Re: The semantics of morphe in Phil 2:6

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Thu Mar 06 1997 - 09:38:09 EST

At 4:08 AM -0500 3/6/97, Timothy Mora wrote:
>I'm looking for clarification on the meaning of morphe in Phil 2:6. I have
>understood it of late to refer to the essential essence or nature of
>something as opposed to Schema which is concerned more with outward
>appearances. Is this so and does it have ramifications for our understanding
>of the incarnation?
>I'm doing a bible study on this next week so thought I would just ask to try
>out the waters of this forum.

Well, you may well discover that a "trial of the waters of this forum" is
something not altogether unlike a "baptism of fire."

Your question is one that goes to the core of the problems of
interpretation of the Christ-hymn in Phil 2:4-11. And I'll take this
occasion to ask Rolf Furuli, who earlier put a question on the Christ-hymn
to the list that drew no response and then wrote me off-list, to give us
the benefit of his analysis--I've been meaning to ask him privately how
that analysis is proceeding. My response was to retrieve from my own
archives and send to him the thread which I initiated 6/13/95 on "Problems
in the Christ-Hymn (Phil 2:4-11) and which continued for ten days to hash
out several perspectives and questions related to that passage, among them
the question of the word MORFH in Phil 2:6. Here's what I wrote on June 13,

"What does MORFH QEOU mean? Some say it is the "essential nature of
being to whom MORFH belongs," and for this reason they assert that God
& Christ exist separately but in the same divine form: Christ's
essential nature in a pre-incarnate existence is the same as that of
God. But the problem is not solved by understanding MORFH thus: why,
if MORFH means "essential nature" in 2:6, does it not mean the same
thing two verses later, when we read that Christ assumed the MORFH
DOULOU? Is there an "essential nature" of a slave?"

One question is whether the Aristotelian sense of the word is meaningful at
all unless one drags into it Aristotelian metaphysics and epistemology. In
traditional Jewish theological terms (and one would think that this
passages antedates really sophisticated Christian theological thinking) it
is questionable whether one can speak of an "essential form" of God without
limiting God somehow, particularly the God who declares in Exodus 3, "I
shall be what I shall be."

Personally I am fascinated by the thought that MORFH QEOU might be a phrase
equivalent to the "image and likeness of God" in the Genesis creation
narrative, but Larry Hurtado, who, now that he has moved on to a
prestigious chair at Edinburgh, no longer shares his insights with B-Greek
(I don't doubt he's busier than he used to be), offered pretty strong
arguments against that tempting idea. I confess that I remain very
unsatisfied with any interpretation of the Christ Hymn as a whole and with
any understanding of MORFH in 2:6 and 2:8. There are elements of the
incarnational interpretation that don't seem to work consistently
throughout the whole, but there are elements of a "second Adam"
interpretation that also don't seem to work consistently throughout the

So, Rolf, did you get the file I sent you and have you had time to think
further about that problem--or have your energies been devoted full-time to
the fascinating problems involved in understanding PRWTOTOKOS? Can you help
us on MORFH?

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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