Koinonia and Coredemption in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

The search for an adequate theology of coredemption as a foundation for the development of mariological dogma must, sooner or later, arrive at the question of whether coredemption is found in Sacred Scripture. And no biblical theology can leave out a detailed consideration of the most important author in the New Testament canon, St. Paul of Tarsus. Pauline theology has been the foundation of so many, maybe most, doctrinal developments in the history of the Church. And still today, Paul’s epistles are a disputed territory in matters of ecumenical dialogue. A full study of coredemption in the Pauline corpus would be a monumental task, but such an investigation holds out the promise of establishing a solid exegetical foundation for the dogmatic development of Mariology. This article is a first attempt to explicate the Pauline teaching on coredemption and represents a moderately in-depth treatment of the notion of participation in Philippians.

At first glance, Philippians may not seem like a promising candidate among Paul’s letters, but this impression yields to a more profound understanding of Paul’s language when the details of the text of Philippians are examined.{footnote}For our purposes, it makes little difference whether the imprisonment mentioned in Philippians is Roman or Ephesian. The classic view of Philippians being written from Rome appeals to 1:13 (praetorium) and 4:22 (“those of Caesar’s house”). For a discussion of various views of Paul’s imprisonment, including the widely accepted Ephesian theory, see Brendan Byrne “Letter to the Philippians” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (ed. Raymond Brown et. al.) pp. 791-792. Bornkamm advanced the idea that Philippians is a composite of several letters pieced together by a post-apostolic redactor. G. Bornkamm “Der Philipperbrief als Paulinische Briefsammlung” in Neotestamentica et Patristica Eine Freundesgabe (Oscar Cullmann) (Leiden: Brill, 1962) 192-202. For a discussion of the compositional issues see Byrne ibid. pp. 791-792. The question of composition and unity of Philippians may have some impact on interpretation but our concern here is with explicating Paul’s underlying theology.{/footnote} Paul’s theology of apostolic ministry, I argue, rests on the idea of coredemption understood, not as a supplemental or competing redemption with that of Christ, but as a personal and corporate appropriation of Christ’s redemption. Paul’s language of participation (e.g., koinonia) provides the basis of coredemption.

From Paul’s statements of his apostolic ministry-sometimes passing, sometimes central-one can infer a deeper level of theology concerning the redemption of Christ and how the Pauline ministry participates in that redemption. This thesis involves an apostolic-mediatorial reading of Philippians in contradistinction to a simple parallel reading of various texts within the epistle. In other words, statements about the Christians at Philippi helping Paul, such as those in 1:7 and 4:14 using the language of participation (koinonia), are not simply additional parallels to his statements about participation in Christ such as in 3:10. I argue that the former kind of statements are based on, and flow from, the latter in Paul’s theology. If the mediatorial relation holds between these two kinds of statements, then it is justified to speak of a notion of subordinate or participatorial coredemption in Paul.

This article treats the notion of participation in redemptive grace in Philippians by examining four themes within the epistle. First, I survey statements about the Philippians sharing in Paul’s apostolic ministry. We shall see that, for Paul, this sharing involves more than material assistance. Second, I examine Paul’s teaching on participation in the sufferings of Christ as it comes to light in Philippians. Third, the notion of participation as sacrifice flows from the first two themes. Finally, Paul’s exhortations to unity within the epistle are intimately connected to participation in Paul’s theology. These four themes have a cumulative effect. Taken together, they teach a subjective appropriation of Christ’s redemption in such a way that the Church, as the body of Christ, participates in the redemptive sufferings of Christ through a reciprocal sharing between Paul, the apostle, and the other members of the body.

Participation in Redemptive Grace in Philippians

For Paul in Philippians, those who share in the apostolic ministry by serving the needs of the Apostle, also share in the grace that comes through the Apostle in his ministry. This suggests that, for Paul, one of the greatest features of koinonia is reciprocity. We will see that reciprocity is one of the distinctive features of Paul’s concept of the “body of Christ.”

1) Participation in Paul’s Apostolic Ministry

From the very outset of the letter, in his thanksgiving section,{footnote}These thanksgiving sections occur in most of Paul’s epistles and argue for the genuine Pauline character of Philippians (see Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4 ff; 1 Thess 1:2 ff; 2 Thess 1:3 ff.). Notice also the similarity between Second Corinthians (1:3 ff) and Ephesians (1:4 ff) in their benedictio section. The most thorough treatment of these thanksgiving sections can be found in Peter T. O’Brien Introductory Thanksgivings in the Letters of Paul (Supplements to Novum Testamentum, vol. 49 (Leiden: Brill, 1977).{/footnote} Paul signals this participation in the apostolic ministry by rejoicing in the Philippians’ koinonia in his imprisonment and ministry. This thanksgiving section (1:3-7) contains two terms central to this service of sharing: koinonia (communio) and sugkoinonos (socius = companion):

I thank my God at every mention of you (v. 4) always in all my supplication in behalf of all of you when, with joy, I make supplication (v. 5) because of your sharing (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now (v. 6). I have been persuaded of this very thing that he who initiated a good work in you will bring it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (v. 7) just as (kathos) it is right for me to think of you all because I have you in my heart. All of you are my fellow partakers (sugkoinonous) of grace in my bonds and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel (1:3-7).{footnote}All translations from the Greek are my own unless otherwise noted. I have used a rough phonemic transcription of Greek with two notable exceptions. The letter e may represent either the Greek epsilon or the eta. The letter o may represent either the omicron or the omega. I have not used anything to indicate Greek subscripts. The letters ch represent the letter chi.{/footnote}

In this text Paul gives the participation in the gospel on the part of the Philippians as the reason for his joy and gratitude. The phrase of verse 5 “from the first day until now” refers to the day when the Philippians first heard and embraced the gospel that Paul preached.{footnote}Paul’s ministry and confinement in Philippi is recounted in Acts 16:12-40.{/footnote} The phrase under consideration, (i.e., “because of your participation in the gospel” 1:5 epi te koinonia humon eis to euaggelion) may be rendered several ways in light of the range of meaning of epi. Its normal, locative meaning is “on” or “upon” but this, of course, is naturally extended into nonlocative contexts to be the basis on which an action is performed or a thought expressed.{footnote}Paul uses epi with the meaning “because of” in 1 Cor 1:4 “Because of (epi) the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus” and 2 Cor 9:15 “Thanks be to God for (epi because of) his ineffable gift.”{/footnote} “Koinonia in the gospel” certainly denotes that the Philippians have received and embraced the gospel through Paul’s preaching. Their heartfelt reception of the gospel provides the grounds for Paul’s confidence (pepoithos) in verse 6 that “He who initiated a good work will bring it to completion.”

Koinonia could also be understood as including the Philippians’ monetary gift that came through Epaphroditus (see 2:25ff). Their partnership with Paul’s mission among the Gentiles has made them his fellow workers (cf. sunergoi in 2:25; 4:3). It seems wisest to take koinonia in the widest sense since there are no contextual clues to limit the meaning of the term. This wider sense is confirmed by the statements in verse 7.

These thoughts flow naturally into verse 7 with its initial conjunction “just as” (kathos). The appropriateness of Paul’s expressed affection lies in his hearers’ being “fellow participants in grace” (sungkoinonous mou tes charitos). This phrase develops the notion in verse 5 of “koinonia in the gospel” by stating that the Philippians are with him in his imprisonment as well as in his proclamation of the gospel.{footnote}O’Brien’s otherwise full treatment of 1:3-11 fails to link koinonia of verse 5 with sungkoinonous of verse 7 and, thereby, misses the deeper sense of participation.{/footnote} The most natural rendering of the phrase in question is “my fellow participants in grace” although the possessive pronoun “my” (mou) could modify grace (i.e., fellow partakers in my grace).{footnote}The Vulgate translates it in the second way socios gratiae meae omnes vos esse translating ontas by esse. The former rendering (taking “my” with “fellow partakers”) leaves the grace mentioned as somewhat undefined and unqualified. Even though it is used with the definite article, it could still be a generic meaning referring to the grace coming from God. The latter rendering (taking “my” with “grace”) suggests that Paul thinks here of the grace he has received in his apostolic ministry as coming through him to those who share in his ministry. If they share in his ministry, then they share in the grace he receives in that ministry. The second rendering is more explicitly mediatorial, but such an interpretation is not excluded even where it is translated “you all are my fellow partakers of grace.”{/footnote} This phrase, being a hapax legomenon in Paul’s letters, strikes an unusual note.{footnote}Which is probably why Eberhard Nestle suggested the emendation chreiras, meaning “need.”{/footnote} Does Paul see his recipients as standing alongside of him in receiving the same grace which he receives from Christ, or does their union with him in the gospel and its attendant afflictions, somehow act as a conduit of grace? The specification of the connection between grace and Paul’s imprisonment in verse 7 argues for a reading which takes the Apostle’s distress as the channels through which the grace flows to him and to all who share in his ministry.

The most natural reading of verse 5 accords with this more embodied interpretation. I suggest that it fits well into the pattern of Pauline thinking if we keep in mind that, for him, all grace is communicated through human mediation.

This apostolic-mediatorial reading of this thanksgiving section in chapter one also conforms to another unusual phrase in 4:14, “But you have done well by your having participated in my affliction.” Several modern English versions ameliorate the theological force of this sentence by minimizing its rich content.{footnote}NEB “But it was kind of you to share the burden of my troubles.” RSVCE “But it was kind of you to share my trouble.” NAB “It was kind of you to share in my distress.” Kleist and Lilly “Still you have done well by sharing in my affliction.” Didache 4:8 has a similar expression: “Don’t turn away from a needy person but share (sugkoinoneseis) all things with your brother.” Here we have an accusative of the thing shared (all things) and a dative indicating the recipient (brother). In Philippians 4:14 “affliction” is in the dative. While the English versions cited tend to play down the theological content, Schattenmann seems to acknowledge the deeper meaning of the participle (sungkoinonesantes). See J. Schattenmann “Koinonia” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975) vol. 1 p. 644.{/footnote} The participle (sugkoinonesantes) translated as “sharing” or “participating” is the verbal counterpart of sugkoinonous in 1:7. If the participle of 4:14 is read in light of the Philippians’ koinonia in the gospel mentioned in 1:5 and in light of their being fellow partakers (sugkoinonous) of grace in 1:7, the participle can be seen as another expression of Paul’s belief that the Philippians are partakers in the grace of his ministry and imprisonment because they are sharing in his affliction (thlipsis).{footnote}See below how this verse is connected to the idea of sacrifice in 4:18.{/footnote} The material gift from the Philippians implied in 4:14 introduces a note of reciprocity into this picture. Their material gift rebounds as a spiritual grace for them because they have shared in Paul’s affliction. The idea of reciprocity occurs also in Philippians 1:19.

1:19 occurs in a context of Paul’s joy that the gospel is being proclaimed despite the false motives of some of its preachers (see 1:12-18). His future joy rests on the confidence expressed in 1:19:

But I also will rejoice because I know that this will issue forth in salvation for me through your prayers and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

In contrast to the texts already considered, 1:19 suggests that Paul is the beneficiary of grace through the Philippians’ prayers. What is especially noteworthy is how the prayers of the faithful will become an instrument of bringing about Paul’s salvation.{footnote}Soteria could simply mean “deliverance,” i.e., from the present imprisonment, but the word almost always bears a theological meaning in Paul.{/footnote} What is the relationship between the prayers of the Philippians and the supplying of the Spirit of Jesus Christ? Is the supplying of the Spirit in answer to the prayers or is it just an additional statement in Paul’s mind? Again we can see two modes of reading the Pauline statements. One is a parallel reading in which no special connection exists between the prayers and the giving of the Spirit. The other is a mediatorial reading in which the prayers become the instrument of the giving of the Spirit. Second Corinthians 1:11 is a close parallel that suggests the latter reading, “as you join in helping by your prayers for us that the gift given to us may be the occasion of thanksgiving from many persons through many prayers.” The preceding verse spoke of deliverance that might come through the prayers of the faithful and so, in Second Corinthians 1:11, we have clear evidence that Paul conceives of prayer as an instrument of divine communication. On the same pattern, Philippians 1:19 then would mean that Paul’s hope of salvation rests ultimately on God supplying the Spirit of Jesus Christ. That divine gift, however, will come through the prayers of the faithful Philippians. Thus, the koinonia, made possible by the apostolic ministry of the gospel, has a reciprocal dimension, to the point where the salvation of the preacher is realized through the prayers of those to whom the gospel is preached.