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A review of The Letter to the Philippians. By G. Walter Hansen.

Feb 11, 2010

Eerdmans, 2009. (Available in Australia at Koorong books)

The book of Philippians has been well served by evangelical and/or conservative commentaries over the past several decades. A dozen solid works at least have appeared between, say, Martin’s 1959 TNTC commentary and Hansen’s new work. Some of the better ones include O’Brien (NIGNT, 1991); Fee (NICNT, 1995); Thielman (NIVAC, 1995); Bockmuehl (BNTC, 1997); Silva (BECNT, 2005); and Fowl (THNTC, 2005).

Thus a lot of good commentary has already been produced on this important epistle of Paul’s. Here in some 350 pages the Fuller Seminary professor offers a very helpful and workmanlike treatment. He has already penned a shorter commentary on Galatians (IVPNTC, 1994).

Image of The Letter to the Philippians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC))
The Letter to the Philippians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)) by Array Amazon logo

He offers 35 pages of introductory material. Pauline authorship is of course assumed here (it has not really been questioned with this book). Debate does arise as to the integrity of the book, however. After carefully assessing the arguments for the thesis that Philippians is actually a combination of several letters written at differing times, Hansen defers to the traditional argument that this book is one complete letter.

The occasion of the letter is fairly straightforward in terms of issues being addressed. Three major problems have to be tackled: disunity in the ranks; suffering in the community; and opponents of the church.

Consider the issue of opponents. As is often the case in Paul’s letters, exact identification of the opponents is hard to fully determine. Indeed, some 18 different options have been proposed thus far. Hansen suggests that at least four main groupings can be identified: “ambitious preachers, intimidating powers, Jewish Christian teachers, and enemies of the cross”.

The many great themes found in this epistle have not been without their fair share of controversy and debate. In fact, one of the grandest portions of this letter, the hymn of Christ (2:6-11) has been a minefield of hermeneutical and exegetical difficulties and debate, not to mention theological uncertainties.

Plenty of issues need to be addressed, including the author of the hymn (if indeed it even is a hymn – that too is the subject of much discussion). Did Paul write this, or was he using a pre-existing hymn used in early church worship?

As usual, Hansen is quite fair in allowing the differing points of view a hearing. He canvasses the five main lines of evidence in this discussion, and looks at the four main contenders if Paul did not write this. Says Hansen, “The arguments for and against Pauline authorship are finely balanced”. After weighing up the data, he sides with Martin in suggesting that Stephen may have penned it.

All sorts of other contentious issues arise in these few verses, such as what ‘being in the form of God’ means; how we translate and understand harpagmos in verse 6; how Christ emptied himself, or what he emptied himself of; and so on.

Consider that last item. It has been hotly debated for centuries now. Hansen presents three main proposals (out of many). The kenotic theory (which comes in various forms) says that Christ emptied himself of his divinity during his time on earth. The incarnation view sees this emptying in terms of him becoming a slave. The Servant of the Lord view ties this passage into the Servant Song of Isaiah 53, (specifically verse 12).

Hansen looks at the pros and cons of each position, and finds himself in agreement with how the TNIV renders the phrase in question: “he made himself nothing”. This “contains some elements of all three alternative interpretations considered above”.

Suffice it to say that much ink has been spilled on the various lexical, hermeneutical and theological questions which abound here. Hansen does a good job of introducing the various debates and difficulties, and suggesting why he prefers certain options.

Of course there is much more to these four chapters of Paul’s than just 2:6-11. But his treatment of this section tells us much about how he has approached the book as a whole. What he does is offer a consistently helpful piece of commentary and exposition here.

It is clear that he is well read on the various issues and the relevant literature. He is careful in laying out competing views of hotly debated passages, and is fair and even-handed in how he handles these debates.

As part of the Pillar New Testament Commentary series, this book offers a mid-range critical commentary which is neither too light, nor overly technical and obtuse. Indeed, since Hansen has years of pastoral experience, he here offers a nice blend of careful scholarship and pastoral concerns.

Fee’s commentary may be among the best overall commentaries on this book, and O’Brien’s is likely the best commentary utilising the Greek text. But this volume fits in very nicely with the best of recent treatments of Philippians. It is well laid out, carefully thought through, nicely written and judiciously argued. It will make a very worthy addition to anyone’s library on the book of Philippians.

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9 Responses to A review of The Letter to the Philippians. By G. Walter Hansen.

  • Hi Bill,

    Just a small tangential point. When you say:

    “[Hansen] finds himself in agreement with how the TNIV renders the phrase in question: “he made himself nothing”.”

    I wouldn’t want your readers to get the impression that the TNIV is superior to other translations in this case. In fact, both the NIV and ESV translate that phrase in exactly the same way.

    The TNIV is a terrible translation which deliberately changes original Greek words such as ‘brother’ to make them ‘gender inclusive’. Thankfully, as a result of complaints by Christians concerned for the Word, Zondervan is now discontinuing this translation.

    Mansel Rogerson

  • Thanks Mansel

    I mentioned the TNIV there simply because Hansen had, but your point is taken.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Why does Sacred Scripture have to be interpreted from a ‘conservative’ or any other political perspective as part of commentaries?
    This is unprofessional behaviour I suspect and an attempt to put God in a box.
    Michael Webb

  • Thanks Michael

    But I am afraid that you are rather out of your depth here, especially given your recurring tendency to seek to pick a fight or take offence when none was intended. The word “conservative” of course does not just refer to political leanings. It has numerous meanings, depending on the context.

    In this context I am obviously referring to a conservative theological perspective as opposed to a liberal one. It is quite common theological terminology, referring to two quite differing ways of approaching Scripture. Those who believe the Bible to be authoritative and trustworthy in all that it affirms, and take it seriously in terms of it being the revelation of God to us, etc., are referred to as having a conservative view of Scripture.

    Those who believe the Bible is not God’s word, and/or is riddled with mistakes, or is not authoritative in matters of faith and practice, or is just a collection of myths, or is merely a human book, and so on, are those who are said to have a “liberal’ view of Scripture. It is just that simple, so you need not read into this sinister intentions on my part, as you so often do.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Nice review, Bill – I’m no scholar but Philippians is one of my favourite epistles (not at the expense of the others – it’s just one that has personally been very significant in my faith.)
    Interesting you mention the authorship part. What is the general body of opinion on the Pauline authorship of Philippians compared with the more contentious question of authorship for say Hebrews? I wasn’t aware that was a point of debate.

    Cheers,
    Sam Hol

  • Thanks Sam

    The real comparison is not to be made between Philippians and Hebrews, but between Philippians and the rest of the Pauline corpus. That is, no one really knows for sure who wrote Hebrews. There are plenty of guesses but no certainties there. But on Philippians there is almost no dispute of Pauline authorship, while a number of his other epistles are in fact subject to much debate (eg., Ephesians, Colossians, the Pastorals,).

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Ok, thanks – just curious as to why it was brought up in the review…
    Sam Hol

  • Thanks Sam

    All critical commentaries, regardless of their theological orientation, have to deal with preliminary matters, including authorship. While Paul gets a pretty good run here, there has been a small handful of scholars who have challenged the consensus, especially, as can be imagined, during the last few centuries.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill thats one book I’ll be putting in an order for.
    Tony Zegenhagen

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