Part 3: He Was Interpreted – Chapter 5
So far we have been thinking principally about the concrete meaning of Jesus. The early church held in its heart the memory of Jesus and the experience of his continuing and saving reality. But the early church, like everything else human, was mind as well as heart, and almost at once was seriously engaged in the attempt to understand this concrete meaning: "Why is Jesus so important? Why does he mean so much? How does it happen that we are saved through him?" The final two lectures in this series will be concerned with such questions as these -- that is, with the way or ways in which the primitive church interpreted and explained the meaning of Jesus. In this lecture we shall be considering the question, "Who was this Jesus?" and in the following one, the question, "What did he do for man?" We cannot hope in two lectures to cover with even passable adequacy the whole field of Christology (not to speak of soteriology) in the early church. We shall perforce give most attention to Paul, its most articulate and most influential theologian, but we shall attempt to indicate, at least, the ways in which other writers of the New Testament (and presumably the communities for which they spoke) diverged from his position.
The most primitive interpretation of Jesus is undoubtedly represented by the assertion ascribed to Peter in Acts 2:36: "God hath made this same Jesus whom ye crucified both Lord and Christ." (For one who, as I do, regards Luke-Acts as being in its final form relatively late -- that is, a second-century work -- it may seem arbitrary to single out such a passage as this as representing a really primitive view. But whenever Luke-Acts, as we have it, was composed. there can be no doubt that it was based upon earlier sources, and, unfortunately, the grounds for a decision as to what is earlier and what is later have not been established by literary criticism, perhaps cannot ever be. But whether Acts 2:36 belongs to a primitive source of Acts or not, the passage must be taken as setting forth a primitive view, for the reason which I go on to state above. The writer either had a primitive source here or a sound historical understanding of what would have been the Christology of the first believers.) We can be sure that this interpretation marks the very beginning of reflection because, as we were trying to say in the preceding lecture, it closely approximates to being a mere description of what the community actually knew in its experience. So far as the affirmation of Jesus’ lordship is concerned, the barest minimum of interpretation is involved. "This same Jesus was the man whom the community remembered; he is now known as "Lord." The Acts account of the primitive preaching (at least as regards the lordship of Jesus) is not so much a theological interpretation of Jesus as the affirmation of what the early church had found him to be. "Jesus is Lord" was not the conclusion of a syllogism; it was a fact given in the life of the community. This is what Paul means when he says, "No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit." (I Cor. 12:3.)
The assertion in the Acts source that he has also been made "Christ" involves a larger element of purely rational interpretation. In this passage it probably means no more than that "this same Jesus" has been designated God’s agent in judging the world and inaugurating the new age, an office which he will soon "return" (that is, appear in visible form) to fulfill. The meaning of the concept of messiahship as applied to Jesus must occupy us, at least briefly, later in this discussion. Just now I am concerned only with the two points: that the first answer to the query, "Who was this Jesus?," was simply, "He was a man whom many of us knew and loved, whom God has now raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of his power"; and that this answer, often called "adoptionism," was inevitably the first answer to the question, because it included little if anything beyond what was actually given in the life of the early church -- the man Jesus remembered simply as a man, and his continuing presence in and above the community as the divine Lord, the resurrection marking the moment when the transformation was accomplished.
If this first answer to the so-called christological question stands forth fairly clearly, so also does the final answer, to which the church of the New Testament period was early inclined and gradually came. It is the answer stated most fully and unqualifiedly in the Fourth Gospel. This answer begins with an affirmation of the pre-existence of Jesus: When Jesus ascended to the Father after his resurrection (for by the end of the first century, or soon afterward, resurrection and exaltation, originally one event, have been distinguished from each other [It hardly needs to be pointed out that there is no ascension in Paul. The risen Christ is, as such, the exalted Christ. The " appearances" of Jesus after his death are appearances not only of the risen but also of the glorified Redeemer. But these appearances did not continue to occur (Paul says that the appearance to him was as to "One born out of due time") and by the end of the first century it was possible to think of them as having been confined to the short and definite period after the resurrection of which the final exaltation, or ascension, marked the end. Notice that Paul thinks of the appearance to him as having been of exactly the same character as to Cephas, James, and the rest (I Cor. 15:5 ff.), but the author of Luke-Acts (a half-century or more later) thinks of it as having occurred after the ascension and as being therefore of a very different, a more " heavenly," character.], he merely resumed a place which he had never really relinquished. For he was the eternal Wisdom or Logos of God. He was God’s agent in creation: "all things were made through him and without him was nothing made that was made." (John 1:3) He was the eternal Son of God, not in the merely functional or official sense in which the phrase had been sometimes used in Jewish circles to designate the king, or, perhaps, the Messiah, (The messianic reference is disputed by many. See Dalman, The Words of Jesus, pp. 268 ff.; W. Manson. Jesus the Messiah (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1943), pp. 105f.; A. E. J. Rawlinson, The New, Testament Doctrine of Christ (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1926), pp. 251 ff. Passages in dispute are such as II Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:14; II Esdras 13:32.) but rather in a metaphysical sense. He was" the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."(John 1:14.)
The general idea of ascribing a kind of personal existence to the creative and revealing Word of God was no invention of the early church. It lay at hand, although in many variant forms, in Jewish Wisdom, Stoic philosophy, and in whatever lies back of the Hermetic Gnosis. The contribution of the church lay in the identifying of this divine Word with Jesus. For this identification meant a radical redefinition of the whole idea of the Word, as that idea may have been known by members of the Christian community. It is frequently debated whether the sources of the early Christian conception of the Logos were predominantly Jewish or Hellenistic. The evidence on the whole seems to point toward Hellenism. (A strong defense of the view that the Johannine Logos idea was derived largely from Hebraic-Jewish sources is made by R. H. Strachan. The Historic Jesus in the New Testament [London: Student Christian Movement Press, 1931], pp. 128 ff.) I suggest, however, that the faith that Jesus was the Logos must have provided the decisive content for the Christian conception, no matter from what sources the formal idea was derived.
But this is somewhat by the way. Our real point here is that for many at the end of the first century Jesus, who had walked the earth, was in a real sense God himself, incarnate in human form and manifesting his glory in great supernatural acts. The divine Son of God had become man, but without ceasing to be divine. Jesus of Nazareth was in every important respect what he had been before the creation of the world, and was aware of himself as being such. This general view finds its fullest and clearest New Testament expression in the Fourth Gospel, as I have said, and in the First Epistle of John;( My friend, Ernest C. Colwell, argues very persuasively in John Defends the Gospel (Chicago: Willett, Clark & Co., 1936) . pp. 127 ff., that the author of the Fourth Gospel does not characteristically think in terms of the Logos. He uses the term only once, and that in what appears to be an adaptation of a Gnostic hymn. But whether he found the term congenial or not, there can he no doubt that he thought of Jesus as being the incarnation of a pre-existent divine being, who enjoyed a uniquely intimate intercourse with God and could supremely reveal him. Since I am not venturing to discuss here the origins and precise character of the Johannine Christology, this is enough for our purpose.) and the ways in which it was elaborated and defined in the great creedal discussions which culminated in the Chalcedonian formula are familiar.
Thus the process of theological interpretation of Jesus which began with what may be called adoptionism (a man become Lord) ended in a full-fledged incarnationism (God become man), according to which Jesus was not a man at all in any ordinary sense he was the eternal Son of God made flesh and dwelling among us so that we beheld his glory. But if the beginning and end points of this development are clearly indicated in the most primitive strata of Acts and in the Fourth Gospel, the course it followed in the meantime is less clear.
A common view of how adoptionism became incarnationism is that the moment of "adoption," which was originally the resurrection, was, as the early communities reflected on the meaning of Jesus, moved forward into the historical life, and there pushed to an earlier and earlier point -- from transfiguration, to baptism, to birth -- until finally it was pushed out of the earthly life entirely and Jesus was conceived of as having been the Son of God before his birth. This view can be plausibly defended. It is clear that theological interest in Jesus’ earthly life began with the death and resurrection and moved backward. The earliest gospel preaching was dominated by these two events -- or this one twofold event -- as the quotation from Peter’s sermon reminds us. But Mark, twenty-five years or so later, although he devotes half his space to the passion and events which immediately led up to it, gives also a summary account of Jesus’ earlier career, beginning with his baptism -- a career laden with supernatural significance. Matthew opens with the miraculous birth; and Luke makes an even earlier beginning, with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus. In none of these Gospels does the doctrine of pre-existence clearly appear. When we notice, then, that the Fourth Gospel begins not with the baptism and birth, but with the eternal Logos, who "was in the beginning with God," it is not unnatural to decide that belief in the pre-existence of Jesus was the culmination of a process of exalting the earthly career which began with the fact of the resurrection and moved backward step by step till not only the whole of the earthly life was included but a divine pre-existence was affirmed as well.
The principal difficulty with this reconstruction is that it cannot easily accommodate the position of Paul. For Paul, while he takes the pre-existence for granted, evidently shares the "adoptionist" view of the significance of the resurrection. In large part because of this fact, but not without some warrant in the Gospels, I am inclined toward the view that belief in the pre-existence of Jesus did not follow, but rather preceded, the gradual exaltation of the earthly life; that the tendency toward a more and more supernaturalistic understanding of Jesus’ earthly life, which can be seen operating from Gospel to Gospel and especially from the Synoptic Gospels to the Fourth, was created directly not by the resurrection faith but by belief in the pre-existent Christ. Reflection upon the resurrection led to the idea of pre-existence, and reflection upon the preexistence led to the gradual supernaturalizing of Jesus’ whole career. I believe that this development can be traced with some assurance, and a large part of the remainder of this lecture will be devoted to tracing it.
We start, as I said, with the position of Paul. That apostle begins his letter to the Romans with these words:
Paul, a Servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God . . . concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh and declared to be ["designated" and "installed as" are other ways of rendering the Greek term here] the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead.
This statement is altogether in line with the words quoted from Acts as representative of the primitive view: " God hath made this same Jesus both Lord and Christ," In each case a son of man in the ordinary sense is spoken of as becoming the Son of God in a unique sense. So true is this of Paul’s statement that interpreters have often said that the Roman church must have been "adoptionist" in its Christology and that Paul is expressing himself in language more congenial to its views than to his own. But this is an explanation to be accepted only as a last resort. One must begin by assuming that the words fairly represent Paul’s own thought.
And indeed, so far as belief in the radical significance of the resurrection is concerned, there is more than enough to support this assumption. The letters of Paul contain not a single passage which associates any of the glory of the risen Son of God with the historical life of Jesus. Paul apparently knows of no transfiguration, of no signs and wonders. The glory breaks only at the resurrection. It was then that the human Jesus became the divine Lord, It was then that "God gave him the name that is above every name.’ The whole case for the saviorhood of Jesus stands or falls with the resurrection: " If Christ did not rise, then is your faith vain."(I Cor. 15:14) In fact, it is clear that Paul thought of Jesus’ earthly life as having been more than ordinarily humble, and even shameful. Unless the reference to his having been a descendant of David can be regarded as an exception, Paul never alludes specifically to the earthly life except under some aspect of humiliation: "he took the nature of a slave"; "he became obedient to death, even the death of the cross"; "he was rich but for our sakes he became poor"; "he was born under the law"; "he who knew no sin became sin for us "; "he did not please himself." (Phil. 2:5 ff; II Cor. 8:9; Gal. 4:4; II Cor. 5:21; Rom. 15:3.) Only at the resurrection did Jesus become Lord and Christ. This, as we have seen and as we would have expected, was undoubtedly the faith of the primitive church, and there is every reason to believe that Paul shared it. The quoted passage in Romans does not stand alone.
But although for Paul the remembered simplicity and lowliness of the historical life of Jesus have not been qualified at all (much less interpreted almost completely away, as in the Fourth Gospel), nevertheless he fully believes in Jesus’ pre-existence. This appears clearly enough in the very letter whose opening words have been interpreted as pointing toward "adoptionism "; as, for example, when Paul speaks of God as " sending his own Son." (Rom. 8:3.) "He that spared not his own Son but delivered him up for us all"(Rom 8:32.) points in the same direction. In Galatians Paul is even more explicit: "When the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law." (Gal. 4:4.) The pre-existent glory is brought into connection with the remembered facts of Jesus’ life in such passages as those quoted in the preceding paragraph, of which II Corinthians 8:9 is typical: "Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. And in Philippians 2:6 ff. Paul brings all three elements -- pre-existent godhood, historical manhood, and final exaltation -- into one great picture:
He possessed the nature of God, but he did not look upon equality with God as something to be violently seized, but he emptied himself and took the nature of a slave . . . and was obedient to death, even the death of the cross. That is why God has exalted him and has given him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.
This passage makes quite clear that Paul was able to hold closely together a belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus and a recognition of the lowly and unqualified humanity of the earthly life. The resurrection stands in the same stark contrast with the preceding phase as it did in the experience of Jesus’ first disciples and as it did also in the primitive "adoptionism," which was hardly more than a transcript of that experience. One gathers from the Philippians passage, as well as from such sentences as that quoted from II Corinthians, that far from being embarrassed by the normality of the earthly life, Paul saw in it a sign of how much Christ had been willing to sacrifice on our behalf. He loved us enough to lay aside his deity and become a man, subject to all the limitations, weaknesses and frustrations which are man’s lot. To deny the full reality of Jesus’ humanity under every aspect of limitation would have seemed to Paul not only to fly in the face of the clearly remembered and indisputable facts of Jesus’ life, but also to deny the full theological significance of that event. The "having the nature of God" had no importance apart from the "emptying" of self. If Christ had not become "very man," it did not much matter what he had been.
It appears then that for Paul at least belief in the preexistence of Christ was not the result of a progressive exaltation of the earthly life. That process of exaltation had not begun. The first act as well as the third of the great drama takes place "in the heavenlies," but the second takes place upon the earth and partakes fully of the character of the earthly. The doctrine of pre-existence was the first, not the last, consequence of reflection upon the question: "Who was this person whom we knew as friend and teacher and whom we now know as Savior and Lord?"
But was Paul alone in this, or did he stand perhaps with only a small group within the church of the pre-Gospel period, that is, before 65 AD.? I am persuaded that he was not alone, that his position on this matter was generally held among the non-Palestinian Gentile churches, perhaps among all the churches. The chief ground for this view is the manner in which Paul alludes to the pre-existence. He never does so with any apparent consciousness of having to prove a point. Every allusion is such as to suggest that Paul is dealing with an idea both familiar and indubitable. The pre-existence is taken for granted, needing no emphasis, elaboration, or proof. Paul’s references to it are almost casual in manner, usually hints rather than explicit affirmations. In the Philippians passage, for example, Paul is really trying to teach a practical moral lesson: the believers at Philippi must not think primarily of themselves but must be modest and thoughtful of others. He remembers in that connection the divine person who, far from insisting on his rights, completely surrendered them for others; and before he knows it Paul is launched on the greatest christological statement he makes anywhere. But there is not the slightest sign that he is aware of doing more than reminding the Philippian believers of what they knew as well as he.
This casual character of the references to the pre-existence in Paul is even more obvious in the sentence I have several times quoted from II Corinthians: "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor." Unless Paul had been able to take completely for granted an acquaintance with and acceptance of the idea of pre-existence, he could have had no expectation at all of being understood in this sentence. Apparently he did not even think of explaining in what sense Jesus was rich and then became poor; but that sense was, after all, a highly special sense, which would not occur to persons not fully initiated into the mysteries of Christ’s pre-existence. The statement in Romans 15:3, "Christ did not please himself," is another case of the same kind.
The evidence of the Pauline letters suggests that in the years 40-60 AD. the idea of the pre-existence of Christ was accepted not only by Paul himself but also by the churches generally. It thus followed directly upon reflection on the post-resurrection glory of him whose earthly life was still distinctly remembered. It proved impossible to conclude that events ending in eternity had their beginning in time.(May it not be said that simple "adoptionism" (a man chosen and anointed to be the Christ) fits into the strict messianic pattern, but not into the more characteristically apocalyptic pattern? How, for example. could Jesus have been thought of as the Son of Man without the idea of pre-existence being at least implicit? According to Schweitzer and Otto. Jesus believed he would become the Son of Man; but this means that he would assume a personality which was even then already in existence (but see note i6. below). Pre-existence is essential in the Son of Man idea, and Jesus could hardly have been thought of as being the Son of Man (or an eschatological Redeemer, whatever terms were used) without the conception being present. It might not be recognized at first, but it was certain to emerge almost at once.) The belief in the pre-existence of Jesus was not the end result of the supernaturalizing of the earthly life (never complete except in Docetism), but the beginning of it. It was because Jesus was pre-existent that it became impossible to continue thinking of the earthly career as the normal human career it was at first remembered to have been.
The principal difficulty which this reconstruction, in turn, must face is the alleged "adoptionism" of the Synoptic Gospels, especially the Gospel of Mark. It is commonly said that there is no doctrine of pre-existence in Mark. If this is true, then one is forced to think of Paul’s conception of Christ as having been, despite the data cited in the preceding paragraphs, largely his own and not representative of Christian reflection generally in his period. I gravely doubt that this view of Mark’s Christology is true.
To be sure, Mark nowhere explicitly refers to the preexistence. But one must not too quickly infer that he does not know it. We have seen that Paul alludes to this phase of Christ’s reality only casually. He apparently takes it for granted as understood and only happens to mention it. I am convinced that the writer of Mark also took it for granted and happens not to mention it.
But does he altogether refrain from mentioning it? It is by no means clear that he does. I would not want to put too much weight on the passage, but it does not seem certain to me that Mark 1:38 is not making the sort of casual allusion to the pre-existence which we have noted in Paul. In the Authorized Version we read: "And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth." There can be little question that the English translators thought of the verse as having the meaning I have suggested, and it seems probable to me that Mark did also; unquestionably most of his readers did.(Notice the meaning Luke finds in the verse: "therefore was I sent" [Luke 4:43]). Both Goodspeed and Moffatt render the last clause: "for that is why I came out here." If the words were actually spoken by Jesus, we can be far surer that something like that was his meaning than that it was the meaning Mark found in his words.
Perhaps a clearer reference to pre-existence is to be found in Mark 10:45, already cited: "The son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." Would not this statement be almost certainly understood by Mark’s first readers as a reference to Christ’s coming into this world from the heavenly realm?
An even more likely allusion appears in Mark 12:35 ff., where Jesus is represented as saying:
How is it that the scribes say that the Messiah is the Son of David? David himself said by means of the Holy Spirit, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand till I make thine enemies the footstool of thy feet. David himself calls him Lord, and how can he be his son?
Certainly this passage can be most naturally interpreted on the assumption that Mark thinks of Jesus as being a preexistent supernatural being, to whom David could address himself. (One cannot press too hard here. The pre-existence of the Christ might he in "name" only. He is pre-existent in the sense that he is foreknown by God; he pre-exists in God’s purpose. This kind of preexistence could be very real to the Hebrew-Jewish mind. This. Otto holds. is the only sense in which Enoch’s "Son of Man" was pre-existent (The Kingdom of God and the Son of Men, pp. 214 f.). But on the assumption that the remark goes back to Jesus himself, it is much more likely that he had such a thought in his mind than that the author of Mark had when he reported the saying. Otto, interpreting Enoch. writes: "Enoch as Enoch was by no means pre-existent. The conception was rather this, that he, the man Enoch, became and was elevated to something which already existed hidden with God (as name or as reality), but which as such was not the already pry-existent Enoch himself." But here is a subtlety more credible, it seems to me. in the Jewish Apocalypse than in the Roman Gospel.)
It may also be remarked that Mark’s literary purpose would rule out the inclusion of too explicit an allusion to the pre-existence. The Gospel of Mark is in many ways quite unliterary, sometimes almost crude; its author was not one of the better Greek writers of the New Testament. But it has a strange power and was written by a man of unusual dramatic gifts. That Jesus was a supernatural person is clear to the reader from the very beginning, but this fact is represented as having been hidden from Jesus’ contemporaries. The demons, because they had supernatural insight, were able to sense his true nature, and they cried out that he should spare them. But to only a few men was the secret revealed and to them only gradually. (Notice the secrecy which is likely to surround the miracles, especially the greatest of them.) The open references to the pre-existence which we find in the Fourth Gospel would not have suited Mark’s purpose.
It has always seemed to me that light is thrown on Mark’s failure to refer explicitly to the pre-existence at the beginning of his book by the way he chooses to end it. We have already observed that Mark ends with a finger pointing toward the risen and exalted Jesus, who does not himself appear. In the same way the book begins with a finger pointing toward the pre-existent Christ, but without that Christ’s actually appearing. Quoting from Malachi, Mark understands God through the prophet to be saying of John and to Christ: "Behold I send my messenger before thy face; he shall prepare thy way." Mark seeks to keep himself strictly to the earthly scene and to present only the second act of the drama which began in heaven and ended there. But his book both begins and ends in a manner designed to make clear that what it contains is only the middle episode of a vastly larger story. It ends with a proclamation of the risen and exalted Jesus; it begins with an allusion, only slightly less explicit, to the pre-existent Christ. The baptism in Mark is not the moment when a natural man becomes the supernatural Messiah. It is the moment when an essentially supernatural person is anointed for his messianic office -- the moment perhaps when he himself first becomes aware of the vocation which it is laid upon him as a man to fulfill for Israel and all mankind. It is the moment of "installation" (cf. Romans 1:4) ; and Mark’s conception of its significance conflicts with the idea of the pre-existence as little as does Paul’s understanding of the significance of the resurrection.
It is interesting to notice in this connection the appearances in the tradition of the divine pronouncement upon Jesus, "This is my beloved son," or "Thou art my beloved son -- which is a quotation, more or less exact, from the second Psalm. This pronouncement in somewhat variant forms appears in connection with three events in the tradition: the baptism, the transfiguration, and the resurrection. (Mark 1:11 and parallels; Mark 9:7 and parallels; Acts 13:33.) If we may assume (as it seems to me we must assume) that the quotation was first used at one of these points only and was afterward extended to the others, we can scarcely doubt that this point was the resurrection. So used, the quotation would correspond exactly with Paul’s statement, "declared to be the Son of God with power through the resurrection from the dead." As the tradition developed and the community moved farther and farther away from eyewitness knowledge, the moment of this declaration, or designation, or installation, was moved farther and farther into the earthly life, being associated first with the transfiguration -- which was itself probably an original resurrection appearance moved forward into the earthly life –
(THE FOLLOWING IS A FOOTNOTE IN MID SENTENCE: It is interesting to observe how Mark likes to describe events in proleptic fashion. There is no resurrection appearance in Mark, but here in the transfiguration scene is an unmistakable anticipation of such an appearance. The passion story ends with some women coming to anoint the body of Jesus and being unable to do so because the body is gone, but the passion story begins [14:1] with the account of a woman breaking on him "an alabaster box of ointment, very precious," while Jesus says of her. "She has anointed me beforehand for my burial." Is it too fanciful to suggest that Mark includes in his moving, tragic account of the passion the apparently whimsical story about the young man who was seized at the moment of Jesus’ arrest and ran away naked, leaving a linen cloth in the hands of his captors [14:51f.] -- is it too fanciful to suggest that this item is included because Mark, or some early community, saw in it an anticipation of the empty tomb, with which this Gospel culminates? Notice that in Mark 15:46 Jesus’ body is wrapped in a linen cloth. In the resurrection story in the Fourth Gospel, Peter and John find the body gone but see the linen cloths lying in the sepulcher. In the Acts of Pilate we read: "And when they were come to the place they stripped him of his garments and girt him with a linen cloth. . . . And Joseph took it [Jesus body] down and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth." Jerome in Of Illustrious Men, 2, quotes from "the Gospel according to the Hebrews ": "Now the Lord [after the resurrection], when he had given the linen cloth unto the servant of the priest, appeared unto James. . . ." See also Gospel of Peter 6:24. END OF FOOTNOTE.)
and later with the baptism, while in Mat-thew, Jesus is represented as having been, in effect, "designated Son of God with power" from the moment of his birth, and, in Luke, even before. But at none of these stages are we justified in supposing that anything more than the designation of Jesus as Christ and Son of God was involved. There is more than sufficient reason to affirm that Mark, Matthew and Luke, as well as Paul, took for granted the pre-existence of Jesus. (FOOTNOTE: We have made no effort to include all of the New Testament in this survey, but a word or two at least must be said about the Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is probably to be dated in the last decade of the first century. One has only to read the first chapter of the epistle [really, only the first three verses of that chapter] to see clearly not only that the author has a firm belief in the pre-existence of Christ [and takes such a belief for granted in his readers] but also that he thinks of the pre-existence in the most exalted terms. Christ was the "Son," "appointed heir of all things," "by whom also God made the worlds,"-- being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person," "upholding all things by the word of his power." Here obviously we have a "Logos" or "wisdom" Christology [cf. Wisdom 7:25ff.]. which in the New Testament is matched only in the Fourth Gospel. But the epistle is quite unlike the Fourth Gospel in the emphasis it places upon the reality of the humanity. To be sure, the Fourth Gospel insists strongly upon the formal fact; there is an emphatic repudiation of Docetism; not even Paul affirms the humanity so bluntly and unequivocally as does the Fourth Gospel in the sentence, "The Word was made flesh" [John 1:14]. but although this Gospel emphasizes the formal fact, one does not sense in it much feeling for the concrete reality. John would not have said [as Hebrews does] that Jesus "was touched with the feeling of our infirmities," that "he was tempted in all points like as we are," that "he offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death." that "though he was a Son, yet learned he obedience through the things that he suffered" [Heb. 4:15; 5:7 f.]. In his recognition of the deep significance of the human sufferings of Jesus the writer to the Hebrews stands nearer to Paul than to John. See the short statement on the Christology of Hebrews. particularly helpful to me in the note I have just written, in Vincent Taylor, The Atonement in New Testament Teaching [London: Epworth Press, 1940], pp. 166 ff.: and more extended discussions in Strachan. The Historic Jesus in the New Testament,, pp. 74ff., and in H. L. MacNeill, The Christology of the Epistle to the Hebrews [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1914 END OF FOOTNOTE]) .
In this matter then, as in so many others, the line of theological development moves from the most primitive church, through Paul, through Mark, to John. In Paul the preexistent Son of God surrenders his divine nature and status to become a man, even a slave, for man’s sake; in Mark he becomes a man, but without surrendering so completely his divine powers -- they are only held in abeyance for a while; in John the Word becomes flesh without any significant surrender of divine prerogatives. In Paul the preexistent glory is forsaken for the humble human life; in Mark it is hidden, though it is too brilliant to be hidden altogether; in John the glory is manifest for all except the most perversely blind to behold.
The particular way in which Paul (and this is even more true of Mark) conceived of Jesus’ pre-existence is less clear than the pre-existence itself. There is one passage in Paul’s letters which indicates a view virtually identical with the Logos Christology we have mentioned as characteristic of the Fourth Gospel. This is Colossians I: i5 if,:
Who [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God; the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in the heavens and upon the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers; all things have been created by him and for him; and he himself is before all things and in him all things consist.
No passage in the nine letters of Paul is more open to suspicion than this one, and it is precarious to base any argument upon it. (As was intimated early in this book, Colossians is one of the less certainly established letters of Paul. The more radical critics have always rejected it and even the more conservative have been compelled to question its authenticity. For myself, I feel sure (for reasons suggested in the article. "Philemon and the Authenticity of Colossians," Journal of Religion. XVIII , 144ff.) that Paul wrote a letter to the church at Colossae which corresponds generally with the document we have; but I am strongly inclined to believe that the letter has undergone considerable interpolation. The work of H. J. Holtz,rann, Kritik de’ Epheser und Kolosserbriefe auf Grund einer Analyse ihres Verwandtschaftsverhältnisses[Leipzig, 1872], especially as it touches the question of the authenticity of Colossians, has probably been too quickly dismissed, and the more plausible suggestions of C. R. Bowen ["The Original Form of Paul’s Letter to the Colossians." Journal of Biblical Literature, XLIII (1924), pp. 177ff.] have received too little attention.)
The only other statement in Paul’s writings which comes even near to expressing the same christological view is I Corinthians 8:6: "To us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we unto him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him." But this sentence, even if its authenticity be regarded as certain, can be interpreted otherwise than as a reference to the creative Logos or Wisdom. This can be said, with even greater assurance, of I Corinthians 1:24, where Christ is described as " the power and the wisdom of God."
The most explicit reference to the pre-existence in Paul, that in Philippians 2:5 ff., leaves the question of precise character open. The important thing was that a divine being -- one who had" the nature of God" -- abased him-self. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Paul is thinking of this divine person in contrast to the mythological Lucifer (see Isaiah 14:12 ff.), who did seek to seize "by robbery" equality with God and in consequence was thrown out of heaven. Jesus, on the contrary, far from grasping at higher powers, willingly divested himself of those which he possessed and voluntarily left heaven to suffer as a man upon the earth. (LONG FOOTNOTE: It has been claimed by many that Paul thought of Christ as having been a man in his pre-existence. Pfleiderer, for example, writes: "We cannot without violence reject the idea that the human person who had his origin from heaven had also pre-existed in heaven as man, as the same subject and in the same form of existence, as that in which he continues to live in heaven as the exalted one" [Paulinism (London: Williams & Norgate, 1891), I, 139]. In that case the incarnation involved merely the taking of flesh in the narrow sense of the word, since Christ would have been man already. [On this whole question of a pre-existent Man, see the book to which reference has already been made in connection with the idea of the Son of Man: Kraeling, Anthropos and Son of Man.] A parallel to Paul’s conception of the pre-existence is found by some in Philo’s Platonic conception of the ideal Man [see De Leg. Alleg. I, 12. 13. and De Mundi Opif. 46]. Philo interpreted the two accounts of the creation of man in Gen. 1 and 2 as representing two separate creations: first. the ideal, archetypal Man in heaven, and then, Adam, the actual historical man. It is sometimes argued that Paul has some such conception in his mind, and that he thinks of Jesus as being the actualization of the original, perfect, spiritual man. Paul’s idea that Christ heads a new spiritual humanity just as Adam heads natural humanity [I Cor. 15:45 ff.; Rom. 5:12 ff.] is cited in support of this understanding [see below.]
(CONTINUATION OF FOOTNOTE: But. to mention one important point of difference, in Paul the spiritual man is the second man, whereas in Philo he is the original man. In Paul, Adam has been the head of the old humanity; Christ by his resurrection becomes the head of the new humanity.
(MORE OF SAME FOOTNOTE: But not only is it true that I Cor. 15:45-49 does not [to say the least] require anything resembling the Philonic view; it should also be recognized that the Philippians passage rather decidedly contradicts it. There will be some to deny this. Everything turns on Paul’s meaning in the phrase, "the form of God." I have taken it to mean "the nature of God." the "category of God." But some see in m o r f h here a translation of an Aramaic original which meant simply "image" or "likeness." In that case, Paul is here referring to Christ as having been [like Adam] in the image of God, but [unlike Adam] as having lacked or renounced any ambition to he "like God" [Gen, 3:5]; on the contrary, he emptied himself and took on the aspect of a slave. It seems to me more likely, however, that the myth of the rebellious angels is in Paul’s mind rather than that of Adam’s disobedience. Not only is the phrase," the form of God," set over against the corresponding phrase, "the form of a slave." in such a way as to suggest an opposition of the most radical and absolute kind. but the term ‘robbery" in this passage suggests the analogy of the Lucifer myth. Translations usually fail to convey the real force of this term because, except in the light of the myth, it has no particular relevance here. END OF LONG FOOTNOTE) If this contrast is in Paul’s mind, the myth of the rebellious angels may throw some light on the way in which he thought of Jesus’ pre-existence. Christ’s original nature and status could not have been altogether incommensurable with theirs. With greater certainty we can say that according to the Philippians passage Paul does not think of the risen Jesus as merely resuming a place he had temporarily resigned. He is exalted to a new title and office, different from -- and, one would gather, higher than -- those he had held in his pre-existence. Now he has been given the name and status of Kyrios (Is this the "equality with God." referred to earlier in this passage? Kn r i o V was God’s own name, according to the Septuagint.) and has become worthy of a worship far beyond any he received before his abasement and consequent exaltation. This view is not easily compatible with a high Logos Christology.
As to the manner in which the nature and status of the risen Jesus were conceived in the early church, both by Paul and by others, we can feel greater assurance. He was "Lord and Christ," He was the Lord -- that is, he was the center and head of the church, to whom obedience and worship were given and who as the Spirit was constantly present within the fellowship and with those who belonged to it. He was also the Christ -- that is, he was the man, now exalted to God’s right hand, who would shortly come in glorious power to judge the world and inaugurate the new age.
It is really impossible to harmonize these two conceptions: Christ the Spirit and Christ the expected eschatological Judge and Savior. But it is also impossible to eliminate either strain from early Christian thinking about Jesus. It is not difficult to show that Paul, for example, does not think of Jesus only as the spiritual Lord (he expects him to come from heaven, when the trumpet sounds, to judge the world and save the faithful: "We shall be caught up to meet him in the air" [ I Thes. 4:17.]); but it is also not difficult to show that he does not think of him only as an eschatological Messiah (he can say, "I live, and yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" [Gal. 2:20].). Here is a logical contradiction in Paul’s thought, and in early Christian thought generally, which we can only accept. By the time of the Fourth Gospel, at least in the circles for which it speaks, the eschatological functions of the Messiah were thought of as having been discharged during Jesus’ earthly life (judgment and salvation had already come); Christ is now the Spirit and the Lord. It was from the first perhaps inevitable that Jesus’ lordship, rather than his messiahship, should dominate the church’s Christology, because his lordship was a matter of present knowledge, while his messiahship was a matter largely of expectation and hope. But at the beginning the two conceptions, logically incompatible, were held closely together.
This was possible partly because the messianic hope was so vivid and was so intimately related to the present experiences of the community. For the eschatological hope was not a hope only; the return of Jesus as Inaugurator of the age to come would be but the culmination of an event which had already begun and was now far advanced, the eschatological event with which history was ending. (It is obvious that such an interpretation of history could maintain itself only so long as the earthly career was vividly remembered and the "second coming" was vividly expected. As time passed, and the earthly life faded into the past and the second advent into the remoter future, one of two alternatives was open: Either the whole saving event could be put in the past, in close conjunction with the earthly career, or else it could be entirely postponed to the future, in close connection with the Parousia. The first of these alternatives is exemplified in the Fourth Gospel, where the meaning of the return of Christ is all but exhausted in the coming of the Spirit upon the church and where the whole content of redemption is involved in the incarnation, which is a past event -- present and future only in the sense that it is perpetuated in the life of the community. Less consistently the second alternative is exemplified in the book of Revelation, where the whole process of salvation tends to he associated with the future advent of the Messiah, although the expiatory significance of Christ’s death is constantly in the author’s mind.) The presence of the Lord, the Spirit, in the church was more than the promise of a future kingdom; it was the kingdom already beginning to come. Members of the community had received the Spirit as an "earnest," an advance installment, of the new age they were soon fully to inherit. The church was the present core or seed of that new age, and the new life was already available to those who by penitence and faith would enter her open gates.
We frequently search for some previously existing pattern of messianic expectation to which the thought of the early church about Jesus conformed. No such pattern can be found. The strictly messianic conception applies only to the extent that a man is conceived of as being (or as having been made) Christ. But the pre-existence of this man, his death and resurrection, and the expectation of his final coming from heaven do not belong to this conception. The "Son of Man " pattern applies more closely, but it does not make room for the man Jesus (unless Otto’s interpretation of Enoch is accepted), and in any case not for his death. One is forced to recognize that the early church, out of its own experience and faith, created its own christological pattern, using elements from both of these conceptions and from other sources also; as, for example, from the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah. "Messiah" was the highest title the Jew knew how to bestow upon a man. For that reason it was inevitable that it should be bestowed upon Jesus. The meaning it came to have, as thus bestowed, was determined not by any prior, formal idea of the office, but by the church’s memory of Jesus the man, by its knowledge of him as Lord, and by its faith that he would soon be manifested before all the world as Judge and Savior.
At the beginning of these lectures I said that a study of the meaning of Jesus in the early church would involve a study of both life and dogma, of both Christ and Christology, and that there could be no doubt that life is more important than dogma, Christ than Christology. This is true, but it is also true that we cannot understand the life of the early church if we neglect its dogma, or the meaning of Christ for it if we dismiss its Christology. We cannot know him, as he was and is, if we disregard the ways in which the early church sought to explain him. In trying to explain the real meaning of Jesus, the early church did something more important than explaining it -- they succeeded in conveying it. The Christology of the early church is most important because it leads us to the Christ of the early church. We could not know what Jesus really meant if they had not tried to explain why he meant so much.