What Was Paul’s Christology?

What Was Paul’s Christology? May 29, 2017

The post-apostolic, institutional church has always declared that Jesus is God. The Catholic Church proclaimed it at its First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 A.D. It said Jesus is “very God from very God” in its Nicene Creed. And that creed declares most authoritatively and repeatedly that whoever does not so subscribe is “anathema”–condemned. I don’t believe the Bible supports such an onerous denunciation. In fact, the question of whether or not Jesus is God is never broached in the Bible.

The most theological content in the Bible’s New Testament (NT) is in the several letters of the Apostle Paul. He espouses different, yet complementary, christologies in these letters. But none of Paul’s christologies expressly identify Jesus as God. Some even indicate Jesus cannot be God. Of course, the word Christology when applied to Jesus presupposes he is the Christ. That is indicated in the name “Jesus Christ.” However, Paul uses the name “Christ Jesus” slightly more than “Jesus Christ” in his NT corpus.

First, Paul writes of “Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4.4). He also says, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15). Some Christians think Jesus being “the image of God” indicates he is God. On the contrary, “God created man in His own image,” (Genesis 1.27), but that did not make Adam and Eve Gods. Geza Vermes rightly states, “Paul described Christ as the ‘likeness,’ or icon, of God … it cannot be taken as being anywhere close to inferring divinity.” Logically, Jesus cannot be both the image of God and God Himself, who is invisible to mortals.

Second, Paul is unique in the NT in contrasting Jesus with Adam (Romans 5.14-19; 1 Corinthians 15.45-47; cf. Philippians 2.6). Scholars call this an “Adam Christology.” Paul characterizes Jesus as the ideal, archetypal man and Adam as the fallen man who brought ruination to the earth and all of humankind. What Adam lost through his fall, Jesus more than gained by means of his obedient, righteous life, suffering, and atoning death for humankind.

Many church fathers claimed Jesus had to be God in order to live a sinless life and become the perfect sacrifice for our sins. But this notion is arbitrary, without scriptural support, and contrary to Paul’s Adam Christology.

Eminent Dutch theologian Ellen Flesseman-van Leer believes that neither Paul nor any other NT writers identify Jesus as God. She explains that Jesus’ “complete obedience was not superhuman,… Jesus acted in harmony with being man,… and we act in conflict with it.”

Plus, Jesus had to be tempted (Matthew 4.1-11; Hebrews 2.18; 4.15), just as Adam was; yet Jesus cannot be God since “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1.13).

Third, many Bible readers, even scholars, have thought Paul describes Jesus as having preexisted. Its mostly due to his apparent involvement in creation (1 Corinthians 8.6; Colossians 1.16). And they have concluded that preexistence indicates deity. But Trinitarian D.A. Carson states categorically, “pre-existence does not entail deity.”

Indeed, Second Temple Judaism regarded certain pious men as having preexisted. Yet Jews did not think this compromised their monotheism. Karl-Josef Kuschel contends, “there is no sign of any unambiguous and explicit statement about pre-existence in the Christology outlined by Paul.” And while Paul writes of God sending his Son (Galatians 4.4), this merely reflects the prophetic tradition of divine commissioning. James Dunn insists, “There is no good evidence that Jesus thought of himself as a pre-existent being.” Dunn concludes that Paul’s language of preexistence is personified Wisdom.

Furthermore, Jesus could not have preexisted since he had to be a complete type of Adam to be the ideal man. The author of Hebrews states that Jesus “had to be made like His brethren in all things,… to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2.17). Thus, Jesus could not have preexisted because he was like us. Despite church father Origin surmising otherwise, there is no evidence we preexisted.

So, Adam Christology is nullified if Jesus is essentially different from Adam. That is, Jesus cannot rationally be compared to Adam if Jesus is a God-man; rather, they must be exact parallels. Is this why so many Trinitarians refrain from adopting Adam Christology, which is in the Bible?

Fourth, Paul affirms an exclusive God-in-Christ Christology. He writes specifically of “God in Christ” (Ephesians 4.32; 1 Thessalonians 2.14). And he explains that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5.19). This means the same as the Mutual Indwelling that the Johannine Jesus taught, that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 10.38; 14.10-11; cf. 17.21).

Exclusive God-in-Christ Christology is theocentric and the opposite of God-is-Christ Christology, which is christocentric. Hans Kung says Paul’s “christocentricity remains grounded in and culminates in a theocentricity: ‘from God through Jesus Christ.’”

It should be obvious that God being in Christ does not make Christ God anymore than both God and Christ indwelling believers makes them gods or christs. Paul’s favorite expression to describe the spiritual position of believers is that they are “in Christ.”

Thus, for Paul, Jesus is the perfect image of God primarily because God, in all of his fullness, dwells in Jesus Christ (Colossians 1.19; 2.9), which does not make Christ God.

Fifth, Paul espouses a Lordship Christology. The Apostle Paul is unique as a NT author in that he repeatedly and exclusively calls the Father “God” and Jesus “Lord.” In fact, “Jesus is Lord” was the dominant creedal statement of the early church, and the second was “Jesus is risen.” In fact, to prove that Jesus is “Lord,” Paul cites the evidence of his being raised from the dead. He joins the two together in his creedal statement, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10.9).

Paul’s preeminent christological statement (which had been passed down to him) may be this: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scripture, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15.3-5).

What did the earliest Christians mean by calling Jesus “Lord”? They meant he should be obeyed regarding his instruction in righteousness (Matthew 5.17-20; 7.21-23). The risen Jesus said, “All authority is given to Me in heaven and on earth” (28.18; cf. John 16.15; 17.10).

Many traditionalists have contended that the NT designation of Jesus as Lord indicates he is God because the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in the 3rd century BCE—translates kurios, meaning “Lord,” for yhwh–the Hebrew name for God. But Paul provides no evidence that this is how he applies kurios to Jesus. James Dunn says of this word in Paul’s letters, “kyrios is not so much a way of identifying Jesus with God, but if anything more a way of distinguishing Jesus from God.”

Some scholars claim that Paul’s occasional practice of applying Old Testament texts about Yahweh (yhwh) to Jesus indicates that he believed Jesus was Yahweh. But most of these instances only indicate Jesus represents Yahweh as his agent par excellence.

Sixth, Paul affirms a Subordination Christology. He says “Christ belongs to God” and “God is the head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 3.23; 11.3). He also writes that God the Father “is the blessed and only Sovereign” (1 Timothy 6.15). And Paul says of the future, that Jesus “delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father,… then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him” (1 Corinthians 15.24, 28). Robin Scroggs rightly explains that the Father “remains the only and single power who is God.”

In sum, Paul’s christology identifies Jesus as the perfect image of God, the archetypal man, one sent by God (without preexistence) and indwelt by God who is Lord and Savior yet essentially subordinate to God. None of Paul’s Christological statements identify Jesus as God, not even in Romans 9.5 which contains a grammatical issue.


To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website servetustheevangelical.com, which is all about this book,  with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at kermitzarley.com. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.

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