dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label Corinthians. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Corinthians. Show all posts

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.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

I have decided to know nothing

In Paul's first epistle to the church at Corinth, the apostle made the following astounding statement:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. (1 Cor. 2:1-3 NRSV)
Why do I say these words are astounding? There are two main reasons. The first concerns the preaching of a crucified Saviour. Earlier in the epistle, Paul had described the message of the cross as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. The Jews did not expect that the Messiah would die, and their Law stated that "anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse" (Deut. 21:23). Likewise, it was foolishness to the Roman world to teach that a crucified man had more honour than Caesar. Crucifixion was reserved mainly for slaves and vile criminals, with slaves were sometimes sarcastically referred to as cross bearers. The famous Roman lawyer Cicero argued that no Roman citizen should be crucified (F.T. Zugibe, The Crucifixion of Jesus, p. 55). L.L. Welborn writes, "The cultured elite of the Roman world wanted nothing to do with crucifixion, and as a rule kept silent about it" (Paul, the Fool of Christ, p. 131).

Yet Paul and the other Christians did anything but keep silent about it; they went around proclaiming Jesus Christ, and him crucified! From the point of view of contemporary human wisdom, this gospel was offensive and nonsensical. Nevertheless, instead of trying to cover up the fact of the cross, the early church made it central to their message of redemption. John used extreme irony by teaching that in the very act of being "lifted up" on the cross, Jesus was "lifted up" in the sense of being exalted (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-34 cf. Isa. 52:13).

It was integral to the purpose of God that the message of salvation should not be plausible and tolerable from the standpoint of human wisdom, but should be implausible and offensive. This was so that God might be glorified and no human might boast in his presence (1 Cor. 1:29). This brings us to the second astounding statement Paul made in this text: "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ."

When we as Christians preach, teach, debate and discuss, more often than not we aim to convince others that we are wise, that we understand the Scriptures, that we have all the answers. Paul was a brilliant and well-educated man (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:4-6). He could have taken this approach and excelled at it. Instead, he pruned the gospel down to its bare essentials: Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul used his Spirit-filled erudition, not to impress his readers with elaborate doctrines, but to preach the gospel in all its simplicity and all its power. He did the same in the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians. These letters are theological masterpieces with weighty methods of argumentation, but their aim was very simple: to show that salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ.

Now I personally enjoy studying the Bible. I love delving deeply into the richness of the divine mysteries revealed in this book. However, I often need to remind myself that "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8:1b). In seeking to unlock these mysteries we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, like Paul did. In the first ten verses of 1 Corinthians Paul referred to Jesus Christ by name ten times! For him, it really was all about Jesus. Biblical exposition and theology is vain if it leads its audience away from the cross of Christ rather than towards it.

And so, to Christians of any stripe with whom I have had disagreements over the interpretation of Scripture, I pose this question: can we lay aside our differences and decide to know nothing except Jesus Christ, and him crucified?

Thursday 18 April 2013

1 Cor. 8:6: A Swing Verse

When it comes to hotly disputed doctrines such as the Trinity, the two sides typically each have certain Bible texts that they claim in support of their position.

For example, in a debate on the Trinity one might expect the Trinitarians to use texts such as Matt. 28:19, John 1:1 and Heb. 1:10-12 in their argument, while the unitarians might use texts such as Mark 12:29, John 14:28 and 1 Tim. 2:5. Each side would go on the offensive with their own texts, and attempt to defend their position against the challenge posed by the other side's texts. (Of course, one would hope that the arguments were more substantial and systematic than simply quoting 'proof texts').

We could draw an analogy with the so-called "swing states" in U.S. presidential elections. Democratic candidates don't bother campaigning in Texas, and Republican hopefuls steer clear of New York, because they know they can't win those states, despite their importance to the electoral vote tally. Instead, they focus on states that could go either way, such as Ohio. Similarly, Trinitarians know that they can't make their case from Mark 12:29, and unitarians know they can't make theirs from John 1:1, so they try to provide a plausible counter-proposal to their opponents' claims and then re-focus the debate on their own biblical "territory."

I would suggest that 1 Cor. 8:6 is one of the Ohio's of the Bible -- a veritable "swing verse" -- because both Trinitarians and unitarians use it to argue positively for their position. On the unitarian side, for instance, the 1877 Christadelphian Statement of Faith cited this verse as a reason for rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. Moreover, one of the most comprehensive books written in defense of biblical unitarianism is entitled One God and One Lord, presumably taken from this verse. On the other hand, Trinitarians have also used this text to make positive arguments for their position; indeed, this text has become one of the most important in claiming that Paul's theology was a prototype for Trinitarian theology.
The text reads thus: "Therefore concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him." (1 Cor. 8:4-6 NASB)
Unitarians point out that v. 6 says, "For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things" while mentioning Christ separately. Jesus is explicitly excluded from the "one God" and therefore cannot be a person in the Godhead. Jesus is given a subordinate, intermediary role, while the Father is the source of all things. New Testament scholars such as James D.G. Dunn see Ps. 110:1 (a pivotal Christological text for the early church) as the main background to the use of the word "Lord" here. Thus the title emphasizes how the Father has exalted the human Jesus to a heavenly position.

Trinitarians, on the other hand, claim that the text includes the Father and Christ together on the heavenly side of the Creator-creature divide that was all-important in Jewish monotheism. Scholars such as Tom Wright and Richard Bauckham see Deut. 6:4, the Shema, as main background to the language Paul uses here. Indeed, they argue that Paul has rearranged the words of the Shema, "the Lord our God is one Lord," to include Jesus within the identity of the one God.

So which interpretation of this pivotal text is more convincing? For me it is undoubtedly the latter. Firstly, if 1 Cor. 8:6 excludes Jesus from being God, it also excludes the Father from being Lord. But Paul is not using these titles for the Father and Son to the exclusion of one another, but to the exclusion of all other claimants to these titles. What should strike us in 1 Cor. 8:6 is not that Jesus is excluded from being God, but that Paul included Jesus in his argument that "there is no God but one." Surely a mere creature has no place in such discourse!

Secondly, 1 Cor. 8:5 appears to be an allusion to Deut. 10:17: "the LORD your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords." This is the only place in the Old Testament where "gods" and "lords" occur in the same sentence (Ciampa and Rosner in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, p. 718). Thus it is reasonable that Paul expected his readers to interpret v. 6 with reference to Deuteronomy as well.

Thirdly, as I have argued elsewhere, the use of the Greek preposition dia followed by a genitive requires that we see Christ as participating in creation: "through whom are all things and through whom we exist." The very same language is used of God in Rom. 11:36 (by Paul) and Heb. 2:10. Paul is writing on the nature and existence of gods; there is no indication in the immediate context that he is limiting the scope of his statements to the new creation. Thus, the "all things" should be taken as absolute, or qualified only with "in heaven or on earth" (v. 5).

It is not wrong to say that the man Jesus was exalted to the status of Lord by God  (Acts 2:36). However, for early Christians, this exaltation was an impetus for questions about Christ's identity rather than the answer to those questions. 1 Cor. 8:6 shows that for Paul, Jesus' Lordship ties into the very definition of Christian monotheism.