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Showing posts with label Pre-existence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pre-existence. Show all posts

Tuesday 11 February 2020

Jesus Christ in the Prologue of John: The Word Per Se, or the Word Made Flesh Only?

100-Word Summary

(Realizing that not everyone is prepared to read a 3000+-word blog article, I've decided to start providing a 100-word summary of each article for those who like their reading 'to go.')

Christadelphians frequently refer to Jesus as 'the Word made flesh,' a qualification meant to exclude that Jesus is the Word per se. However, considerable evidence supports identifying the Word with the person of Christ throughout John 1:1-18. These include that (i) 'the Word' per se is the referent of pronouns throughout John 1:14-16, some of which clearly denote a person; (ii) 'the Light' (another impersonal noun) clearly denotes the person of Christ in John 1:7-12; and (iii) links between John 1:1-3 and 1:7-18 show that 'the Word' in 1:1-3 has the same referent as 'the Light' and 'the Word' thereafter.

1. 'The Word Made Flesh' in Christadelphian Discourse
2. The Word as the Referent throughout John 1:14-16  
3. The Personal 'Light' in John 1:7-12
4. Linking Back to John 1:1-4
 4.1. 'All things came into being through the Word'
 4.2. 'In the beginning was the Word'
 4.3. 'The Word was with God, and the Word was God'
5. Conclusion  

In Christadelphian discourse, a common way of referring to Jesus Christ is, 'the Word made flesh.' A Google search for this exact phrase and the term 'Christadelphian' yields easily dozens of uses of this expression for Christ, including as the title of articles and talks.1 The source of the expression is John 1:14, quoted below in the KJV (which strongly influenced early Christadelphian tradition) and NABRE:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 KJV) 
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NABRE)
The term 'the Word made flesh' is not intrinsically problematic. If the Word became flesh, and this refers to the event through which Jesus came into the world, then Jesus truly is 'the Word made flesh.' The problem is that Christadelphians use this term specifically to emphasise that Jesus Christ cannot be identified with the pre-incarnate Word, i.e. the Word as described in John 1:1-4. In such contexts, the statement 'Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh' is intended to avoid the divinity and personal pre-existence of Christ. For instance, in his Christadelphian catechetical manual Bible Basics, Duncan Heaster writes,
it cannot be over-emphasized that Christ in person was not "the word"; it was God's plan of salvation through Christ which was "the word". 'Logos' ("the Word") is very often used concerning the Gospel about Christ - e.g. "the word of Christ" (Col. 3:16; cp. Matt. 13:19; John 5:24; Acts 19:10; 1 Thess. 1:8 etc.). Notice that the 'logos' is about Christ, rather than him personally. When Christ was born, this "word" was turned into a flesh and blood form - "the word was made flesh" (John 1:14). Jesus personally was 'the word made flesh' rather than "the word"; he personally became "the word" through his birth of Mary, rather than at any time previously. (emphasis added)
Similarly, the well-known Christadelphian apologetics work Wrested Scriptures states, 'Christ was the result of the word made flesh, not the originator of the divine plan.'2 Again, an article by Matt Davies seeking to answer Trinitarians' questions states of John 1:14, 'If you read this verse carefully you will note that the word was with God from the beginning. Jesus was not the word. He was “the word made flesh” in v14.' A Belgian Christadelphian blogger writes emphatically, 'Jesus is not an idea thought, spoken or written down – he is a man. He is the word made flesh, not the word!'

Christadelphians do not understand 'the Word' to be a divine person who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. The logos is understood as an idea or purpose that became actualised and personified in the man Jesus,3 who is also 'the Word made flesh' inasmuch as his character perfectly revealed the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures.4

The typical Christadelphian interpretation of John 1:14a described can be summarised thus: Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh because he, a human being, embodies the plan, purpose and law of God. I say typical, and not unanimous, because there has been one noteworthy dissenting voice: that of Harry Whittaker. In his book Studies in the Gospels, Whittaker describes the usual interpretation of the Word in John 1 as the eternal Divine Purpose in Christ. He rings off seven difficulties with this interpretation and thus rejects it, concluding instead that 'the Word' in John 1 refers to 'Jesus the Man, and not Jesus the Idea or Purpose.' This might appear to point toward orthodox Christological inferences (the pre-existence and divinity of Christ), but Whittaker insists that 'the beginning' described in John 1:1 is the beginning of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' ministry, not the beginning of all creation, and that the absence of the definite article from theos in 'the Word was God' 'weakens the meaning' of this phrase.5

The phrase 'the Word made flesh' does not occur in Scripture, but is adapted from John 1:14, which states that 'the Word became (KJV: 'was made') flesh...' However, what is often overlooked is that this is merely the first of several statements that are made about 'the Word' in John 1:14-16.

The transliterated Greek of John 1:14 reads thus,6 with my clause-by-clause literal translation. In my translation I replace pronouns with their referent to avoid having to choose between personal ('his') vs. impersonal ('its') pronouns, which could bias the reader for or against interpreting the referent as a person.7

kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskēnōsen en hēmin
And the Word became flesh and settled (lit. 'tented' or 'tabernacled') among us,
 kai etheasametha tēn doxan autou
and we beheld [the Word's] glory,
 doxan hōs monogenous para patros
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
 plērēs charitos kai alētheias
full of grace and truth. 

It is important to observe that ho logos is the subject of both verbs in John 1:14a. The Word became flesh and the Word settled among us, not, the Word became flesh and the resulting entity (Word-made-flesh) settled among us. Moreover, the Word is the unambiguous referent of several pronouns in vv. 14-16:
and we beheld [the Word's] glory (tēn doxan autou)... John testified about [the Word] (peri autou) and cried out, saying, 'This [Word] was the one of which/whom (houtos ēn hon) I said, "The one (ho) coming after me ranks ahead of me because he/it existed before me."' From [the Word's] fullness (tou plērōmatos autou) we have all received, and grace upon grace.
From this syntactical observation (that 'the Word' per se is in view throughout vv. 14-16) follows the exegetical conclusion that 'the Word' per se is Jesus Christ personally. If the reader harbours any doubt about this, consider the following. (i) The Word per se settled among us. (ii) The Word's glory is equated with the glory of the only Son from the Father.8 (iii) John the Baptist makes a remark about the Word (John 1:15) that is repeated almost verbatim when he sees Jesus of Nazareth approaching (John 1:30). Thus, the narrator construes John the Baptist's remark about Jesus as a remark about the Word. (iv) Finally, the Evangelist in v. 16 describes having received grace from the Word's fullness, but v. 17 states that grace came through Jesus Christ. In summary, it could not be much clearer that, throughout John 1:14-17, Jesus Christ is the Word per se,  not merely 'the Word made flesh' in some figurative sense (e.g., a human being who fulfills the Scriptures like no other). The Word, according to John 1:14-17, is personally the Son of God.

One of the main arguments that unitarians make against interpreting 'the Word' in the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18) as the Son of God personally is that ho logos, 'the Word,' is an impersonal noun (and used as such through the Old Testament). Hence, it is proposed that a literary technique such as personification is in use here, and we are not to see in 'the Word' an actual person. A serious flaw in this argument emerges from the very text of the Prologue, where 'the Light' (to phōs)—an equally impersonal noun—clearly refers to the person Jesus Christ in John 1:7-12, a portion of the Prologue that falls between the two paragraphs about 'the Word.'

'The light' is first mentioned in John 1:4-5 in connection with the Word, but here 'the light' seems to be an abstract noun opposite 'the darkness.' Only from v. 7 onward does it become evident that the author is (perhaps inspired by his language in 1:4-5) using 'the Light' in a more specialised sense to refer to the person that is Jesus Christ.

John 1:6 introduces John [the Baptist] as 'a man sent from God.'9 As in 1:15, John's function is to testify about (peri) another. The topic of John's testimony is, in 1:7, the Light; in 1:15, the Word; in 1:29-34 and 3:26-30, Jesus Christ the Son of God. This is already a clear indication that the Word = the Light = the Son of God. John testifies about the Light 'so that all might believe di' autou (through him/it).' The final pronoun autou refers to the Light rather than John, and anticipates numerous statements later in the Gospel about all/everyone believing in Jesus (e.g., John 3:15-16, 6:40, 11:48, 12:46). One hardly needs to mention that Jesus explicitly identifies himself as 'the Light' later in the Gospel (8:12; 9:5; 12:46)!10

Only in v. 8 does it become completely obvious that the narrator is using the term 'the Light' for a person. He offers a clarification concerning John the Baptist—'He was not the Light'—that would be superfluous if 'the Light' were not, like John, a person. Once again, this statement anticipates later material in the Gospel narrative in which John admits that he is 'not the Christ' (1:20; 3:28). This reinforces the identification of 'the Light' as Jesus Christ. V. 9 speaks of 'the true light' 'coming into the world.' Both of these ideas—Jesus as definitively 'true' (John 1:17; 14:6) and as having 'come into the world' as light (3:17-19; 12:46) recur later in the Gospel.11

The Prologue does not explicitly mention 'the Light' after v. 9, but vv. 10-12 contain five pronouns of which 'the Light' is the only plausible referent. Moreover, there is not the slightest doubt that a person is in view here. I will again replace pronouns with their referent to avoid biasing the reader through the gender of the translated pronouns:
[The Light] was in the world, and the world through [the Light] (di' autou) came into being, and the world did not know [the Light] (auton). Unto [the Light's] own [the Light] came, and [the Light's] own did not receive [the Light] (auton). As for those who did receive [the Light] (auton), [the Light] gave them power to become children of God, those who believed in [the Light's] name (to onoma autou)
Once again, these statements about the Light anticipate statements about Jesus later in the Gospel. The contrast between things that 'came into being' (egeneto, middle aorist of ginomai) and the Light through which/whom they came into being anticipates Jesus' contrast between Abraham, who 'came into being' (genesthai, middle aorist of ginomai) and Jesus himself who simply 'is' (John 8:58).12 That the Light was not received by the Light's 'own' (v. 11) anticipates the Fourth Gospel's emphasis on Jesus' rejection by 'the Jews.' Note, in particular, Pilate's words at the trial: 'I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me' (John 18:35). Similarly, speaking with 'the Jews' about the Scriptures: 'I came in the name of my Father, but you do not receive me' (John 5:43). The contrast between those that did not receive the Light and those that did anticipates John 3:32-33, and the statement about the Light's 'name' anticipates the Gospel's emphasis on belief in Jesus' name (John 2:23; 3:18; 20:31) and the life-giving power thereof (14:14; 14:26; 16:23-24).

Until now we have said little about the much-controverted opening statements about the Word in John 1:1-4. We have identified clear evidence that 'the Word' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:14-17, and that 'the Light' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:7-12. This provides us with a strong circumstantial case that 'the Word' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:1-4. However, not content to rest our case, we will briefly observe how the statements about the Word in these opening lines are repeated and reinforced in the rest of the Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] nothing came into being. In [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)
Of course, the most obvious link between John 1:1-4 and the rest of the Prologue is the term 'the Word' (ho logos). Barring the implausible event that the writer had two different 'Words' in mind within the Prologue, 'the Word' of John 1:14-16—who is clearly personal, as already seen—is 'the Word' of John 1:1-4.

We begin with v. 3 because it is crucial to establishing the temporal setting of the passage. We are 'in the beginning' (v. 1) when 'all things came into being.' This sounds like an obvious allusion to the Genesis creation, but some unitarians such as Harry Whittaker insist that 'the beginning' here is the beginning of Jesus' ministry, which inaugurated the new creation. True, the Johannine Jesus does use the word archē ('beginning') a few times of the start of his ministry (John 6:64, 8:25, 15:27, 16:4). However, none of these texts use the term en archē ('In the beginning'), which is borrowed from Gen. 1:1 LXX.13 The key observation here is the link between v. 3 and v. 10:
All things came into being through [the Word] (panta di' autou egeneto)
The world came into being through [the Light] (ho kosmos di' autou egeneto)
These statements clearly equate 'the Light' of v. 10 (which, as we have already seen, is the Son of God personally) with 'the Word' of vv. 1-3. Not only so, but they equate 'all things' in v. 3 with 'the world' in v. 10. Now, given the consistently negative connotation of 'the world' in the Fourth Gospel,14 there is simply no chance that the author would use 'the world' as shorthand for 'the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' ministry.' John's Gospel depicts Jesus as entering into the world to save it, not as entering the world and then creating the world!

From the above, it follows that the 'beginning' of John 1:1-2 is the primeval beginning, not the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry. The notion that the Word 'was' (ēn, imperfect verb) in the beginning anticipates the John the Baptist's testimony in vv. 15, 30 (concerning the Word and then concerning Jesus) that 'he was (ēn, imperfect) before me.' Since John the Baptist's testimony is unmistakably about Jesus personally, the link to vv. 1-2 shows that 'the Word' that 'was in the beginning' also denotes the same person. 

The sublime statement of John 1:1b-c contains an obvious paradox: the Word was with God, which would ordinarily imply that the Word was not God, and yet indeed the Word was God. The observation that the first theos has the definite article while the second theos lacks it is not a persuasive argument for weakening the sense of the second theos.15 That theos carries its fullest sense in 1:1b and 1:1c is supported by the way the ideas of 1:1 are restated in 1:14 and 1:18. Both of these latter texts offer statements of the Word's/Son's divinity precisely in the context of an intimate relationship with God.

The word skenoō in John 1:14 ('the Word...settled among us') is a verbal form of the Greek word for tent (skēnē). This is probably not coincidental but is an intended allusion to the Old Testament tabernacle, or tent,16 where God dwelt from the time of Moses until Solomon's Temple was built. God had promised, 'I will set my tent among you' (Lev. 26:11). The people saw God's glory when a cloud covered the tabernacle and the glory of God filled it 'in the sight of the whole house of Israel' (Ex. 40:34-38). That John intended to allude to this background in 1:14 is implied both by the explicit Moses/Jesus comparison in 1:17, as well as the similar imagery used in 2:19-22, where Jesus' body is described as a temple (paralleling the notion of 1:14 that his flesh was a tabernacle).

In the Old Testament, it is consistently God's glory that the people behold,17 whereas in John 1:14 the glory that is beheld is that of the Word. By describing the glory in terms of the Father-Son relationship, John shows that his intention in ascribing divine glory to the Word is not to displace God the Father—just as in 1:1, where the Word 'was God' but also 'was with God.' The statement that 'we beheld [the Word's] glory' anticipates two other editorial comments in the Gospel of John that refer to 'his glory' (tēn doxan autou) being revealed or seen. In both of these cases, 'his' is Jesus Christ! In the first statement, the narrator describes Jesus' sign at Cana thus: 'Jesus...so revealed his glory' (John 2:11). This text alludes to Isa. 40:5,which foretells that the glory of Yahweh would be revealed.18 Again, in John 12:41, after explaining unbelief in Jesus in terms of oracles from Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 6, the Evangelist offers the editorial comment, 'Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.' The 'his' and 'him' can only refer to Jesus,19 yet John is referring to a vision in which Isaiah saw Yahweh's glory in the temple (Isa. 6:1-3)! 

Thus, the statements about the Word in John 1:14 draw on Old Testament statements about God's presence and glory and thus clearly convey the Word's divinity (as in 1:1c), in the context of an intimate Father-Son relationship with God (as in 1:1b). In the Old Testament we frequently read of 'the word of the Lord' and of 'the glory of the Lord,' but here in John we read of 'the glory of the Word'!

The Father-Son relationship between God and the Word is conveyed most strikingly in the adjective monogenēs ('only', 'only-begotten'), which is used in both 1:14 and 1:18. However, whereas in 1:14 monogenēs does not explicitly modify a noun (so that one implicitly reads the noun 'Son'),20 it appears in 1:18 that monogenēs modifies the noun theos; thus, 'the only-begotten God.' There is a text-critical problem here, as the earliest manuscripts have monogenēs theos but others have monogenēs huios ('only-begotten Son'). I have discussed the text-critical problem in more detail elsewhere, but if the NA28 critical edition of the Greek New Testament is correct that monogenēs theos is the original reading, then John 1:18, the closing verse of the prologue, combines with John 1:1, the opening verse of the prologue, to form an inclusio. Just as 1:1 states that the Word was with God and yet was God, so 1:18 states that the only-begotten is God and yet is in the bosom of the Father.

When studying the Prologue of John, as with any other Scripture, there is always the risk of reading one's preconceived theological ideas into the text. One remedy for this is to closely study the syntax (the way the words fit together to form clauses and sentences) and the local context (the way the author weaves the Prologue into a coherent whole that anticipates the narrative that follows). When we do this, I believe we can arrive at something approaching certainty that the author of the Fourth Gospel used the terms 'the Word' and 'the Light' in the Prologue to refer to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, personally. Jesus is the Word made flesh, but before he became flesh he was already the Word in the beginning, the Word that was with God and was God, the Word through whom all things came into being.


  • 1 See, e.g., the online archive of talks from the Eastern Christadelphian Bible School in 1999; and the 2014 edition of Christadelphian magazine Glad Tidings.
  • 2 Ron Abel, Wrested Scriptures: A Christadelphian handbook of Suggested Explanations to Difficult Passages (Pasadena: Geddes, n.d.), 194; emphasis original.
  • 3 'He was so powerfully and completely the word made flesh... all the ideas inherent in God and in His word were expressed seamlessly in Jesus' (from Christadelphian Advancement Trust); 'God’s plan and purpose which had previously been expressed in the words that He had communicated to the patriarchs and through prophets, had now been embodied in human form' (John Carter, 'The Word Made Flesh,' Glad Tidings, 1567 [2014]: 15); '[Q:] Did the Lord Jesus pre-exist before his miraculous birth that was the result of the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary? [A:] He existed only in the mind, plan and purpose of Yahweh and this is the reason why in the opening chapter of the gospel of John he is described as “the word made flesh”' (Christadelphian Baptismal Review Book, p. 30); 'Because God instructed His Son and placed His words in his mouth, Jesus was also called “the Word made flesh”' (Christadelphian Bible Mission, Lesson 18, p. 4).
  • 4 'Christ’s character and his whole way of life were formed by God’s word. So complete was its effect on his mind that he is described as the “word made flesh” (John 1:14)' (Rick O'Connor, The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name); 'So if the word was a declaration of God and His plan, how could this be made flesh? ... the first aspect of Jesus being the word made flesh is the actual realisation of God’s declaration foretelling the birth of His Son through the seed of a woman... The second aspect of God’s word being manifest in the flesh was down to the life followed by the sacrifice of Jesus... As Jesus was a man who never once gave in to the lusts of human flesh common to all humanity and who was always totally obedient to his Father’s will, this demonstrated that he was indeed the ‘word made flesh’: a perfect manifestation of his Father’s character, will and purpose in everything he said and did' (Chris Maddocks, God's Word/Logos; Maddocks goes on to describe two other aspects related to Jesus' atoning sacrifice and resurrection).
  • 5 Harry Whittaker, 'The Word (John 1:1-5),' Study 13 in Studies in the Gospels (n.d.).
  • 6 Following NA28 critical text. There are no significant text-critical problems pertaining to this verse.
  • 7 The Greek pronouns used are all masculine, but this is basically necessitated by the masculine gender of the noun logos. Gender does not play the same role in Greek syntax as in English, so the gender of the pronouns does not help us to determine whether or not the author regards this logos is a person.
  • 8 The conjunction hōs ('as') need not be understood as comparing the Word's glory to the glory of another, the only Son—this would make little sense. Rather, hōs functions as a marker pointing to the nature of the thing described. BDAG lexicon regards John 1:14 as an instance in which hōs functions as a 'marker introducing the perspective from which a person, thing, or activity is viewed or understood as to character, function, or role' (p. 1104). For similar instances, see 1 Peter 4:15a ('Let no one... suffer as a murderer': not like a murderer but actually being a murderer), 1 Thess. 2:7 ('we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ'; not like apostles of Christ but actually being apostles of Christ), Col. 3:12 ('Put on then, as God's chosen ones...': not like God's chosen ones but actually being God's chosen ones), and Heb. 12:27 ('That phrase, "once more," points to removal of shaken things, as of created things': not like created things but actually being created things. Basically, the sense is: 'we beheld the Word's glory—glory, that is, of the only Son of the Father.
  • 9 This expression is sometimes used by unitarians as evidence that the abundant language in John's Gospel about Jesus being 'sent from God,' 'coming from God,' 'coming down from heaven,' etc. does not imply pre-existence. However, John the Baptist's own words in John 1:15 and 1:30 undercut this interpretation by contrasting his own origin with that of Jesus Christ.
  • 10 Particularly striking is the parallel between John 1:7-9 and 12:46: 'that all might believe through [the Light]... The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.' 'I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.'
  • 11 On Jesus having come into the world, see also John 6:14; 10:36; 11:27; 16:28; 17:18; 18:37.
  • 12 Of course, John 8:58 also draws on God's great 'I am he' statements in Isaiah 40-55 (Isa. 41:4; 43:10-13; 43:25; 45:18; 45:19; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6), and ultimately on the divine name in Exodus 3:14, and also parallels the psalmist's declaration about God in Psalm 89(90):2 LXX, 'Before the mountains came into being... you are.'
  • 13 See John 8:44 for another use of archē in a primeval sense.
  • 14 E.g., John 1:29, 3:16-19, 7:7, 8:23, 12:31, 14:17, 14:27, 15:18-19, 16:8-11, 17:9, 17:14-16, 18:36.
  • 15 To translate John 1:1c 'and the Word was a god' is syntactically legitimate, since theos lacks the article, unlike in 1:1b and 1:2. However, the word order of the clause (kai theos ēn ho logos) reverses the pattern of 1:1b and 1:2, in which the subject ho logos precedes the verb, and instead puts theos first. In Greek, word order does not affect syntactical sense but instead conveys emphasis. Thus theos is the most emphatic word in John 1:1c, which does not square with the theory that the writer intends theos to have a weaker sense than in 1:1b. The absence of the article in 1:1c can be explained as the author's way of clarifying that the Word is not a separate God from ho theos of 1:1b. The statement conveys the divinity of the Word, rather than positing a second, lesser god.
  • 16 In the Septuagint Greek translation of the Torah, the tabernacle is referred to as hē skēnē, 'the tent.'
  • 17 Thus, for example: 'Moses said, "Please let me see your glory!"' (Ex. 33:18); 'Yahweh, our God, has indeed let us see his glory and his greatness' (Deut. 5:24); 'I look to you in the sanctuary to see your power and glory' (Ps. 63:3); 'The heavens proclaim his justice; all peoples see his glory' (Ps. 97:4); 'Then the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together' (Isa. 40:5); 'I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; they shall come and see my glory' (Isa. 66:18).
  • 18 John, like the other Evangelists, has already interpreted this oracle from Isaiah 40 as being fulfilled in Jesus' ministry, by having John the Baptist identify himself as the one who makes straight the way of the Lord (John 1:23).
  • 19 See the autos of v. 37.
  • 20 As is explicit in John 3:16, 18.

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.