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Is there any evidence that μορφῇ θεοῦ (morphe theou) in Philippians 2:6 means the "nature" of God the Father?

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, — SBLGNT

Several translations including the NIV render it as "nature":

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; — NIV

While many others (e.g. ESV, NASB, HCSB, ISV, NET, etc.) render it as "form":

who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. — HCSB

Is there evidence in the NT and/or contemporary first century literature that morphe is used as having the meaning of "nature"?

  • "nature"? How would you define that? Thanks. – user10231 Jul 17 '16 at 17:25
  • You may find this discussion of Morphe vs Eidos informative. – James Shewey Dec 9 '16 at 18:13
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The word μορφῇ means "form, outward appearance, [or] shape"1 (occurring in the dative in this context following the preposition ἐν). To be very blunt, translating this as "nature" (as the NIV does) is a poor translation choice. Discussion of God's nature is theologically charged and thus using "nature" in this context could be misleading. The NET translators explain the usage of μορφῇ in Philippians 2:6 by saying:

The Greek term translated form indicates a correspondence with reality. Thus the meaning of this phrase is that Christ was truly God.2

The next verse uses the same word (but in the accusative) in the phrase μορφὴν δούλου λαβών ("taking [the] form of a slave"). Jesus truly was God, and also he truly was a servant. For an in depth understanding of the usage of μορφῇ both in biblical and extra-biblical writings I have copied a lexical entry for you:

μορφή, ῆς, ἡ (Hom.+) form, outward appearance, shape gener. of bodily form 1 Cl 39:3; ApcPt 4:13 (Job 4:16; ApcEsdr 4:14 p. 28, 16 Tdf.; SJCh 78, 13). Of the shape or form of statues (Jos., Vi. 65; Iren. 1, 8, 1 [Harv. I 67, 11]) Dg 2:3. Of appearances in visions, etc., similar to persons (Callisthenes [IV B.C.]: 124 Fgm. 13 p. 644, 32 Jac. [in Athen. 10, 75, 452b] Λιμὸς ἔχων γυναικὸς μορφήν; Diod S 3, 31, 4 ἐν μορφαῖς ἀνθρώπων; TestAbr A 16 p. 97, 11 [Stone p. 42] ἀρχαγγέλου μορφὴν περικείμενος; Jos., Ant. 5, 213 a messenger fr. heaven νεανίσκου μορφῇ): of God’s assembly, the church Hv 3, 10, 2; 9; 3, 11, 1; 3, 13, 1; Hs 9, 1, 1; of the angel of repentance ἡ μ. αὐτοῦ ἠλλοιώθη his appearance had changed m 12, 4, 1. Of Christ (ἐν μ. ἀνθρώπου TestBenj 10:7; Just., D. 61, 1; Tat. 2, 1; Hippol., Ref. 5, 16, 10. Cp. Did., Gen. 56, 18; of deities ἐν ἀνθρωπίνῃ μορφῇ: Iambl., Vi. Pyth. 6, 30; cp. Philo, Abr. 118) μορφὴν δούλου λαβών he took on the form of a slave=expression of servility Phil 2:7 (w. σχῆμα as Aristot., Cat. 10a, 11f, PA 640b, 30–36). This is in contrast to expression of divinity in the preëxistent Christ: ἐν μ. θεοῦ ὑπάρχων although he was in the form of God (cp. OGI 383, 40f: Antiochus’ body is the framework for his μ. or essential identity as a descendant of divinities; sim. human fragility [Phil 2:7] becomes the supporting framework for Christ’s servility and therefore of his κένωσις [on the appearance one projects cp. the epitaph EpigrAnat 17, ’91, 156, no. 3, 5–8]; on μορφὴ θεοῦ cp. Orig., C. Cels. 7, 66, 21; Pla., Rep. 2, 380d; 381bc; X., Mem. 4, 3, 13; Diog. L. 1, 10 the Egyptians say μὴ εἰδέναι τοῦ θεοῦ μορφήν; Philo, Leg. ad Gai. 80; 110; Jos., C. Ap. 2, 190; Just., A I, 9, 1; PGM 7, 563; 13, 272; 584.—Rtzst., Mysterienrel.3 357f) Phil 2:6. The risen Christ ἐφανερώθη ἐν ἑτέρᾳ μορφῇ appeared in a different form Mk 16:12 (of the transfiguration of Jesus: ἔδειξεν ἡμῖν τὴν ἔνδοξον μορφὴν ἑαυτοῦ Orig., C. Cels. 6, 68, 23). For lit. s. on ἁρπαγμός and κενόω 1b; RMartin, ET 70, ’59, 183f.—DSteenberg, The Case against the Synonymity of μορφή and εἰκών: JSNT 34, ’88, 77–86; GStroumsa, HTR 76, ’83, 269–88 (Semitic background).—DELG. Schmidt, Syn. IV 345–60. M-M. EDNT. TW. Spicq. Sv.3

Concerning the usage of μορφή in both passages, in v. 6 "being" (ὑπάρχων) in the form of God was natural (he was 'in the form of God'), while in v. 7 'taking' (λαβών) the form of a slave was an active choice.

Sources

1 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 659.

2 Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Php 2:6.

3 Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, 659.

  • Let me know if you want to know more about any of the works referenced in the lexicon. I have a guide to the abbreviations used; I know they are not always clear. – Dan Apr 15 '13 at 3:03
  • Do you find any significance in the different cases? – swasheck Apr 15 '13 at 15:13
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    @swasheck not particularly, just the role they play in each sentence. In v. 6 it is in the dative because of the preposition. In v. 7 it is in accusative because it is the direct object of the participle. The genitive 'slave' just modifies the object here to explain what type/kind of form was taken. Am I missing something? – Dan Apr 15 '13 at 15:17
  • @swasheck If I played on anything linguistically it would be that "being" (ὑπάρχων) in the form of God was natural (he was 'in the form of God'), while 'taking' (λαβών) the form of a slave was an active choice. – Dan Apr 15 '13 at 15:20
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The Lord Jesus Christ was both “in the form of God” (ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ) and “took the form of a servant” (μορφὴν δούλου λαβών).

If he “took the form of a servant”1 and was a servant,2 then “in the form of God,”3 he was God.

form of a servant: servant :: form of God: God
form of X: X :: form of Y: Y


Footnotes

1 Phil. 2:7
2 Isa. 42:1
3 Phil. 2:6

1

As Radz mentioned, there seems to be instances in the NT of both meanings ("appearance" and "nature").

I would say that "nature" fits in the case of Phil 2:6-7 because of the context - namely the contrast between "he existed" (ὑπάρχω (5225)) and "he took" (λαμβάνω (2983)). The first form (being God) is the original, the second form (a servant) was an extension or addition that He chose. This is consistent with another typical use of "nature": to describe our sin condition versus our being made in the image of God.

Of course, this is assuming my understanding of the English word "nature" is even valid...

  • I think the sort of “nature” you’re referring to in the last sentence of the second paragraph is φύσις rather than μορφή, drawn from Eph 2:3 - "ἤμεθα τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς ὡς καὶ οἱ λοιποί·" - "We were by nature children of wrath, just like the rest." – Susan Sep 15 '15 at 18:30
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The occurrence of morphe and its co-words in the New Testament proves that it denotes " nature" not just mere appearance:

Moral nature Romans 12:2 ( are we to change in "appearance' only as Christians and not in our moral nature? also 2 Corinthians 3:18 ) Servant's nature Philippians 2:7 ( did he just "appeared" to be a servant or really become a servant?) God's nature Philippians 2:6 ( Even though if it means "appearance" here it still requires that he has the Father's nature because only the Father has a divine appearance. Check below)

"Son of Man" Daniel 7:13

"Son of Man" Revelation 1:13

======================

"The hair of his head was pure like wool" Daniel 7:9

"The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow" Revelation 1:14

======================

"A Man clothed in Linen" Daniel 10:5

"A Man clothed with a Long Robe" Revelation 1:13

======================

"With a belt of fine Gold" Daniel 10:5

"With a golden sash" Revelation 1:13

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"His face like the appearance of lightning" Daniel 10:6

"His face was shining like the sun shining in full strength" Revelation 1:16

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"His eyes like flaming torches" Daniel 10:6

"His eyes were like a flame of fire" Revelation 1:14

======================

"His arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze: Daniel 10:6

"His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace" Revelation 1:15

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"The sound of his words like the sound of a multitude", Daniel 10:6

"His voice was like the roar of many waters" Revelation 1:15

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"I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground" Daniel 10:9

"When I say him I fell at his feet as though dead" Revelation 1:17

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"And behold a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees" Daniel 10: 10

"But he laid his right hand on me…" Revelation 1:17

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"Then he said to me, Fear not" Daniel 10: 12

"…Saying, Fear not" Revelation 1:17

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There's a different interpretation if you let the words speak for themselves and don't start with a presupposition of meaning. Some people are interpreting "Morphe theou" as though he was "physically God." But consider the context of John 1:1 differentiating the definite form "ho theos" (THE Divine, God) from the anarthrous nominative predicate "theos" (qualitatively godlike) due to the lack of a definite article.

Likewise, there is no definite article here, and theou is in the genitive case... it's not saying that Jesus' body IS ho theos... but that Jesus is a naturally heavenly being, who emptied himself to the level of humanity.

The context if the verse specifies that he considered equality with God not something to be seized/snatched/robbed (compared to lucifer's reasoning that he, being heavenly and more powerful than humanity could seize equality with God).

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    Welcome to BHSX. Thanks for your answer. You could improve this by adding some references. – user25930 Jan 15 at 9:55
  • You could specifically develop how you get from "God" to "heavenly being." Qualitative nouns aren't adverbs or adjectives ("god-like"). The article in "ho theos" isn't equivalent to "the God" except when qualified ("the God of the Jews"): Greek simply doesn't use articles like we do in English, and their lack does not imply dichotomy between two instances of the same noun. "ho theos" is directly eq. to the Eng. "God." Not using an article in 1:1b makes theos qualitative. Qualitative use yields the fundamental identity as in the latter use of "man" in "was among men and was man himself." – Sola Gratia Jul 24 at 23:16
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The NIV (2011) had translated μορφή as "nature". However, I have yet to find the translator's reason behind this translation.

On my analysis, I had figured that it could had its basis on Greek philosophy (Aristotellian) as μορφή had a native meaning of substance and it is most probably synonymous with φύσις based on NT data.

A support to this view was the usage of μορφή as "outward appearance" in 2 Timothy 3:5. It says there that theologically Christians should not only appear religious. Christ should really "form in them" (Galatians 4:19). That is, to have a real Christianity inside their hearts revealed in their lives. The numerous Pauline usage of the cognate words of μορφή in his other epistles refers to Christians being "shaped to be like Christ" (Phil. 2:6, Romans 12:2, Phil. 3:10,21, and Gal. 4:19). Part of this transformation in Christ was participating in the divine φύσις (2 Peter 1:4).

Overall, we see that Paul used every meaning of μορφή quite effectively in his writings. Colossians 2:9 already speaks of Christ having a θεότης which also supports μορφή in Philippians 2:6 to be understood as refering to nature.

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