Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? 1 Cor 8

1 Cor 8:4-6: Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as in fact there are many gods and many lords– yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

As we saw in Phil 2, Christ’s pre-existence is both real and personal, and includes equality with God. However, other texts add a new dimension to this pre-existence. Although, conceivably, Christ might have pre-existed as an angel or some other intermediary figure who later took on human form, texts such as 1 Cor 8:6 and Col 1:15-20 assert that ‘all things’ came into being through him (cf. Heb 1:2; John 1:3), which entails that he was therefore uncreated and, hence, eternally pre-existent. In 1 Cor 8-10, Paul has provided the Corinthians with a christological centre on which to base their beliefs and actions within a pagan world. Within this explicitly monotheistic argument Paul modifies the Shema (1 Cor 8:6, cf. Deut 6:4: The Lord our God, the Lord is one), glossing ‘God’ with ‘the Father’ and ‘Lord’ with ‘Jesus Christ’. Thus, Paul declared both the Father and the Son as intrinsic to the divine identity (i.e., who God is), and redefined Jewish monotheism as “christological monotheism”. To reinforce his argument, Paul also splits a familiar statement about God’s all-encompassing work of creation between Father and Son (cf. Rom 11:36a “all things are from, through, and for God”). There was no more unequivocal way to characterize God’s unique identity than to describe him as the creator of all. Thus, to speak of Christ as the instrumental cause of creation (δἰ οὗ τὰ πάντα), not only confirms his divine identity but also affirms his eternal pre-existence. Importantly, Paul does not argue for this but uses it as a position to argue from, which demonstrates as Fee notes, “that it can scarcely be other than the common stock of early Christian belief.” Nonetheless, there have been a number of objections to this conclusion.

Firstly, Kuschel argues that ‘all things’ does not refer to the totality of creation, but only to the new creation. Thus, Christ as the exalted lord is the one through whom the new creation was brought into being. Consequently, there can be no question of pre-existence. Yet, ‘all things from, through, and for’ was familiar God-talk and there is no evidence that Paul means anything less than Jewish writers normally meant by this phrase. Moreover, although by comparison with Rom 11:36 only one of the three prepositions is applied to Christ, “this does not mean that they no longer all describe the Creator’s relationship to the whole of creation. On the contrary, it means precisely that Christ is included in this relationship as the instrumental cause of creation.” (Bauckham)

Secondly, Giblin also denies pre-existence is connoted by ‘through whom are all things’ by arguing that it has a solely soteriological function. However, his interpretation is dependent on denying any connection to the similar phrase in Rom 11:36, and this is not convincing. Indeed, in 1 Cor 8:6b, ἡμεῖς δἰ αὐτοῦ is used to emphasize Christ’s redemptive role. Thus, both Christ’s creational and salvific roles are incorporated into Paul’s Christianized Shema.

Finally, Dunn says that there is pre-existence in view in 1 Cor 8:6, “But it is the preexistence of divine Wisdom. That is, the preexistence of God.” Thus, it is “not so much that Christ as Jesus of Nazareth had preexisted as such, but that preexistent Wisdom was now to be recognized in and as Christ.” So Christ is not the real and personal, pre-existent agent of creation, rather, he may be assigned only Wisdom’s ideal pre-existence. However, this is both artificial and improbable. As Hurtado responds “The problem with this is that it is not what the Pauline passage says.” Firstly, it is debatable that Wisdom is even in view here, for διά is never used to describe her role in creation. Further, whatever background traditions are drawn upon, we must allow for their adaption when applied to new situations. Thus, unlike Wisdom, since Christ is a person, his personal preexistence is presupposed. In fact, it seems certain that Christ’s pre-existence must be real and personal, for the same preposition is used to describe both his historical work of salvation and his role in creation (δἰ οὗ; δἰ αὐτοῦ). Therefore, although Dunn recognizes “conceptuality in transition”, he does appear to apply it inadequately on this issue. Indeed, Christ’s sharing in God’s eternal transcendence as the pre-existent agent of creation is even more explicit and apparent in Col 1:15-17.

Up next: Col 1. Series Link.


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3 Responses to “Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? 1 Cor 8”

  1. Week in Review: 10.29.10 « Near Emmaus Says:

    […] – Jonathan Brown addresses the pre-existence of Christ in Phil. 2 and 1 Cor. 8. […]

  2. Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Conclusion « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] of the Son in Paul? Conclusion By Jonathan After analyzing the major texts (Phil 2; 1 Cor 8; Col 1; Gal 4/Rom 8; 1 Cor 10), it is clear that Paul manifestly did present a pre-existence […]

  3. Pre-existence of the Son of God in Paul? Series Link « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] Phil 2; 1 Cor 8; Col 1; Gal 4/Rom 8; 1 Cor 10; […]

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