the best of times. Of their publishing there is no end, and readers can select from a variety of types. If you want a volume that presents the latest and best of historical, grammatical, sociological, and rhetorical criticism with no particular ecclesial or theological background or aim, Yale's Anchor Bible Commentary is still producing helpful volumes. Joshua 1-12 and Revelation have come out within the last year. If you want a close reading of the Greek text, Baylor University Press offers its Handbook on the Greek New Testament Series, with most recent volumes focusing upon the lexical, analytical, and syntactical nuances of 2 Corinthians and Revelation. If you want new approaches, Sheffield Phoenix's Guides to the New Testament series introduces students or scholars to traditional questions and cutting edge research for each book.[1]

The world of commentaries offers special excitement for those who affirm that God speaks through the biblical text today. In this sprawling marketplace, there are a great many series with explicitly theological aims. Either written by contemporary authors or mining the wisdom of previous generations that wouldn't have understood a division between biblical studies and systematic theology (see for example IVP's Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and Reformation Commentary on Scripture), major publishing houses are promoting series written with "primary interests on theological readings of texts, past and present. The result is a paragraph-by-paragraph engagement with the text that is deliberately theological in focus" (Eerdmans' Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary Series); that present "a balanced synthesis of current scholarship, enabling readers to interpret Scripture for a complex and pluralistic world" (Fortress Press's Fortress Commentary on the Bible); or that outline "more fully than usual the theology of the book," with "pointers towards its interpretation and contemporary application" (IVP's Apollos Old Testament Commentary Series). Three recent commentaries on Philippians serve as excellent examples of this trend.

The first is Lynn H. Cohick's volume in The Story of God Bible Commentary, published by Zondervan. This series has two meanings in mind with its use of the term "story": first that the individual books of the Bible contribute to the telling of the overarching story of God associated with the regula fidei; and second that readers, aided by these commentaries, will themselves be caught up in the story. Interpretive meaning for today's readers is a natural implication of hearing the story: "We are not offering suggestions for 'application' " but instead "seeking out how this text, in light of the Story of God in the Bible, compels us to live in our world so that our own story lines up with the Bible's Story."

Under this vision, Cohick illumines the text of Philippians. She draws from historical, grammatical, social, and rhetorical methodologies (now thought of as "traditional" categories) alongside theological questions and debates to present the reader with the comfort and challenge this text brings to them and their communities. For example, she makes a passionate argument for why attending to the historical setting matters: "it represents the theological conviction that the letter spoke to real believers in a real time in history …. The insistence on the historical importance of the first-century Philippian context reinforces the historical reality of Christ's own life, death, and resurrection." Moreover, history grounds interpretation: "Paul the apostle wrote this letter with particular ideas in mind that he was able to communicate to his first-century audience." Then, in her exposition, she includes a vital discussion about the place of theology in exegesis, seeing it as "a useful conversation partner, not an uninvited gatecrasher"; again, "readers can be confident and comfortable including theological reflection in their exegesis." The combination of these convictions results in a theocentric argument about Philippians itself. This brief letter "reveals God's character" as it presents "Jesus' full humanity and divinity," thereby inviting readers to a response: "Jesus' story reshapes our story."

The second volume under consideration here is Daniel L. Migliore's commentary on Philippians and Philemon for WJK's Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Instead of having experts in biblical studies interpret the text theologically, this series invites systematic theologians to join the league of commentary writers. Life has well prepared Migliore for such a task. He began his academic career teaching New Testament classes, only to return to his original passion for systematic theology with "a lasting appreciation of the mutually enriching bond between biblical studies and systematic theological work." The editors of the series aver that historical-critical approaches to Scripture are not enough. They only "begin to help theological reflection and the preaching of the Word." Conversely, Migliore recognizes that his guild needs "to free its own work from philosophical straightjackets and hardened orthodoxies," an emancipation that can be won through "a careful and fresh study of the biblical texts."

Like Cohick, Migliore argues that Philippians centers around a Christological assertion: "that Christ Jesus is both Lord of all and the supreme model of Christian life." Belief and action course throughout the book in inseparable unity. He systematically lists four other central themes that suggest why the church needs to hear this letter today (as the series promises); knowing the joy and power of confessing Christ as Lord, he observes, will help contemporary congregants navigate unhealthy divisions in the church ("potentially damaging disagreements") and in their own hearts ("belief and practice … are often separated in the lives of many Christians today").

From the third volume, Joseph H. Hellerman's study of Philippians in Broadman and Holman's Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament, I expected something different. This series aims to give those who are familiar with Greek all the tools they might need at their fingertips so that they can understand the text. Although these volumes are "devoted to paragraph by paragraph exegesis," complete with sentence diagrams, textual variants, and parsing, the series does have in view an aim past the text, namely the pastor or teacher who will use this information to hear and then to communicate the Scripture inspired by God. While I was expecting a collection of details, I found a richly theological argument. With concise yet persuasive prose, Hellerman situates Philippians in the culture of the cursus honorum, the "race of honors" that permeated the Greco-Roman empire but was especially valued in Philippi. Paul proclaims that Jesus has been exalted after he was willing to humble himself, thereby "forcefully challenging anyone—then or now—who would utilize his power, authority, or social capital in the service of his own personal agenda."

With the Christ hymn in the second chapter, Philippians presents a pristine opportunity to test the theological impact of a commentary. If an author can honor the passage's tradition-shaping Christology and offer fresh insight for its ecclesial implications, that commentary will have accomplished much. All three of these rise to the occasion.

A well-worn question concerns v. 6: If Christ emptied himself, what exactly did he release? Were these his divine characteristics, omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence? This makes sense to a degree; Jesus was embodied, claimed limited knowledge (Mark 13:32/Matt. 24:26), and refused to use his powers (Matt. 26:53), yet all three of our authors conclude that this kenotic Christology suggests something more (and, in a way, less) than what we might suppose. Jesus did not purge some divine attributes from his toolbox on his way to earth, but emptied himself. Therefore, Cohick: "the nature and character of God, seen in Jesus Christ, seeks not advantage but slave-like service." By arranging the passage into two stanzas bracketed by the words morphe (form) and genomenos (becoming), she notes that human is not equated with slave, but that Paul sets the form of God into direct contrast with the form of a slave: "The point of the passage, then, is to show the character of God. From our human wisdom vantage point, we might think Christ would seek his own power, yet Christ shows that God does not grasp; rather God gives himself." Similarly, Hellerman states, "ekenwsen [emptied] is intended metaphorically to signify the lowering of rank (vis-à-vis v. 6) by means of the incarnation." Finally, Migliore concludes: "Jesus Christ in his incarnation and crucifixion reveals the deepest nature and character of God." The influence of Karl Barth features prominently in both Migliore and Cohick; his pithy statement sums up the insight: "God gives himself but does not give himself away" (CD IV/1:185, cited in Migliore). Rather than giving parts of his divinity, the Son gives his very self.

Each commentator shines in the three areas that are necessary for theological exegesis: exegetical history, exegetical theology, and application of the exegesis. Possibly surprising for a commentary from a conservative publishing house, Hellerman's account of Philippians answers a common critique aimed at theological exegesis—that it imposes later doctrines onto the texts. Hellerman achieves a powerful theological reading simply by listening to what Paul does say in light of his historical setting. Early in the section on the Christ hymn, he acknowledges:

[It] could be fairly asserted that prior ontological assumptions, on Paul's part, stand behind and legitimate much of what the apostle says about Christ's status throughout our passage. But this argument is not Paul's, not explicitly, at any rate. His interests relate, rather, to Christ's position in the pecking order of the universe, so to speak. Paul focuses throughout not upon Christ's essential nature (ousia) but, rather, upon what Christ chose to do with his status (and corresponding authority) as the preincarnate Son of God.

This type of reading becomes especially powerful in Hellerman's discussion of the term morphe. The word almost always denotes appearance. Therefore, does that mean that Jesus only looked like God? No, says Hellerman; "morphe theou may very well connote 'the expression of the divine state' but it is the expression not the 'state' that is central to the meaning of the text. Paul focuses on Christ's outward appearance and its implications for rank and status, not upon Christ's inner or essential nature." If readers focus too much on ontology, they might miss the powerful sociological message Paul is proclaiming. The Son possessed the rank, the status, the robes of glory and honor belonging to God (again ontology is a presupposition) and exchanged them for a slave status. The insights of history refresh Paul's point for modern listeners:

Descendants of the Roman soldiers who had established the colony at Philippi decades earlier would have been particularly attuned to the social stigma of slavery. Slaves were excluded from Rome's citizen army except in those regrettable instances when necessity forced the senate to conscript slaves. Even then slaves were formally manumitted before joining the ranks, and they fought in separate units. The notion of a Being of equal rank to God willingly "taking on the form of a slave" would have struck residents of Roman Philippi as abject folly.

The degradation of Christ's status helps explain the acclamation of verse 9: "What Jesus receives is not a new name but, rather, a new reputation."

Migliore, as the systematician, acknowledges ways in which the Scripture was exegeted and illumined by the tradition. The two stanzas of humiliation and exaltation raise a question: how can Christ be equal with God and then be given a name of exaltation?

Does not the idea of Christ's being given this name in his exaltation imply that he was not Lord and equal with God before his exaltation? Paul does not ask this question, but the classical theological tradition, building on the Christ hymn, does ask it and offers this answer: from all eternity the Father loves and gives all to the Son, and the Son loves and gives all to the Father. The gift of the name that is above every name has to do with the Son in his incarnate form, in his union with our human nature.

Migliore refers readers to Cyril of Alexandria for further reading on this idea. He then goes on to describe the Trinity in lovely and powerful prose:

This mutual giving of Christ and God the Father depicted in the Christ hymn will be fully elaborated in later Trinitarian theology as rooted in the mutually free and mutually self-giving love that binds Father and Son in their common Spirit. The love of the triune persons for one another is given freely, spontaneously, and boundlessly. It arises not from any lack or need or obligation but simply from the sheer plenitude and joy of their shared life and love together.

The force of Cohick's theological exegesis makes its impact quite powerfully in the commentary's "Live the Story" section. The hymn in Philippians shows that Jesus was obedient and then, in corollary, humble. If Paul instructs his readers to have the same mindset, then that "challenges the volunteerism mentality." She explains:

We can construct a model of volunteering whereby we "give of our time" as though it is ours to give, and those to whom we give are somehow in our debt …. The volunteer label is just that, a sticky nametag that we wear when we are at an event, only to peel off when we get home. Our real lives lie outside the volunteer arena …. Christ's lesson to us is that no job is below our pay grade, no task is "beneath us." … [C]leaning up after a baby or an elderly parent is exactly who we are in Christ, even if we also run a company or are senior pastor of a church. The former is not window dressing on the latter; it should not serve as an illustration of lack of pride.

My hunch is that, in the not-too-distant future, commentators will not have to argue for the writing of theological exegesis. They will no longer need to mention the specter of "objective historical research" and why they aren't bowing to it. My hope—and these commentaries support it—is that commentators and readers alike will respect the aim of the writings themselves—theological documents aiming to shape the lives of their readers—and that rigorous historical, grammatical, and narrative analysis will yield fruit of deep understanding of these texts and the God who speaks through them.

Amy L. B. Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College.

1. Full disclosure: I am contracted to co-write the Hebrews volume of this series.


Lynne H. Cohick, Philippians (Zondervan, 2013).

Daniel L. Migliore, Philippians and Philemon (Westminster John Knox, 2014).

Joseph H. Hellerman, Philippians (B&H Academic, 2015).

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