Sunday, February 21, 2010

Philippians and Christology

One of the significant questions for New Testament scholars and people of faith is the matter of the development of Christology in early Christianity. We touched on the subject in our course on Paul and the Philippians when we looked at the Song of Christ in chapter 2. To consider one aspect of Christology, the question posed in that lesson was really: "What evidence do we have for the concept of "pre-existence" in the New Testament?"

Pre-existence certainly plays a large role in the Gospel of John, written toward the end of the first century. But does the concept go back to an earlier time? Is it evident in Paul's letters? Is the background for Philippians 2 "pre-existence" or is it something else, Christ as a second Adam?

Most of us read the New Testament through the lens of church teaching that gives primacy to the Gospel of John and the great ecumenical creeds. We are conditioned to believe that Jesus was seen as divine from the very earliest period. And, of course, that he was born of a virgin. And, of course, he was pre-existent with God from "the beginning." These assertions, no matter what your understanding, are theological assertions, not historical statements. To put it into the words of Larry Hurtado: "How in the world did Jesus become God?"

When phased in that manner, we move from a question of faith to a question of history and to doctrinal development. When on the plane of history was Jesus conceived as divine and as pre-existent? In our question to answer, we need to be careful and not merge disparate concepts. To say Jesus is the Son of God and quote evidence from Paul makes the mistake of assuming the concept "Son of God" implies divinity. It does not. To say Jesus was born of a virgin does not imply pre-existence. In fact, one could see it as evidence of thinking that contradicts pre-existence.

Below is an illustration that looks at many examples of Christological thinking. They developed at different times in different places. Each concept is worthy of exploring historically as well as theologically. From a purely historical stance, if the background of the Carmen Christi is based on a second Adam motif, what other evidence can we discover to hypothesize an an early pre-existent Christology?

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