Historical Origin of Divine Christology Part 5. The Son from Pre-existence to the Consummation of Creation

A. Two Fundamental Roots of Christology – Promised Messiah and Resurrection
It is observed that various elements from the Old Testament and Jewish sources were incorporated in the development of the Son of God Christology in the first twenty years of the infant church leading to the development of Paul’s mission after the Apostolic Council. However, the Jewish categories were transformed through a creative process that was stimulated by the extraordinary event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Martin Hengel explains:

First and foremost, we must remember that what happened cannot just have been a simple reproduction of earlier Jewish speculations about hypostases and mediators. Earliest christology has a quite original stamp, and is ultimately rooted in the contingent event of the activity of Jesus, his death and resurrection appearances. A history-of-religions comparison can only explain the derivation of individual themes, traditions, phrases and functions, and not the phenomenon of the origin of christology as a whole. At the same time, we must also consider the possibility of ‘unparalleled’ innovation. [Martin Hengel, The Son of God (Fortress Press, 1976), pp. 56-57]

Hengel identifies two fundamental roots of Christology based on Rom. 1:3-4. First, the earthly Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promise that the messiah is from the seed of David. Second, the crucified Jesus is declared to be the Son of God in power by virtue of his resurrection from the dead.

The statement contained in Rom. 1:3f. about the Son of God who is appointed through the resurrection, may have taken place in Palestine itself in a relatively short time. Its foundation lay in the inner consistency of a combined consideration of the preaching and actions of Jesus, his death and the event of the resurrection. Paul, in describing his call near Damascus, which took place between AD 32 and AD 34, as a revelation of the Son of God by God himself, is in my view already presupposing the central significance of this title for that time. In the vision he sees at his call, he is sure of ‘the identity of the heavenly Messiah with the crucified Jesus’. Jesus, the son of David, was none other than the risen Son of God. (pp. 63-64)

B. The Pre-existence and Sending of the Son
Another question then arises as to how the ideas of pre-existence, mediation at creation and the sending of the Son of God into the world became determinative in Paul’s Christology. Hengel rejects the suggestion that these were ideas adopted from pagan religions because Paul was already using these expressions before he began his Gentile mission.

Direct pagan influence is extremely improbable, if only because of the ethnic composition of these earliest mission communities. The Jewish Christians were always the spiritual driving force which determined the content of the theo1ogy. In fact they put their stamp on the whole of the first-century church…There is also an inner consistency in the further development of christology. The confession of the exaltation of Jesus as Son of Man and Son of God in the resurrection and his appointment as God’s eschatological plenipotentiary immediately posed for earliest Christianity the question of the relationship of Jesus to other intermediary figures, whether the supreme angels or Wisdom-Torah, which was at least partially thought of as a personification. It was also necessary to reconsider the relationship between the previous means of salvation in Judaism, temple worship and the Torah, and the exalted Son of God and mediator of salvation. This led to a critical distinction between Christianity and Judaism. (p. 65)

Thus as early as Prov. 8:22f., ‘being born’ also stands alongside verbs about being created. At least Wisdom or the Logos must always have been associated with God. Indeed one could not conceive of God without his Wisdom. The more christological reflection progressed, the more it was inevitably involved in trinitarian questions. According to later rabbinic tradition, reference was made to Gen. 1:2 ‘and the spirit of God hovered’ to prove the ‘pre-existence’ of the Messiah before creation, because this phrase meant the spirit of the Messiah (Pes. R. 33, 6; cf. Gen. R. 2, 4)…Thus there was an inner necessity about the introduction of the idea of pre-existence into christology. (p. 68-69)

With pre-existence, however, statements about the sending of the Son took on their fullest form. Angels or men of God and prophets of the Old Testament had already been said to have been sent by God, and according to Mal. 3:23 the sending of Elijah is promised for the end-time; in a similar way the Jewish Sibyl could talk of the sending of the messianic king? Luke takes up this theme in Acts 3:20: ‘… that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus…’ Given pre-existence, however, sending now presupposes a descent from the heavenly sphere, humiliation and incarnation as depicted in the Philippians hymn (the analogy is with Wisdom in Sir. 24). It is typically Jewish that in the exposition of christology, pre-existence, mediation at creation and the idea of sending the Son into the world were all developed chronologically before the legends of the miraculous birth of Jesus. (pp. 69-70)

Thus the problem of ‘preexistence’ necessarily grew out of the combination of Jewish ideas of history, time and creation with the certainty that God had disclosed himself fully in his Messiah Jesus of Nazareth. The ‘simple gospel of Jesus’ was not, then, delivered over to pagan mythology; on the contrary, the threat of myth was overcome by the radical trinitarian character of the idea of revelation. Once the idea of pre-existence had been introduced, it was obvious that the exalted Son of God would also attract to himself the functions of Jewish Wisdom as a mediator of creation and salvation. Even Wisdom, which was associated with God in a unique way from before time, could no longer be regarded as an independent entity over against the risen and exalted Jesus and superior to him. Rather, all the functions of Wisdom were transferred to Jesus, for ‘in him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Col. 2: 3). Only in this way was the unsurpassibility and finality of God’s revelation in Jesus of Nazareth expressed in a last, conclusive way. The exalted Jesus is not only pre-existent, but also shares in the opus proprium Dei, creation. Indeed, he accomplishes the work of creation at the behest and with the authority of God, just as he also determines events at the end of time. No revelation, no speech and no action of God can take place without him or beside him. (p. 70)

The Logos christology of the Johannine prologue about fifty years after Paul is therefore only the logical conclusion of the fusion of the pre-existent Son of God with traditional Wisdom, though of course the concept of ‘sophia’, which was always threatened by mythological speculation, had to give place to the clear ‘Logos’, the Word of God. The prologue, too, is therefore certainly not to be derived from gnostic sources, but stands in an established context of tradition within Christianity and Judaism. The christological climaxes of the Fourth Gospel, like John 1.1: ‘… and the Word was with God and the Word was God’, or John 10:30: ‘I and the Father are one’, mark the goal and the consummation of New Testament Christology. (p. 71)

Not only mediation at creation but also the designation of Christ as ‘God’s image’ (εἰκὼν) was taken over from the wisdom tradition of Greek-speaking Judaism…Now if Christ is identical with the heavenly, pre-temporal ‘mage of God’, that also means that he was ‘of divine nature’, as we hear at the beginning of the Philippians hymn. Thus, although he is clearly subordinate, the Son no longer stood on the side of creation alone, but also on the side of God. Only through the incarnation, which is ‘consummated’ in his death on the cross, does he receive a share in human destiny and can he be regarded as reconciler and intercessor for men. Jesus was now no longer just the perfect righteous man, chosen by God, who was in complete accord with God’s will, a model for discipleship, but in addition the divine mediator who out of the Father’s love for lost men obediently gave up his heavenly communion with the Father and took on human form and human destiny, a destiny which led to a shameful death on the cross. Thus incarnation and death become an unsurpassable expression of the divine love. Neither Graeco- Roman nor Jewish tradition knew of such a ‘myth’. (pp. 73-74).

It is noted that Gordon Fee denies that there is any linguistic and conceptual link between divine Wisdom found in in the Judaic tradition and Paul’s Christology. /1/ However, Fee’s criticism misses the point since Paul is not simply transferring Judaic language and concept in order to establish an identity between the Judaic Wisdom and Christ. The determining factor for Paul’s Christology is not the Judaic sources but the revelation of the exalted Christ. As such, Paul freely adopts Wisdom sources like Prov. 8:35-36 and Wis. 1:6-7 and ‘personalizes’ them as he applies them to Christ in unique ways. Indeed, Paul displays a more profound understanding of Christ as God’s Wisdom with his emphasis on the pre-eminence of Christ’s becoming evident through his redemptive work of creation and re-creation (Col. 1:15-20).

C. The Son and the Consummation of Creation C. The Son and the Consummation of Creation
1 Cor. 15:20-28 maps out the process whereby the Son of God brings creation to its final consummation: The Son (1) assumes universal reign from resurrection and exaltation, (2) effectively eliminates all powers that oppose God, especially death which is the last enemy to be defeated (1 Cor. 15:26) and (3) delivers his kingdom to God the Father.

First, this Pauline passage shows that while the Son is equal with the Father from eternity (the Ontological Trinity), nevertheless in the history of redemption, the Son discharges his office as redeemer and mediator with the authority delegated to him by the Father (Economic Trinity). Paul’s teaching is in harmony with the self-testimony of Jesus in the Gospel of John which affirms that while the pre-existent Son is equal with God (John 8:58, 10:30), nevertheless, the Son in his incarnate state can do only those things which he sees the Father doing (John 5: 19).

Second, the roles of the Son and the Father are distinct in the fulfilment of the divine plan of redemption and recreation. The Son first receives authority from the Father to reign until he has put under his feet all powers that oppose God. Then he shall deliver his kingdom to the Father so that the glory of the Father is recognized and reflected in all dominion. “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). /2/


The historical origin of divine Christology includes the following processes:

1) The apostolic writers applied the theological categories of the Old Testament and early Judaism to Jesus in the development of Christological thought. The influence of pagan, Hellenistic ideas in this whole process is minimal. Indeed, the core teaching of the divinity of Christ was fundamentally developed in the birth place of Christianity in Palestinian and Syrian churches before Paul embarked on his mission to proclaim the gospel to the Greek-speaking communities.

2) However, the apostles were not simply exercising creative license in their Christological reflection. At the root of their Christological reflection stands the person of Jesus and the direct and indirect claims of divinity that Jesus made for himself during his earthly ministry. As C.F.D. Moule observes, “Jesus was, from the beginning, such a one as appropriately to be described in the ways in which, sooner or later, he did come to be described in the New Testament period – for instance, as ‘Lord’ and even, in some sense, as ‘God’.” The various stages of Christological reflection of the apostolic writers are “only attempts to describe what was already there from the beginning. They are not successive additions of something new, but only the drawing out and articulating of what is there.” /3/

3) The decisive stimulus for development in Christology is the resurrection of Jesus which confirms that Jesus is both (a) Christ, that is, the promised messiah, and (b) the Son of God whom God has entrusted with absolute power and authority to judge and save mankind. It must be emphasized that Jesus did not become the Son of God only at the moment of the resurrection. On the contrary, the resurrection merely confirms the status of the pre-existing Jesus as the Son of God before he was sent into the world.

The logical conclusion and fitting climax of Christological reflection of the early Church is the confession that “Jesus is God.”


/1/ Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Hendrickson Pub. 2007), pp. 317-325. Fee asserts, “And since the “parallels” are only in the mind of the beholder, the same could be said of all the alleged parallels, including that between Christ and Wisdom as the agent of creation, for, apart from this altogether dubious one, there simply is no parallel of any kind in Paul’s writings between Christ and personified Wisdom.” (p. 325)

/2/ Ciampa and Rosner highlights the perfect harmony between the role of the Son and the Father: “As Barth puts it, “To bring about the ‘God who is all in all’ such is the mission and significance of Christ.” This verse does not demean or marginalize Christ, but emphasizes that his mission will be fully and perfectly accomplished…The context suggests that for God to be all in all is for his reign to hold full sway, for his will to “be supreme in every quarter and in every way.” In other words, it is for God to be perfectly honored such that his glory is not diminished in any way but fully recognized and reflected in all creation. Christ’s resurrection and subjection or destruction of all his and God’s enemies was and is essential to the realization of the renewed creation in which God is, as he ought to be, all in all. See R.E. Ciampa & B.S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 2010), pp. 778-779.

/3/ C.F.D. Moule, The Origin of Christology (Cambridge UP, 1977), pp. 3, 4.


Related Posts

The Meaning of “Son of God”: A Muslim Critique – Christology Part 1

Ungaran Rashid relies on the methodology of “titular Christology” which applies a diachronic analysis of various Christological titles to map out the evolving meaning of the titles in the history of Judaism and early Christianity. This methodology was popular fifty year ago, but it seems to have fallen out of favor among contemporary biblical scholars because of its inherent limitations. Some of the criticisms levied at titular Christology include that fact that it is based on faulty linguistics, that it deals with Christology in a piecemeal manner and that it does not respect both the formal grammar and material contents of Christology. Leander Keck elaborates,

“To begin with, title-dominated study of NT Christology reflects an inadequate view of language, because it assumes that meaning resides in words like “Lord”…Concentration on titles cannot deal adequately with christologically important passages in which no title appears, whether they be narratives or sayings in the Gospels or discursive arguments in the Epistles….[for example in Rom. 9:5] neither the etymology of Christos nor the history of pre-Christian messianic hopes and messianic claimants is relevant for his construal of Jesus. Nothing the apostle says about the identity and significance of Jesus for the revelation of God’s righteousness depends on a christological title. In fact, concentrating on titles does not lead one into Paul’s Christology but right past it…

In title-dominated study of NT Christology, the identity and significance of Jesus in relation to the OT is objectified and concentrated in a way that shortchanges the truly significant christological issues. Title dominated Christology has nothing to contribute, for example, to understanding Paul’s dictum that “Christ is the telos of the law” (Rom 10:4), however telos be understood. [ Leander Keck, Why Christ Matters: Towards a New Testament Christology ( Baylor Uni. Press, 2015), pp. 10-12.

For this reason, the current series of posts on divine Christology is premised on an alternative Christological framework which is demonstrably better than “titular Christology” as it engages the biblical texts as they actually exist and incorporates the full range of biblical data on Jesus (Christological titles, Jesus’ discourse, historical narratives, early church doxology and paraenesis, etc.) in order to arrive at an adequate construal of Jesus’ identity and significance.

Historical Origin of Divine Christology. Part 1 – Apostolic Christology vs Mythological Christology
Historical Origin of Divine Christology. Part 2 – Exaltation Christology in Luke-Acts
Historical Origin of Divine Christology Part 3 – The Origin of Paul’s Divine Christology
Historical Origin of Divine Christology Part 4 – Reading on the Son of God in the Fourth Gospel

Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity Part 3. Biblical Evidence for the Divinity of Christ.

Recommended Reading
D.A. Carson, Jesus the Son of God (Zondervan, 2012).

D.A. Carson helpfully explains the various nuances of the title “Son of God” in the Bible so as to clear away Muslim misunderstanding. He also critiques the suggestion to replace the references to God the Father and the Son of God with other terms in order to make them more acceptable to Muslims.