Jesus is before all things and in him all things hold together, says Paul to the Colossians. He is preeminent in all things, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”(Col 1:17–19) and “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). If all God’s fullness dwells in Christ, what would we consider to be lacking? In what way would Christ fall short of God’s complete perfection?
The Greek word for fullness is pleroma, which means filled to completeness. There is nothing of God that is lacking in Christ. This is a powerful testimony to the deity of the Son, who was pleased to dwell bodily with us as the man Christ Jesus. But how then are we to understand verses which speak of the subordination of the Son to the Father, such as John 14:28, “The Father is greater than I” and John 5:19, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord”? Non-trinitarians make a great deal of verses such as these, seeing them as clear evidence that Jesus Christ is inferior in being to the Father and therefore not God. However, the doctrine of the Trinity fully embraces the distinctiveness of the Father and the Son, and also the willing subordination of the Son to the Father in his role as Savior and Redeemer of humanity.
The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit relate to the created world in different ways; they have different functions or roles. In carrying out these roles, the Father and Son relate to each other exactly the way in which we would expect a father and son to do; the Father directs the Son and has authority over him; the Son responds to and obeys the Father. The Father and Son love each other in a sharing relationship. A son’s submission to his father does not make the son any less a person, an inferior being. It is his role which is one of submission, out of respect for the father’s position in the family. Likewise, in the antitype of the human family, the Son’s submission to the Father does not make him a lesser being in the ultimate sense, even though as Father he is “greater.”
When the contexts of these passages are examined, we see that they in fact exalt rather than degrade the Son’s role. John 5 has Jesus claiming to work alongside his Father and doing whatever the Father does, including judgement and giving eternal life, “that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father” (John 5:17–23). John 14 speaks of the intimate and loving relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit. So, how is Jesus both the fullness of the Godhead and yet subordinated to the Father? The key is to understand that subordination in role does not equal subordination in being. One passage which explains this clearly is Philippians 2:5–11.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
This passage is an early Christian hymn, which Paul either wrote or appropriated in his letter, to illustrate his point about imitating the humility of Christ. It is also a frequently misunderstood passage, which leads to writers attacking what they think trinitarian theology teaches or what they think a passage means, when it doesn’t. One non-trinitarian writer who falls into this trap states:
“If ‘in the form of God’ means the very nature of God, then Christ could not have been ‘Very God’ while on earth, as trinitarians assert, since this is what he is said to have sacrificed and left behind in coming to the earth.”(1) This writer asserts that the Greek word morphe (translated “form” in the ESV and KJV and “very nature” in the NIV) does not refer to “essential nature,” and that trinitarian theology teaches that Christ abandoned his deity in the incarnation. He is wrong on both counts, as we shall see.
Firstly, the meaning of morphe. The basic meaning is form, outward appearance or shape,(2) which is evident in passages such as Daniel 3:19 and Mark 16:12. However, the semantic range of the word is greater than these two examples. Paul in Romans 2:20 says that the Law is the embodiment (morphe) of knowledge and truth. In Galatians 4:19 Paul says he is in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed (morphoo) in his readers; hardly a mere outward appearance.
In Philippians 2, morphe is used twice; once for Christ being in the form of God, secondly for Christ taking the form of a servant. It is unreasonable to expect that Paul has used the same word completely differently in a single passage. So if Christ only had the outward, superficial appearance of God, then he also had only the outward, superficial appearance of a servant. If he really took on the nature of a servant, then he also had the nature of God. In contrast, verse 8 says Christ was “found in appearance (schema) as a man,” schema denoting superficial appearance rather than substance.
The second incorrect assertion is that the trinitarian position requires Christ to have abandoned his essential divine nature when he came to earth. There was a nineteenth century school of thought, called Kenoticism, which advocated this interpretation of Philippians 2, but this is most definitely not the position of mainstream trinitarian theology. The word kenosis comes from the verb kenoo, in Philippians 2:7, and means to empty or make void. So, according to this passage, in what way, or of what, did Jesus empty himself?
Returning to Colossians 2:9, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,” we see Paul cannot mean that Christ emptied himself of the fullness of deity. The kenosis (emptying) of Philippians 2:7 must be reconciled with the pleroma (fullness) of Colossians 2:9. What does it mean then, to say that Jesus, “emptied himself/ made himself nothing”? The answer lies within the passage; “taking the very nature of a servant” is itself the process of making himself nothing, or emptying himself. That is, verse 7 says, “he made himself nothing by taking the very form of a servant.” While the text does not specify “of what” he emptied himself, it is noteworthy that “the very nature of a servant” contrasts sharply with “equality with God” (v 6). Thus it is equality with God, rather the form of God, of which Jesus emptied himself. He humbled himself by taking the form of a servant and “being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross,” (Phil 2:8) taking on the ultimate lowly status and position, having had the highest, but without changing his divine attributes.
Philippians 2 encourages the readers to humbly put aside their own interests in order to prioritize the interests of others, using the Son’s relinquishment of the status and privilege that was his in heaven (John 17:4–5). Although he was in the morphe Theou, he did not see equality with God a thing to be grasped, or clung to. The word is harpagmos, which encompasses a violent seizure of property, something to which one can claim or assert title by gripping or grasping, something claimed; a windfall, prize or gain. The Son did not seize, cling to, exploit or take advantage of his exalted position, but humbled himself. 2 Corinthians 8:9 explains this further:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
In what sense was Jesus “rich” and then became “poor” in coming into the world? What riches did he give up? It will not do to explain away the plain meaning of these verses as God’s “foreknowledge” of the glorification of Christ. There is no hint of foreknowledge or predestination in these passages. Rather than Jesus discarding his divinity, he emptied himself by humbly assuming the form or nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. This humbling extended to obedience to death on a cross. As a result, God the Father exalted him once more. Jesus anticipated this exaltation in John 17:5: “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”
The Philippians 2 hymn concludes with the exaltation of Christ to the highest place, the throne of God, and he has been given the Name above every name: kyrios, Lord, YHWH, that at this Name — the Name possessed by Jesus — every knee should bow.
“Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16).
In the incarnation, God was revealed, disclosed, made known, in the flesh of humanity (Matt 1:23; John 1:18; 14:9). The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This same God was seen, preached and believed on and taken up in glory. “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Wonderfully, mercifully, generously, those in Christ, as part of his body, partake of this fullness (Eph 3:19, 4:13).
“For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (Col 2:9–10)
(1) Ron Abel, Wrested Scriptures, rev. John Allfree, (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2001), 304–5.
(2) Definitions of Greek words taken from Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000)