Saturday, September 12, 2009

Philippians 1:28b

ἥτις ἐστὶν αὐτοῖς ἔνδειξις ἀπωλείας, ὑμῶν δὲ σωτηρίας
This is an extraordinarily difficult section to interpret. It offers various options which provide very different views, and has thus given rise to dispute among exegetes.[1] Before entering into such discussion, we should remember the context in which this section is found.
Paul has noted that his apparent misfortune has actually helped to advance the gospel (1:12-14). In 1:15-18 Paul describes those who preach Christ from both pure and impure motives, yet his perspective is one of indifference since what matters is that Christ is proclaimed, and in this Paul rejoices (1:18b-19a). Paul then describes his own struggle in prison, being seized by two options: life and death (1:23), and yet his perspective is that to carry on living will benefit others, and help to advance the gospel (1:24-26). We then arrive at what many have labelled the thesis statement (1:27-28a) of Philippians where Paul’s governing imperative is to “focus solely on living as citizens, worthy of the gospel of the Messiah.” Regardless of what happens to Paul, they are Stand firm in the Spirit, united together in one accord, striving together for the advancement of the gospel, not being intimidated by society.[2] In all this however, before approaching our particular phrase, we must remember Gorman’s insight that “when Paul writes autobiographically, he writes paradigmatically.”[3] Paul has not just recounted these details to merely inform the Philippians. Rather, he is intentionally describing his own response to suffering and trials, and providing them with a model of how to respond. With this in mind, we are now ready to read and interpret 28b.

ἥτις ἐστὶν αὐτοῖς ἔνδειξις ἀπωλείας, ὑμῶν δὲ σωτηρίας

For them this is a sign of destruction, but for you salvation

The questions which are raised include the following: What is the sign? What sort of destruction is this? Who is the sign for? Who is destroyed? How does the sign communicate, and what does it communicate?

As Fowl notes, most commentators understand that the “sign” or “proof” to which Paul appeals, is in fact the steadfast loyalty of the Philippian Christians in the face of great opposition.[4] Thus, the argument concerning the referent of the antecedent ἥτις, is inconsequential. What matters, is what follows next.

Fowl describes the position of many commentators on the next phrase when he writes:
The majority of the recent commentators and recent English translations take it that Paul is claiming here that the Philippians’ steadfast faith in the face of opposition is a concrete manifestation to their opponents of the opponents’ destruction.[5]
But is this necessarily the case? This reading raises the interesting question of how the opponents would interpret this sign? How would they see Christian faithfulness as a sign of their own destruction?[6] This appears implausible, and does not fit neatly with the context we have outlined above.[7]

Hawthorne and Fowl have advanced a view that I find particularly helpful in answering and explaining the questions raised above. They see this verse (28b) as offering two different ways of evaluating the Philippians’ faithfulness in the wake of fierce opposition. Hawthorne thus offers the following translation:

For although your loyalty to the faith is proof to them that you will perish, it is in fact proof to you that you will be saved – saved by God.[8]

The Philippians are to view their situation of persecution as a positive sign that they are remaining faithful, and are in fact living as citizens of heaven (1:27a; 3:20), even though those who oppose them view their faithfulness as a sign that they are going to be destroyed, through incarceration by officials and through punishments from the gods.[9] Just as Paul is currently in prison and suffering for his living worthy of the gospel (1:12-26), yet maintains a godly perspective, this verse shows us that Paul is exhorting these Philippian followers to remain faithful and live worthy of the gospel of the Messiah, despite the perspective of outsiders. As

Fowl concludes,
In 1:28 Paul is displaying two competing conceptions of the result of the Philippians’ adhering to their faith in the ways Paul admonishes. To the opponents, it is wilful flaunting of Roman authority and anticipates the Christians’ imminent destruction. In reality, it marks the salvation of the Christians. On this account, debates about whether the destruction/salvation pairing here refers to the temporal or eternal realm simply miss the point. The opponents view the Philippians’ physical destruction as testimony to their eternal perdition. For Paul and the Philippians, their steadfastness demonstrates their salvation, whether they live or die. It is simply the way they magnify Christ in their bodies (cf. 1:20).[10]
Granted this reading is not perfect, and the traditional interpretation is still plausible, we find this reading fits better with the context outlined, and thus should be considered carefully.

[1] G. D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1995), 168-170; G. F. Hawthorne, Philippians (Waco: Word, 1983), 58-60 and S. E. Fowl, “Philippians 1:28b, One More Time” in New Testament Greek and Exegesis: Essays in Honour of Gerald F. Hawthorne Edited by A. M. Donaldson and T. B. Sailors. (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003), 167-179. “No one view stands head and shoulders above the rest. Indeed, all attempts to make sense of this verse end up having to supply words or concepts that are not directly expressed, but perhaps implied, in these two clauses.” (172).
[2] Fowl, 171 “As the rest of vv. 27-28 unfolds, it is clear that, for the Philippians, ordering their common life in a manner worthy of the gospel will require a set of practices in which they as a community will have to engage.”
[3] Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004), 258
[4] Fowl, 173. See Fee, 168-169 as well as M. Bockmuehl, The Epistle to the Philippians (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998), 101; P. T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991), 154.
[5] Fowl, 174. See Bockmuehl, 101; Fee, 168f.; O’Brien, 156-157. Fowl also notes this is the interpretation taken by many translations, RSV, NRSV, NEB, CEV, and NAB.
[6] Fowl, 174
[7] Beare, while taking this question seriously, proposes that the opponents would be affected psychologically by the Christians response. While this is possible, it unlikely this is what Paul had in mind. See F. W. Beare, Philippians (London: Black, 1959), 68.
[8] Hawthorne, 54
[9] Fowl, 176, “It is a concrete manifestation to the opponents of the Christians’ impending destruction, a destruction that would have entailed not only physical death but also the judgement of the gods.”
[10] Fowl, 176

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