In the form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul: what the book is about and why

My book In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul has been available for a little while now, from the publisher and other major sources, both in print and as an ebook (Nook, Kindle). Here I want to give a bit more of a sense of what the book is about and highlight some of the leading conclusions in respect of Paul’s christology and his mission. But this is not a straightforward chapter-by-chapter summary of the book, more a preface to it.

If you’re interested in doing a serious review of the book, either get in touch with Wipf & Stock or let me know and I’ll see what I can arrange. Be aware that it is part of an academic series of Studies in Early Christology. But be comforted, it doesn’t have much real Greek and Hebrew in it; it’s all mostly transliterated.

The good news about the risen Lord

To state the obvious, this is a study of Pauline christology, so we begin with the risen Lord. The core apostolic testimony was that the God of Israel had raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, had installed him at his right hand as his Son, and had given him the nations of the Greek-Roman world as his inheritance. The expectation was that sooner or later Jesus would come into that inheritance.

This is the overarching theme of Romans, for example, which opens with the assertion that a descendant of David has been made Son of God in power—this is the “good news” that Paul has to proclaim to the nations (Rom. 1:1-5)—and ends with an expression of the “hope,” grounded in scripture, that this “root of Jesse” would eventually rule over the nations (Rom. 15:12-13). Paul was the herald of an impending, empire-wide régime change. It’s as simple and as realistic as that. The day would come.

Jesus and the shemaʿ

This testimony immediately explains the distinction that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 8:6 between the “one God, the Father” and the “one Lord Jesus Christ.” It is commonly argued by proponents of an “early high christology” that in this passage Paul has adroitly included Jesus in the shemaʿ, Israel’s great and seminal confession of faith in one God: “Hear, Israel: the Lord our God is one God” (Deut. 6:4 LXX). Gordon Fee writes, for example:

What Paul has done seems plain enough. He has kept the “one” intact, but he has divided the Shema into two parts, with theos (God) now referring to the Father, and kyrios (Lord) referring to Jesus Christ the Son.1

This misrepresents Paul’s reasoning, I think. In the background is an emerging distinction in Jewish thought between two divine roles or functions: God as creator and God as judge and ruler. The first belongs to beginnings—the beginning which is creation, the beginning which is new creation. The second has to do with kingdom, with the politics of Israel’s troubled existence in the midst of the nations. The creator function is never assigned to another and remains definitive for Jewish monotheism. The work of judging and ruling, however, is readily shared with or delegated to Israel’s king:

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The LORD sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! (Ps. 110:1–2).

In the passage, Paul has already affirmed the shemaʿ, which is a confession against idolatry: “we know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no god but one” (1 Cor. 8:4; cf. Deut. 6:4, 14). But then he introduces an eschatological novelty on the basis of what has happened. The function of judging and ruling over the nations—a theologically lesser function, but biblically more important—has been assigned to Jesus Christ as Lord, the Son seated at the right hand of God.

Jesus will exercise this function until the last enemy has been put under his feet, when finally he will give the kingdom back to God, so that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). The claim is extraordinary not because the “kingdom” role has been delegated but because it has been delegated to this particular “son of Jesse.”

How does Paul avoid compromising the oneness of God? How does he avoid “outright ditheism,” as Bauckham calls it? Not ontologically, by assimilating Jesus into the divine being or identity; not even relationally (pace Chris Tilling); but eschatologically, by having Jesus hand back an authority that was transferred to him only provisionally, only as long as his people faced enemies. When sin and death have been finally eradicated, there is no need for judgment and rule, no need for kingdom, so the one God is only creator again.

That’s all in the book, but it was a bit of a digression here. So back to the  historical context….

Waiting for his Son from heaven

In the early decades of the Pauline mission, Jesus was proclaimed both to Jews and to gentiles in Asia Minor and around the Aegean not as a wonder-working Jewish prophet from Galilee but as a heavenly Lord, a transcendent Spirit-person, who was known, venerated, and engaged with through the Spirit. Even Paul, in all likelihood, had only ever encountered the risen Christ.

It must be stressed, moreover, that this was always a forward-looking state of affairs. Paul was not saying only that Jesus had been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God—thereby setting a mind-bending puzzle for future generations of theologians to solve. That was not the good news. The message carried the prophetic-apocalyptic conviction that sooner or later the impious and morally bankrupt pagan order would be judged (cf. Rom. 1:18-2:16), that Jesus would be revealed to all peoples as Lord and King in a parousia event, that the nations would turn from their idols to serve the living God, and finally that the persecuted apostles and churches would be vindicated and glorified.

The scope and orientation of the message about Jesus is captured in Paul’s summary of the “faith” of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:9-10). The premise is that Jesus was raised from the dead—that is the starting point, for all intents and purposes. He is with God in heaven. He will deliver them from the wrath that is coming upon the idolatrous Greek-Roman world, and they will share in the glorious age of Christ-honouring monotheism to come.

The need for a backstory

It was necessary, however, for the apostles to add a solid backstory to the prophetic-apocalyptic message about this heavenly heir apparent to Caesar’s throne, for three main reasons.

So now we start engaging with the question of pre-existence in earnest.

First, it needed to be shown that this vibrant, Spirit-inspired belief in the heavenly lordship of Jesus was a proper outworking of Israel’s story—the realisation “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) of hopes articulated in the Psalms and Prophets especially, but also in second temple Jewish writings. This was Paul’s own view as a Jew himself, in the first place; but it was also demanded by the hostile reaction of the synagogues to the preaching of the apostles.

Therefore, Jesus is described as the Son “sent out” to Israel—born of woman, born under the Law—much as Moses and the prophets had been “sent out” to Israel (Gal. 4:4), to call for righteousness and mediate between the people and a “wrathful” God. When the ordinary Jewish humanity of Jesus is emphasised, it is in contrast not to an implicit heavenly pre-existence but to an explicit heavenly post-existence. That seems to me to be a key historical observation.

That Jesus was sent also, shockingly, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) is Paul’s admission that the Righteous One had been condemned and executed as a Law-breaker, a threat to the integrity and security of Israel. Secondly, then, the apostles had to account for the offensive and implausible means by which the God of Israel now intended to establish his fame and glory among the nations. Both Jews and Greeks struggled to see the sense of such sweeping claims about a crucified messiah. The misunderstanding about pre-existence in Paul’s writings arises, to a large degree, because he drew on the Jewish wisdom motif in order to frame the suffering and death of Jesus as a deeply paradoxical act of new creation.

Thirdly, the experience of the apostles and of the churches was understood to replicate the experience of the historical Jesus. Their suffering was validated by the fact that the transcendent Son at the right hand of the Father had previously suffered and died in a thoroughly human fashion in obedience to the eschatological vision. They have the Spirit of the Son who cried out, “Abba! Father!” in distress at the prospect of suffering and death.

So from the perspective of the apostolic mission in the Greek-Roman world, the necessary and inescapable backstory was the earthly life of Jesus in Roman Palestine. This is what I mean by the pre-existence of the exalted Christ.

Before before?

If we ask, incidentally, what the backstory was from the perspective of the writers of the Synoptic Gospels, it is remarkable that it is even harder to establish a doctrine of heavenly pre-existence—though we should, of course, look at Simon Gathercole’s The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke sometime. What is seen, looking back in time from Jesus’ prophet-like, Moses-like mission to Israel, is the experience of subjection to foreign powers—think of Zechariah’s prayer that “that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Lk. 1:71); and for this the motif of a “son of man” figure coming on the clouds of heaven to receive kingdom and glory becomes the interpretative key.

That’s for another day, though I do look in some detail at Paul Holloway’s argument that the template for Paul’s conception of the pre-existent Christ is a supposed angelic Son of Man figure, found in Daniel and the Similitudes of Enoch.

Being in the form of a god…

The apostolic story about Jesus, which first looks forwards and then looks backwards, is encapsulated in different ways in the two encomia—not “hymns”—in praise of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20. The particular question addressed in the book is whether these texts presuppose or affirm the heavenly pre-existence of the earthly Jesus. It is worth asking given the strong support for the idea of pre-existence that is found across the scholarly spectrum, from Bultmann to Bauckham, but I suggest that closing the door on that presumption opens up a far more compelling historical vista.

The phrase en morphēi theou hyparchōn (Phil. 2:6) is usually translated “being in the form of God.” It has been explained by theologians and biblical commentators in many different ways, which I discuss under four main headings—indeed, in four chapters: being in the form of God as the substance or essence or, more obliquely, glory of God (Lightfoot, Martin, O’Brien, et al.); being in the form either of Adam or of an anthropomorphic or human-shaped God (Dunn, Murphy-O’Connor, Cullman, Bockmuehl, Gieschen); being in the angelic form of God (Sanders, Horbury, Holloway, Vollenweider); and being in the form of a god (Zeller, Fredriksen).

I come to the conclusion, after a great deal of deliberation, that the only way to read the expression is “being in the form of a god” and that the encomium, therefore, reflects a distinctively pagan or post-pagan perspective on the life and behaviour of the earthly Jesus. Stories of a wonder-working Jesus, such as those told in the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel, would have brought to mind countless tales of gods appearing on earth or of “divine men” such as Heracles or Pythagoras. The apostles knew from first-hand experience how easy it was to be mistaken for one or other of the gods (Acts 14:8-18; 28:6).

The narrative in the encomium is highly condensed as we have it, perhaps because this is a summary of a longer text. At some point Jesus was confronted with a fateful decision. A great many commentators in recent decades have accepted the view of Roy Hoover that the clause “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (ESV) is an idiomatic expression that would imply that equality with God was already in the possession of the heavenly Jesus, more or less equivalent to “being in the form of God.” He chose not to cling to it but emptied himself of his divine capacity and became man. I scrutinise the Hellenistic texts that supposedly support this view and argue that the idiom suggests rather the unexpected presentation of an opportunity that must be quickly seized or lost.

In Jesus’ case, the opportunity was to fulfil the ambition of several prominent biblical rulers who aspired to a god-equal supremacy—the king of Babylon, the prince of Tyre, Antiochus Epiphanes—not to mention contemporary pagan kings, Caesar foremost among them. When was that opportunity presented to Jesus? In the wilderness, when Satan offered him rule over the kingdoms of the oikoumenē—the empire, in effect, Paul’s mission field—if Jesus would worship him (Luke 4:5-7).

Jesus declined the offer, quoting from the shemaʿ passage: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Luke 4:8; cf. Deut. 6:13)… and “emptied himself”—I have a wonderful explanation for that mysterious statement. But having done so, he was bound, sooner or later, to lose his god-like appearance and be found instead as just another frail and fallible mortal, who in the end would suffer the degrading death of a slave, on a Roman cross.

Ironically, of course, it was just by way of this strangely inverted, sacrilegious “wisdom” that he would attain exactly what Satan had tempted him with—rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9-11).

So some Hellenistic-Jewish writer (I have my suspicions) composed a eulogy in honour of Jesus, who, endowed with the Spirit of prophecy, wisdom, and power, was in the form of a god but did not seize at the fortuitous offer of a godlike rule over the nations—only to gain it by other means, which brings us to the final passage and the reconciliation of rule in heaven and rule on earth.

The image of the invisible God…

The opening lines of the Colossians encomium seem to speak unequivocally of the heavenly pre-existence of Jesus: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…” (Col. 1:15–16 ESV).

My argument, however, is that this is again a story about kingdom rather than about creation. This is evident, in the first place, from what precedes. The encomium praises the “beloved Son,” into whose kingdom believers have been transferred (Col. 1:13). Then, as “image” Jesus discloses the unorthodox methods by which the “invisible God” is bringing about the eschatological transformation. He is the “firstborn” king above, not before, every creature, through whom a new political-religious order has come about—not the normal things of creation, seas, mountains, trees, living creatures, etc., but thrones, dominions, sovereignties, and authorities (Col. 1:16). The author of the piece is very selective, for a reason.

So here’s the point. For a long time, the rule of God in heaven and the government of the nations on earth have been at odds with each other: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed” (Ps. 2:2; cf. Acts 4:26). By delegating to the heavenly Jesus rule over the peoples of the oikoumenē, God has brought a new civilisation into existence, “in which kings and emperors, governments and bureaucracies, economies and judicial systems, would be explicitly ordered under the rule of God through his Son at his right hand” (205). On earth as it is in heaven.

In conclusion

So it seems to me that Paul had no interest in speculating about what came before what came before. The practical circumstances of the mission in Asia Minor and around the Aegean had led to a preoccupation with the resurrected and exalted Lord who would one day rule over the pagan civilisation that opposed him.

It was important to show that this heavenly person had had a remarkable mission to Israel, as an ordinary Jewish male, born of a woman, born under the Law, ending in a wretched death on a Roman cross. But there was no practical or theological reason to posit a stage of pre-existence prior to that. When we read the texts from the perspective of Paul’s work among the gentiles, the presupposition of a heavenly pre-existence seems to evaporate.

  • 1G. D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (2007), 90.

When the ordinary Jewish humanity of Jesus is emphasised, it is in contrast not to an implicit heavenly pre-existence but to an explicit heavenly post-existence. That seems to me to be a key historical observation.

So from the perspective of the apostolic mission in the Greek-Roman world, the necessary and inescapable backstory was the earthly life of Jesus in Roman Palestine. This is what I mean by the pre-existence of the exalted Christ.

These paragraphs seem pregnant with a lot of thoughts… methinks I’m going to have to shell out some coin :)

Caleb Gilleland | Tue, 12/06/2022 - 15:36 | Permalink

Congrats on the new book! (I just came up for air after spending several days grading essays.) I already purchased a copy, and I’m betting it will be helpful on my PhD thesis.

Thanks for doing what you do, Andrew.

David | Tue, 12/20/2022 - 15:31 | Permalink

Excited to dive into this book. A query: some scholarship around Christology has expended itself on the question of sacral kingship in ancient Israel and Judah as a sociohistorical background to texts like Ps 2 & 110 and as the grounds for later divine messiahs in Early Jewish texts. Does your book interact with that work at all? I’m thinking of, for example, Collins and Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God, etc.

I don’t deal with “sacral kingship” extensively because the focus is on pre-existence, not on the exalted status of Christ as Son of God and king after the resurrection. But I discuss Horbury’s pre-existent royal messiah thesis, Psalms 2 and 110 in various contexts, and the Collins book gets a fair airing.