In Paul’s brief letter to his dear friends at Philippi, no fewer than ten times a form of the Greek verbal phronéō occurs, its highest concentration in the New Testament. Indicative of an interconnecting theme, the expression appears once in the first chapter and at least three times each in the remaining chapters.1
The central message of Philippians is bracketed between the apostle’s use of the term to describe himself toward his readers (1:7) and his readers toward him (4:10), with multiple applications in between. It is particularly exemplified in the Lord Jesus Christ (2:5). The problem is, there is no single word in the English language with which it exactly corresponds or that captures the full sense of the Koinē Greek. Neither is there consistency in any standard Bible translation in how the term is rendered in English.
The fundamental idea of the phronéō word group is “a pattern of judgment that involves thinking, feeling, and acting.”2 It describes “a state of mind, an inward disposition. It signifies sympathetic interests and concern, reflecting the action of the ‘heart’ as well as the ‘head’.”3
The purpose of this study is to offer a more descriptive and consistent translational alternative, thereby highlighting a thematic connectivity of the word’s usage throughout Philippians and revealing an emphasis otherwise lost in translation. Our aim is not ease of reading or proficiency of English grammar, but to contextually reflect the apostle’s own wording as closely as the translation process will allow.
Paul expresses heartfelt gratitude in the letter’s opening thanksgiving and prayer (1:3-11). According to the NKJV, verse 7 reads, “just as it is right for me to think this of you all …”, compared to the ESV, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all …”4 The challenge is finding an English equivalent for the present infinitive phroneîn. While expressing something current and ongoing, the word “think” misses the emotional aspect, the word “feel” leaves out the cognitive component, and neither conveys the behavioral overtones.
Three characteristics are identified. Their priority (“god”) is their inner desires, indulging the flesh, submitting to sensual appetites (cf. Rom. 16:18; 1 Cor. 6:13; Jude 11). They glory in their shame, taking pride in disgraceful conduct (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-2; Eph. 5:12). The third description employs the verbal phronéō: “the [ones] manifesting a [cognitive-emotional-behavioral] disposition [set on] earthly things.”17 These worldly-focused pleasure seekers are the opposite of the spiritually-committed, heavenly-directed citizens noted in the verses that follow and the mature ones of the preceding verses (cp. 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:3-4). Within the same general timeframe, Paul has also used the verbal phronéō to highlight the thinking, feeling, acting pursuit of “the things above, not the things on the earth” (Col. 3:2).As Paul brings this very personal and passionate letter to a close, he prefaces his thanks for ongoing prayerful and financial support with a dual use of phronéō terminology: “but I greatly rejoiced in the Lord, that now at last you revived the manifestation of a caring disposition for me, wherein which also you have manifested a caring disposition, but you have lacked opportunity” (4:10).18 Paul is ending his letter by describing how the Philippians have thought, felt, and acted toward him, just as he opened the letter with a description of how he thinks, feels, and acts toward them (1:7).
1 Textual variation notwithstanding: Phil. 1:7; 2:2[x2], 5; 3:15[x2], 16(?), 19; 4:2, 10[x2]. Elsewhere in Paul, nine times in Romans (8:5; 11:20; 12:3[x2], 16[x2]; 14:6[x2]; 15:5) and only once each in 1 Corinthians (13:11), 2 Corinthians (13:11), Galatians (5:10), and Colossians (3:2). Outside of Paul, the word occurs in Matt. 16:23; Mark 8:33; and Acts 28:22.
2 James W. Thompson and Bruce W. Longenecker, Philippians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016): 30.
3 I.-Jin Loh and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator’s Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Stuttgart: UBS, 1977): 54. The corresponding noun phrēn refers to the diaphragm or inward parts surrounding the heart; metaphorically the inner self that regulates external behavior.
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