Printer-friendly version

“The Form of a god”? The Translation of Morphē Theou in Philippians 2:6

“The Form of a god”? The Translation of Morphē Theou in Philippians 2:6

By:
 

The penchant of Jehovah’s Witnesses for rendering the common Greek word for “God,” theos, as “a god” when it applies to Jesus Christ is well known. Most famously, the New World Translation (NWT) translates the last clause of John 1:1 “and the Word was a god.” Along the same lines is the nwt rendering of John 10:33, according to which the Jews told Jesus they wanted to stone him “because you, although being a man, make yourself a god.” Though the indefinite article is not used, one should also note the NWT rendering of monogenēs theos in John 1:18 as “the only-begotten god.” In all such renderings of theos as applied to Christ, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are construing theos as conveying the idea that Christ is a divine being but of an inferior or lesser sort than “God.”

In a book written while he was still a Jehovah’s Witness,1 Greg Stafford suggested a similar rendering for theos in another New Testament text about Christ. As far as I know, in all modern English translations Philippians 2:6 is taken to say that Christ existed “in the form of God”2 or “in God’s form” (so the Emphatic Diaglott and the NWT).3 Stafford argues that a better rendering would state that Christ “was existing in the form of a god.”4 He writes:

…I see no reason why theou (the genitive form of the Greek word for “God” or “god”) should not be viewed as indefinite, namely, “form of a god.” Only a desire to read later Trinitarian meanings and distinctions can argue against such a translation. There is certainly no grammatical or semantic obstacle to such a translation.5

The above statement is the whole of Stafford’s argument on this point. He offers no exegetical argument or evidence for construing theou as indefinite beyond the lack of any “grammatical or semantic obstacle” to construing it that way.

Contrary to Stafford’s bold assertion, Trinitarian bias is not the only possible basis for objecting to his suggested translation of Philippians 2:6. The example of the NWT itself ought to have been enough to suppress such a claim, given the fact that its publishers are notorious for their avowed opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity. At least some non-Trinitarian writers, including Jehovah’s Witness scholar Edgar Foster, have expressed skepticism about translating Philippians 2:6 “form of a god.”6 Stafford’s only possible defense in this regard would be to claim that the translators of the NWT unwittingly accepted a Trinitarian rendering of the word in this verse. Be that as it may, sound exegetical arguments can be made against Stafford’s revisionist translation of the verse. In fact, as we shall see, there are semantic and other exegetical obstacles, including one possible grammatical obstacle, to his proposed rendering.

The Absence of the Article

It is true, of course, that theou appears in Philippians 2:6 without the article in front of it. But the absence of the article is of no significance at all. In the same verse and in the very next clause, Paul writes about Christ’s refusal to seize upon “being equal with God” (to einai isa theō). Here the neuter article to is used with the infinitive form einai (literally, “the being”).7 There is no article before theō; it is anarthrous, as is theou in the preceding clause. Yet Stafford does not suggest translating theō as “a god.” I will come back to this important phrase later.

Stafford’s treatment of theou in Philippians 2:6 presupposes that an anarthrous occurrence of theos (of whatever grammatical case) can be construed in biblical Greek to mean “[a] god” just as easily as “God.” But this simply is not correct. In the short epistle of Philippians, theos occurs 10 times without the article (1:2, 11, 28; 2:6 [2x], 11, 13, 15; 3:3, 9) and 14 times with the article (1:3, 8, 14; 2:9, 27; 3:14, 15, 19; 4:6, 7, 9, 18, 19, 20). Of these 24 occurrences, ironically, the only one which is properly (and commonly) translated “god” has the article, where Paul speaks of certain individuals “whose god is the belly” (literally, “of whom the god [is] the belly,” hōn ho theos hē koilia, 3:19). More narrowly, there is no difference in the sense or meaning of the genitive theou with the article (1:14; 3:14; 4:7) or without it (1:2, 11, 28; 2:6a, 11, 15; 3:3, 9). The statistics given here are quite representative or typical of the entire New Testament. Thus, the presence or absence of the article affords no particular basis or even encouragement for construing theos to mean anything other than “God.”

The weakness of Stafford’s suggestion may be illustrated using the text in which Jehovah’s Witnesses insist most strongly on the rendering “a god” instead of “God.” In John 1:1, the Witnesses argue that John intends a contrast between the articular ton theon and the anarthrous theos (“God” versus “a god”). Even this claim, I would argue, is highly questionable, but at least in John 1:1 there is something in the text that is being made the exegetical basis for the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ rendering. By contrast, Stafford’s rendering of theou in Philippians 2:6 is not grounded on anything in the text at all.

The Semantics of Theos

In the so-called Christological hymn8 of Philippians 2:6-11, the word theos occurs four times (v. 6a, v. 6b, v. 9, v. 11). No one will dispute that theos in verse 9 and theou in verse 11 has its usual sense and that it should in both those instances be translated “God,” even though theou is anarthrous in verse 11. Hardly anyone—not even Stafford—disputes this to be the correct translation also in verse 6b, where theō is also anarthrous (“equal with God”).9 According to Stafford, though, no semantic objection can be raised to translating the same word as “a god” in verse 6a.

I have already alluded to the principal semantic reason why theos would and should immediately and unhesitatingly be taken to mean “God”: that is the sense in which Paul and the other New Testament writers customarily used the word. For them, the sense of the word theos, when not marked in the context in some way to indicate otherwise explicitly, is the proper object of worship or religious devotion. By “marked” I mean the use of some verbal cue that signals a different sense of the word. For example, in Philippians 3:19 the relative pronoun “of whom” (hōn) is an explicit linguistic marker indicating that the belly is “the god” for those persons of whom Paul is speaking in a highly derogatory fashion. Where such markers are not found, the reader is expected to understand theos in its usual, unmarked sense.

For the biblical writers, of course, the one proper object of worship or religious devotion—the only one who is really and truly God—is the being identified in the Old Testament as YHWH or Jehovah (Deut. 6:4-5, 13-15; 32:39; Is. 43:10; 44:6-8; 45:21-25; Jer. 10:10; Matt. 4:10; Mark 12:28-34; James 2:19; etc.).

In short, for Paul as for other biblical writers, the “default” meaning of theos is “God,” and only when some verbal marker qualifies the word in a way contrary to that unmarked, default usage may the reader conclude that it is being used with a different meaning. This fact places the burden of proof squarely on the interpreter who would argue that theos in any biblical text means “a god” where this is not evident to most or all other interpreters from some explicit linguistic marker in the immediate context.

The Meaning of Isa Theō

In the very next clause of Philippians 2:6, Paul says that Christ did not consider seizing upon his being “equal with God” (isa theō). As I have already pointed out, theō (the dative case form of theos) here clearly means “God.” It is taken that way by all of the major Bible translations and commentaries (and all of the minor ones, to my knowledge). It is taken that way in the nwt, and Stafford takes it that way as well. Rather than taking this quite settled conclusion for granted, though, it will be useful—and prudent, lest any doubt arise—to explain why apparently no one has ever so much as suggested that the expression be construed to mean “equal to a god.”

We have already mentioned the overarching semantic factor, namely, that “God” is the default, unmarked meaning of theos in biblical writings. In addition, though, there is a specific reason for construing theō in this particular context of Philippians 2:6 to mean “God” and not “a god.” In context, Paul is speaking throughout this passage (2:6-11) of Christ’s humility and exaltation in relation to God. His humility consisted of “obedience” to the point of death (v. 7); this obedience can only be that of Christ’s obedience to the will of God the Father. This is a key point; regardless of how one construes this highly contested passage, Christ’s attitude toward “equality with theō” is said to be one of humility. So, if that humility was expressed by his obedience to God the Father, “equality with theō” evidently means “equality with God.” Furthermore, Paul tells us that, in response to Christ’s self-abasement, “God highly exalted him” (v. 9). The confession that God calls all people to make about Jesus Christ—that he is “Lord”—redounds “to the glory of God the Father” (v. 11). Thus, according to Paul in this passage, Christ humbled himself toward God and was subsequently exalted by God. In this broad context of Christ’s humbling himself and God the Father’s exalting Christ, the “equality with theō” toward which Christ showed humility can only mean “equality with God.” This is so, whether or not one understands Paul to be saying that Christ possessed such equality with God.

“Form of God” and “Equal with God”

Once it is recognized—as again, virtually everyone already seems to agree—that theō in Philippians 2:6b means “God,” it follows inexorably that theou in 2:6a also ought to be construed as “of God.” The close verbal and conceptual parallels between the two phrases in verse 6 make no other interpretation plausible:

Philippians 2:6a

Philippians 2:6b

en morphē theou (“in [the] form of God”)

to einai (“the being”)

huparchōn (“existing”)

isa theō (“equal with God”)

The participle huparchōn and the article and infinitive to einai are roughly synonymous semantically. Although huparchein can mean “to possess,” it can also be used as a synonym for einai (“to be,” “to exist”), and is commonly used in the New Testament in the sense of “existing really” or “being actually.”10 The latter usage must be correct here, since the verb is followed by the preposition en (and “existing in” makes sense while “possessing in” does not).11 The two expressions refer, then, to states or conditions of Christ, whether real or prospective or hypothetical.

Exegetes differ on whether existing in the form of God and being equal with God are exactly synonymous or not, but it is easy to see how they may be related. For example, existing in God’s form can be understood as the precondition or prerequisite for being equal with God. However one works out the precise relationship between the form of theou and equality with theō, the close association made between the two expressions in this sentence assumes that theou and theō have the same sense.

It is possible, though perhaps not provable, that the conceptual relation between the two phrases is also expressed grammatically. Earlier we noted in passing that although there is no article preceding theō, the neuter article to does precede the infinitive verb einai. Exegetes have proposed two reasons for the use of the article before einai. One possible reason is simply to mark the phrase einai isa theō as the direct object of the verb hēgēsato (“considered”). To understand this explanation, it will be helpful to set out the entire clause. (Note that for our purpose it will be sufficient to translate harpagmon with forms of the word “seize,” although this turns out not to be the best rendering in context.)

ouch   harpagmon        hēgēsato  to    einai   isa   theō
not    thing to seize   consider  the  equal  with  God

According to the “object marker” view, the definite article merely signals the reader that einai isa theō, rather than harpagmon, is the direct object of the verb hēgēsato. For that reason, ouch harpagmon must then be construed as the “object complement,” that is, a further description of what is called einai isa theō. All modern translations and commentaries, to my knowledge, agree that this is the case, whether or not they see the article as having this or some other significance.

The difference this makes can be seen by contrasting two translations of the clause. If we were to construe harpagmon as the direct object, we would translate the clause something like this:

“…did not consider an act of seizing to be equal with God.”

This is, by the way, essentially how the nwt construes the clause: “gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal with God.” However, biblical scholars seem to agree that to einai isa theō is the direct object of the verb. Therefore, we must instead construe the clause something like this:

“…did not consider equality with God something to be seized.”

At least some exegetes maintain that the purpose of the article before einai is to signal einai isa theō as the direct object. Daniel Wallace, for example, takes this position:

In this text the infinitive is the object and the anarthrous term, harpagmon, is the complement. The most natural reason for the article with the infinitive is simply to mark it out as the object.12

It is possible that Wallace is correct and the article before einai has no other significance than to mark the infinitive expression as the direct object. However, another reason has been suggested. It may be that the article is anaphoric, meaning that it indicates that the expression it modifies refers to “something previously mentioned or otherwise well known.”13 If this is correct, “being equal with God” may be synonymous with “existing in God’s form.” According to this interpretation, Paul should be construed as saying something like this: “although he existed in God’s form, he did not consider this equality with God…” Several exegetes have argued for this interpretation recently.14

From a purely grammatical standpoint, it may not be possible to prove conclusively that the article is anaphoric. On the one hand, as Stafford himself points out, “Where we have such a double accusative used with hegeomai, it seems that the accusative following hegeomai always serves as the object of the verb and the accusative preceding hegeomai serves as the predicate accusative, describing the object.”15 If this word order is normal for the idiom used in Philippians 2:6, one might conclude that the article was not needed to mark the direct object, in which case a semantic usage like the anaphoric would become highly probable. On the other hand, all of the examples that Stafford cites of this idiom, taken from an influential study by Roy Hoover, use the article before the direct object.16 It may be, then, that the article is too closely associated with its function as a grammatical marker of the direct object, even in this particular idiom, for an anaphoric usage to be demonstrable in this instance.

Even if the article is not clearly anaphoric, though, it is demonstrable that the expressions “form of God” and “equal with God” are closely related. In addition to the grammatical argument from the use of the article, exegetes have pointed out that the literary structure and thematic connections in the passage support a close association if not complete synonymy. Robert Gundry, for example, has made the strong observation, “Pairing and chiasm favor the synonymy of the form of God with equality to God.”17 Gundry’s point about pairing is that the paired expressions “form theou” and “equality with theō” are to be viewed alongside similar pairings in the passage, most notably “likeness of men” (homoiōmati anthrōpōn) and “fashion as a man” (schēmati…hōs anthrōpos). Just as no sharp difference in meaning is to be sought between “likeness of men” and “fashion as a man,” Gundry is arguing, no sharp difference in meaning is to be sought between “existing in the form of God” and “being equal with God.” The chiasm to which he refers may be represented as follows18:

A      Existing in the form of God,
        B          He did not consider as harpagmon
A’      The being equal with God

For our purposes, it is not necessary to demonstrate that “existing in the form of God” and “being equal with God” are entirely synonymous expressions having identical meanings. Perhaps that is the case, as Gundry and several recent exegetes have argued. Or perhaps the two expressions describe closely related, inextricably associated concepts. For example, perhaps “the form of God” means the nature of God and “equal with God” means the status or position that properly belongs to one having the nature of God. A compromise translation that brings out the close relation between the two expressions without presupposing an overtly anaphoric use of the article would be to use the word “his”:

“Although he existed in the form of God,
He did not consider his equality with God….”19

In any case, whether the two expressions have identical meanings or closely associated meanings, the evidence strongly supports the near-universal understanding that the two forms of theos in this sentence have the same meaning. And since, as we have shown, “being equal with theô” must mean “being equal with God,” the closely related expression “form theou” must mean “form of God,” not “form of a god.”

Morphē Theou as a Christological Description

One other consideration may be brought to bear on this question of the meaning of theou in Philippians 2:6. As numerous New Testament scholars have noted and discussed at length, Philippians 2:6-11 is one of several New Testament passages presenting a developed Christology in a highly rhetorical if not lyrical fashion. The two most relevant of these passages are Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4. Colossians, like Philippians, was written by Paul, and Hebrews, though probably not written by Paul, was evidently produced by someone in his circle and tradition.20 

Philippians 2:6-11

Colossians 1:15-20

Hebrews 1:1-4

“who, although existing in the form of God” (v. 6a)

“who is the image of the invisible God” (v. 15a)

“who being the exact representation of his [God’s, v. 1] nature” (v. 3a)

“his equality with God” (v. 6b)

“the firstborn of all creation” (v. 15b)

“whom he appointed heir of all things” (v. 2b)

 

“For in him all things were created…all things have been created through him and for him” (v. 16)

“through whom also he made the ages” (v. 2c)

“those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (v. 10b)

“in the heavens and on earth… whether things on earth or things in heaven” (vv. 16, 20b)

 
 

“in him all things hold together” (v. 17b)

“and upholds all things by the word of his power” (v. 3b)

“and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (v. 9b)

 

“as he has inherited a more excellent name than they” (v. 4b)

“that Jesus Christ is Lord” (v. 11a)

“so that he himself will come to have first place in everything” (v. 18b)

 

“to the glory of God the Father” (v. 11b)

“For it was the [Father’s] good pleasure” (v. 19)

“and he is the radiance of his glory” (v. 3a) 

When we compare these rhetorically fine, theologically dense Christological texts, we find a number of conceptual and even verbal parallels. These parallels suggest a pattern of Christological affirmation in the early church on which Paul and other New Testament writers could and did draw as needed for purposes of practical exhortation (Philippians 2) or doctrinal and religious correction (Colossians 1, Hebrews 1). The accompanying table sets out these common elements.

Among these parallel Christological affirmations are statements expressing in very different ways the idea that Christ represents a perfect expression of the very nature of God. However this is understood in the larger system of one’s theology, it is clear enough that in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:3 Christ is said to be in some way a perfect representation, manifestation, or expression of the nature of God. As we have shown, there are highly compelling reasons to take the expression morphē theou in Philippians 2:6 to express the same idea. Here is another reason, then, to construe theou in Philippians 2:6 to mean “God” and not “a god.”

Conclusion

I have argued in this paper that there a variety of exegetical “obstacles” to Stafford’s proposed translation of morphē theou in Philippians 2:6 as “the form of a god.” These include the semantic reality concerning the unmarked meaning of theos in biblical writings, the fact that the anarthrous theō in the very next clause also must mean “God,” and the evidence that the expressions “existing in the form of God” and “being equal with God” are, if not completely synonymous, very closely associated contextually (and possibly grammatically as well, though this is open to dispute). Furthermore, comparing the Christological passage of Philippians 2:6-11 with those in Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4, we find the expression “the form of God” to have the same place and conceptual significance as parallel affirmations of Christ’s having the nature of God. The combination of all these factors proves that the proposed translation “the form of a god” is unjustifiable and misleading.

As we noted at the beginning of this study, Stafford claims that “only a desire to read later Trinitarian meanings and distinctions” into the passage could drive any objection to his translation. We are now at a point where we may justifiably suggest the opposite is the case. It would appear that there is no exegetical justification for Stafford’s translation and that only a desire to import his anti-Trinitarian views into the passage can explain his idiosyncratic rendering.


NOTES

1. Stafford soon afterward separated from the Jehovah’s Witnesses while remaining largely in agreement with their theology, including their view of Christ.

2. These include the BBE, CEB, CJB, ERV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NAB, NASB, NET, NJB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV, YLT, and even Rotherham.

3. The only known exceptions in modern English versions also render theou as “God,” but paraphrase morphē theou as “in very nature God” (NIV, TNIV) or simply “God” (NLT). Tyndale’s NT reads “shape off god” (not “a god”), but theos is rendered with “god” in many places where no one would think it denoted a lesser deity (e.g., Phil. 2:11, 13 in the 1526 ed.; Phil. 2:9, 13 in the 1534 ed.). The use of capitalization in the sixteenth century was somewhat haphazard and often did not follow the same conventions assumed by modern readers.

4. Greg Stafford, Three Dissertations on the Teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses (Murietta, CA: Elihu Books, 2002), 214.

5. Ibid., 213-14.

6. Edgar Foster, “More on hARPAGMOS (Philippians 2:6-7),” Foster’s Theological Reflections (blog), 9 March 2012. See also “Philippians,” in John W. Schoenheit, Commentary for the Revised English Version (Martinsville, IN: Spirit and Truth Fellowship International, 2014), 818.

7. The lexical translation of the infinitive einai by itself would be “to be,” not “being.” In English, though, it is not helpful or meaningful to represent to einai as “the to be.”

8. It is unnecessary here to determine whether or not Paul is quoting or adapting a preexisting hymn in this passage. What is important and relevant, and what virtually all exegetes agree is the case, is that a distinct unit of text should be recognized here, either 2:6-11 or possibly 2:5-11.

9. I have only found two partial exceptions, though there may be more. An anonymous early nineteenth-century Unitarian proposed translating “form of a God” and “equal with a God” in Philippians 2:6. See “Biblical Criticism,” in The Christian Reflector, and Theological Inquirer 13 (Sept. 1820): 193. More recently, a Jesus Seminar fellow, Bernard Brandon Scott translates Philippians 2:6 “the form of a god (or God)…being equal with a god.” See Bernard Brandon Scott, “Philippians Hymn,” quoted in Thomas Sheehan, “The Resurrection, an Obstacle to Faith?” in The Resurrection of Jesus: A Sourcebook, ed. Bernard Brandon Scott (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2008), 95.

10. Gerald F. Hawthorne, “In the Form of God and Equal with God (Philippians 2:6),” in Where Christology Began: Essays on Philippians 2, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Brian J. Dodd (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 97, 106 n. 3, citing several examples (Acts 16:3, 20, 37; 17:24; 1 Cor. 11:7, 18; Gal. 1:14; 2:14).

11. This does not mean that one could not legitimately paraphrase Paul with words like “possessing God’s form”; my point has to do with the semantic congruence of huparchōn with einai in the following clause.

12. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 186.

13. Friedrich Blass, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. A. Debrunner, trans. and ed. Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), sect. 205 (commonly cited as BDF), cited in Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 207 n. 62.

14. N. T. Wright, “Harpagmos and the Meaning of Philippians 2:5-11,” Journal of Theological Studies 37 (1986): 344; Robert H. Gundry, “Style and Substance in ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’ according to Philippians 2:6-11,” in Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honour of Michael D. Goulder, ed. Stanley E. Porter, Paul Joyce, and David E. Orton, Biblical Interpretation 8 (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 283-84; Moises Silva, Philippians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 118; Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 207; Hawthorne, “In the Form of God and Equal with God (Philippians 2:6),” 104. An older exegete taking the same view was H. A. W. Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Philippians and the Colossians (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1875), 88, cited in Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 207 n. 62.

15. Stafford, Three Dissertations, 214.

16. Ibid., 214-15, citing Roy W. Hoover, “The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution,” Harvard Theological Review 64 (1971) 102-103.

17. Gundry, “Style and Substance,” 283-84.

18. So also Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 207 n. 62.

19. Similarly Silva, Philippians, 118.

20. Indeed, Jehovah’s Witnesses hold that Paul wrote Hebrews, making any comparison of the Philippians passage with Hebrews 1 all the more valid from their perspective.