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Paul the Apostle

Paul on the Pre-Existent Christ

John Hemer, 05/12/2016

It is clear to even the most casual reader that at the beginning of both John’s gospel and his first letter Jesus is seen as having existed from the beginning, and that the man who walked in Galilee was none other than the one through whom God created the universe. That’s what the Church believes about him. But, say the critics, the idea of Christ's pre-existence is a very late development, written only at the end of the New Testament period, and so cannot be considered as part of the Church’s original proclamation about Jesus. A close look at Paul shows that, on the contrary, this idea of Christ’s pre-existence also belongs to the first generation of Christian preaching.

 

In 1 Cor. 8:6 Paul refers to Jesus as God “through whom are all things and through whom we exist”. Paul clearly attributes a role in creation to Jesus. This is not as long or developed as the expression we find John’s prologue (Jn 1: 1-14), but it is every bit as clear a statement that Jesus was involved from the beginning in creation.

 

The hymn in Col. 1:15-20 makes this even clearer. He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. There is no doubt about the role in creation attributed to Christ.

Paul does not invent this language out of thin air; rather, he attributes to Christ the role previously attributed in the OldTestament to Divine Wisdom. According to Proverbs (3:19) and the Book of Wisdom itself (9:2), God made the world through Wisdom, God's wisdom often being personified. It is to all this that Paul now alludes. Jesus, he says, is precisely the Wisdom of God in person. Wisdom was also often identified with the Torah (see Sir. 24:23, Bar. 4:1), and one of Paul’s most basic claims is that Christ has done what the Torah tried to do but failed. Christ replaces or fulfils it.

 

It has become commonplace to regard ‘low’ Christology (i.e. an emphasis on the humanity of Jesus) as early and ‘high’ Christology (i. e. an emphasis on the divinity of Jesus) as a late arrival to theology. In Paul, however, we find that a full blown understanding of Jesus as divine (with all that this implies) is present even at the earlier stages of the development of the New Testament. Far from being a later development, a sort of rogue growth on the Church’s understanding of who Jesus was, these elements have been present from the beginning, or at least from the earliest stages for which we have documentary evidence.

 

 

Read and reflect on the following passages and allow what we have said here to illuminate your reading.: John 1:1-18; 1 John 1:1-4; Colossians 1: 15-20.


 

 

© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.

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