Thursday, June 28, 2007

Misuse of Phil 3:9

Philippians 3:9 is definitely up there among the most commonly misused passages in the New Testament.

It's a great example of how a sentence taken out of context can have an apparently obvious meaning in and of itself which bears little relation to what it was meaning in context. It seems a clear and self-explanatory declaration when removed from context, and it also seems a great proof-text for beliefs some people want to have, so it gets used. I can see why it gets used so often: People hear the verse and think it says what they want to say, so they repeat it.

I can understand the popular-level use of passages out of context. But what annoys me is when people who should know better do the same thing. Westerholm in his book Perspectives Old and New on Paul makes gratuitous incorrect use of it. When he lays out his own view of Paul's theology, whenever he feels his view is threatened by some insurmountable objection he simply repeats Phil 3:9 as if it were a charm to make all the evidence against his views miraculously dissapear. He does this about half a dozen times!

Unlike Romans 3, Philippians 3 is not suffering from a ridiculous lack of clarity. There is nothing much really very difficult about the passage, it's just that most people don't actually bother to pay attention to what Paul is saying in it.

The typical misuse that this passage gets put to is to mean something approximately like "righteousness attained from human effort is worthless, true righteousness is given freely by God in response to a lack of human effort". The idea is that Paul is comparing his old Judaism which was a religion of human effort to be righteous, with his new Christianity that by lack of effort attains God's gift of righteousness.

Now, regardless of whether that theological view is correct or incorrect in general, that's obviously not what Paul's actually talking about in this particular passage. When we look at the description of Judaism he gives we find that half of what he says has nothing whatsoever to do with human effort or striving to attain righteousness, but rather is about his Jewish birth - ie he's saying that by the accident of his birth he was born into God's elect people, not by any effort he made he was born as part of the God's chosen nation. Then when we look at the description of his Christian life that follows on from 3:9, do we find a discussion of how he is now not making effort to be righteous and how he is sitting back and letting God's grace work in him? No, the entire passage is about striving to achieve righteousness and 'win' the race, and exerting all possible effort. So far from a Judaism of "effort" being contrasted with a Christian "lack of effort and reliance on grace" that the misuse of Phil 3:9 would lead us to expect, the context discusses a Judaism that relies as much on grace as it does on effort and a Christianity that relies totally on effort. There are plenty of other problems with this misuse of 3:9 given the context, but this is the blindingly obvious one.

In reading the passage carefully to see what it actually does say the key is to pay attention to which contrasts Paul draws and which he does not. The literal contrast being made in verse 9 if you look at the construction of the sentence is the antithesis between Torah-based righteousness "from law" that is currently what Paul has ("my own") and the faithfulness-based righteousness "from God" that Paul desires to have in the future ("make it my own"). In short, he is not happy with the type of righteousness that he currently has which the law approves and instead strives with all his effort to attain the type of righteousness that God approves... which clearly fits with the rest of the context. There is not even the least hints that "human righteousness" is in any way deficient or that "effort" is bad, there is no antithesis drawn between "effort" and "no effort" nor between "human righteousness" and "God's righteousness" as the misuse of the verse would have us believe, that's just not at all what Paul is talking about.

It baffles me that people such as Westerholm can have read the context and simply not see the total incongruence between their use of the verse and the passage in context. How one can read the effort-based striving of Paul for righteousness, and then announce that in this very passage Paul rejects the value of human effort to attain righteousness before God, truly defies my belief.


Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I wonder if the issue here is at least in part a subtle translation matter. KJV, RSV and NIV all seem to suggest "not my own righteousness, but a righteousness from Christ", with the implication that the desired kind of righteousness is not mine but Christ's. But I don't think that's what the Greek means, for I suspect that "my own" as well as "righteousness" is to supplied in the second half. In other words, a better translation would be something like "having my righteousness not from the law, but through faith in Christ ...".

Blogger Andrew said...

Yes Peter, I would agree the translations are generally less than ideal here, a translation something like what you propose is a lot more helpful (and a lot more literal).

Most English translations make it look like Paul is contrasting "not having a righteousness of my own" ('human righteousness') with having "the righteousness from God" ('imputed righteousness'), and contrasting "comes from the Law" ('human effort') with "comes from faith in Christ" ('trusting in Christ's efforts'), which explains why the verse gets used the way it does I suppose.

Such a translation matches up the wrong pairs of terms with each other. The Greek itself is clearer in matching up the correct terms - the 'ek nomou' (from law) clearly contrasts to the 'ek theou' (from God) for example. But even in the English translation, anyone can see they've matched up the wrong pairs of terms just by looking at the context and seeing it doesn't fit, and also in verse 12 we get a "make it my own [in the future]" which should be paired in a temporal contrast with the previous "[currently] my own" in vs 9, but that one's already been mismatched with "from God". (I think I need a table for clarity) So, yeah, I think this is one instance where English translations are at fault in aiding a misunderstanding.

Blogger John 17:3 said...

I would agree with your comments. As I see most of what is discussed concerning Paul is not the "filthy rags" the law is but the perfection of what Christ is compared to that which is good..."the law". We see this clearly in Jesus teaching.

Mat 19:16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?"
Mat 19:17 And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments."
Mat 19:18 He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,
Mat 19:19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Mat 19:20 The young man said to him, "All these I have kept. What do I still lack?"
Mat 19:21 Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

Notice he didn't yell you "liar", "hypocrite" your lover of "filthy rags" or anything of the sort. Nor did he say make a injustice statement that total depravity would make. Go do something you cannot do. That type of thinking would be against the justice of God to say to a "person of inability." The law was "good" but was not able to "perfect"...

Heb 7:19 (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.

Thus the change of medium by which we realize God' law. Through life giving Spirit, the heart of flesh which is Christ manifested.

Good to Perfection not negation!

Andrew could you email me as I wanted to ask a few Q's concerning some books I read per you recommendation.


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