Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Disputed Questions About Paul Of Tarsus: A Dialogue (Part 3a)

The following series was originally written by Carlos A. Segovia (marked CAS below). It is here translated into English and features additional responses by Thomas W. Hudgins. Part 3 of this series deals with the preexistence and divinity of Jesus Christ.

Is it possible to really say that Paul definitely saw Christ as the divine and preexisting Son of God? Or is it necessary to mention that, while there are markers that seem to indicate Paul viewed Jesus as the divine and preexisting Son of God, there is other evidence that suggests quite the opposite?

CAS: I would have to agree with the latter. How else can you explain the passages in which Paul expressly distinguishes between "God" and "Lord" (Rom. 1:3-5; 5:11), or those in which he affirms that God is also the God of Jesus (2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31), or those which says there is only one God only directing him his praises (1 Cor. 8:6)?

Whatever the evidence that seem to prove that Paul could be binitarian (i.e., the view that God the Father and God the Son are both preexisting, although their internal relationship is not really understood), there are things that simply must be taken into account. Not to mention the alleged Jewish character of Pauline Christology. Well, obviously, binitarianism was also Jewish, and rigorously so! But because, in my opinion, no one can really say for sure that Paul was binitarian. It’s just not possible. There is a lot evidence in favor of such a position, but there is also a lot of evidence in favor that he was not. I fear, moreover, that a switch to subordinationism (or any kind of modalism) would only leave aside the issue here: If Paul was binitarian, it is very likely he was a subordinationist. But that’s what we are trying to prove, that he was a binitarian!


AP: I do not have strong arguments in order to say conclusively that Paul was binitarian, and I don’t believe that anyone really does. I think, though, that the evidence that he was are more powerful than the evidence for the contrary. Like it or not, the term "Son of God," in Paul ascribes to Christ a certain divine nature. And the same can be said about other expressions, such as "Lord of glory" ("1 Cor. 2:8), "image of God"(2 Cor. 4:3), or 1 Cor. 10:4-5, which fits nicely with the evidence as pointing to a preexistent Messiah with divine wisdom who accompanied the chosen people through. We also have Phil. 2:6-11, which has been intensely debated, but in which many exegetes clearly see a text in favor of the pre-existence of Messiah. I believe that being absolutely sure about Paul’s own position regarding the nature of the Son is now impossible.

Only sometimes does Paul seem to attribute a divine nature to Christ after exaltation, while other times he speaks of Christ as preexisting (for example, when he says that God has "sent" his Son)! The pagan readers of his letters certainly understood that God had a son in the high heavens and from there he sent him to earth; naturally that child was divine and pre-exists before being sent, and had taken on human flesh by being born of a woman. Hence Paul points to something very similar to what would later be called the incarnation. The Gospel of John, very Pauline with regard to this matter, understands it more or less this way, probably following the same tradition that Paul himself had understood. Pauline subordinationism prevents the understanding, of course, that an entity can be exactly like God; according to Paul, Christ is a divine, immortal, and preexisting entity or he’s not; if he’s not those three things, it’s just impossible to call him God!


TWH: The apostle Paul most certainly believed that Jesus is God and, thus, preexistent. But what about the verses that Carlos referred to in his response? What about Rom. 5:11 (" . . . but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ")? He refers to that verse, but we can point to others that are similar in their construction. What about 2 Cor. 5:18-21? "From God . . . through Christ" (2 Cor. 5:18); "God was in Christ reconciling the world" (2 Cor. 5:19). "We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us" (2 Cor. 5:20a). "We are begging you on behalf of Christ, saying, 'Be reconciled to God'" (2 Cor. 5:20b). And then there are the he's and the him's of v. 21. But none of that should cause us any concern. No one would say the Trinity (not Binity) is easy to understand; no one would say they've come to understand it. No way. But that's completely different than saying that Paul did not believe that Jesus is God. He did.

But, first, let me make a couple of comments about the verses mentioned above. In Rom. 5:11, I would translate this verse in the following way: " . . . but we also exult in God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ." I would paraphrase 2 Cor. 5:18-21 in the following way:
"Now all of these things are from God the Father, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. When we say that God the Father was reconciling the world to himself by Christ, we are saying that God the Father stopped holding their trespasses against them. And he's given to us the message of reconciliation. What's that mean? Well, it means we are ambassadors for Christ. We go out representing him. When we go out and talk to people, it's as if God the Father is going out and making an appeal through our words and actions. We say what he would say! We go where Jesus wants us to go, and we beg people on his behalf. What would he say? 'Be reconciled to God the Father!' God the Father treated his Son Jesus Christ as if he had committed every single sin in the history of the world, even though he never committed a single sin; and God the Father did that so that he could treat those of us who believe in his Son as if we had never committed a single sin, even though we had committed them all."
The intricacies of the Trinity had hardly been worked out by the end of the first century. We think in systematized ways. We also have the luxury of 2,000 years of Christian thought. Paul, we have to remember, was not writing exhaustive treatises on the Christian theology. He was writing letters to specific individuals and groups in response to specific situations. We can tell from the verses above that the choice referent for God the Father was simply "God" (θεός) in the first century. We can also see this take place in the Gospel of John. Take, for example, John 1:18a (a very important verse, by the way, for understanding the preexistence of Jesus Christ). Our translations are notorious for translation principles like one word for one word (and, if that's impossible, the fewest amount of words in a receptor language in exchange for for a single word in Greek). When that happens, we get rigid translations, and they are sometimes under-translated, creating problems for the very audiences for whom they are translated. The NASB has the following translation for John 1:18a: "No one has seen God at any time." I think my own translation captures with more precision and clarity what John is saying: "No one (οὐδείς) at any point in human history (πώποτε) has ever seen God the Father." You can be the judge if that's a better translation. But the same thing found in John 1 is found in Paul's writing, for example, in 1 Tim. 6:13-16. God the Father is the one who "dwells in unapproachable light, who no person has seen or can see" (which is to say, the one who no person can see this side of heaven).

So, how do we know that Paul viewed Jesus as divine? Let me just give you a few examples. In 1 Cor. 8:13, Paul says that people can sin against Christ. The implication is that it is not like sinning against one's brother. It's much more severe. It's a sin against God. Paul calls Jesus the "image of God" in 2 Cor. 4:4. I really don't think that needs any explanation. But let me share with you one observation from Thomas Schreiner. "We often think," he says, "of an image as an imperfect or lifeless copy of the original, but the biblical writers understand the image to partake of the reality of the nature of the original" (Paul, Apostle of God's Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001], 155). And if we accept the Pauline authorship of Hebrews (I hear some chuckles; but, yes, some of us do), he calls Jesus the "radiance" of the Father's glory and the "exact representation" of the Father's nature (Heb. 1:3). This Jesus, according to Paul, has divine power, upholding all things by his own powerful word (Heb. 1:3). Paul calls Jesus his Lord; if Jesus was not God, the sort of allegiance that Paul devoted to Jesus would have definitely rendered him guilty of idolatry. And he doesn't just hold Jesus' lordship as a personal ideal. No, he says that everyone who is saved must make the same confession and life commitment: " . . . if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God the Father raised him from the dead, then you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9-10). Paul ascribes to Jesus regenerative power, transformative power, and power to subject all things (emphasis on all) to himself (Phil. 3:21). He is the all-powerful Lord Jesus Christ. Antonio is so right in pointing us to Phil. 2:6-11. We've actually recently talked a little about that passage on this blog, which you can see by clicking here. What else could Paul have meant,other than Jesus is God when he says that Jesus "existed in the form of God" (ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων) in Phil. 2:6?


  1. Merry Christmas from Spain!

    1. J.P., Merry Christmas to you and your family as well!