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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Gospel allegiance: coming into being bodily

There is much that is good about Matthew Bates’ Gospel Allegiance: What Faith in Jesus Misses for Salvation in Christ, which is the follow-up to his highly successful Salvation by Allegiance Alone. I plan to review it in some detail over the next few weeks, all being well, and hope to recommend it as a clear and accessible presentation of a workable narrative “gospel.” It seems to me that the “missional” church in Europe, and no doubt elsewhere, is crying out for a solid, coherent and properly biblical alternative to the mainstream conservative-evangelical salvationist “gospel.” Bates’ work is a significant contribution to the task.

But reading through the book I’ve just stubbed my toe—metaphorically speaking—on an incidental point of christological interpretation, and I need to relieve the pain before moving on.

Bates argues that when Paul says in Romans 1:3 that Jesus “became from the seed of David” (tou genomenou ek spermatos Dauid), he doesn’t mean simply that Jesus “was born” or “descended” from the Davidic line. He means that Jesus “came into being” in the sense of “coming into being bodily.” In other words, it is a reference to a “change from preexistence to human existence.”

The same thought is found, supposedly, in two other texts: Jesus “came into being (genomenon) by means of a woman” (Gal. 4:4); and he “came into being(genomenos) in the likeness of humankind” (Phil. 2:7).

According to the flesh, according to the Spirit

Two reasons are given for the interpretation. I think the argument is weak. I am not persuaded, as yet, that the story about Jesus as Son of God presupposes or implies pre-existence. Bates thinks that Paul is saying what John says in John 1:14, only using different language. I disagree.

1. Bates points out that when Paul has in mind normal human procreation, he “prefers” gennaō (cf. Rom. 9:11; Gal. 4:23, 24, 29), which means to “beget” or “give birth to.”

There are, however, a number of places in the LXX where ginomai is used for the birth of children: “Now Abraham was a hundred years of age when his son Isaac was born (egeneto) to him” (Gen 21:5). The literal sense is “there was to him Isaac his son.” Or: “Abraham called the name of his son who was born (tou genomenou) to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac” (Gen. 21:3). Or: Joshua “circumcised the sons of Israel born (tous genomenous) on the way in the wilderness” (Josh. 21:42).

BDAG gives as a first sense for ginomai: “to come into being through process of birth or natural production, be born, be produced,” and cites texts where the verb is used with the preposition ek to mean “be born from”:

And from them they were born (ex autōn egenonto), and it is they that brought up those who plant the vineyards from which comes the wine. (1 Esd. 4:16)

You made Adam and gave him a helper, Eve, a support—his wife. From them the human race has come (ek toutōn egenēthē). (Tob. 8:6)

His memory shall be famous while the world lasts; and this not only among the Hebrews, but foreigners also:—all which shall be the effect of my favor to thee, and to thy posterity (tois ek sou genēsomenois). (Jos. Ant. 2:216)

So there appears to be no strong reason why tou genomenou in Romans 1:3 should not refer to the coming into being of Jesus in the straightforward sense that he was born from the seed of David.

2. Bates maintains that kata sarka (“as it pertains to the flesh,” as he translates it) indicates a contrast with a previous heavenly existence: “without it Jesus did not preexist as the Son alongside the Father but only started to exist when he was created at some later time” (52). That is the heresy of Arianism. What Paul means is that the Son “did not come into existence entirely when he was born”; rather the pre-existing Son “took on human flesh at that moment.”

But this is not how Paul constructs his argument. The parallelism in verses 3-4 contrasts the tou genomenou clause with the tou horisthentos clause:

  • the one having become from the seed of David | according to (kata) the flesh,
  • the one having been appointed Son of God in power | according to (kata) the Spirit of holiness from resurrection of the dead….

Paul’s interest is solely in the transformation from the “fleshly” (kata sarka) existence of the one descended from David to the “spiritual” existence of the “Son of God in power.” This makes it unlikely, I think, that tou genomenou (“who became”) entails a contrast with a pre-incarnate existence.

The point here is that the churches in the Greek-Roman world had come to know Jesus as the risen Lord, as an exalted heavenly figure. Paul’s argument is that this exalted Christ had a prior existence as a son of David according to the flesh, which in part is what anchors the gospel in the scriptures (Rom. 1:2).

Nothing to do with being born?

Another possibility is that we should translate Romans 1:3 simply: “concerning his Son who was from the seed of David according to the flesh.” The aorist would refer to Christ’s past and completed existence as a descendant of David (cf. BDAG: “to be present at a given time, be there”). So we read that Ahab “did more evil than all who were (tous genomenous) before him” (1 Kgs 16:33 LXX). Here the aorist participle refers to the being of the kings who preceded Ahab, just as in Romans 1:3 tou genomenou refers to the being of the Son of David who preceded the Son of God in power.

So the reason Paul does not use gennaō here is that he is not talking about the birth of Jesus at all. He is talking about the earthly existence of the exalted Christ. We have been misled by the controlling incarnational christology.

Galatians 4:4 can be read in a similar fashion. Paul may have meant that Jesus was born (genomenon) of woman, born (genomenon) under the Law. But I rather think that the aorist participles refer to the thoroughly human existence that Jesus had, subject the Law, as a Jew, sent by God to the vineyard of Israel, before he became the exalted Son, who was revealed to Paul from heaven (Gal. 1:16). A Qumran text gives an idea of the force of the language:

As what can he, born of a woman, be reckoned before You? Kneaded from dust, his body is but the bread of worms; he is so much spit, mere nipped-off clay—and for clay his longing. (1QS 11:21–22)

It would be reckless to comment on the clause “having become in the likeness of men” in Philippians 2:7 without reckoning with the whole line of thought in this devilishly difficult passage.

Comments

Thanks, Andrew; this is helpful. If I may be suffered to offer a tiny ‘editorial’ comment, perhaps we should regard the “kenosis” hymn to be “wonderfully” difficult :)

My “vote” is cast with your program to displace theology with history as the central frame of reference for interpreting the Scriptures. But I think that the evangelical churches will resist tooth and nail.

Here’s a related concern that I would have if I were still in that camp:

If Paul’s vision of the triumph of Christ is related to what you have called the ‘2nd eschatological horizon’ of the downfall of paganism within the Roman sphere of influence, then is there a case to be made that with the crossing of that horizon in the 4th century, Jesus did indeed conquer “every enemy” (relativizing this term, but that does not look so extreme in view of your, and other present-day scholars’, approach to apocalyptic language) and, in keeping with Paul’s vision of the future, has laid down his authority and handed the Kingdom back to God?

IOW, it might no longer be valid to say that “Jesus is Lord”.

I don’t know if there is merit to this interpretation, but it seems consistent with the basic framework. Obviously, this would be deeply troubling to classical evangelicals.

The problem seems to be that Paul envisioned this handing over of the kingdom to the Father as the end of all things, the end of history and death itself. But what has happened in modern times is not the transition from Christ’s rule of the nations to “God all in all;” rather we have the hostile takeover of the nations by secular ideologies.

So I’d say we are still waiting for God to subject every power to Christ. The establishment of the kingdom began and even climaxed with the conversion of the pagan empire but it did not end there. Perhaps…

John imagines something like our current predicament in the release of the Devil from imprisonment at the end of the Millennium rule. Christ’s lordship has once again been called into question.

What you speculate in your last paragraph, I have seriously wondered about myself many times.