The Dative Self: Philippians 1:12-21

Reflecting on the Pauline passages that warrant Kierkegaard’s “edifying negativity,” Philip Ziegler ruminates (in a footnote) on the idea of the “dative self.” He writes,

“I am minded to think that it should be possible to develop an account of Christian life conceived on the basis of the idea of the ‘dative self,’ i.e. from an account of how things come to appear when the human self is consistently understood on the grounds of its being displaced into the dative case by the divine subject and its agency (Christ for us, Christ in me, etc.).”

Ziegler is right about this. The Christian life is rightly understood in the dative case, with the Trinity as the sole subject. In Greek, as you may know, the dative case may function in three general ways: the true dative, locative dative, and the instrumental dative. Taking all three in hand, Ziegler’s suggestion may yield a threefold mantra summarizing Christian life as the “dative self,” with God as the subject:

  1. True Dative — God to me.
  2. Locative Dative — God in me.
  3. Instrumental — God through me.

In each of these cases, our frame of reference is oriented by God’s act, resisting our tendency to put ourselves in the center. For context, Ziegler’s comment emerges from a Beverly Gaventa quote, which says of Galatians 2:20: “It is the whole of the ego that is gone…The gospel is singular in that it is all-consuming: there is no more ego. And the gospel is also all life giving: Christ lives in me.”

The three-fold use of datives, however, reveals that the displacement, as Ziegler puts it, of the human self is not the disintegration of the the person. While God acting toward a person could result in their decreation, Gaventa’s affirmation that the gospel is “all life giving” is the only feasible outcome of God acting in me and through me. More on this in a moment.

In Philippians 1:12-21 we glimpse Paul’s circumstances. In ego-centered terms, Paul is in a lousy situation, with two primary difficulties. First, he’s imprisoned, and unable to carry on his evangelistic mission as he would like. Second, fellow preachers are somehow trying to add salt to his wound by preaching out of envy and rivalry. Thinking in ego-centered terms, these two difficulties are largely out of Paul’s control, which means that he cannot act as a subject upon them in any meaningful sense.

Paul’s own reflection on his context, however, is a case-study in dative self-understanding. Let’s look specifically at 1:18-21.

What then? Only that in every way, whether false motives or the truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes! I will rejoice…

Here is a subtle instrumental dative self-interpretation, not just of Paul but of preachers more generally. The preaching of Christ is not God-glorifying because of the proper motives of the preacher but because God is capable of acting through the person despite their motivations. A bent rim still spins and the gospel preached even for the wrong reasons still preaches.

And in this I will rejoice, for I know that this will result in my deliverance, through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Now we see the true dative. Paul understands his life as “saved” (deliverance is the Greek word soterion) because God acts toward him. This much is obvious from the explicit reference to the Spirit of Christ. It is implicit in the reference to the Philippians’ prayers, because Paul already established that the Philippians are indeed the body of Christ (“the saints who are in Christ Jesus,” 1:1; the twofold use of koinonios; the broader eucharistic interpretation of the community throughout 1:1-11). Paul’s own deliverance is certain because God is the one who acts toward Paul.

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will be put to shame in nothing but with all boldness, now as always, that Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether through life or through death.

I am saving verse 21 for its own comment, but this passage cannot, of course, be grasped in any complete sense without Paul’s striking words, “To live is Christ but to die is gain.” For now, let me point to the astonishing claim that Paul makes explicit in this verse, a claim which is impossible for someone who does not at least partially adopt a dative self-understanding. In an ego-centered, nominative self-understanding, a body cannot bring honor to anyone in death. The death of the body, and with it the self, makes any possibility of honoring someone else absurd. “Can those who are dead rise up and praise you?” Yet, for someone with the dative self-understanding, being in Christ means death does not render us incapable of honoring God.

This is so because of the “great reversal,” as George Hunsinger puts it, that took place from Good Friday to Easter. This is the cornerstone of the promises of the gospel. It is also the great act of the “divine cunning in history,” again borrowing from Hunsinger. Divine cunning is God’s act of bending evil “to serve his purposes despite itself.” Other acts of divine cunning in history are echoes of the great reversal, and Paul’s own imprisonment is one example. Paul’s imprisonment prevented him from carrying out his mission of evangelism but, unexpectedly, led to the conversion of prison guards and emboldened fellows preachers to preach all the more.

But we must allow ourselves to be displaced by the dative case of our lives in order to recognize the divine cunning at work in our lives. A person who clings to the ego will not be able to see past their own suffering or inconvenience. They will white knuckle normalcy and comfort while missing God’s deliverance in new situations and discomfort. Paul’s bodily suffering in prison and his social suffering at the hands of rivals are only negative to those who do not see their very being as caught up and displaced by God’s faithfulness. Paul does see things this way. And, so, “Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether through life or through death.” There is nothing in all creation that can separate Paul from God’s action as the Divine Subject, not even death itself.

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

This is the definitive statement of the person whose self-understanding is framed in the dative case. “The Christ who lives in Paul,” Hunsinger writes, “is also the Christ who lives for him.” As mentioned above, Christ does not decreate the human being but truly enlivens her. The displacement to the dative case is not a displacement in the sense of no longer having a place but being displaced to a new place, from Adam into Christ. It is the reversal of the refugee’s state, from no home to an eternal home. It is the Copernican theological revolution, in which we realize we rotate around the Divine Other, and find our bearings there.

“The Christ who lives in Paul,” Hunsinger writes, “is also the Christ who lives for him.” — George Hunsinger, Philippians Commentary

While nothing I’ve said in this post is novel, I think it underscores an obvious but important point. The meaning of events and happenings in our lives are not always obvious. They are like sentences needing translation. Paul’s imprisonment required careful translation. Otherwise, he may have mistaken a dative for a nominative, and understood his situation as hopeless. Likewise, we must prayerfully translate the sentences that construct the story of our life, according to the grammar of faith given to us, as Paul says, through the prayers of the church and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

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