One of my other pet pseudo-academic theories that I occasionally like to argue is that Phillipians–not Ephesians, not Romans–is actually at the core of Paul’s theology.

It’s a crazy thesis, and no NT scholar that I know would ever make it in public, which is one of the criteria for holding it in case you ever find yourself trapped around the punch-bowl with a bunch of New Testament ge—scholars.

At any rate, allow me to endorse Fred Sanders’ take about this “sweet and unsystematic” book:

As a result, Philippians is in the odd category of being a favorite neglected book. Most of us have experienced Philippians as a loose collection of favorite verses, without much sense of what binds it together, or of what distinct contribution it makes as a book to our understanding of the Christian life. But it’s a book worth spending concentrated time with, to soak in its unique power. Its central idea can probably be seen best at the point where Paul describes Christ’s condescension in order to encourage the church to have the mind of Christ in their selfless service and Christlike humility. Paul writes from this perspective, and it makes Philippians a great help in seeing our lives correctly in this “crooked and depraved generation.”

Dr. Sanders doesn’t say this, but ‘unsystematic’ doesn’t mean ‘ununified.’

Paul’s description of Christ’s condescension is the centerpiece of the book, but it is reinforced by the specific relationships that Paul and his associates have with the church in Phillipi, relationships that are grounded in and motivated by the presence and working of the Holy Spirit.

And it is buttressed by Paul’s own personal experience of suffering, an experience that allows him to establish himself as an example to imitated by the Church at Phillipi.

All of which makes Phillipians Paul’s most personally vulnerable letter.  As the intensity of Paul’s relationship with the Phillipians is encompassed by the Gospel and the working of Christ, Phillipians provides unique insight into the dimensions of the Gospel within local communities.

There’s more to be said, of course, but Dr. Sanders is right in his assertion that Phillipians has a unique power.  It is a book worth spending considerable time with.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Very well said. I may be on board with the “crazy thesis” about Philippians being at the core of Paul’s theology. Along with the passage describing Christ’s self-emptying humility, I’ve always found the personal vulnerability of this letter deeply moving – and a key to understanding why Paul is so important. Given the grim circumstances in which Paul wrote this letter, I’m impressed by the fact that JOY quite literally jumps off the page as one reads it. So much so that I preached on that aspect of this letter and blogged about it here:


  2. I tend to heartily agree with you, Matt. The kenosis of Christ is at the very core of the doctrine of the incarnation. It IS the definition of both God and man and the rationale for EVERYTHING about the Christian life. Phillipians is short but incredibly expansive in its succinct “shorthand” presentation of the Gospel and the Christian’s relationship to both his noetic life and the created order. The “feel good verses” torn from the context of the condescension of Christ and the participation in His sufferings are tantamount to “Bible verse motivational posters”.


  3. I think I agree with you, I still have a question. What do you mean by “core of Paul’s theology”? If, by core, you mean the structure of Paul’s theology, then I would like to see more evidence as to why it why it would weigh heavier than a letter such as Romans. If you mean the life blood of his theology in writing, then I would agree. Philippians seems to exemplify the Holy Spirit in a man ready to become a worthy offering for his faith.


  4. Bryan, that’s a great post. You definitely hit on many of my own intuitions, especially about his suffering and the presence of joy. It’s partly his emphasis on joy that has drawn me to Chesterton and Lewis, both of whom are the best 20th century defenders of it. And Paul’s personal vulnerability in Phillipians helps me understand his other sides of his “personality,” like Galatians, where he is caustic and hostile. It’s not because he is somehow repressive or intolerant–he is biting ultimately because he CARES, and cares deeply. The depth of his affection to the Phillipians makes that clear, I think.

    And S-P, you’re also right to highlight the noetic aspect of Phillipians. “Have this mind in yourselves…” “Think on these things…” It’s a beautiful fusion of the knowledge and love of God.

    Sarah, great question. I do mean something like the structure of Paul’s theology. But here’s my question back to you: if Phillipians portrays the ‘life blood’ of his theology (a great way of putting it), shouldn’t that be at the center of our doctrinal systems? (That might move me closer to Ephesians and its emphasis on being ‘in Christ’ as the center, rather than Romans. But Phillipians also seems to be more pneumatically oriented and eschatologically centered than Ephesians…which is significant, I think.)

    Either way, it’s a thesis I hold loosely, but like trotting out every once in a while to see if it takes. : )




  5. […] I’ve said this recently, but Paul’s brief letter to the church at Phillipi is a masterful and intricate examination […]


  6. […] Phillipians. I’ve said this recently, but Paul’s brief letter to the church at Phillipi is a masterful and intricate examination of joy, our eschatological hope in the face of suffering, and the transformation that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus begets.  And for several years, it has functioned as a type of ‘home base’ for me, the book that I return to when I begin to forget the shape the Gospel should take in my life. […]


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