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Thursday, 21 May 2015

On prepositions and pre-existence

What follows is a largely a summary of Gregory E. Sterling’s paper, Prepositional Metaphysics in Jewish Wisdom Speculation and Early Christian Liturgical Texts.[1] This rather intimidating title disguises a fascinating essay with significant Christological implications, particularly pertaining to New Testament texts which ascribe to Christ a role in the creation of all things.

Sterling begins his paper by highlighting the role that significant prepositional phrases in the New Testament played in the Arian controversy.  He notes that ‘The tutor of the future emperor Julian had argued that the use of ἐξ οὖ in reference to the Father and διοὖ in reference to the Son [in 1 Cor 8:6] marked a distinction between the two since dissimilar terms imply dissimilar natures.’[2]

He then asks whether early Christians used such prepositional phrases in the technical way in which they were used in Hellenistic philosophy.

For instance, the pseudonymous author of De mundo (c. 3rd century BC) wrote: ‘all things are from God (ἐκ θεοῦ) and through God (διὰ θεοῦ) hold together for us’.[3] Aelius Aristides (2nd century AD) addressed the god Serapis with the words, ‘For all things everywhere are through you (διὰ σοῦ) and have become for us on account of you (διὰ σέ)’.[4]

Aetius the doxographer (between 2nd century BC and 1st century AD) states the following concerning Plato’s view of causation:

Plato held there were three causes. He says: ‘by which (ὑφοὖ), out of which (ἐξ οὖ), to which (πρὸς )’. He considers the by which (τὸ ὑφοὖ) to be the most important. This was that which creates, that is the mind.[5]
Hellenistic Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (1st century AD) held a Middle Platonic position which described four causes:

For many things must come together for the generation of something: the by which (τὸ ὑφοὖ), the from which (τὸ ἐξ οὖ), the through which (τὸ διοὖ), and the for which (τὸ δι)…The by which (τὸ ὑφοὖ) is the cause (τὸ αἴτιον), the from which (τὸ ἐξ οὖ) is the matter ( ὑλη), the through which (τὸ διοὖ) is the tool (τὸ ἐργαλεῖον), the for which (τὸ δι) is the purpose ( αἰτία).[6]
Philo identifies each of these with reference to the cosmos:

[the] cause (αἴτιον) is God, by whom (ὑφοὖ) it came into existence, its material ( ὑλη) is the four elements out of which (ἐξ ὧν) it has been composed, its instrument (ὄργανον) is the Logos of God (λόγος θεοῦ) through whom (διοὗ) it was constructed, the purpose (αἰτία) of its construction is the goodness of the Demiurge.[7]
He goes on to note that Philo does not speak exclusively of the Logos as the instrument of creation; he also uses the same expression for Wisdom (which he elsewhere equates with the Logos).[8]

Broadly speaking, Sterling identified two Hellenistic philosophical models for explaining causation: the Stoic model and the Middle Platonic. The former view holds that there is one cause which can be described in various ways (as in Pseudo-Aristotle and Aelius Aristides) while the latter holds that there are several causes which can be identified (as in Aetius’ citation of Plato, and Philo). The key claim of Sterling’s paper are that the NT texts which use prepositional phrases metaphysically do so with their technical philosophical meanings – some using Stoic formulations for God and others using Middle Platonic formulations for Christ.[9]

Sterling then turns to exegesis of New Testament texts which use such prepositional phrases metaphysically to denote cause, which is ‘almost always signaled through the reference to “all things” (πάντα)’.[10] He observes that these texts are all regarded as reflecting early Christian liturgical practice in some way.[11]

He regards Rom. 11:36 and Heb. 2:10 as Stoic formulations for God. In the former case, Paul wrote, ‘for all things are from him (ἐξ αὐτοῦ) and through him (διαὐτοῦ) and for him (εἰς αὐτόν)’.[12] In the latter case, the author wrote, ‘it is fitting for him for whom (διὅν) are all things and through whom (διοὖ) are all things…’[13] In both cases, multiple prepositional constructions (notably including διὰ + genitive) are used to refer to a single cause.

Another group of texts (Heb. 1:2; John 1:3, 10; Col. 1:16) uses Platonic formulations to describe the Son’s role in creation. Heb. 1:2 says concerning the Son, ‘through whom (διοὖ) he made the worlds’.[14] This formulation makes a clear distinction between God and the agent of creation. In this way it aligns with Middle Platonism which developed the instrumental agency which developed in the first century BCE. (Sterling 233)

John 1:3, 10 says concerning the Logos (who is evidently personal at least in v. 10), ‘the cosmos came into existence through him (διαὐτοῦ)’.[15] Col. 1:16 uses three distinct prepositional phrases to describe Christ’s relationship to creation: the familiar ‘through him’ (διαὐτοῦ), as well as ‘in him’ (ἐν αὐτῷ) and ‘for him’ (εἰς αὐτόν). On this, Sterling comments, ‘I suggest that the Christians who first set out this material were expanding the cosmological functions of Christ just as Philo expanded the functions for the Logos’.[16]

Is Col. 1:16 referring to the original creation or only the new creation? Sterling thinks that a careful analysis of the literary structure of the passage reveals that it consists of three units: one cosmological (Col. 1:15-16), one soteriological (Col. 1:18-20) and a middle unit which makes the transition between the two (Col. 1:17). He concludes,

The close parallels between the first and third units suggest that the cosmological material became the basis for the soteriological, i.e. the distinctive Christian contribution lies in the soteriological application of the pre-existing cosmological schema.[17]
Most intriguing of all is what Sterling describes as a ‘mixed text’ which brings both cosmological and soteriological concerns together: 1 Cor. 8:6. This verse states, ‘But for us there is one God the Father, from whom (ἐξ αὐτοῦ) are all things and we for him (εἰς αὐτόν), and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom (διοὖ) are all things and we through him (διαὐτοῦ)’.[18] Here, ‘The first half of each phrase is cosmological; the second half is soteriological’.[19]

Sterling points out the parallel in the contrast of prepositions with 1 Cor. 11:12, which says, ‘For just as the woman is from the man (ἐκ τοῦ ἀνδρός), so is the man also through the woman (διὰ τῆς γυναικός)’.[20]

Sterling concludes by asking what was the source of early Christian use of metaphysical formulations such as those above. He hypothesizes that ‘Stoic and Platonic formulations of prepositional metaphysics found their way into Jewish synagogue liturgies in association with both attempts to present God in philosophical categories and in Wisdom speculations’.[21] The early church adopted these formulations, Christianized them, and added a soteriological dimension.

The Christological implications of the texts discussed above are quite clear, especially in light of Sterling’s study: they imply Christ’s personal pre-existence and active participation in creation. The minority of scholars who deny this, notably Dunn, generally do so on the grounds that these texts are not actually talking about Christ himself, but about Christ as the embodiment of God’s power. For instance, Dunn in Christology of the Making comments on Col. 1:15-20,

The two strophes become quite consistent as soon as we realize that throughout the hymn we are not talking about God’s creative power per se, nor of Christ per se, but of Christ whom Christians came to recognize as the embodiment and definition of that power… Is then the Colossian hymn writer trying to say any more than that the creation and Christ must be understood in relation to each other; now that Christ has been raised from the dead the power and purpose in creation cannot be fully understood except in terms of Christ, and so too Christ cannot be fully understood except in terms of that wise activity of God which has made the world what it is (ἐν), which gives the world its meaning (διά) and which will bring the world to its appointed end (εἰς).[22]
Dunn offers a dubious interpretation of διὰ here in view of the genitive accompanying noun. Furthermore, while we can agree with him – especially in light of Sterling’s analysis of Philo’s Middle Platonism – that Jewish ideas about Wisdom lie behind the Christology of the hymn of Col. 1:15-20,[23] Dunn’s exegesis faces a significant problem that is obvious to lay and academic readers alike: ‘The first stanza is about a person, not merely the power of God exhibited in creation’.[24] Indeed, Dunn himself conceded that ‘it would appear to be clear that both Paul and the pre-Pauline hymn are attributing pre-existence to Christ’ in Col. 1:16[25] (Dunn, p. 189), and furthermore that ‘it is hard to imagine any first-century reader interpreting the first strophe except as a reference to the “old” creation’.[26] Dunn’s reading of this text is too complex to be convincing, leaving little doubt that this text says what it appears to say – that Christ actively participated in the creation of heaven and earth and everything in them.[27]

Schenck follows Dunn in taking a similar approach to Heb. 1:2c. Schenck states, ‘To speak of Christ as creator is to recognize that he is the wisdom of God par excellence, the final goal and purpose of God for creation.’[28] This neglects the point that the writer could have made precisely this point simply by following διὰ with an accusative pronoun. That he instead followed it with a genitive pronoun implies that he intended something different - namely, Christ’s direct involvement in creation. Hence, Talbert rightly states, ‘Pre-existence is implied in the prologue’s statement that Christ is the agent of creation (1:2).’[29]

Similar arguments apply to 1 Cor. 8:6. A careful analysis of these texts leaves me confident that I made the right choice to leave behind the unitarian Christology which I was taught growing up and acknowledge Jesus as the pre-existent Lord of all creation.



[1] Sterling, G.E. (1997). Prepositional Metaphysics in Jewish Wisdom Speculation and Early Christian Liturgical Texts. The Studia Philonica annual, 9, 219-238.
[2] Sterling 1997: 219.
[3] Pseudo-Aristotle, De Mundo 397b, cited Sterling 1997: 223.
[4] Aelius Aristides 45.14, cited Sterling 1997: 223-224.
[5] Aetius, Plac. 1.11.2, cited in Sterling 1997: 226.
[6] Philo, On the Cherubim 124-127, cited in Sterling 1997: 227.
[7] Philo, On the Cherubim 124-127, cited in Sterling 1997: 227.
[8] See Sterling 1997: 229.
[9] Sterling 1997: 232.
[10] Sterling 1997: 232.
[11] Sterling 1997: 231.
[12] trans. Sterling 1997: 233.
[13] trans. Sterling 1997: 233.
[14] trans. Sterling 1997: 233.
[15] trans. Sterling 1997: 233.
[16] Sterling 1997: 235.
[17] Sterling 1997: 235.
[18] trans. Sterling 1997: 235.
[19] Sterling 1997: 236.
[20] trans. Sterling 1997: 235. This can assist us in understanding the sense of the διὰ + genitive as used for Christ’s role in creation. It clearly does not mean ‘because of’ or ‘for the sake of’, but implies a direct, instrumental role.
[21] Sterling 1997: 237.
[22] Dunn, J.D.G. (1980). Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. London: SCM Press, pp. 193-194.
[23] Note Moo’s comment: “however common or basic such parallels might be, Paul’s identification of Christ with Wisdom constitutes no reason to deny personal preexistence in the key texts.” (Moo, D.J. (2005). The Christology of the Early Pauline Letters. In R.N. Longenecker (Ed.), Contours of Christology in the New Testament (pp. 169-192). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 178.)
[24] Witherington, B. III. (2007). The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 132.
[25] Dunn 1980: 189.
[26] Dunn 1980: 190.
[27] On the qualification of the ‘all things’ into various categories in in Col. 1:16, Wilson remarks: ‘These words emphasize the absolute completeness of τὰ πάντα… it is the whole of creation that is in view, things invisible as well as those which can be seen. This includes the thrones, dominions, rulers and powers: they are part of the creation, and therefore subordinate to the one ‘‘in whom” all things were created.’ (Wilson, R. McL. (2005). Colossians and Philemon. London: T&T Clark, p. 139).
[28] Schenck, K. (1997). Keeping His Appointment: Creation and Enthronement in Hebrews.
Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 19(66), 91-117. Here p. 106.
[29] Talbert, C.H. (2011). The Myth of a Descending-Ascending Redeemer in Mediterranean Antiquity. In The development of Christology during the first hundred years and other
essays on early Christian Christology (pp. 83-112). Leiden: Brill, p. 107.

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