November 18, 2021

Singing Subversively


Photo by Trevin Rudy on Unsplash

An (appreciative) Response to Michael W Martin and Bryan A Nash


In their paper, “Philippians 2:6-11 as Subversive Hymnos”, Michael W. Martin and Bryan A. Nash argue that, though contested of late, the categorization of Philippians 2:6-11 as a hymn is correct. They do this by comparing the ancient rhetorical theory of hymnos with the text in question, and then looking at the key difference: Christ is praised for some most unusual reasons.

The Marks of a Hymn

Examining ancient textbooks which address the genre of hymnos, Martin and Nash first point to four markers which allow the identification of the hymnos genre (95-109).

  1. Species of rhetoric. There is a close relation between genres of hymnos and encomion, thus hymnos is set apart by the next three markers.

  2. Subject. Whereas encomion takes as its subject man, hymnos is dedicated to a god. 

  3. Length. Here both hymnos and encomion share length, as opposed to epainos, which are brief.

  4. Form and content. The theorists put forward lists (generally consistent, if containing differences) of the types of virtues to be praised and how to cover that ground.

Applied to The Text

After laying their groundwork, the authors set about their real business of arguing that the above marks fit with what we see in Philippians 2. (110-134)

  1. Species of rhetoric. Here Paul’s writing falls directly within the realm of reinforcing virtue by praising the one who possesses said virtue. 

  2. Subject. Though Christ’s humanity is in view, he is clearly identified as God, and thus the category of hymnos is fitting. 

  3. Length. Though it is shorter than many examples of ancient hymns, it falls within the boundaries of expected length. 

  4. Form and Content. The list of Christ’s praiseworthy attributes also fits the description of hymnos - running through a catalog of reasons to praise him.

The Subversion

Where this paper stands out is in taking up that last point and arguing that while Christ is being praised, the reasons given for praising him subvert the very expectations upon which the hymnos genre was built, both for Latin and Greek writers. That Christ is praised, not for his God-ness, but for his laying aside his Divine rights and taking the form of a servant (117), is but one example they give. Citing the work of Robert Alter (109-110), they point out that often the most instructive part of a piece of art is not where it conforms to expectations, but where it defies those expectations.

In Philippians 2:6-11, Christ is pictured as one deserving all praise - but he is also pictured as the One who reorients our thinking about that which is praiseworthy. Something to keep in mind when we come later to Philippians 4:8 and read, “if there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

About Me

Follower of Jesus. Husband of one. Father of four. Pastor at Remsen Bible Fellowship (