The Theology of Paul the Apostle | James D. G. Dunn (§11)

Now we enter mysterious territory. The question is: how did Paul understand Jesus’ existence before the incarnation, and how does that line up with the Old Testament? I’m really looking forward to this discussion. Let’s get to it.

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Chapter 4: The Gospel of Jesus Christ

§ 11: The preexistent one

Talk of the preexistent Christ is difficult to find in Romans, but it is clear in two other passages: 1 Corinthians 8:6, and Colossians 1:15-20. In both of these texts, all things (Greek shorthand for the totality of the universe and created entities) were created through Jesus. Anyone reading these passages in Paul’s day would make the immediate connection to Jewish reflection on divine Wisdom. Here are some pertinent references to divine Wisdom:

  • Wisdom is the image of God (Wisdom)
  • Wisdom is God’s firstborn (Proverbs, Philo)
  • All things are made by Wisdom (Psalms, Proverbs, Wisdom)
  • All things were completed by Wisdom (Philo)
  • Wisdom was before all things (Sirach)
  • Wisdom holds all things together (Wisdom)

It is obvious that Paul applied the role of divine Wisdom to Jesus. In order to clarify this, we need to examine three opinions on what divine Wisdom was understood to mean:

  1. Literally, another deity working with YHWH (almost unthinkable in Jewish monotheism)
  2. Another metaphor for YHWH like “glory”, “righteousness”, and “peace” (doesn’t go far enough)
  3. All of (2) rolled into one: “the immanent God in his wise engagement with his creation and his people” (272)

To see how Paul identified Jesus with divine Wisdom, we need to take a closer look at the two passage mentioned earlier:

1 Corinthians 8:6: While there were texts available in Paul’s day that would later be used to support the preexistence of a Messiah, the most obvious parallel in understanding divine Wisdom is the Torah (Sirach 24:23; Baruch 4:1). In Torah, the method of God’s creating the world has been given to Israel. Paul and other Christians put Jesus in the place of Torah. (Remember, Paul has already described Christ as God’s Wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24, 30)).

Colossians 1:15-20: Much of what the Corinthians text affirms, this text makes explicit. Here we see an overlap between Adam christology and Wisdom christology. Both metaphors emphasize that God’s role in creation is embodied in Christ. Adam christology speaks of the humanity that God created, while Wisdom christology speaks of God’s creative plan and power. These two metaphors should not be played off against each other but viewed in tandem.

Now that we’ve examined the two main passages, let’s look at three others that, while inconclusive on their own, provide corroborating evidence should the main argument be accepted:

  1. Galatians 4:4; Romans 8:3: The important phrase is “God sent his Son”. In Galatians, the sending of God’s Son is in parallel with the sending of the Spirit of his Son. There is a similar double-sending of Wisdom in Wisdom 9:10, 17. However, it’s also possible that the phrase is patterned after God’s sending of human prophets.
  2. 1 Corinthians 10:4: Paul identified the rock that gave the Israelites water in the desert as Christ. Pseudo-Philo suggested that the rock followed them through the wilderness, and Wisdom 11:4 understood that water as part of Wisdom’s protection of Israel in the wilderness.
  3. Romans 10:6-8: Paul cited Deuteronomy 30:12-14 here and applied it to Christ. Baruch 3:29-30 cited the same text in the hymn to Wisdom.

The famous hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 is more solid evidence regarding the pre-existence of Christ. Before we dig in, it’s important to note how allusions work. They are not explicit—that would defeat the purpose. Therefore, we can’t determine precise meaning based on word-study. We need to explore the allusions in their fullness. Since Adam laid behind a lot of Paul’s theology, it’s no surprise to find Adam christology embedded here:

  1. in the form of God
  2. tempted to grasp equality with God
  3. took the form of a slave
  4. obedient to death
  5. exalted and glorified

There are four criticisms leveled against finding Adam christology here:

  1. The hymn uses “form” rather than “image” (see (1) above). The terms, however, are synonymous and “form” works better with “slave”.
  2. The verb for “something to be grasped” has the extra precision of something to be “exploited”. However, as stated above, this level of precision defeats the role of allusion in poetry.
  3. The hymn would imply a two-part failure on Adam’s part: from refusing to grasp equality with God to emptying; from taking the form of a slave to death. Again, this poem refers to Jesus primarily, and the metaphor may be stretched accordingly.
  4. The latter half of the hymn presents too positive a future for Adam. There is president for this, though, in Philippians 2:10-11 and 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.

Aside from Hebrews 2:5-9 this hymn is the fullest description of Adam christology we have. The two-part descent of Jesus (described in criticism (3) above) quite likely describes his move from preexistent glory to incarnation, then from incarnation to cross.

Three final passages have been considered as allusions to the preexistence of Christ. None, however, are persuasive:

  1. 1 Corinthians 15:44-49: This text describes a “second human being from heaven”. However, the emphasis here is on the resurrected Christ, not on his preexistence.
  2. 2 Corinthians 4:4-6: The text relates the light of Christ with God’s command to bring light from darkness. Paul is likely referring to his conversion here, and there is no necessary christological implications.
  3. 2 Corinthians 8:9: This text describes Jesus Christ becoming poor for our sakes. This likely only refers to his physical humiliation on the cross.

Paul had a place in his theology for the preexistence of Christ, but it was never a sole consideration. Christ’s preexistence was always related to Wisdom or Adam imagery. The purpose of Christ’s preexistence was to stress God’s immanence with his people. While John will later present a more mature theology of Christ’s preexistence, Paul’s emphasis is always more focused on Jesus’ death and resurrection.

. . .

Before studying this chapter, I never realized how little emphasis Paul places on Christ’s preexistence. His major letter, Romans, contains virtually nothing on this theme. I suppose too much training in systematic theology led me to import John’s preexistence theology into Paul’s writing. Paul’s emphasis remains squarely on the death and resurrection of our Lord.

< § 10: The risen Lord

§ 12: Until he comes >

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