Distinctive Teachings in the Epistle to the Philippians

In view of the harmony of Scripture, to identify the teaching of Philippians is to focus on its distinctive ideas. A summation of such an examination is in observing its canonical function in elucidating the gospel. Silva notes two factors that “have hindered students in this endeavor.”[1]

Firstly, given the joyful attitude Paul has towards the Philippians, many have assumed that the Philippian assembly is paradigmatic for Christian community; they have few problems, which are relatively inconsiderable. Moreover, in light of the same reasoning, doctrinal clarification is positioned secondary, or merely consequential, to the apostle’s true intention of the letter. Lightfoot has, nonetheless, agreeably emphasized this truth in his comparison of Galatians and Philippians:

As we lay down the Epistle to the Galatians and take up the Epistle to the Philippians, we cannot fail to be struck by the contrast. We have passed at once from the most dogmatic to the least dogmatic of the Apostle’s letters, and the transition is instructive.[2]

Among this statement, one ought to find some inescapable issues – some through Lightfoot’s blatant statement, and others by his neglected truths. 1) The heavily-dogmatic nature of Galatians does not nullify the simple doctrinal truths of Philippians; 2) Romans, by far, is the ‘most dogmatic’ of Paul’s letters, not Galatians; 3) Even if Philippians is analytically rendered the ‘least dogmatic’ of Paul’s letters, this does not instinctively conclude its ‘instructive’ exclusivity.

Secondly, on the other extreme, the supposed “excessive attention” of the Carmen Christi (the Christ-hymn; 2:6-11) has possibly buried other important accents of the epistle.[3] Despite the tendency of scholarship in dealing with this passage, Christology is not the main concern of Philippians. The ‘Christ-hymn’ “is but one paragraph in a larger section that may be considered the heart of the epistle” concerning Christian sanctification.[4] It is within this section (1:27-2:30), following the apostle’s call to unity and humility (2:1-4), that Paul uses Christ as a model to such mention calling.  Christian sanctification is the main focus whereby it gets narrower, but not negated, in the call to unity, humility, and the illustrative ‘Christ-hymn.’ “The point of the Carmen Christi is not primarily to make a statement regarding the nature of Christ’s person (ontology), but to impress on the Philippians the pattern to which they must be conformed.”[5] Thus, the clear image of Christ, methodically depicted with doctrinal verbiage, functioned to inspire Christian obedience’s founded in theological truths. Theology is designed to catch flame; it is to be implemented consequentially to its affectation of the heart and renewal of mind.


Moreover, Silva builds his analysis of φρονέω (phroneo, think) and its emphatic use throughout the epistle (1:7; 2:2, 5; 3:15, 19; 4:2, 10). English readers tend to miss this word’s frequency “because the verb, which can be used in a variety of contexts, requires more than one rendering.”[6] In 1:7, Paul being the Philippians’ paradigm of conduct (cf. 3:17; 4:9), rightly ‘feels’ (φρονεῖν) about them (specifically their perseverance, cf. 1:6) – he harbors a correct perspective of them. In 2:2 and 2:5, φρονέω follows an imperative by the apostle (2:2, πληρώσατέ [aorist]; and 2:5, φρονεῖτε [present]). In 2:2, it is used to express the desire and command of Paul for the community to ‘be of the same mind’ (φρονῆτε). In 2:5, Paul commands the Philippians to have the same ‘attitude’ (φρονεῖτε), which was exemplified in Christ. In 3:15, φρονῶμεν and φρονεῖτε represent the correct Christian ‘attitude’ in contrast to those whose end is destruction and have an ‘earthly mindset’ (φρονοῦντες, participle), depicted in 3:19. In 4:10, Paul rejoices in the Philippians’ revived ‘concern’ (φρονεῖν ) for him, just as they had previously expressed ‘concern’ (ἐφρονεῖτε).

Further, these concepts of ‘concern’ and ‘attitude’ are reflected in similar diction used by Paul. γέομαι (hegeomai, regard, consider) is noted importantly amidst the contexts of 2:3, 6 and 3:8. σκοπέω (skopeo, notice, consider) appears in 2:4; 3:17 and λογίζομαι (logizomai, reckon, consider) 3:13; 4:8.

“We find in Philippians an abundance of ‘knowledge’ terminology, especially in 1:9-11 and 3:8-10. All of these references include, but are not restricted to, purely intellectual concerns. The main point is expressed by Paul elsewhere with military and atheletic imagery (1:27, 30; 3:12-14; 4:1, 3). The focus on the mind, therefore, has much to do with mental determination.[7]  

As previously noted, this community in Philippi was not inept to spiritual struggles. Thus, ‘perseverance’ was not a subliminal or trivial topic for Paul; the Philippians must have been experiencing a similar tendency that the Galatians suffered in entertaining the thought of abandoning the faith. Such issues would account for the apostle’s call to joy, perseverance, and “mental determination.”[8] Apparently, spiritual ‘effort’, ‘insistence’, and ‘work’ are dominant exhortations for Paul. These urgencies do not, however, minimize the doctrine of grace; they are coupled with the empowering grace of God to accomplish endurance (cf. 1:6, 19-20; 2:13; 3:12; 4:13, 19). “The twin truths of human responsibility and divine sovereignty thus turn out to provide the theological underpinnings for the teaching of Philippians.”[9]

[1] Silva, Philippians, 20.

[2] Ibid., 20. From Lightfoot’s preface. 

[3] Ibid.,20.

[4] Ibid.,20.

[5] Ibid.,, 21.

[6] Ibid.,, 21.

[7] Ibid.,21.

[8]Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid.,22.


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