Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Gal 4 & Rom 8

Gal 4:4-7: But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

It is often argued that ‘God sent his Son’ (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3; cf. John 3:17; 1 John 4:9, 10, 14) recalls an early Christian confession about the pre-existent Son being sent from heaven to earth. However, as Dunn argues, it would be wrong to read later Johannine theology into these Pauline statements, for not only are the ‘sending’ verbs different, but if Paul had intended to imply the incarnation of a pre-existent being “he would have been taking a radically new step…[and] we would have expected his earliest recorded intimation of it to be a much more explicit and careful exposition”. Further, Dunn argues that this sending language is due to Jesus being thought of as God’s son and of his commissioning in the manner of the prophetic tradition. In particular, he suggests that the origin of the specific wording is drawn from the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12. The motif may well have its roots in Jesus’ parable, but with respect to Gal 4, as Marshall objects, the additional qualifying clause ‘born of a woman’ “suggests a different ‘field of meaning’ for ‘sent’ from that in Mark 12:6.” Yet, as Dunn states, ‘born of a woman’ does not refer to a heavenly being who is born as a human, but was a familiar Jewish phrase denoting ‘man’, who is “by definition ‘one who is/has been born of a woman’. So the reference is simply to Jesus’ ordinary humanness, not to his birth.” Moreover, Dunn retorts that if a different field of meaning is sought, it lies in Adam Christology. Thus, ‘born of woman, born under the law’ indicates that Jesus wholly shared the lot of fallen Adam in order to redeem and “to recover for the ‘sons of Adam’ the status of ‘sons of God’ (cf. Luke iii.38).” Indeed, the whole focus of Gal 4:4-7 is soteriological. Thus, according to Dunn, we should not conclude that Paul believed in the real pre-existence of Christ.

This position has not gone unchallenged. Firstly, although Dunn correctly notes that the verb ἐξαποστέλλω does not necessarily connote the ‘sending forth’ of a heavenly being, he treats it as if it probably does not. Fee argues that it cannot mean ‘commissioning’ in this context, for it is deliberately paralleled to the ‘sending forth’ of the Spirit. Indeed, Dunn inadequately deals with the implications of this double sending for the Son’s identity even though he also recognizes the ‘Father, Son, Spirit’ structure of 4:4-7. Secondly, although ‘born of a woman’ may connote ordinary humanity, Paul uses the participle γενόμενος (‘having come to be’) rather than γεvvwμενος, the ordinary verb for “birth”, which he does use when he later refers to Ishmael’s birth (4:23, 24, 29). Thus, in Dunn’s analysis ‘born of a woman’ is a redundant phrase which Paul does not pick up again, whereas, as Fee notes, the fact that it is used to emphasize “the Son’s human condition seems to suggest that the sending word presupposes a prior existence that was not human.” Overall, while the passage is primarily soteriological, it might well assume the prior existence of the Son before he becomes human, but what tips the balance is the same formula in Rom 8:3.

Rom 8:3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: (literally) God’s own Son sent in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh

Dunn and Kuschel treat Rom 8:3b (ὁ θεὸς τὸν ἑαυτοῦ υἱὸν πέμψας ἐν ὁμοιώματι σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας) similarly to Gal 4:4, missing some significant differences (see esp. Aletti’s analysis, with which I basically concur and am following here). Firstly, as Aletti notes, the reflexive ἑαυτοῦ, “highlights the being-son of the Son”, indicating that the Son is unique and not to be “confused with any other being”. This suggests a pre-existing relationship, for by placing ‘God’ and ‘Son’ together before the participle πέμψας, “the sonship of the Son is literally affirmed before mention is made of his being sent for our salvation. In other words, it is not the sending which determines the being-son of the Son.” Further, although Dunn asserts that ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ “probably has the same function in Rom. 8.3f as the phrase ‘born of woman, born under the law’ had in Gal. 4.4f”, this does not follow, for ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ follows ‘sent’, not ‘Son’. Thus, “Against Dunn, we must also maintain that ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ constitutes a modality of the sending by God and not primarily a component of the becoming-son of the Son.” As such, the most natural way to read the phrase is “as indicating the consequence of the sending for the One sent, namely, that he comes to have a human existence”. Therefore, prophetic commissioning will not suffice in this context, for Paul’s precise wording does seem to entail “the Son’s preexistence as he articulates his message of what this divine Son has done for us by becoming a man and suffering death on our account.”

Up next: 1 Cor 10: 4, 9. Series Link.


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2 Responses to “Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Gal 4 & Rom 8”

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

    […] 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 Christology. Firstly, […]

  2. 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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