Christ in gloryPhil. 2:6 and the "Robbery" of Being Equal with God

© 1997, 2008 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Phil. 2:5-6 (KJV) Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God . . . .

The rendering underlined above has been much criticized. James White considers the NIV's rendering, "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped," to be "clearer than the KJV's ambiguous translation" (King James Only Controversy, p. 197), though he offers no specifics as to exactly why. (Personally, I find the NIV to be "ambiguous" in this passage, given that the idea of "grasping" an "equality with God" is not exactly an easy one!)

Marvin R. Vincent is more direct, claiming that "the statement [in the KJV] is very awkward," and understanding it in a self-contradictory fashion: "Christ held fast His assertion of divine dignity, but relinquished it. The antithesis is thus entirely destroyed" (Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament).

On the other hand, there have been several good authorities who vouch for the legitimacy of the KJV’s general treatment of this passage.

1. Joseph Agar Beet (Beet's Notes on Romans through Colossians and Philemon) remarks that Tertullian, Ambrosiaster, Ambrose, and Augustine "explain this passage to mean that Christ did not look upon His equality with God as an act of robbery, in other words, that He deemed Himself to be justly equal to God." (Beet himself seems to object to this mainly because it "makes injustice to be the most conspicuous idea of [Gk. harpagmos [Strong G725]], an idea not belonging to the word," but his own translation--"who existing in the form of God, did not count His equality with God a means of high-handed self-enrichment"--is closer to the KJV than to the NIV, and thus the distinction he draws appears to me to be essentially pedantic.)

2. John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, rendering the verse "Who being in the essential form of God, counted it no act of robbery to be equal with God," says of the disputed phrase, "That is the precise meaning of the words,--no invasion of another's prerogative, but his own strict and unquestionable right."

3. Most tellingly, the 17th century Puritan John Owen writes the following in Christologia:

. . . The consideration of the divine grace and wisdom herein the apostle proposeth unto us, Phil. 2:6-8 . . . Adam being in the form--that is, the state and condition--of a servant, did by robbery attempt to take upon him the 'form of God,' or to make himself equal unto him. The Lord Christ being in the 'form of God'--that is, his essential form, of the same nature with him--accounted it no robbery to be in the state and condition of God, to be 'equal to him;' but being made in the 'fashion of a man,' taking on him our nature, he also submitted unto the form or the state and condition of a servant therein. He had dominion over all, owed service and obedience unto none, being in the 'form of God,' and equal unto him--the condition which Adam aspired unto; but he condescended unto a state of absolute subjection and service for our recovery. This did no more belong unto him on his own account, than it belonged unto Adam to be like unto God, or equal to him. Wherefore it is said that he humbled himself unto it, as Adam would have exalted himself unto a state of dignity which was not his due. . . .

This is a magnificent exposition of the whole passage, in my opinion. Plainly, Jesus was already God in His nature, so it would not have been "robbery" for Him to have appeared on earth in the plain likeness of God (since as the Geneva Bible [1560 ed.] glosses, “For he that was God, shulde haue done none iniurie to the Godhead”). However He instead (and here is the "antithesis" so singularly missed by Vincent) abased Himself, becoming in appearance a lowly man and submitting to death on the cross.

Incidentally, the translation "robbery," along with much else in this passage, derives from Tyndale, whose felicitous phraseology was validated by Geneva and the KJV, and by later translators such as Young and Darby (the latter giving "did not esteem it an object of rapine to be on an equality with God").

Indeed, the NIV's "did not consider equality with God something to be grasped" could be taken in a similar sense to that I have outlined above. But I must say that the rendering seems unnecessarily pedantic, as well as far from the only possible way to interpret the passage (as we have just seen) and certainly not in any respect clearer than the KJV's treatment of the verse.

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