I have received a number of comments and questions on last week’s about Paul’s understanding of who Christ was, based especially on the key passage called the “Christ Poem” in Philippians 2:6-11. An intriguing passage! But very puzzling in light of what Paul says elsewhere about Christ, as readers have pointed out, and asked about.
So I thought I should return to the matter and lay out how I understand Paul’s “Christology” – his “understanding of Christ.” I talked about it at length in my book How Jesus Became God, and have dealt with it on the blog on occasion. But here I want to address it head on.
To make sense of my comments it is important to remember two sets of terms that scholars have long used for early understandings of Christ.
- A “low Christology is one that understands Christ primarily as a HUMAN who somehow and in some way became divine. A “high” Christology is one that understands him primarily as GOD in some sense from before his birth.
I don’t much like those terms, for reasons I lay out in my book. But sometimes they are useful as a theological short hand. The typical idea scholars have had (that I in fact argue for in my book) is that Jesus’ followers understood him as fully human long before they understood him to be fully divine – so that a very *high* Christology would be a later development in the Christian tradition.
Second set of terms:
- An “exaltation” Christology is one that says that Christ started out as human (he wasn’t divine to begin with). But at some point of his existence (at his resurrection? His baptism? His birth? In the womb?) he was exalted to be made a divine being. So he was human first, then God. An “incarnation” Christology, on the other hand, maintains that Christ existed as a divine being before he became human. So he was God first, then man. (Incarnation means “coming in the flesh”)
OK, those are terms. And so what was Paul’s view of Christ? Here’s how I lay it out in my book.
I have read, pondered, researched, taught, and written about the writings of Paul for forty years, but until recently there was one key aspect of his theology I could never quite get my mind around. I had the hardest time understanding how, exactly, Paul viewed Christ. Some aspects of Paul’s Christological teaching have been clear to me for decades – especially his teaching that it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that makes a person right with God, rather than following the dictates of the Jewish Law. But who exactly did Paul think Christ was?
One reason for my perplexity was that Paul is highly allusive in what he says. He does not spell out, in systematic detail his views of Christ. Another reason was that in some passages Paul seems to affirm a view of Christ that – until recently – I thought could not possibly be as early as Paul’s letters, which are our first Christian writings to survive. How could Paul embrace “higher” views of Christ than those found in later writings such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Didn’t Christology develop from a “low” Christology to a “high” Christology (using these terms that I am no longer fond of) over time? And if so, shouldn’t the views of the Synoptic Gospels be “higher” than the views of Paul? But they’re not! They are “lower.” And I simply did not get it, for the longest time.
But I get it now. It is not a question of higher or lower. The Synoptics simply accept a different Christological view from Paul’s. They hold to exaltation Christologies and Paul holds to an incarnation Christology. That, in no small measure, is because Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human.
Christ as an Angel in Paul
Many people no doubt have the same experience I do on occasion, of reading something numerous times, over and over, and not having it register. I have read Paul’s letter to the Galatians literally hundreds of times in both English and Greek. But the clear import of what Paul says in Galatians 4:14 simply never registered with me, until, frankly, a few months ago. In this verse Paul indicates that Christ was an angel. The reason it never registered with me is because the statement is a bit obscure, and I had always interpreted it in an alternative way. Thanks to the work of other scholars, I now see the error of my ways.
In the context of the verse Paul is reminding the Galatians of how they first received him when he was ill in their midst, and they helped restore him to health. This is what the verse in question says:
Even though my bodily condition was a test for you, you did not mock or despise me, but you received me as an angel of God, as Jesus Christ.
I had always simply read the verse to say that the Galatians had received Paul in his infirm state the way they would have received an angelic visitor, or even Christ himself. In fact the grammar of the Greek suggests something quite different. As the aforementioned Gieschen has argued, and has now been affirmed in a book on Christ as an angel by New Testament specialist Susan Garrett, the verse is not saying that the Galatians received Paul as an angel or as Christ; it is saying that they received him as they would an angel, such as Christ. By clear implication, then, Christ is an angel.
As I indicated, the reason for reading the verse this way has to do with the Greek grammar. When Paul uses the construction “but as … as” he is not contrasting two things; he is stating that the two things are the same thing. We know this because Paul uses this grammatical construction in a couple of other places in his writings, and the meaning in these cases is unambiguous. For example, in 1 Corinthians 3:1 Paul says: “Brothers, I was not able to speak to you as spiritual people, but as fleshly people, as infants in Christ.” The last bit “but as…as” indicates two identifying features of the recipients of Paul’s letter: they are fleshly people and they are infants in Christ. These are not two contrasting statements; they modify each other. The same can be said of Paul’s comments in 2 Cor. 2:17, which also has this grammatical feature.
But this means that in Galatians 4:14 Paul is not contrasting Christ to an angel; he is equating him to an angel. Garrett goes a step further and argues that Gal. 4:14 indicates that Paul “identifies [Jesus Christ] with God’s chief angel” [p. 11].
If that’s the case, then virtually everything Paul ever says about Christ throughout his letters makes perfect sense. As the Angel of the Lord, Christ is a pre-existent being who is divine; he can be called God; and he is God’s manifestation on earth in human flesh. Paul says all these things about Christ, and in no passage more strikingly than in Philippians 2:6-11, a passage that is often called by scholars the “Philippians Hymn” or the “Christ Hymn of Philippians,” since it is widely thought to embody an early hymn or poem devoted to celebrating Christ and his incarnation.
My friend Charles Cosgrove, a life-long scholar of Paul who is also one of the world’s experts on music in the early Christian world, has convinced me that the passage could not have been an actual hymn that was sung, since it does not scan properly, as a musical piece, in the Greek. And so it may be a poem or even a kind of exalted prose composition. But what is clear is that it is an elevated reflection on Christ coming into the world (from heaven) for the sake of others and being glorified by God as a result. And it appears to be a passage Paul is quoting, one with which the Philippians themselves may well have already been familiar. In other words, it is another pre-Pauline tradition (see the discussion of Romans 1:3-4 on pp. xxx).
 See note xxx on p. xxx above.
 See note xxx on p. xxx above.