A Pauline Universal Salvation? Universalism and Philippians 2:9-11 (4) A Pauline Universal Salvation? Universalism and Philippians 2:9-11 (4)

Post Series
1—On 1 Corinthians 15:22
2—On Romans 5:18-19
3—On Philippians 2:10-11
4—On Colossians 1:20
5— Conclusion


One of the primary defenses for a universal salvation falls at the end of the so-called Philippians Christ Hymn in 2:6-11. Historically, it was the passage referred to by the early church fathers to settle the Arian controversy by declaring the nature of Jesus, reading it as affirming His divinity.1 The later portion is used to justify a universal salvation, insisting Paul argues for this very thing when he writes, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”2 For Christian universalists, Paul means this in a soteriological sense: he anticipated a time when every person from every tongue would willingly offer praise and thanks to Jesus Christ and declare openly that he is Lord, sincerely and freely.

Christian universalists believe Paul actually anticipates this universal reconciliation, implied in his declaration in Phil 2:10-11 that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Talbot argues Paul anticipated this exhaustive reconciliation because of the verb he chose: confess. According to Talbot, “he chose a verb that throughout the Septuagint implies not only confession, but the offer of praise and thanksgiving as well.”3 He goes on to suggest that, while a king or queen could force a subject to bow against their will, praise and thanksgiving can only come from the heart:

either those who bow before Jesus Christ and declare openly that he is Lord do so sincerely and by their own choice or they do not. If they do this sincerely and by their own choice, then there can be but one reason: They too have been reconciled to God.4

Johnson echos this contention: “The strongest argument in favour of [voluntary and glad submission of all beings to Christ] is the word ‘confess’…Inherent in the nature of confession is willing and, sometimes, joyful acknowledgement.”5 In fact, he goes on to say that every use of the word for ‘confess’ in the NT connotes a voluntary confession.6 For Christian universalists, the imagery Paul uses—bowing and confessing—proves a Pauline universal salvation. For them, all humanity—indeed everything on heaven and on earth—will actually and literally confess Jesus as Lord and Messiah, finding ultimate rescue and re-creation.

Is this passage soteriological, though? Does Paul anticipate that all people will in the end be saved and reconciled to God, does Paul anticipate a universal salvation in which all people “will willingly offer praise and thanks to Jesus Christ and declare openly that he is Lord?” According to Stephen E. Fowl, “v. 6 is crucial for the way one reads the entire passage.”7 While the interpretations of this verse vary—an analysis of which cannot happen here—it is clear from this verse that the passage is Christological, rather than soteriological as Christian universalists take v. 10-11. While the weight of Paul’s soteriology certainly falls on v. 8, highlighting the climax and completion of God’s divine plan of salvation being accomplished through the cross,8 Wright argues the passage as a whole is a strong example of Adam-Christology.9

For Wright Adam-Christology is a term that means “God’s plan, to rule his world through obedient humanity, has come true in the Messiah Jesus.”10 In regards to v. 10, Wright states that here “Paul credits Jesus with a rank and honour which is not only in one sense appropriate for the true Man, the Lord of the world, but is also the rank and honour explicitly reserved according to scripture, for Israel’s God and him alone.”11 For Wright Paul is making a Christological statement about Jesus as the exalted Christ because of His work on the cross, rather than a statement about universally saved humanity. In vs. 9-11 Paul writes of the honor given to Christ, which is encapsulated in the title ‘Lord,’ a title reserved for no one other than Israel’s God.12 Thus, the verses that Christian universalists use to substantiate their claim for a Pauline universal salvation have little to do with salvation itself. Rather they prove Jesus Christ is the exalted One who is honored and adored.

Fee echos this Christological reading in his examination of the passage in general, but v. 9-11 in particular. He notes that at v. 9 there is a decisive shift in language from Christ the subject to Christ the passive object of God’s activity.13 As Dunn argues, “Jesus’ self-humbling reached the absolute depths in his most shameful death. But now…the Father has magnificently exalted his Son to the highest station and graciously bestowed on him the name above all other names, that is, his own name, Lord…In his exalted state Jesus now exercises universal Lordship.”14 Two verbs—’bow down’ and ‘confess’—and their corresponding verses “explain the purpose of God’s exaltation of Christ and of the Gift that God bestows on Christ.”15 Paul’s description of every knee bowing and tongue confessing describes not the soteriological state of universal humanity, but rather Jesus’ universal rule and authority.

This universal rule and authority describes the “universal scope of the adoration and confession offered to Jesus as Lord.”16 First, Paul describes every knee that is “heavenly and earthly and under the earth” bowing at the name of Jesus. Bowing was a common idiom for giving homage in recognition of the authority of a god or person, especially in prayer.17 Additionally, in the ancient world it was thought these three spheres of the universe were controlled by invisible spirit-powers.18 They represented all aspects of creation. Therefore, this Hymn of Christ puts all three realms under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ and shows the whole universe submitting to and recognizing the authority of the one whom God has raised and exalted. Second, every tongue will “declare openly in acknowledgement”((Hansen, Philippians, 165.)) that Jesus Christ is Lord. Again, the universal submission and acknowledgement of the authority and rule of Jesus is at the center of this Hymn’s interpretation. In fact, both stanzas—“every knee will bow” and “every tongue confess”—mirror Is 45:23, the surrounding context of which proclaims the uniqueness of the God of Israel and hails his universal triumph.

Oswalt’s comments support this reading: “The point here is that there is only one God to whom the world owes allegiance, only one by whom oaths can be guaranteed. Thus there is only one judge and savior of the whole world. This point of course has implications for Israel, but also has implications for Israel’s enemies.”19 He goes on to affirm how Paul uses this verse in Phil 2:9-11 to show that Savior Jesus will be exalted, an example of his Christological monotheism that shows Jesus as God.20 Paul’s quoting of Is 45 is highly significant as it “speaks of a time when all of creation will acknowledge the saving power of Yahweh.”21 Rather than v. 11 speaking of an eschatological point as Fowl insists,22 Dunn believes that the focus “with its use of Is 45 is not eschatological, but christological” because of the replacement of “by me” with “Jesus” to assert the idea that homage is to be paid to Jesus as Lord.23 Furthermore, Paul uses Is 45 here to assert that through Christ’s resurrection and exaltation, YHWH has transferred the right to be honored and adored to His Son Jesus Christ; He is the one to whom all will bow and confess as the only authority in the universe worthy of homage.24 Again the passage is christological rather than soteriological or eschatological.

Concluding that the broader Phil 2:6-11 passage is christological means that v. 10-11 cannot mean what Christian universalists say it means. As Hansen argues, “The acknowledgement of every tongue that Jesus Christ is Lord does not mean universal participation in the confession of faith made by the church.”25 Instead, this vision is what Martin calls “the open and irrevocable admission that this is the rightful Lord of the universe because God has installed Him on the seat of uncontested authority.”26 Marhshall wonders in response to Christian universalists who argue this confession is not ‘forced’ but voluntary and salvific, “who could possibly come to this conclusion in the light of 1:28 and 3:19?”27 Furthermore, as Dunn argues, “it ought not to be assumed that the bending of the knee by all will be in glad acknowledgment of Jesus’ lordship…one ought to understand the bowing of the knee an act of submission to one whose power they cannot resist,” which also fits the context of Is 45.28

Phil 1:10-11 does not teach that every person will one day willingly bow the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord at the parousia and judgment seat, resulting in universal salvation; in this language of bowing there is no hint that those who do so are acknowledging Christ’s salvation no is this language that conversion is the point of confession.29 Instead, both v. 10 and 11 emphasize the universal rule and authority of Jesus as Lord over all of creation, a rule and authority that will be acknowledged by every good and evil being whether they want to or not. Rather than Paul arguing for a universal salvation, these verses fit into the broader context of 2:6-11 that reveal to us the exalted, authoritative Jesus who Himself is God, thus giving us a new picture of God as much as Jesus.

  1. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 84. []
  2. Phil 2:10-11. []
  3. Talbot, “Christ Victorious,” 23. []
  4. Talbot, “Christ Victorious,” 23-24. []
  5. Johnson, “A Wideness in God’s Mercy,” 89-90. []
  6. Johnson, “A Wideness in God’s Mercy,” 90. []
  7. Stephen E. Fowl, Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2005), 91. []
  8. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 62. []
  9. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 59. []
  10. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 29. []
  11. Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 94. []
  12. Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing,1995), 86. []
  13. Dunn, Philippians, 232. []
  14. Dunn, Philippians, 232. []
  15. Fowl, Philippians, 102. []
  16. Dunn, Philippians, 240. []
  17. Fee, Philippians, 224. []
  18. Hansen, Philippians, 165. []
  19. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), 224. []
  20. Oswalt, Isaiah, 224.Of Christological monotheism Wight, Climax of the Covenant, 129, says that Paul places Jesus within explicit statements, drawn from the OT of emphatic monotheistic texts that Israel’s God is the one and only God, thus redefining Him Christologically as Jesus the Christ. []
  21. Fowl, Philippians, 103. []
  22. Fowl, Philippians, 103. []
  23. Dunn, Philippians, 243. []
  24. Fee, Philippians, 224-225. []
  25. Hansen, Philippians, 165. []
  26. Ralph P. Martin, A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 264. []
  27. Marshall, “The New Testament Does Not Teach Universal Salvation,” 69. []
  28. Dunn, Philippians, 243. []
  29. Fee, Philippians, 224-225. []

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  • riveroffire

    Isaiah 45:23 not a soteriological context? Hmmmm. Verse 22 reads, "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth."

    Besides, you speak as though Paul cannot be addressing both Christological and soteriological ideas in one context.

    • jeremy bouma

      I am not speaking as though Paul cannot address both the nature of Christ and salvation in two contexts. But here, this is not the case. It is a hymn praising Christ, his nature and work. It is not rhetoric making a universal claim of salvation. As I said below, this would contradict the central theological idea for Paul's theology: the nature of being "in Christ." Throughout his letters he clearly uses insider and outsider language/rhetoric to distinguish between…well…those who are IN Christ and those who are not. And because this passage is not talking about salvation, but rather the person of Christ, using it to argue for a universal salvation simply isn't so.

      • riveroffire

        You claim that the Philippians passage does not deal with salvation, but you provide no evidence for this. Unfortunately for your argument, pointing out that the passage focuses on the nature of Christ does not constitute evidence that Paul doesn't have a soteriological truth in mind as well. Your reasoning is simply fallacious. As I pointed out to you earlier, the Isaiah passage that Paul quotes is lifted from a soteriological context. Moreover, Paul explicity relates the universal confession of the Lordship of Christ to His work on the Cross (v.8). It is also interesting that Paul elsewhere associates confessing Christ's Lordship with salvation (Romans 10:9, 1 Cor. 12:3). I also ntoe that you never actually addressed what Talbott and Johnson (correctly) noted about the Greek word translated here as 'confess.'

      • riveroffire

        "It is a hymn praising Christ, his nature and work."

        And since when is Christ's work not a soteriological issue?

      • riveroffire

        " As I said below, this would contradict the central theological idea for Paul's theology: the nature of being 'in Christ'."

        Where is the contradiction? That salvation is in Christ does not imply that some will never find salvation in Christ. Yet another logical fallacy.

  • Daniel

    "Concluding that the broader Phil 2:6-11 passage is christological means that v. 10-11 cannot mean what Christian universalists say it means."

    Salvation and Christ are intimately connected, to say that because a passage speaks about the glorification of Christ it cannot be saying anything else is willfully ignorant. You say that this passage is only talking about "the universal rule and authority of Jesus as Lord over all of creation", I ask how is that contrary to all being saved? How is Jesus the ruler of the Universe if sin still reigns over most of it? According to eternal torment, rebellion against God will exist for forever, however this passage seems to contradict such a sad idea. If every tongue whole-heartedly confesses, then he is Savior of All, if not then each and every person lost to eternal destruction is a slap in the face of God.

    The name Jesus means "Yahweh saves", for at the name of "Yahweh Saves" every knee will bow… and every tongue confess from within that Jesus the Messiah is Master. You see? The name of Jesus proclaims salvation, to separate Jesus from salvation is impossible.

    • jeremy bouma

      How am I separating salvation from Jesus? Soteriology and Christology are two separate issues as they deal with two separate things. One SALVATION and one the NATURE OF CHRIST. Obviously, salvation is dependent upon Christ and Christ provides salvation, which I am not denying. The distinction between the two is important to understand this passage…just like it is for Col 1 which you can read tomorrow.

      This passage is not soteriological as salvation is nowhere in view. It is hymnic in form (NOT rhetorical), and thus sings the praises of the risen, exalted Christ. You falsely insert "whole-heartedly" between "tongue" and "confess," as the Scriptures neither say nor suggest it will be whole-hearted confession.

      This exegetical study didn't even go into the clear insider and outsider rhetoric that Paul uses throughout his letters, in which "in Christ" forms the center of Pauline theology. While I certainly would love for all to be saved (as I'm sure Paul did, too), no where in the Scriptures do we see a universal salvation. And arguing for—much less promising one—is reckless and cruel.

      • riveroffire

        "This passage is not soteriological as salvation is nowhere in view."

        You're going to have to better than this, good Sir! For as it stands, you are merely begging the question. Your arguments against the universalist reading of these passages have been very weak. You can do better. Why not give Talbott's arguments another look over so that you can adequately address said arguments?

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  • Nicolas

    My two cents worth:

    Surely no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3) !!

    I too don't think this can include forced submission. Surely it is joyful praise: they openly proclaim "Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the Father" …

    In fact in the Greek of the LXX all 22 uses of the word “exomologeo” mean willing praise (eg 2 Sam 22:50; 2 Chron 5:13; Ps. 136:1-3+26; Jer 33:11 etc).

    So I don't think we can say that the Rom 14 or Phil 2 quotations of Is 45: 23 must include the unwilling confession of the forever damned. To do that is to go against the consistent meaning of the word “exomologeo” throughout the LXX, from which Paul quotes.