The question of Christ's pre-existence and divinity moves us close to the heart of the question of biblical theology in relation to Christian theology. Christians believe that Christ was the pre-existent, divine, second person of the Trinity, "light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father."
However, there is some debate about exactly how the NT authors understood Christ's pre-existence and divinity. Although the majority of scholars believe John and Paul affirmed the literal pre-existence of Jesus, a significant minority sees this language as highly metaphorical, Christ as the embodiment of God's wisdom and his Word for the world. Further, is language of Christ's divinity an exalted expression of his royal representation of God the Father rather than an affirmation of ontological substance?
This raises the question: do we have to come to a particular conclusion regarding the original meaning of the NT on these issues in order to be orthodox Christians? Certainly this is the modernist evangelical position and, in a different way, it was the presumption of liberal scholarship of the modernist era as well. Evangelical scholars of course do not believe that the NT expresses a full blown Nicean Christology, but they would usually argue that the NT has a seminal Christology that is in continuity with later Nicene affirmations.
In theory, however, orthodox Christian beliefs about Christ could be true whether or not they were what the NT authors themselves were thinking. The biblical text itself can certainly be read in accordance with Christian beliefs. Does it matter whether this is what the NT authors actually had in mind with the words? Could God have intended more with the words than the original authors could have imagined, much as when Caiaphas said it was better for one man to die than for all the people to die? We smile because we see in these words a meaning Caiaphas himself could not have seen--that Jesus died so that God's people did not have to.
The earliest candidate in the NT for a statement of Christ's pre-existence appears in 1 Corinthians 8:6: "For us there is one God, the Father, from whom [are] all things and we for him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom [are] all things and we through him."
Most scholars would see this comment as a reference to Christ's literal agency in creation. This conclusion of course depends on what Paul means by "through whom are all things." Jerome Murphy-O'Connor and James Dunn see this in relation to Christ as the one through whom God has reconciled all things rather than a reference to his pre-existent agency in creation. Nothing in the words themselves disproves this interpretation. The words in themselves could mean either!
It is perhaps most Christian to read these words in relation to Christ's agency in creation. Can we read the words in that way regardless of what Paul meant? The modernist evangelical tends to say no. But we can debate this claim. Certainly most Christians throughout the ages have not been a position really to ask or know how to go about answering this question. And the NT often does not read the OT in context.
The debate over the original meaning quickly gets us into a discussion of Jewish logos speculation. Philo's writings reflect a tradition of God's word or logos as the instrument through which God created the world and through which God acted in the world. We can even speak of a kind of specialized "metaphysics of prepositions" in philosophical circles where the expression "through which" was used to express the instrumental cause of something.
Since logos imagery is used elsewhere in the NT, it is as plausible as not that the places where Christ is said to be the one through whom God created the world was originally based on the idea of Jesus as God's logos. Passages other than 1 Corinthians 8:6 of this sort include
"He is the image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation,
because by him all things were created ...
all things through him and for him have been created"
"Who is a reflection of the glory
And the stamp of his [God's] substance
And bringing all things by the word of his power"
In the beginning was the Logos
And the Logos was with God
And the Logos was God.
This one was in the beginning with God
All things through him came into existence
And apart from him not even one thing came to exist.
This imagery all seems to draw on a similar thought background. Hebrews' comment probably alludes to Wisdom 7:26, which refers to God's wisdom:
"She is a reflection of eternal light...
And the image of his goodness"
God's wisdom and God's word (logos) are closely associated in these Jewish traditions, as Wisdom 9:2 indicates:
You "made all things through your wisdom,
And by your word made humanity"
In the case of these texts in Colossians and Hebrews alone, it seems difficult to know whether the imagery is meant literally or highly figuratively--Jesus as God's wisdom in creation and as his authoritative word for the world. In the case of John, however, texts elsewhere clearly mention that Jesus existed "before the worlds began" (e.g., John 17:5). The question is whether John represents a new development in NT thinking or whether Paul thought this way much much earlier.
In discussions of Paul, the interpretation of the Philippian hymn seems determinative, and most scholars believe it speaks of Christ's literal pre-existence. We might note in passing that Christ's agency in creation is not evoked in the Philippian hymn. Passages about Christ as the one through whom God made the world imply pre-existence, but some interpret this language literally and others figuratively. Some of those who take language of pre-existence literally in Philippians still take the language of agency in creation figuratively.
The Philippian hymn states about Christ that
Although he existed in the form of God
He considered equality with God something not to exploit
But he emptied himself
Having taken the form of a servant
Having become in the likeness of humans
And having been found in shape as a human
He humbled himself
Having become obedient to the point of death
Therefore God super-exalted him
And gave him the Name above every name
That every knee should bow and tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is LORD.
There are a million breakdowns of the poetry here. I've omitted three portions of the hymn as potential Pauline additions. I remain deeply in doubt about the form of the third stanza. In my opinion, we will leave a discussion of the original meaning of the hymn with great uncertainties dispite colossal argumentation on all sides on many, many issues.
As far as pre-existence is concerned, the locus of the debate centers on what I have as the first stanza. "Form of God" is in contrast to "form of a servant," which leads me to side with those who see the issue as one of status rather than being "in very nature God" as the NIV translates the phrase. Dunn of course famously argues that form of God refers to "image of God" and thus depicts Christ as the last Adam. Most do not follow him on this interpretation. If the second line is to be translated as I translate it, Dunn's interpretation is eliminated.
Nevertheless, even going with "form of God" as a reference to Christ's royal status as Son of God might or might not imply pre-existence. "Taking the form of a servant" is something we all might reasonably do as we "have the mind that was in Christ Jesus." Shape is not evoked indisputably until the line "having been found in shape as a human." In short, the meaning of this passage seems uncertain to me in itself. The final interpretation will have a lot to do with what you bring to the text rather than the actual words of the text. And we simply do not have enough information on what Paul brought to this text to know for sure what the original meaning was.
When we as Christians affirm the pre-existence of Christ, therefore, we are affirming a belief of the church drawn most certainly on the Gospel of John as well as on the church's traditional interpretation of Paul, regardless of what he might have actually meant himself.
The question of Christ's divinity faces similar questions of pre-suppositions. As Christians we interpret a number of passages with Christian beliefs about Christ as the eternally begotten Son of the Father, begotten, not made. Again, it is not clear that it would be wrong for Christians to read such passages in this way even if the NT authors were not thinking in precisely the same ways.
Language of Jesus as Son of God, for example, evokes royal imagery from the OT. Psalm 2, 2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 89:27, even Psalm 45:6-7 all referred originally to a human king. The language of Jesus as Son of God, Christ, and Messiah would not in itself, therefore, imply as much as we understand to be true about Christ. Acts 2:36; 13:33; Romans 10:9; Philippians 2:11; and Hebrews 1:4-5 all locate the timing of Christ most poignantly receiving these titles, including that of Lord, as the point of his exaltation to God's right hand, post-resurrection--not of the pre-existent Christ.
In itself, the use of "Lord" holds more potential implications in relation to "divinity," for Paul quotes passages about the exclusive worship of the LORD from the OT in relation to Jesus (e.g., Isaiah 45:23; Joel 2:32). Surely the "Name above all names" in the Philippian hymn is Yahweh, LORD. And John 8:38 surely indicates that Jesus is the LORD who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, "Before Abraham was, I AM."
Yet one can also argue that this is all highly metaphorical language of Jesus' cosmic kingship. The Philippian hymn ends with the qualifier that the super-exaltation of Jesus as LORD is still "to the glory of God the Father," and it occurs post-resurrection. And although Jesus is called God in Hebrews 1:8, the next verse disquishes Jesus as God from "God, your God." Even Psalm 110:1 distinguishes between the Messiah as Lord and Yahweh as LORD, and this verse is applied at the point of the resurrection (Acts 2:36; Heb. 1:4-5).
Larry Hurtado has argued vigorously that Jesus is worshipped in these hymnic passages in the NT, not to mention in Revelation. He argues for a significant break between Christianity and Jewish monotheism very early on. N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham also argue for a kind of "christological monotheism" that we see in the earliest pages of the NT. But the usual verb to worship, proskyneo, is used of human kings as well as God. The consistent subordination of Jesus to God in the NT makes it quite possible that Hurtado's argument is overstated. And key texts from 1 Corinthians 8:6 to Ephesians 4:5-6 make a sharp distinction between the one God and the one Lord.
On these matters, the question of biblical versus Christian theology is posed most urgently. Must we demonstrate that the original meaning of these passages declares the faith of the later church in a literal way? The fact that the NT often does not interpret the OT contextually undermines to some extent this impetus of the modernist approach.
Perhaps the most important fact is that the biblical text in itself can be read in an orthodox way, regardless of the specifics that Paul and others might have had in mind. These specifics of the original meaning are uncertain to a very high degree, in my opinion. Of course both Arius and Athanasius invoked Scripture in the great trinitarian arguments of the fourth century. The Nicene Creed as it stands was forced to turn to extra-biblical categories to set the boundaries of orthodoxy.
As with the matter of Christ's pre-existence, it seems to me that regardless of what the authors of the NT themselves had in mind in the key christological texts, their original meaning, there is a "Christian" way to read these texts. This Christian way of reading understands Christ to be the eternally begotten Son of the Father, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father. And this reading does not clearly depend on the specifics of what Paul or the other NT authors actually had in mind when they wrote these things.