Sunday, May 21, 2017

The "Confession" of Philippians 2: Salvation or "Forced Submission"?

"Every knee should bend.  In heaven and on earth and under the earth."
"Every tongue should confess."

What does this mean?

     Philippians 2:5-12 (NRSV)
5   Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6   who, though he was in the form of God,
     did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
7   but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
     being born in human likeness.
     And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
     and became obedient to the point of death—
     even death on a cross.
9   Therefore God also highly exalted him
     and gave him the name
     that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
     every knee should bend,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
     that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father.

"Every knee should bend.  In heaven and on earth and under the earth."
"Every tongue should confess."

Every.  As in all people.  Each and every one.

Now nearly everyone recognizes that this has universal(ist) implications.  But for whatever reason, (usually because of a priori commitments to anything other than universal salvation) it is assumed that the surface meaning simply cannot be the real meaning and that there must be another way to read it. 

It is perfectly fair to assert that the "plain meaning" is not necessarily the right one.  I fully agree.  In and of itself, the assertion that we need to proceed with caution in how we determine the "plain meaning" is mostly uncontroversial.  But the thing is, neither does the mere assertion that "plain readings" aren't necessarily true prove that any one particular "plain reading" is false.  The specifics cannot be dismissed by an appeal to generalities.  

So let us look at some of these possible "deeper meanings" so that they can be accepted or rejected on the basis of their own merits apart from a priori commitments.  What are some of the ways that these "deeper meanings" avoid the universalist implications?

A few possibilities:
  1. This is hyperbolic rhetoric.  It isn't intended to factually relay a literal-future-event in newspaper-like objective detail.  Rather, it's royal language meant to communicate the authority and power of Jesus.  To him and him alone does the knee bow.  Christ is the focus here, not the literal quantity of knees that bow or the spiritual states of those doing the confessing.  It is going to far to assert otherwise.  Call this the hyperbolic explanation.
  2. It's theologically connecting the worship of Jesus with the worship of the God of Israel.  Similar to #1, the imagery of knees bowing and tongues confessing is intended to shine the spotlight on the person of Christ in ways that are usually reserved for God alone.  Again, it's not a numeric count of the worshipers.  Call this the trinitarian explanation.
  3. "Every" really means "every kind".  No different than the "all" really means "all kinds" argument.  Each and every individual is not the focus.  Call this the non-individualistic explanation.
  4. The confession and bowing of the knee will include each and every person who ever lived -whether in heaven, on earth, or under the earth - but it will not happen voluntarily in genuine love, gratitude, wonder, and worship.  What is called confession will actually be a "forced submission"... a compelled bowing of the knee done in hatred, terror, or both.   It's something similar to an earthly king who defeats his foes, glories in his power and victory & in the humiliation of his enemies, and then lops all of their heads off.  Call this the forced submission explanation.
  5. We don't know what it means exactly, but we have clear evidence elsewhere in the Bible and/or in the hermeneutical history of the church that it simply cannot mean that the confession and knee-bending is tied to salvation.  Therefore, we need not even really address the "plain reading".  Call this the presuppositional agnostic explanation.
Each of these has problems and (generally speaking) are considered viable mostly because of previous theological commitments to anything other than universal salvation.

But from what I've seen, #4 is the most frequently used.

Besides a royal and omnipotent "forced confession" not making much sense to me in the context of the verses prior, there are other reasons to reject this.

Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym of Dr. Robin Parry) addresses this "forced submission" explanation in The Evangelical Universalist (2nd edition):
Second, the terminology Paul uses is suggestive of salvation rather than forced submission.  All creatures confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Elsewhere in Paul's letters when he speaks of confessing Jesus as Lord it is always in a context of salvation.  No one can say that "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3).  If someone confesses with their mouth and believes in the heart that Jesus is Lord, then they will be saved (Rom 10:9).  There are no examples in Paul of an involuntary confession of Christ's Lordship. (p 99-100)
Confession is always grounded in a context of salvation, not punishment or damnation.

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