The Letter to the Philippians

Written by G. Walter Hansen Reviewed By Matthew S. Harmon

In this latest contribution to the Pillar New Testament Commentary series, G. Walter Hansen brings his expertise in the Pauline epistles to Philippians. The result is a helpful exposition of the text that deserves wide use among pastors and theological students.

The introduction treats the standard topics. Hansen takes seriously the “Roman-ness” of Philippi, noting its history and the prominence of the imperial cult. Paul writes a letter of friendship (with elements of deliberative rhetoric) to this Gentile church from prison in Ephesus. In the midst of thanking the Philippians for their financial partnership in gospel-ministry, Paul addresses three problems in the church: disunity, suffering, and opponents. These opponents are divided into four groups: (1) preachers of Christ who are stirring up problems for Paul; (2) Roman opponents intimidating the Philippian believers; (3) Jewish Christians urging Gentile Christians to practice Jewish rituals; and (4) Gentile Christians who live as enemies of the cross because of pressure from their pagan Roman environment. In response Paul stresses two key themes: the gospel of Christ and the community in Christ.

The ultimate test of any Philippians commentary is how one handles the so-called Christ hymn of 2:5–11. Eschewing the false dichotomy between the ethical and doctrinal interpretations, Hansen sees the passage as an early Christian hymn originating from a Hellenistic Jewish-Christian missionary context. Rather than positing one particular framework as the interpretive key, Hansen sees allusions to the Isaianic Servant of the Lord, Adam-Christ typology and even the imperial cult. Based on the contention that the expression “form of God” equals “glory of God” in 2:6 and the echo of Isaiah 45:23–24 in 2:10–11, Hansen concludes that 2:5–11 asserts the full deity of Christ without compromising Jewish monotheism.

Another passage full of exegetical and theological land mines is 3:1–14. Here Hansen shows commendable skill as well. In response to the tension between Paul’s claim to being faultless under the Law (3:6) and his assertion in Gal 3 that all who fail to keep the Law are under a curse, Hansen stresses the very different polemical contexts. Multiple parallels are noted between Paul’s transformation (3:5–11) and Christ’s incarnation-crucifixion-exaltation (2:5–11). According to Hansen, Paul’s reference to his own righteousness (3:9) cannot be limited to his membership in the Jewish nation, but rather includes his own personal achievements under the law.

This commentary shows many strengths. In addition to being well-written, three in particular stand out. First, Hansen steers a wise course between the Scylla of reading the imperial cult behind every sentence and the Charybdis of altogether ignoring its significance for several passages in Philippians. The similarities in vocabulary between the imperial cult and some of the key terms in Philippians means that those living in Roman Philippi would have recognized the challenge that the good news of Jesus as Lord and Savior posed to imperial propaganda. Second, Hansen helpfully culls through the vast secondary literature and draws attention to what is most helpful. The result is a readable exposition of the text that addresses the most important issues without bogging the reader down. Third, Hansen repeatedly notes intertextual connections within the letter itself. This enables the reader to see the threads that tie the letter together as a cohesive discourse.

Despite this last strength, Hansen does not do much with the macrostructure of the letter. The outline he proposes captures the major divisions of the letter, but could have done more to show the relationship between the respective sections. The commentary is also thin at points with respect to making connections to other passages in Paul or the rest of Scripture on key themes. While this helps keep the focus on Philippians itself, Hansen occasionally misses opportunities to help the reader see how a particular passage fits into the larger canonical context.

Hansen is to be commended for a good, general-use commentary on the letter. It does not match the technical detail of O’Brien, the careful comprehensiveness of Fee, the concise profundity of Bockmuehl, or the frequent idiosyncrasies of Hawthorne. But it is a worthy addition to the Pillar series and deserves to be consulted by Bible study leaders, Sunday School teachers, theological students, pastors, and scholars as well.

Matthew S. Harmon

Matthew S. Harmon
Grace College and Theological Seminary
Winona Lake, Indiana, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

I didn’t come from an Evangelical home, and though he never told me outright, I’m sure my father never wanted me to become a pastor...

Reformed paedobaptists frequently cite Col 2:11–12 as evidence that baptism replaces circumcision as the covenant sign signifying the same realities...

New Testament scholarship in its present state is experiencing a time of abundance, especially with respect to biblical commentaries of every shape, length, level of depth, theological persuasion, intended audience, and hermeneutical angle...

It might seem odd to write an editorial for a theological journal on the topic of not doing theology and how important that can be; and, indeed, perhaps it is contrarian even by my own exacting standards...

Most readers of Themelios will be aware that the word “perfectionism” is commonly attached in theological circles to one subset of the Wesleyan tradition...