Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

A Rebuttal to Shabir Ally’s Response to Dr. James White Pt. 4c

Sam Shamoun

In this section we are going to focus on Philippians 2:5-11.


The Carmen Christi

The Carmen Christi is believed to have been an early hymn of the Church which Paul adapted into his letter in order to make a point concerning how Christians should view one another. We will see just how early a little later.

This hymn is important for the simple fact that it gives us a clear idea of what the first Christians were saying about the risen Lord in their public gatherings and worship. As such, this will give us a greater understanding of Paul’s Christology since he obviously agreed with everything stated in the hymn, otherwise he would not have included it in his writing.

With that said we are going separate the hymn into two sections in order to make it easier for the readers to follow along with our analysis.



Here is what the first part of the Carmen Christi says concerning Jesus’ prehuman existence:

“Let Christ himself be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature (en morphe theou hyperchon), did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege (harpagmon) by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal.” Philippians 2:5-8 J. B. Philips New Testament

According to this pre-Pauline hymn, Jesus Christ had always existed in the very form of God, and was therefore equal to God in terms of honor, glory and essence. However, the preexistent Lord voluntarily chose to set aside his status and privileges as God’s equal in order to take on the form or status of a slave by becoming a human being. Christ did this for the purpose of being obedient to God’s will, which required him to die a horrendous and shameful death on a cross.  

The hymn is making basically the same point that John’s Prologue makes, namely, Jesus is a preexistent divine being who was/is fully God in nature that later became a flesh and blood human being.

Lest Shabir accuse us of reading our beliefs into the text we will let the following liberal commentators make the case for us:

6: Though he was, preexistent before his activity in v. 7 (see “Christ Hymn,” p. 357). Form of God, not visibly BUT IN ESSENTIAL, DIVINE NATURE. Something to be exploited, and never be relinquished. 7. Emptied himself (from Gk “kenosis,” “emptiness”), the PRE-INCARNATE CHRIST could have asserted his advantageous status OF EQUALITY WITH GOD… (Michael Cook, “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians,” The Jewish Annotated New Testament: The New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler [Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011], p. 356; capital and underline emphasis ours)


“… Two words are most carefully chosen to show THE UNCHANGEABLE GODHEAD of Jesus Christ. The word which the Authorized Version translates as being is from the Geek verb huperchein, which is not the common Greek word for being. It describes the very essence of every individual AND THAT WHICH CANNOT BE CHANGED. It describes that part of every one of us which, in any circumstances, REMAINS THE SAME. So Paul begins by saying that Jesus was essentially AND UNALTERABLY God.

“He goes on to say that Jesus was in the form of God. There are two Greek words for form – morphe and schema. They must both be translated as form, because there is no other English equivalent; but they do not mean the same thing. Morphe is the essential form which never alters; schema is the outward form which changes from time to time and from circumstance to circumstance… The morphe never alters; the schema continually does. The word Paul uses for Jesus being in the form of God is morphe; that is to say, HIS UNCHANGEABLE BEING IS DIVINE. However his outward schema might alter, he remained in essence divine.

“Jesus did not think it robbery to be equal with God; he did not regard existence in equality with God as something to be snatched at. The word used for robbery, which we have translated as a thing to be snatched at, is harpagmos, which comes from a verb to snatch or to clutch. The phrase can mean one of two things, both of which are fundamentally the same. (1) It can mean that Jesus did not need to snatch at equality with God, because he had it as a right. (2) It can mean that he did not clutch at equality with God, as if to hug it jealously to himself, but laid it down willingly for the sake of men and women. However we take this, it once again stresses the essential godhead of Jesus… The Greek is the verb kenoun, which means literally to empty. Here, Paul uses the most vivid word possible to make clear the sacrifice of the incarnation. The glory of the divinity Jesus gave up willingly in order to become human. He emptied himself of his deity to take upon himself his humanity. it is useless to ask how; we can only stand in awe at the sight of him, WHO IS ALMIGHTY GOD, hungry and in tears. Here, in human language stretched to its limits, is the great saving truth that the one who was rich for our sakes became poor… Verses 6-8 form a very short passage; but there is no passage in the New Testament which so movingly sets out the utter reality of the godhead and the humanity of Jesus and make so vivid the sacrifice that he made when he laid aside his godhead and became human. How it happened, we cannot tell; but it is the mystery of a love so great that, although we can never fully understand it, we can blessedly experience it and adore it.” (William Barclay, The New Daily Bible Study: The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians [Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: Third edition, 2003], pp. 42-44; bold and capital emphasis ours)


“… Existing in the form of God means having divine prerogatives, being God’s virtual equal. The word translated to be grasped is ambiguous; it can mean either ‘to be held onto’ or ‘to be achieved by grasping.’ In the latter sense some have seen a reference here to Christ’s not acting as Adam did, or as the angels who were tempted into insurrection. But the first meaning, that Christ had equality but did not insist on keeping it, seems much more likely… The 2nd verb, emptied, is crucial. The 2 phrases help interpret its meaning. ‘Empty’ here means to take the status of a servant (lit. ‘slave’) and come into existence as a man. This whole complex of phrases speaks of the incarnation (lit. ‘enfleshment,’ a word derived from John 1:14 but never actually used in the NT). The heart of the matter is the change of roles from divine authority to slave status, from the highest thinkable role to the lowest known. ‘Emptied’ must be understood metaphorically, NOT METAPHYSICALLY–i.e. it is a poetic way of celebrating the change of status, NOT A WAY OF TALKING ABOUT THE DISCARDING OF DIVINE SUBSTANCES OR ESSENCES (such ideas may lie behind the hymn but are not its concern). The hymn makes precisely the same point as II Cor. 8:9… What the hymn celebrates, therefore, is the movement of Christ from sovereignty over the cosmos to slavery within it… The one who pre-existed ‘came to pass’ as a man; he who ‘is’ (as God’s equal) ‘happened’!... The point is that he who was equal with God now became equal with man… The first half of the hymn celebrates  the movement of the pre-existent one (i.e. he was before he became) from the zenith of authority to the nadir of human subjection. ‘Pre-existence’ is a technical category from the ancient philosophical-theological tradition: it was developed in order to be able to speak of a being who ‘exists’ apart from created time-space and prior to his entry into it. This conception is assumed by the hymn… The purpose of the hymn is not to outline the life of Jesus for Christians to imitate, for the movement of the hymn BEGINS WITH PARITY WITH GOD–WHERE NO ONE ELSE MAY BEGIN…” (Leander E. Keck, The Letter of Paul to the Philippians, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, pp. 850-851; capital and underline emphasis ours)

Once more:

“It now seems, however, that the most likely interpretation of harpagmos is that it refers to ‘something to be exploited.’ In this view, equality with God was something that Christ ALREADY POSSESSED, but which he chose not to use for his own advantage. The implication of this passage is that God bestowed on him the status and honor he had not claimed for himself. (Christ’s voluntary humiliation and the bestowal of this status of honor upon him are best represented by Fig. 18, 505.) There is another interesting parallel with the Fourth Gospel in the phrase ‘equality with God,; since a very similar phrase is used in John 5:18, where Jesus is accused of making himself equal to God. His opponents regard his claim to be God’s Son as a usurpation of a role that does not belong to him. … Christ, who was ‘in the form of God,’ might well have claimed the privileges of equality with God as his right, but did not do so. What Adam desired, Christ was content to forgo.” (Morna D. Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI: 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, pp. 507-508; bold and capital emphasis ours)

We’re still not finished:

“Here we see yet another clear contrast: between being in the form of God and taking the form of a slave. The OT name for God is ‘LORD’–the name that Christ himself is given in vv. 9-11. Had Christ exploited his equality with God, he might have been acknowledged as such from the beginning. Instead, he took the form–and status–of a slave. The final words shock us because of their incongruity: This is not what we expect of one who is in the form of god and who could, if he had wished, have claimed equality with God. There could be no greater contrast than this. Yet we should not think of this process as some kind of exchange. Christ did not cease to be ‘in the form of God’ when he took the form of a slave, any more than he ceased to be the ‘Son of God’ when he was sent into the world. On the contrary, it is in his self-emptying and his humiliation that he reveals what God is like, and it is through his taking the form of a slave that we see ‘the form of God.’ The NRSV’s ‘though’ in v. 6 is misleading. There is no conjunction in the Greek, but if we supply one, then it should perhaps be ‘because.’ There is an interesting parallel once again in the Fourth Gospel, where the glory of Jesus–and therefore God–is revealed in the cross.” (Ibid., p. 508; bold emphasis ours)

We finally end with a conservative commentary for a change:

“… The passage holds many parallels to the prophecy of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. As a hymn, it was not meant to be a complete statement about the nature and work of Christ. It is not known if Paul wrote it or merely quoted it. The celebrated passage 1 Corinthians 13 demonstrates Paul's ability to write poetic pieces. Several key characteristics of Jesus Christ are praised in this passage:

  • Christ has always existed with God.
  • Christ is equal to God because he is God (John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:15-20).
  • Though Christ is God, he became a man in order to fulfill God's plan of salvation for all people.
  • Christ did not just have the appearance of being a man–he actually became human to identify with us.
  • Christ voluntarily laid aside his divine rights and privileges out of love for his Father.
  • Christ died on the cross for our sins so we wouldn't have to face eternal death.
  • God glorified Christ because of his obedience.
  • God raised Christ TO HIS ORIGINAL POSITION at the Father's right hand, where he will reign forever as our Lord and Judge.

“This verse describes the status of Christ as he existed before the creation of the world–that is, his preincarnate state. The words who being in Greek are a present participle indicating continuing existence from the beginning (Genesis 1:1). Jesus Christ was not merely a human who lived for thirty-three years on this earth; instead, he existed with God BEFORE TIME BEGAN. In Jesus' prayer before his death, he said, 'And now Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began' (John 17:5, NIV).

“Jesus Christ is in very nature God. The Greek word translated 'nature' (or 'form'; Greek morphe) appears in the New Testament only here, in 2:7, and Mark 6:12 [sic]. It was generally used to describe the way objects appear to the human senses. Yet scholars attest that Paul must have used it with a deeper meaning to describe the outward manifestation corresponding to and expressing the inward essence. Having the form of God means Christ expressed the very nature and character of God. In Jesus, we see what God is like… God, in Jesus, dwelt among his people. It was this true claim made by Jesus that infuriated the religious leaders and ultimately caused Jesus to be sentenced to death (John 5:18; 10:33; Mark 14:63-64). But Jesus' death was all part of God's plan.

“Jesus has equality with God. Everything God is, Christ is; the equality is in essential characteristics and divine attributes. But Jesus did not consider this equality something to be grasped. There are two schools of thought regarding these words about Jesus' equality with God; (1) Christ did not have to seize or grasp his equality, it was already his, or (2) Christ did not consider his equality with God as something which he had to hold on to and not let slip from his grasp. Actually both ideas are true.

“(1) Christ did not have to wrest equality from God. Scholars compare this attitude to Adam and Eve's, who were tempted by Satan to become like God (Genesis 3:5). Using this analogy from Romans 5, the 'first Adam' disobeyed God and yielded to a temptation to be like God. In disobedience, he grasped at something that was not rightfully his, and his pride caused him to lose the glory God had given. The 'last Adam,' Jesus Christ, obeyed God. He willingly shed his glory in order to take on the form of fragile humanity. He endured hatred and horror; and when he had completed his task, he returned to his place of honor at God's right hand.

“(2) Christ did not cling to his equality, but set it aside for a time in order to become human. When Christ was born, God became a man. Jesus was not part man and part God; he was completely human and completely divine. Before Jesus came, people could know God partially. Afterward, people could know God fully, because he became visible and tangible. Christ is the perfect expression of God in human form. As a man, Jesus was subject to place, time, and other human limitations. He did not give up his eternal power when he became human, but he did set aside his glory and rights. In response to the Father's will, he limited his power and knowledge. What made Jesus' humanity unique was his freedom from sin. In his full humanity, we can see everything about God's character that can be conveyed in human terms. (The Life Application Commentary: Philippians, Colossians, & Philemon, edited by Grant Osborne, Philip W. Comfort, & Livingstone [Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1995], pp. 54-56; bold and capital emphasis ours)

“Recently, scholars say that this passage teaches nothing about what Christ voluntarily gave of himself, poured himself out, put himself on the line. So he made himself lowly. Taking the very nature (or form) of a servant was not an exchange, but an addition to his essential nature. The Incarnation was the act of the preexistent Son of God voluntarily assuming a human a body and human nature. He did not give up his deity to become human.” (Ibid., p. 57; bold emphasis ours)

“Jesus' glory and divinity were veiled by his humanity and mortality. While he walked as a human on this earth, Jesus Christ never ceased to be God.” (Ibid., p. 58; bold emphasis ours)

We now move to the second part of the hymn.