The Letter to the Philippians

  • G. Walter Hansen
  • Feb 17, 2011
  • Series: Volume 14 - 2011

G. Walter Hansen.  The Letter to the Philippians.  Pillar New Testament Commentary.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Nottingham: Apollos, 2009.  $44.00.  xxxiii + 355 pp.  ISBN978-0-8028-3737-0

The Pillar series consistently provides mid-range commentaries on New Testament books of very high quality.  Walter Hansen, Seminary Professor for Global Theological Education at Fuller, but trained as a New Testament scholar, continues this series’ fine tradition of quality.

A thirty-five page introduction captures the right balance between detail and conciseness for this series.  In addition to the standard items one expects in such an introduction about the city of Philippi, Paul’s context and purposes for writing, and a brief incursion into his theology, we learn that this is a letter of friendship and, more specifically, a family letter, along the lines Loveday Alexander outlined just over twenty years ago.  There are four separate groups of people not aligned with Paul causing varying kinds of problems—the rival teachers of 1:15-17 whose message is correct but whose motives are not, the false, Judaizing teachers of 3:2 who must be firmly resisted, non-Christian Romans in town intimidating the Philippian church (1:28), and Gentile Christians whose lives remain overtly pagan and hence have become “enemies of the cross” (3:18-19).  Although the evidence is finely balanced, Hansen ultimately opts for an Ephesian imprisonment in the mid-50s for the provenance of the letter.  In keeping with the general trend of the last generation, Philippians is seen as a unity from the beginning, not a composite of multiple letter fragments as in the first half of the twentieth century during the heyday of form criticism.

Paul is grateful at the outset of his letter for the Philippians’ partnership with him in the gospel and writes to encourage them how his witness to the guards that rotated watching him has led to many coming to Christ throughout the praetorian guard so that they too can be emboldened to share their faith even when harassed and endangered.  The chains that were literally Caesar’s means of punishment can thus be seen spiritually to be the tools of Christ’s kingdom advancing.  Paul is thus prepared to be martyred for Jesus if necessary but he has become convinced that he will instead be freed and able to continue to serve the churches he has been ministering to, and beyond.

It is refreshing to see Hansen take a both-and approach to the debate over whether the Christ-hymn in 2:6-11 is to be taken ethically or doctrinally.  It is also nice to see him acknowledge the strong case that has been made for seeing these verses as a pre-existing Christian hymn that Paul has used for his purposes after several recent writers have strongly argued against this, only to end up conceding its distinctive vocabulary and exalted prose.  There is pre-existence depicted here for Christ, not just new-Adam Christology, the “form” of God in which Jesus existed is closely related to that of God’s glory, and his pouring himself out involved not exploiting to his advantage his divinity but surrendering many of his divine rights.  Hansen highlights the physical shame and horror of the cross and the Isaiah 45 background of verses 10-11:  universal confession of Jesus as Lord scarcely equals universal salvation when there are allusions to a text in which God’s enemies are judged.

Working out one’s salvation in 2:12-13, like God’s completing the good work he began in 1:6 are not merely activities involving the Christian individual but the entire church, corporately, as well.  Timothy and Epaphroditus, commended in 2:19-30, become Paul’s signature models of the unity and maturity in Christ for which 2:1-4 calls.  As abrupt as the warnings beginning in 3:2 seem to be, they fit an established epistolary convention of juxtaposing commendations of individuals and warnings against other ones (following Jeff Reed’s study).  Paul’s extravagant language in matching Jewish credentials with the Judaizers is equaled only in his excessive relegation of that past life to the scrap heap (or worse—“garbage” in 3:8 in some Greek contexts refers explicitly to human excrement).  The new perspective on Paul has rightly sensitized us to the Jewish badges of national righteousness as particularly to the fore when Paul denies any righteousness of his own based on the Law.  But, against at least some versions of the new perspective, it is perfectly appropriate to generalize beyond those issues to any form of “self-achieved righteousness” as that which must be renounced.

Pistis Christou is best taken, in the context of 3:9, as human faith in Christ, but it remains theologically true that the faithfulness of Christ is the basis of his gift of righteousness to us, so again the agitation in new perspective debates needs to calm down.  At the end of chapter 3, Paul does not doubt that he will attain to the resurrection but wants to squelch any possible notion of perfectionism in this life.  While anti-imperialism does not dominate Philippians, the way some scholars have seen it behind almost every part of the entire New Testament, the contrasting heavenly citizenship of Christians, awaiting Jesus as both “Savior” and “Lord” clearly reflects the contrast with Caesar’s claims and demands.  Combining 2:6-11 with 3:20-21 leads to the full narrative of suffering preceding glory, for both Christ and believers; the latter verses might just have been the original conclusion to the hymn begun in the former verses.

Paul’s public “calling out” of Euodia and Syntyche means their rift must have been substantial, public, and threatening the unity of the entire congregation.  But it is not so serious that Paul does not expect the two women, with help, to be able to patch things back together.  The TNIV rightly clarifies the meaning in context of 4:13—“I can do all this” (i.e., being content in prosperity and adversity), which translations that do not clarify so mislead as to be false (citing Hawthorne and Martin).  Verses 10-20 have been properly called a “thankless thank-you” as Paul wants to avoid putting himself in the cultural role of a client indebted to the Philippian church as his patron.     

Hansen seems somewhat indifferent to the issue of the intermediate state as it arises in both chapters 1 and 3, listing conscious disembodied existence, soul sleep and immediate resurrection bodies after death as if all were equally likely or had an equal pedigree in the history of the church, when in fact only the first of these does.  It is not clear that the “sign of destruction” in 1:28 must be of the Christians’ destruction from the perspective of those who reject them rather than the coming destruction of the opponents of the gospel.  Granville Sharp’s rule does not justify saying that the “power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings” form “a single entity,” because that is only true when two co-ordinated nouns governed by a single article are not just singular and non-titular but also personal.  Still, follow-up studies have demonstrated that even when not all three conditions are met, the two entities (not one) are still closely related.   Despite Hansen’s preference for an Ephesian provenance, it appears he lapses back into traditional Roman thinking when he refers to the rival teachers as being in Rome (p. 195), and at the end of the commentary when he speculates that some of the names in Romans 16 might correspond to “those who belong to Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22), if Paul wrote from Rome.  But if he didn’t then Hansen apparently has no comment on their identity.  Finally, it seems a little odd that Hansen cites definitions from BDAG over 200 times and Louw and Nida only once.

These nevertheless are minor complaints about a volume that has far more going for it than not.  Among detailed commentaries on this little letter, not explicitly commenting on the Greek text per se, only Gordon Fee’s NICNT volume among recent offerings is more substantial or as useful.

Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
February 2011