Monday, December 15, 2008

Atonement and Divinity: A Brief Analysis

It has been said that Paul's epistle to the Philippians was his most empathetic letter to his people. These Philippians were some of Paul’s first converts in Europe. Thus, he held a strong affinity to their spiritual growth and welfare. The stark rebuking contained in many of Paul’s other epistles is not so prevalent in this New Testament book. Perhaps, his closeness to the Philippians allowed Paul to delve into more profound and lasting doctrine, such as the atonement, rather than dwelling upon temporary, technical aspects of the church.

Paul begins Philippians 2 with a call to be unified. It is very apparent that the principle of unity was one of Paul’s most repeated admonitions. One example comes from Corinthians when Paul taught that the church has many ‘members’ that work together: “For the body is not one member, but many” (1 Cor. 12:14). In this epistle, Paul will shortly expound upon Christ’s atonement. We must assume that he was emphasizing the unity of doctrine among members of the church. For how could these members learn of salvation if they were not unified in their understanding and beliefs?

After his call to unity, Paul makes a seemingly confusing statement, almost in passing. He said that Jesus Christ “…being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Philippians 2:6). Does this entail that Christ was, at one point, not equal with God? And yet he rose to equal glory with God, while yet not ‘robbing’ God of his glory. Paul makes it clear that Christ is divine—that he was and is no ordinary man.

A 19th century scholar, Jean Daillé, provided his interpretation of this verse: “As then the apostle protest that the being of the Lord Jesus was equal with God, it must necessarily be acknowledged that there was in him some other thing than the flesh, which he took for us; that is to say, that eternal Word, which at the beginning was God, and was God.” (Daillé and Sherman, An Exposition of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Philippians, ch. 2). Daillé may have understood this “being equal” as that Christ was full of equal glory during his earthly existence. We must read further from Paul’s letter to expound more heavily on this principle.

“But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). Scholars report that the phrase “made himself of no reputation” comes from the Greek word ‘kenosis’ which translates “to make empty” (Ostler, Apostle Paul, His Life and His Testimony: The 1994 Sperry Symposium on the New Testament, ch. 9). Christ, being born into the world, wasn’t previously, ‘of no reputation,’ because the phrase uses the verb ‘made’ as he was previously full of something, but then ‘made’ himself empty.

Craig Ostler takes the phrase further and asks what it was that Jesus Christ emptied himself. He then refers to Doctrine and Covenants. “And I, John, saw that he received not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace; and he received not of the fulness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fulness; and thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fulness at the first” (Doctrine & Covenants 93:12-14 emphasis added).

According to this scripture, Jesus Christ held not a fullness of glory preemptively in his life. This idea may be in opposition to Daillé’s thoughts about Christ’s earthly ministry. “Therefore, it was the fulness of glory that Christ had enjoyed in his premortal state of which he emptied himself in being born into mortality” (Ostler, Apostle Paul, His Life and His Testimony: The 1994 Sperry Symposium on the New Testament, ch. 9).

Why has Paul taken the time to mention this statement to the Philippians? He was expounding on the atonement and the measures that were involved to complete such a supernal gift. We gather from here, that Christ was not only divine before he entered mortal life, but he was equal with God. Paul is telling us that an atonement for mankind must be performed by someone like God—someone greater than a mere man, who was the ability to take upon himself the punishment for sin. Paul, earlier, had said, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Death comes from the mortal man, Adam, while life comes from the exalted being, Jesus Christ.

And yet, while in life, Ostler says, Christ was divested of his glory. He was made to become as mortal man, with all the same afflictions of sufferings that humans suffer. “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). Paul specifically used the keywords “humbled” and “obedient” to show the importance of these characteristics. It also contrasts heavily with his earlier statement that Christ was equal with God. Idiomatically speaking, Jesus Christ stood at the top of the totem pole of the human family, but subsequently lowered himself to the bottom of the totem pole, in order to bring salvation to mankind.

Daillé, Jean & Sherman, James, An Exposition of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Philippians (H. G. Bohn, 1843).

Ostler, Craig J., What is a Mortal Messiah?: Apostle Paul, His Life and His Testimony: The 1994 Sperry Symposium on the New Testament (Deseret Book, 1994).

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