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Exegesis and Theology: A Case Study of Philippians 2:5-11

Philippians 2:5-11 is used by Christian historians, philosophers, and theologians alike. By surveying the writings of three Christian thinkers, I hope to underscore the different ways each author uses the same text but for different reasons.  In my conclusion, I will offer several distinctions toward understand the relationships between exegesis and theology.  Our inquiry will expose (among other things) the value and limitations of historical inquiry for authentic Christian theology, the relationship between Christian faith and historical-critical inquiry, the influence of social location on a Christian’s exegesis, and different Christian approaches toward reviving authentic theology in the postmodern period.

Sergius Bulgakov’s Treatment: Kenosis as a Model for Divine-Creaturely Relations

References in this section come from: Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008). 472. pp.

Sergius Bulgakov was an Eastern Orthodox Russian Priest (1871-1944) writing systematic theology in Paris as a dean at Saint Sergius Theological Institute, occupying the chair of dogmatic theology from 1925 until his death in 1944. Thus, his social location created a open environment for doing distinctively Christian theology.  Bulgakov’s Lamb of God ambitiously attempts to explain what few have thought explainable: How could divine nature be united to human nature? While the Chalcedonian creed affirms such a union, Bulgakov argues that this creed unnaturally juxtaposes these two natures in one hypostasis in a way that seems like dogmatic “abracadabra” (63). How can the infinite be finite and the immutable become mutable? Taking Chalcedonian Christology as the starting point for constructive Christology, he hopes to address this Christological problematic. His work presumes a need to “clarify precisely what occurred in the Incarnation” (221) rather than simply affirming the Incarnation as an inexplicable mystery, for the latter would be an “inappropriate” way of proceeding “for a theologian who [makes] this the main subject of his investigation” (30).

The usefulness of Philippians 2 to Bulgakov’s proposal in this context can be viewed from several angles. It allows him to force upon his readers the weight of the problem to which his book is addressed: “the Creator became a creature” (213).  He admits that Philippians 2 is the subject of a number of disputes among interpreters, but insists that at least “one thing is indisputable”: that God became a creature “must be understood and received with all responsible realism, that is, without any docetic interpretations” (214).  This plays an important role in Bulgakov’s attempt to persuade his readers that his controversial ideas are necessary to make sense of the incarnation.  Emphasizing the humanity of Christ so forcibly functions to give a subsequent attractiveness to his claims of 1) the dual modality of God: that God’s divine being exists in two modes—God’s being “in himself” (infinite, uncreated, immutable) and God’s being “for Himself” or “outside Himself” (finite, created, mutable) and 2) the theo-anthropology of man: part of man is “eternal” (93) and has “God’s essence” (94).

By claiming that creation is a mode of God’s existence (God for Himself) and that man is part God (so to speak), Bulgakov hopes to make the union between God and man less like opposite poles of existence coming together in an ontologically awkward train wreck.  If part of God is Sophia (creaturely existence) and part of man is God (Sprit), their union can be conceived more naturally. In short, Philippians 2 is a convenient text for giving credibility to Bulgakov’s paradigm for understanding God’s relation to the world (his doctrine of Sophia) because “the kenosis [described in Philippians] expresses the general relation of God to the world” (223).  All of creation is but “a kenotic act of God” (223).

Larry Hurtado’s Treatment: Christological Ode as Evidence of Early Devotion

References in this section come from: Hurtado, W. Larry.  How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. pp. vii + 234.

Larry Hurtado’s social location is the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.  His research grants depend on the approval of a community that values “history” according to modern standards (i.e. as excluding supernatural explanations for historical phenomenon).  Hurtado’s aim in How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? is to dignify Christian origins from the stigma of having been corrupted over time by later pagan religious influence and to locate a shocking explosion of Jesus devotion that, as far as the evidence shows, must be dated long before our first Christian sources from Paul and Pliny the Younger (in fact, as far as we can tell, it may have begun soon after Jesus’ execution—about the time Christians think Jesus Resurrected!).

For this kind of agenda, Hurtado finds Philippians useful in at least two ways.  First, since Philippians is regarded by scholarly consensus to be genuinely Pauline and dated around 60 C.E., it is of vital importance as evidence of early Christian thought.  Thus, by making a case against the Adamic interpretation of Jesus’ being in the “form of God” before his self-emptying, Hurtado finds within the text a “high Christology,” for he argues that the syntax of the Greek “practically requires” that Jesus’ being “equal with God” as the parallel to being “in the form of God” (100).  Second, since such “high Christology” is located in a Christological ode and therefore does not originate with Paul, “well before this epistle the idea of Jesus’ ‘pre-existence’ had become a part of Christian belief” (101).  Third, this text works for Hutrado as evidence against the “evolutionary proposal” that sees Christianity’s belief in the deity of Jesus as the inevitable influence of pagan religion rather than an outgrowth (or “mutation”) of Jewish monotheism (15).  Since “Philippians 2:9-11 is adapted from, and makes deliberate allusion to, biblical and Jewish tradition” (being something like a Christological midrash with ubiquitous allusions to OT passages), the readers are expected to “bring to the passage” a “biblical/Jewish” framework “not some putatively pre-Christian Gnostic redeemer-myth, or some other scheme such as Roman emperor-enthronement or the apotheosis of heroes” (95).

Tilley’s Treatment: Kenosis as “Not the Point”

References in this section come from: Terrence Tilley. The Disciples’ Jesus: Christology as Reconciling Practice. Maryknoll, New York, 2008. 302 pp.

Terrence W. Tilley is a Professor of Catholic Theology and Chair of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.  His agenda in The Disciples’ Jesus is to completely redefine Christology in the hopes of making it more “practical.” His book is thoroughly colored with linguistic dualisms: practice vs. theory (1), practical vs. theoretical (2), doctrine vs. practical theology (3), spectators vs. disciples (15). Tilley’s book is an “essay” but not a “system” (xii).  His project displaces the sacred scriptures as “a theological locus” in favor of the scriptures as a “theological form” for traversing practices (xi). He attempts to redefine all the terms in order to relativize theory, doctrine, and “systems” (i.e. classical Christology). For example, he redefines Christology as “reconciling practices” so that even if one of the practices might be considered believing, it is seen as one practice among many in a complex nexus of “patterns of actions” (13).  He also redefines the foundational language of theology in general by distinguishing between beliefs and doctrines.  Beliefs have truth-value and qualify as one of the practices; doctrines govern the practice of beliefs but surprisingly have zero truth-value (203-205)!  With these two amazing moves of redefinition, Tilley manages to create an entirely new discipline: the discipline of Christology! (If we follow Tilley’s definition, we will have to find a new word for referring to what everybody else calls Christology: the study of the person and work of Christ).  Also important for his exegesis is this: doctrines are “shorthand guides derived from good practice” (208, italics mine).

There is a certain shock value to Tilley’s approach in his treatment of the famous Philippians hymn traditionally believed to contain a high Christology.  Philippians 2 is the classic proof text for Jesus’ pre-existence before his kenosis into manhood.  One might think this would be a poor choice of text on Tilley’s part after having claimed that Christian practice (Christology) is not dependent upon doctrine but vice versa, for Paul seems to base his injunction to the Philippians on a notion of kenosis that presupposes Jesus’ pre-existence.  First, Tilley claims that we cannot “be sure that the hymns [in Scripture] were preserved because they expressed the people’s faith” (109). Then, he asserts that “Paul’s point was not to assert preexistence”; rather, Paul is simply using rhetoric to make a point about having the right phroneõ (a term that means “mind” or “attitude” but Tilley translates as “ways,” 110-111).  Ironically, although Tilley affirms that Paul is reminding the Philippians to act the way Jesus did, he tries his best to explain this imperative in a way that excludes the description of what Jesus did (relinquish the mode of being he had in his pre-existence) from qualifying as part of Paul’s “point,” since he cannot allow doctrine (in this case pre-existence) to be the grounds for practice (in this case the way of humble servitude).

Conclusions: Theology & Exegesis

Theology is related to biblical exegesis in many ways.  First, the texts that are the focus of exegesis presume all sorts of theological realities.  Second, the social location of the Christian exegete often determines the way they exegete and therefore whether they are card-carrying theologians or undercover theologians.  For example, some Christian commentators presume or focus on the divine realities (the res) to which the texts refer (Levering, Participatory Biblical Exegesis, 65).  Here Bulgakov is our only good example.  When Christian commentators focus on such realities, their posture toward the historical documents of Scripture is one of faith and trust.  Their exegesis is thematically theological.  Other Christians, however, thematically suspend such realities in the interest of focusing on the human dynamics of the text and making contributions to a broader discussions taking place in a broader discourse largely outside the Christian community.  Here Hurtado is our example.  When Christian commentators aim their work at such broader secular discussions, they must present their work in ways that are persuasive to the presumptions that govern such discourse.  In the case of secular history, this requires excluding appeals to divine realities (the res).  Thus, such exegetes are considered historians and their commentaries on biblical texts are categorized as historical.  Often, as in the case of Hurtado, their agenda is apologetic.  Here we have two spheres of discourse: theological exegesis (Bulgakov) and historical exegesis (Hurtado).

Third, the object of biblical exegesis (the texts) appears to play a major role in the justification of one’s theology.  Both Bulgakov and Tilley feel the need to ground their arguments using Scripture.  Alas! Scripture still carries weight in the church (even if there is a wide ranging continuum on which we might place each theologian).  Bulgakov, in his treatment of Philippians 2, brings in a number of other dogmatic sources—the gospel of John, the “divinely inspired” Chalcedonian creed, other Pauline letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians 8:9), patristic exegesis, contemporary exegetical consensus, etc. (213-17).  He accepts traditional Christian dogma as represented in the Creed of Chalcedon as his starting point.  The intention of his historical survey of patristic theology and his own exegetical endeavors is not to suspend his creedal convictions to “prove” them from Scripture. He wants rather to develop the Chalcedonian dogma or explain it more precisely, not prove it. Unlike Bulgakov, some Christians who believe the Bible to be inspired (particularly Protestants) thematically suspend the dogmas of Creeds (dogmatic tradition) under the conviction that Scripture itself should be the norm of all norms, and thus (at least in principle) be capable of reforming Creedal dogmatics.  Yet even the Creeds themselves were formulated as resolutions to competing ways of interpreting Scripture, demonstrating that even those who rely on the Creeds are (consciously or unconsciously) indirectly allowing the biblical witness to “norm” their theology.  The ethos of patristic theologians (who wrote the Creeds) was to stay faithful to Scripture (which involves exegesis) in their theology.

Fourth, the theology of Christian historians often appears to set their agenda for historical research.  Hurtado, for example, does his best to clean up the mess historians have made with the Bible.  He points the evidence in a direction that fits comfortably with what the texts themselves say (devotion to Jesus happened very early—maybe even right after the execution, it was not started by the influence of pagan religion, etc.).  Yet Hurtado’s work is a great example of what is called “the impasse between exegesis and theology.”  It should be obvious that any theological claims about the res are hermetically sealed off from his work.  His agenda requires it, for he wishes to force the secular discourse to face the historical evidence, but to keep his case from easy dismissal by larger secular discourse he must forgo theology.  It appears to me that Christians need people like Hurtado to bring sobriety to the secular discourse and not let historians so easily get away with distorting the evidence to undermine Christian faith.

But is there a necessary, insurmountable chasm between exegesis and theology?  Not necessarily.  For as we have seen, both Bulgakov and Tilley need exegesis to do theology persuasively.  Therefore, they can often fit like hand-in-glove. If Christians are concerned with doing theology within the ecclesial context, they need not worry about suspending their attempts to explore the possible realities to which the biblical texts refer (realities that disclose revelation from God).  The insurmountable impasse is between anti-supernaturalism and theological exegesis.  Inasmuch as one methodologically rules out their theological convictions from a secular discourse in order to draw attention to one’s arguments and evidence, such methodology can never finally result in authentic theology—even if it can make that “leap” more historically credible for those willing to go beyond secular (read: anti-supernatural) historical-critical methodology.

Here we have stumbled upon another distinction: historical critical methodology and anti-supernatural presuppositions.  So long as the historical-critical method is in the hands of mostly secular anti-supernaturalists, historical inquiry will seem almost inseparably wed to anti-supernatural presuppositions.  But the question we must ask over and over again when considering whether historical-critical methodology is at an impasse with theology is this: In whose hands? If complemented by Christian presuppositions, historical inquiry might not only make Christian faith historically credible, but reveal the Word made flesh in real history (e.g. taking the biblical narratives seriously with an attitude of trust, looking to the lives of the apostles and the continuity of their teaching, looking more carefully at linguistic norms of ancient Greek to illumine New Testament Greek, etc.).  In secular hands, historical inquiry “shows” all sorts of embarrassing things about Christianity that discredit Christian faith (Jesus never existed; belief in his divinity was the inevitable influence of pagan religion; the New Testament is unrealiable, etc.)  In Levering’s hands, history becomes participatory and original historical meanings of the biblical text reveal realities beyond the text.  So the question we must ask is: In whose hands?

The question of what qualifies as “fair play” in exegesis, however, is a much more complicated question.  The question is so complex that it stands as a good candidate for qualifying as one of the great “mysteries” of the faith.  What complicates the issue is this: limiting the message of God to the best discernable human intensions in the words would contradict the way the Apostles appear to use the Old Testament, but opening the possibilities of meaning beyond the original human intensions in the words makes Scripture vulnerable to abuse, semantic abracadabra, and eisegesis.  A middle ground is hard to tread.

Positioning the Historical-critical Method

References in this section come from: 1) Robert Barron, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2007. 2) Joseph Ratzinger. Jesus of Nazareth: From The Baptism In the Jordan To the Transfiguration. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007.

Barron does not have a developed paradigm for the role of the historical critical method in the work of Christian theology.  His book virtually equates the historical critical method with the historical-critical science of Classical Liberalism (35-47).  Thus, his alternative is “not to look under, around, or over [the text] in order to get the point.  Rather, the story itself, the narrative of Jesus as the Christ, in all of its peculiarity, surprise, and novelty is the point” (49).  He wants to be drawn into the narrative of the gospels so as to take on “its assumptions, characters, perspectives, typical questions, modes of behavior, theology” and thereby come to a new way of “thinking, moving, and deciding” (50).  He positions biblical interpretation (he does not describe such interpretation as historical-critical) as subordinate to doctrine. Doctrines rule out certain possibilities from biblical interpretation and “resolve certain puzzlements” (52-53).

After laying down certain doctrinal guides, Barron just jumps right into exegesis without tiptoeing around the sensitivities of modern historical-critical methods or even Christian hermeneutic textbooks.  A quick glance at the sources used in his first chapter of exegesis, “The Gatherer,” will reveal that he borrows only sparsely from historical critical sources.  He takes a common sense approach combined with his doctrinal guidelines and peppered with interesting tidbits (e.g. Aristotle insights on friendship, 76). He comes close to allowing for historical-critical insight when he analyzes certain Greek words or phrases (e.g. the “Greek formula” ego eimi, 88; the Greek term ousia that “undergirds” the word “property,” 77), but he does not belabor any of his interpretations as though he were up to the challenges of tedious scholarship.

Ratzinger, on the other hand, has an explicitly developed method that incorporates the historical critical method.  If we are to take history seriously, we must take methods that examine history seriously (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, xv).  But the historical-critical method cannot speak to us in the present and excludes the possibility of supernatural phenomenon.  We must, therefore, go beyond this method to a “Christological hermeneutic” (Ratzinger, xix).  Once he has laid bare his twofold method, he allows for the “Christological hermeneutic” to so dominate that he goes into all sorts of spiritual meditations that seem completely unrelated to the authors historical intension (the authors who were inspired by God to write what they wrote).  His historical work and spiritual insights often seem to be joined by duck tape rather than flowing from an organic union (see last sentence of previous section).

Without a doubt, Ratzinger has a better approach than Barron when it comes to salvaging the insights of the historical-critical method.  He has a clearly defined twofold method, and although I have seen other writers work with a similar method in a more satisfying way, his method (as explained in the beginning of his book) is more promising than Barron’s more polemic approach.  It proves most fruitful in his hands when he grounds his main point in The God of Jesus Christ in themes widely attested as themes in the text he exegetes.  Personally, however, among those who have attempted to contribute to overcoming the pitfalls between historical-critical methods and theology, Levering has helped me the most.

It is better to think of the methodologies of Hurtado and Bauckham as complementary to the more theological/philosophical approaches of Ratzinger and Barron than as “the” alternative.  (Here I am thinking of their methods as excluding recourse to the supernatural, i.e. thematically secular-historical-critical.)  As a means for apologetics, such an approach may be an alternative vocation for a particular Christian, but it can never be an alternative theology for that Christian because it rules out theological conclusions.


Matthew Levering. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 2008.



  1. “How can the infinite be finite and the immutable become mutable?”

    Is this not the fundamental paradox of god-become-man?


  2. theophilogue says:


    Certainly. Along with: “How can the uncreated become created?” “How can the omnipresent become local?” “How can the omniscient say ‘only the Father knows'” etc.


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