The Wartburg Project

August 2nd, 2017

35. In Philippians 2:6 should "morphe" be translated "form" or "nature"?

Is there a reason why the Greek word morphe in Philippians 2:6 is not being translated "form" and instead is rendered "nature"?

Here is the EHV translation:

Let this attitude be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus. 6Though he was by nature God, he did not consider equality with God as a prize to be displayed, 7but he emptied himself by taking the nature of a servant. When he was born in human likeness, and his appearance was like that of any other man, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.

In the study of Christian doctrine, Philippians 2 is one of the most challenging passages to teach, not only because the related topics of Christ’s two natures and his two states of humiliation and exaltation are so challenging for our reason to grasp, but because, although ancient and Reformation-era church fathers agree on the doctrine of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, they do not agree on the handling of certain terms in Philippians 2.

They agree that when Christ was on earth all the fullness of the deity (the divine nature) dwelt in him, but Jesus did not hang on to living like God, but gave up the full and constant use of his divine attributes. (Jesus said that he, the omniscient God, did not know the day of judgment. He did not use his power to come down from the cross.) While he was on earth, Jesus took on the appearance of an ordinary, human man, and he lived like an ordinary man, not displaying his divine glory (except for rare exceptions like the Transfiguration). When he returned to heaven, he did not lay aside his human nature, but now that nature appears in the glorious form we see in Revelation 1.

Putting it another way, since the incarnation, Jesus has always possessed a complete human nature and the complete divine nature united in one person. He always possessed all the divine attributes, but he did not always use or display them. How this can be is a mystery.

Where there is a difference of exegetical opinion among various commentators on Philippians 2 is in the handling of the Greek word morphe. Should it be translated form or nature?

The best book on the person of Christ is The Two Natures of Christ by Martin Chemnitz. This is what he says about the term morphe.

Damascenus tells us that according to the usage of the ancient church, the terms essence or substance (Greek ousia), nature (phusis) and form (morphe) are synonyms and designate the same thing (Two Natures, p 29).

The well-known passage in Phil. 2:6–9 is also pertinent here. It deals with “the form of God,” “the form of a servant,” “the likeness of men,” and “the high exaltation of Christ.” The “form of God” by the unanimous testimony of the ancients is the divine nature or essence itself, according to which Christ by nature is equal with God, but not by robbery, such as Satan and Adam attempted. Furthermore, the term “form” (morphe) is used to designate a nature or essence endowed with peculiar attributes and conditions, divine or human, which is covered and ornamented with them, so to speak, as Augustine says … ad Petrum, “You must understand the ‘form of God’ as the natural fullness of God.” (Two Natures, p 326).

It seems wise to follow that opinion of Chemnitz, which is based on the consensus of the ancient fathers, even though Luther and others sometimes explain the term in a different way in some of their writings. When some Lutheran writers say that the morphe of God is not the divine nature, they are assuming that the morphe of God is the object of the verb “he emptied himself,” and they are correct to say that we cannot say that Jesus emptied himself of the divine nature. But in the Greek text the term the morphe of God is not the object of the verb “he emptied himself.” The text supplies no object for the verb, so we must deduce it from Scripture. What Jesus emptied himself of was not the divine nature, but the full and constant use of the attributes of that nature. Putting it another way, if the term the morphe of God was the object of the verb “emptied himself,” the morphe of God could not mean “the divine nature,” but this term is not the object of the verb “emptied himself,” so this objection to understanding the morphe of God as a reference to the divine nature, which was the unanimous opinion or the orthodox Greek fathers, is not necessary.

At the heart of the problem is that the Greek word morphe is often translated by the Latin word forma, and forma in turn is often translated or glossed by the English word form. The problem is that Latin forma and English form are false cognates. In dogmatics forma almost never means form. It usually means essence. The statement that “the forma of Scripture is the divinely intended meaning” cannot properly be translated “the form of Scripture is the divinely intended meaning.” It must be translated “the essence of Scripture is the divinely intended meaning.” Form and essence here are contrasted. In English, the “form” of Scripture refers to the outward form, the letters, the words, the sounds of the words. Even when the form (the Latin word is materia not forma) of Scripture (the sounds, the shape of the letters, even the language) changes, the essence (the divinely intended meaning) remains the same. That is why accurate translations convey the Word of God.

Since Latin forma and English form are false cognates, English readers are apt to read the word “form” as something less than the full divine nature. The term nature (or even essence) is better for conveying the meaning of the passage. Since the common English usage is to speak of the two natures of Christ, the term nature commends itself here, and it has no doctrinal downside as form does.

The problem word in this passage from a doctrinal point of view is the verb “emptied himself.” False teachers called the kenoticists (the emptiers) taught that Jesus emptied himself of some of the divine attributes. “Emptied himself” is indeed the expression in the original text, so we keep it. The fact that some false teachers misuse the term does not lead us to remove the term from Scripture or from our translations. Instead, we retain the scriptural term, but we explain the correct scriptural sense and reject the false interpretation of the term by the heretics.