Susan Eastman on Philippians and Christology

At a Society of Biblical Literature Conference, Nijay Gupta interviewed Dr. Susan Eastman on Philippians and other work she is doing. Eastman is Associate Research Professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School. Below is an excerpt from the interview

Gupta: Of all the scholarly interest in Philippians, a good number of articles, essays, and books have focused on Philippians 2:6-11, the so-called “Christ Hymn.” Why do you think that is? What is so special and interesting about it? (I must admit that I too have written on this in my dissertation and in articles!)

Eastman: Well, where to begin? This passage was extremely important in early debates about Christology. It may provide a window into early Christian worship, particularly if Paul is quoting from an early hymn (much debated now). It is a compelling picture of Christ as pre-existent (the majority interpretation, which I share), as becoming incarnate, dying on a cross, raised by God, exalted above all creation, worshipped by all creation – in short, an early nutshell version of a very high Christology. And it is bracketed by ethical exhortations for the Philippian community, posing immediately the question of how this story of Christ is related to their common life.

Gupta: Traditionally, scholars have taken two positions on this passage. Either it is about Christology and the unique story and victory of Christ, or it is ethical, focusing on Christ as a model of virtue and obedience that the Philippians should imitate. How do you perceive this juxtaposition and how does your unique approach seek to move beyond this? More specifically, how does “imitation” serve as an important idea in Pauline ethics?

Eastman: Together with many others, I think the opposition between kerygma and ethics in Paul is a false dichotomy. Obviously Paul could talk about both Christology and ethics in the same sentence. The question is not whether they relate, but how. There’s a long tradition that says Christ is primarily an example to be imitated: “ethics” in Paul is simply the imitation of Christ. This is what Kaesemann and others react against, rightly in my view. Exegetically, it ignores the fact that the “Christ-hymn” is telling the story of Christ becoming like humanity, so that in the first instance, Christ is the one doing the “imitating.” And conceptually, it presumes that imitation is located simply in human volition, as something that we choose to do, or not to do. Both Plato and contemporary neuroscience recognize that, as often as not, imitation bypasses volition; perception triggers a mimetic response. This is why Plato was worried about the potentially negative influence of the poets, and wanted to ban them from the republic. And this is what anyone who observes infants knows immediately. I’m interested in the role of imitation in reciprocally participatory relationships. In regard to Phil. 2, I’m interested in imitation as the link between Christology and ethics, but starting with Christ as the one becoming like us, and exploring the way our perception of this action of Christ involves a mimetic response that goes deeper than conscious decision. I see this is central to Paul’s participatory ethics: Paul presents Christ as mimetically participating in the human plight, such that his auditors respond to Christ mimetically. Such mimesis is deeply participatory, and is the basis of an ethics that involves the whole person in a communal way.

Go read the whole interview.

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