Did Paul Think of the Pre-Incarnate Christ as God?

Robert M. Price

How did Paul regard the pre-existent Christ? Was he already deity, or did deity, as humanity, come only later for this being? Paul had no hesitation about predicating of the exalted Christ what he would normally say of God, [1] but what of Christ before the exaltation? In order to attempt to answer this question, this paper will examine Pauline texts which treat the subject of the pre-human state of Christ, as well as those which seem to call Christ “God.” The working hypothesis will be that Paul’s pre-incarnation Christology is based on the contemporary concept of hypostatized Wisdom/Primordial Adam, the begotten/created agent of creation. Godhood, on the other hand, was a category reserved by Paul for the exalted Christ.

The earliest document likely to have contributed to a concept of personified Wisdom is the Book of Proverbs. There Wisdom is a creature of God and is in turn either the agent of the rest of creation or at least attendant at the scene (Prov. 8:22-31). Wisdom arrives among men, trying to save them from folly and turn them from the error of their ways (8:1-4ff). This personification is primarily a literary device in Proverbs, but it seems to be taken more and more seriously as a hypostatized divine attribute/mediator of God in later literature. In the Alexandrian work, The Wisdom of Solomon, more is said of Wisdom. She sits beside the divine throne (9:4). She assisted in creation (8:6; 9:2, 9). She is “a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty… a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness” (7:25-26). She was born at a particular point in time (8:3), and her “coming to be” is placed at the “beginning of creation” (6:22). Wisdom is in possession of the riches of God’s knowledge (8:4-5). In the book of Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, Wisdom is clearly described as having been created prior to the rest of creation (1:4, 9; 24:8-9). Her role as agent of creation is not so clear, but something similar seems to be implied (1:9-10; 24:3). She is sent to earth to enlighten men (24:6-12, 19-23).

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians, Paul describes Christ as God’s Wisdom having come among men (1:21-25). He was also the agent of creation (8:5-6). The letter to Corinth is particularly concerned with opposing the worldly, elitist gnosis or wisdom of Corinthian pneumatics, by explicating the true wisdom of God, i.e., Christ (crucified). In another context, where not only wisdom but also the nature and role of Christ are at stake, Paul develops the Christ-Wisdom idea still further. The Colossian church had adopted (or adapted) a system of cosmological speculation, wherein Christ was placed in the context of a pantheon of angelic Powers as merely one more mediator between the Pleroma of God and the world. This Sitz-im-Leben makes the ensuing discussion particularly valuable for the present consideration, since Paul will be concerned to define specifically the proper Christology. According to his schema, Christ himself holds the Pleroma of the Godhead (1:19; 2:9-10). His is the treasure of wisdom and knowledge (2:3; cf., Wis. 8:4-5). Like (or as) Wisdom, Christ was the agent of creation (even of the creation of the angelic Powers) (1:16). Accordingly, he was born before the rest of creation (1:15) in the pattern now familiar from earlier Wisdom speculation. The title “first-born of all creation” seems to imply more than a status metaphorically comparable to that of a first-born son, i.e., being named preeminent heir for whatever reason, not necessarily biological descent. This is strongly indicated by the parallel clearly drawn between 1:15 and 1:18: Christ is the first-born of the dead—he has preeminence over the rest of those to be raised from the dead since he was the first one (chronologically) to be raised. Likewise, he is the first-born of creation—he has preeminence over the rest of created things since he was the first one (chronologically) to be created. (Of course, he was in turn instrumental in creating everything else (e.g., 1 Cor. 8:6), just as he will be instrumental in raising everyone else.)

The Christ-Wisdom is called, in the Colossians passage, the “image (eikwn) of the invisible God” (1:15), just as Wisdom is called “an image (eikwn) of his goodness” (Wis. 7:26). This characterization is taken up again in the Pauline literature in such a way as to suggest the presence of another important Christological image. In 2 Corinthians 4:4 Paul writes that Christ “is the image (eikwn) of God.” Similarly, the “face of Christ” reveals the “glory of God” (4:6). In 1 Corinthians 11:7 it becomes clear that both “image” and “glory” are terms denoting man as being “created in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). These hints that Christ is a special Adam-figure are confirmed by explicit argumentation in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49. In Romans 5:14ff Christ was contrasted with Adam in an explanation of how universal salvation as well as universal sin could come about, each through a single individual. In 1 Corinthians 15, however, Christ is actually described as a new Adam, to explain the role of the resurrection of believers in the plan of redemptive history. First he shows how humanity had to bear the body of mortal, fragile flesh, or “dust” (15:49). This was patterned after the first Adam, the “man of earth” (v. 47). But humanity is destined for better things, the immortal, superhuman glory of the resurrection body, on the pattern of the second Adam (v. 49), the “man of heaven.” Christ was constituted as the new Adam by his resurrection. This was his creation as “life-giving Spirit” just as Adam’s formation from clay was his creation as a “living soul” (v. 45). Thus the resurrected Christ as the new image of God, just as Adam was created in God’s image.

But the Colossians passage described the pre-incarnate Christ as already being the image of God. This should offer a hint that the heavenly Adam idea is not solely an exaltation motif for Paul. The Christological hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 does in fact develop the concept further in the direction of the pre-incarnate Christ already being the heavenly Adam, the “form,” morfh (= image) of God. The purpose of introducing this hymn is to exhort the quarreling Philippians not to strive for their own interests (2:1-5). The thought is the equivalent to Jesus’ warning that one should not exalt himself above his fellows lest he be humbled. Rather, one should humble himself below his rightful status and will then be exalted (Luke 14:11). The hymn reinforces this advice with the example of Christ himself. It recounts how the Primordial Adam, bearing the form (image) of God, as did his counterpart the historical Adam, did not yield to the temptation to go and seize actual equality with God as did the historical Adam (Gen. 3:5; cf., Isa. 14:12-15). Thus he was not humbled to subjection to death as was his counterpart. Instead, he actually humbled himself “unto death” voluntarily. He was then elevated to the formerly unsought prize of equality with God. Upon him was bestowed the divine Name with all its prerogatives. [2]

Thus, for Paul, the pre-human Christ could be described as both the Wisdom of God and the Primordial Adam. The term “image of God” is common to both, but is this mere coincidence? On the contrary, it points to a single concept in contemporary religious thought: that of the Wisdom/Word of God being both the Primal Man and the agent of creation. Some of the relevant surviving literature is old enough to indicate possible influence on Paul, while other works are at least part of the same milieu and seem to stem from the same kind of speculation. Thus some significant conceptual parallels might be expected. The thinker closest to Paul in time and worldview is John. In his gospel, John clearly links the Word of God (a figure with numerous Wisdom associations) with the pre-existent Son of Man from Above. In 1 Enoch, the Son of Man (= “the Man”) is a heavenly Man named before creation, in a manner reminiscent of Wisdom. Even so, John speaks of the Son of Man who came down from heaven (John 3:13). The relevance of John’s pre-incarnational Christology will be picked up later in the present study.

Philo is another near-contemporary of Paul who seems to have moved in a related world of ideas. For him, too, these two concepts are related. The Logos is the image of God, as is Paul’s Christ-Wisdom. This Logos is also the agent of creation: “Nothing mortal can be made in the likeness of the Most High One and Father of the Universe, but only in that of the second God, who is his Logos.” He is “the head of all things” (Quaest., Ex. 2, 117). But the Logos is also the Primal Man: “There is however another Man, made in God’s image, the archetype of Man.” “The heavenly Man being the eternal archetype of mankind, is therefore Logos, and as such the first-born Son of God.” The earthly Adam was a creation corresponding to him, but the heavenly Man was neither created nor uncreated, but somewhere in between. [3]

Next to be considered are examples from literature from farther afield than John and Philo, but C.H. Dodd thinks that they stem from the same Jewish atmosphere of speculations. [4] The Naassenes believed in a Primal Man who was to be identified with the Logos. [5] Also, the Hermetic tract Poimandres at least associates the Word of God with the Man, who is the Father’s own image. As with the pre-human Christ of Philippians, he is also described in terms of the “form” (morfh) of God. He has creative power, though the role of agency is primarily associated with the Word and the Demiurge. [6] Much later Jewish mystical speculation also shows the conceptual viability of combining the idea of the Primal Man with attributes of Wisdom. Isaac Luria’s 16th century Kabbalism describes the heavenly Man, Adam Kadmon, as embracing the  world within himself, functioning in the ordering of the elements, and bearing the image of God in the sense that his universe-filling limbs (cf., Eph. 4:10) represented the attributes of God. [7]

It seems fair on the basis of the above material to infer the existence of a well-defined concept of Adam/Wisdom, the image of God and agent of creation. Paul, too, seems to use this picture in his theology. In fact, this concept would seem to supply the ontological category for Paul’s pre-incarnational Christology. Traditional Christian theology, however, has spoken of the incarnation of God. Is this justified in light of Paul’s pre-incarnational concepts? Or would Paul have made the same point the same way? Two things are immediately evident from the preceding survey of Wisdom/ Primal Man motifs. First, Wisdom was generally thought of as having been created at some point, or at least somehow not eternally pre-existent. Second, Wisdom, Logos, etc., can be described in some sense as “God.” Philo called the Logos “a second God;” John calls the Logos “God” (John 1:1) and “the only-begotten God” (1:18). As already noted, Paul preserves the first of these two ideas in his conception of the pre-human Christ, but what about the second? Was this being considered “God”? Perhaps a brief survey of the texts where Paul seems to designate Christ as “God” will help suggest an answer.

The clearest text on this matter is Romans 9:5. [8] While the doxology in this verse might conceivably refer to God the Father, the wording makes this unnatural and unlikely. The form makes it an appositional doxology, liked those addressed to God the Father in Romans 1:25 and 2 Corinthians 11:31. But here the subject is Christ. [9] In discussing the divine favors given Israel, Paul mentions that, “of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all.” Various considerations indicate that “God over all” is a title only of the risen/exalted Christ. First, in Philippians 2:9-11, Paul says that at Christ’s exaltation he was given the divine name, “Lord” with all of its divine honors (cf., vv. 10-11 with Isa. 45:23). Before the incarnation he had not been God’s equal (see above). Similarly, in Romans 1:4, it is said that Jesus was constituted Son of God at the resurrection. There is a significant parallel between Romans 1:4 and 9:5. In both, Paul first recalls Jesus’ human origin and natural heritage (“descended from David according to the flesh”/”of their race according to the flesh”) and then describes his heavenly status (“Son of God”/”God over all”). The parallel would suggest that in both cases the second status is chronologically subsequent to the first, first entered upon via the resurrection/exaltation. This is further supported by the form of the title “God over all.” This is analogous to Christ being “head over all things” (Eph. 1:22), a position bestowed on him, as the context shows, at the resurrection/exaltation. This title would also parallel the ascended Christ being “Lord of all” (Acts 1:36; cf., 2:36). However, it should be noted that the same sort of title can occur with reference to Christ’s mediating role at creation. He is “head of all rule and authority” apparently because it was all created through him and for him (Col. 2:10 and 1:16), just as Philo could refer to the heavenly Logos as “the head of all things” (Quaest., Ex. 2, 117).

Even in the Colossians passage, however, it is legitimate to ask if all things were created “for him” precisely in view of his destined exaltation (cf., Heb. 1:2 and 4, where Christ is heir at creation but actually inherits at his exaltation). This kind of notion may be in view in Colossians 2:15. In light of the Pauline (and general early Christian) picture of Christ gaining heavenly authority at his exaltation, it seems most likely that Romans 9:5 is to be understood as a reference only to the exalted Christ. Christ as cosmocrator may be called “God over all” even as Satan may be described as “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). That such a bestowal of the divine name is not inconsistent with Jewish monotheism is evident in the later apocalypse 3 Enoch, where the exalted and transfigured Enoch is christened “the Lesser Yahweh.” Also, according to some rabbinic traditions, the Messiah would bear the name Yahweh. [10]

The only other Pauline (?) text which seems to call Christ “God” is Titus 2:13: “[We are] awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The text is to be translated so as to apply both titles to Jesus Christ in view of the indivisibility of “God and Savior” in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim. 1:1; 2:3; 4:10; Titus 1:3; 2:10; 3:4). Also, 1 Timothy 6:16 states that God (the Father) can never be seen, so that it is unlikely that it is he who is said in this passage to be “appearing.” [11] As for the text itself, it occurs in a clearly eschatological setting, and it may be that Christ is here called “our God” in his capacity as exalted and returning Lord. He will appear to crush the last pockets of resistance, after which he will abdicate his Lordship (1 Cor. 15:24-25). In a similar context, the Qumran Melchizedek midrash [12] describes the victorious Parousia of the warrior angel Melchizedek at the End to destroy the forces of evil. The mighty deliverer is unabashedly called “God.”

Second Thessalonians 1:12 has been taken as referring attributing the title “God” to Christ, but this seems unlikely. Only one article is used (kata thn carin tou Qeou hmwn kai kuriou Ihsou Cristw), but this need not mean that only one person is being spoken of. The same construction occurs in 2 Corinthians 1:2 (carix umin kai eirhnh apo Qeou patroV hmwn kai kuriou Ihsou Cristou). It is hardly likely that Paul means to equate Jesus Christ with God the Father as the same person. [13] Also, the sentence in 1 Thessalonians 1:12 with its mention of grace seems to hark back to 1:2, where grace is associated with Christ and the Father as separate persons. Two sentences seem parallel, so that 1:12 does not make Christ “God” any more than does 1:2.

Colossians 2:2, which mentions tou Qeou Cristou, far from making Christ “God,” as some seem to hold, actually makes Christ the mystery of God, a concept perhaps akin to that of the Wisdom of God. First Timothy 3:16 according to some manuscripts describes the incarnation as follows: “God was manifested in the flesh,” but this is almost certainly an easily explicable textual corruption, QeoV being substituted for OV (“Who”).

The evidence, then, does not suggest that Paul considered the Godhood of Christ to extend back into his pre-human existence. But does the resultant picture of his pre-incarnational Christology at least allow that he might have regarded the pre-human Christ as “God” even if he happened never to have explicitly said so? It has already been noted that both John and Philo felt they could designate the Word as “God.” Their concept of the Word is otherwise very similar to Paul’s picture of Christ-Wisdom. A brief look at the Johannine Christology might indicate the possibilities of these parallels shedding further light on Pauline Christology.

For John as well as Paul the pre-incarnate Christ was begotten or made alive (1:4; 6:57)

at some point prior to the rest of creation, of which in turn he is the agent (1:3). The Word becomes flesh (1:4) just as the heavenly Man exchanged the form of God for the form of a servant (Phil. 2:6-7). On earth, Jesus looks forward to the time when he will be invested with honor equal to that of the Father, along with the divine prerogative of judgment (5:22-23). But until this exaltation, the Son is not as great as the Father (14:28). After the exaltation, Jesus is to be addressed as “Lord” and “God” (20:28). So far, the parallel is pretty close, but John, of course, calls the pre-incarnate Word “God” as well (1:1, 18). Why did Paul refrain from doing this? It seems he might as well have done it. As hinted earlier, the title “God” seems to be used functionally in a variety of ways. The (messianic?) king (Psalm 45:6; Isa.9:6), human judges (Psalm 82:6, on some interpretations), Melchizedek, Satan, and Christ as cosmocrator may all be designated “God.” Jesus himself seems to have been reminding his opponents of this flexibility in John 10:34-36. 

It seemed to Paul that the title “God over all” was appropriate for the exalted Christ. But

it apparently did not occur to him to give the title to the pre-incarnate Christ-Wisdom. Perhaps this was because he was so taken with the exalted glory of the risen Christ that he did not want to risk confusing issues by calling Christ “God” at an earlier stage. A similar reservation seems to have been exercised by the Writer to the Hebrews. The pre-existent Christ is described by him as the agent of creation (1:2) and is characterized in terms of Wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon (Heb. 1:3). However, Christ is “crowned with glory and honor” (2:9) only after his suffering (cf., Luke 24:26). He then inherits “all things,” which had been made through him (1:2), obtaining the divine name, which is above the angels (1:4), namely “God” (1:8) or “Lord” (1:10). The context here is one of anointing (1:9), enthronement (1:13), and "crowning" (2:9). Before the incarnation, he was divine Wisdom, but only after the exaltation is he to be called “God.” But as we have seen, John did not feel the need to make such a distinction. Thus the difference is more semantical than theological. Or, to put it another way, the theological differences are not ultimately contradictions. Paul apparently did not think of the pre-existent Christ as “God,” but he could have easily enough, within the conceptual thought-world of his Christology. It all depends on what one means by “God.”


On the Question of Christological Shibboleths

Of course, quite a lot depends on what one means by “God,” especially with regard to issues of Christology. Lurking, scarcely hidden, beneath the surface of the preceding discussion have been questions such as the eternality of Christ, the meaning of the “deity” of Christ, and the Trinity itself. The line of interpretation pursued in this study has tended toward what might be called Arian or Adoptionist conclusions. This is so especially insofar as it stresses the dependence of Pauline Christology on the concept of Wisdom as the created agent of creation, and insofar as the deity of Christ is interpreted along the lines of deification. If these suggestions for interpreting Pauline Christology are correct, then at least the Trinitarian demand for the eternal pre-existence of Christ is misguided, and not merely a later development of implicit ideas. [14] And if the suggestion as to the ambiguous, functional nature of the title “God” is correct, this further raises a question mark beside the necessity of a doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is really just a name for an enigma of three co-eternal persons as one God, not an explanation of it. But if the present suggestions are correct, the usage of the title “God” need not necessarily imply all the ontological predicates which seem to require the enigmatic doctrine of the Trinity.

The formulations of the Christological councils are accepted and maintained by “Sola Scriptura” Protestants on the basis of the contention that these creeds are directly grounded in, or at least continuous with, the teaching of the New Testament (whereas it seems more likely the product of a reluctance to depart from the very ecclesiastical tradition against which Protestants would like to consider themselves liberated). But if such uninterrupted continuity cannot in fact be shown, can the creeds still be binding? If one reverts instead to the bare New Testament text, the boundaries of Christological orthodoxy seem to widen. The shibboleths are not so subtle. In the first place, more diversity will be allowed, since the New Testament writers show diversity among themselves, [15] as already shown here. And since their writings are canonical, whatever they say will ipso facto be orthodox. But even when one examines their writings to see what, if anything, was uniformly forbidden for Christian belief, the resulting “rule of faith” is not so complicated as traditional theology would make it.

John 4:2-3 forbids docetism. Paul no doubt would agree, since it was important to him that the Son of God be a sharer of human flesh, so as to defeat sin on its own ground (Rom. 8:3). John demands confession of Jesus as Son of God (1 John 4:15) and Christ (2:22), just as Paul required confession of Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9-1). Paul also listed as essential elements of belief the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:1-2ff; Rom. 10:9-10). In fact, soteriology rather than details of Christology seems to have marked the great dividing line for Paul. Those who advocate the necessity of the Law for salvation have stultified the death of Christ (Gal. 2:21; 3:1) and in fact preach a different (i.e., counterfeit) gospel and Jesus (Gal. 1:6-7; 2 Cor. 11:4). There may be an element of flexibility even here, however, since Paul did not anathematize James and the Jerusalem Christians who felt that the Law was binding upon Jewish Christians (Acts 21:20-25). Also, apostles of legalism may be in view in Philippians 1:15 and 1 as in 3:2ff, yet Paul rejoices that these trouble-makers at least preach Christ (1:18). Of course, he might mean that even false preaching of Christ helped spread the word of why he, Paul, is imprisoned, since it generates more talk about the gospel (cf., 1:12-13). [16] In general, however, a Jesus whose death still leaves the need for one’s own saving efforts is a different Jesus. Partisans of this Christ are no real Christians (Gal. 1:8-9; 2 Cor. 11:13-15). 

Whatever may have been the full Christological theology of the New Testament writers, their explicit statements as to the limits of orthodox belief seem to boil down to the following picture: Jesus was a truly human being. He died, was buried, and rose from the dead. His death is sufficient for salvation and requires no supplement. He now reigns as Lord and is Christ and God’s Son. [17] It is perhaps unfair to extract a “lowest common denominator” from the New Testament since the writings are so obviously occasional and therefore fragmentary, not containing everything their writers believed about any given topic. Also, it is hard to imagine the apostolic writers allowing that one could be content with some kind of “mere Christianity” if they believed and taught a fuller picture themselves.

Nonetheless, if modern Christians felt that they could rest content with the (meager) Christological shibboleths outlined by the New Testament writers, the name “Christian” might be charitably allowed to some who are now stigmatized as heretical over some philosophical refinement or other. Perhaps Paul’s advice might profitably be taken: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). 

Note References

1. Walter Elwell, “The Deity of Christ in the Writings of Paul.” In Gerald F. Hawthorne (ed.), Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 195), pp. 297-308.

2. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), pp. 419-421; see also Oscar Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), pp. 17-181; Ethelbert Stauffer, New Testament Theology (London: SCM Press, 1963), pp. 117-118; Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of his Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 73-75.

3. C.H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge at the University Press, 1953), pp. 70-71; see also Martin Hengel, The Son of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 70.

4. Dodd, p. 111.

5. Dodd, p. 110.

6. Dodd, pp. 31-32.

7. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (NY: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 269.

8. See the discussion of these and the following passages in Vincent Taylor, “Does the New Testament Call Jesus ‘God’?” In Taylor, New Testament Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), pp. 84-87.

9. Cullmann, pp. 312-313.

10. Philip B. Harner, The “I Am” of the Fourth Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 25.

11. Cullmann, pp. 313-314.

12. Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1975), pp. 266-268.

13. Cullmann, p. 313.

14. As Arthur W. Wainwright suggests in his The Trinity in the New Testament (London: SPCK, 1975), pp. 264-267.

15. Ernst Kӓsemann, “The Canon of the New Testament and the Unity of the Church.” In Kӓsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes. Studies in Biblical Theology No. 41 (London: SCM Press, 1960), pp. 95-107.

16. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

17. James D.G. Dunn, in his Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), arrived at a very similar, though even more modest, shared core of New Testament belief.