Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study
Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007
pp. xxv + 707
I. H. Marshall’s assessment of Professor Gordon Fee’s new book is much to the point. “Gordon Fee has done it again! Having given us the standard work of Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, he has now filled a surprising gap in Pauline studies by writing a remarkably comprehensive and detailed account of Pauline Christology.” To this Paul Achtemeier adds: “Thoroughly researched, comprehensive, and wide-ranging, this solid study is arranged in such a way that it is useful not only for its impact pointing as it does to the coherence of Paul’s christological thought but also for its careful exegetical studies of individual passages” (both from the dust jacket).
The “ground rules” of Fee’s approach are set out in his Introduction, which, for the purposes of this review, can be confined to four areas. First, Fee defines “christology” quite traditionally, as relating to the person of Christ, in distinction to his work: it is a question who he was/is, not what he did for us. Yet it is acknowledged that such a distinction is not one that Paul himself makes, because “if Christ is the singular passion of Paul’s life, the focus of that passion is on the saving work of Christ” (1-2). He admits that Paul’s refusal to differentiate between Christ’s person and his work makes for a difficulty, yet in a work of this sort the line must be drawn somewhere.
Second, while acknowledging that a narrative approach to Paul’s christology possesses some benefits, Fee opts for the combination of exegetical Analysis of passages (even at the risk of repetition) and a theological Synthesis of the materials, the same structure as his earlier work on the Spirit in Paul.[i] The Analysis is discernibly more technical than that of God’s Empowering Presence, and for that reason it is likely to be less appealing to non-specialists in the field. Consequently, some readers anyway may want to reserve this segment of the book as a commentary on the individual passages without necessarily poring over the details in a cover to cover reading. However, the Synthesis lightens up and makes for easier sledding. Indeed, this portion of the book is not only theologically rich but devotional in tone. In any event, as a specialist in Paul I value the attention to detail, along with the various chapter appendices serving as compendia of the relevant passages, especially the wisdom texts, which are not so readily available.
Third, of particular interest to readers will be the relation of exegesis to the traditional doctrines of the person of Christ and the Trinity. Fee is clear that the term “christology” in the book expresses “a very focused theological concern.” The issues of Chalcedon (Christ as one person with two natures) are not raised at all, since the question of the two natures arises only after one is convinced that the proper resolution of the biblical data about the one God and the “three divine persons” has been resolved in a Trinitarian way. Moreover, the actual Trinitarian questions about the one and the three as one God (Nicea) are not raised either, since that too lies beyond Paul’s expressed concerns. At issue in Fee’s book is, in his words, “the singular concern to investigate the Pauline data regarding the person of Christ in terms of whom Paul understood him to be and how he viewed the relationship between Christ, as the Son of God and Lord, and the one God, as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is therefore now revealed as our Father as well” (9). For Fee, the questions with which these later councils wrestled were simply not addressed by the NT authors, including Paul. Rather, they provide the “stuff” for the later theological resolutions (8). Later into the book, Fee responds to some criticisms of his use of “Trinitarian” in God’s Empowering Presence as proper nomenclature for Pauline theology, mostly because the word carries too much of “the baggage of later discussions that are concerned with how the three divine ‘persons’ cohere in unity of being.” In place of “Trinitarian,” Fee now prefers to speak of “proto-Trinitarian” (borrowed from Stanley Porter) as “a way of designating those texts where Paul himself, rigorous monotheist though he was, joins Father, Son and Spirit in ways that indicate the full identity of the Son and Spirit with the Father, but without losing that monotheism. But even with these qualifications, the synthesis portion of Fee’s study proceeds to demonstrate that Paul embraced a “high christology.”
In the fourth place, in a preview of his ensuing analysis of texts, Fee demonstrates that Paul’s christological thought is rooted particularly in the LXX. Quite convincingly, he argues that Paul knew and drew upon the text commonly identified as the LXX and that his readers would have picked up on echoes from it. As regards the latter, Fee illustrates with such well known historical documents as the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Anyone familiar with these documents and the culture from which they arose would have no difficulty in recognizing distinctive words and phrases (such as “four score and seven years ago”). Likewise, Paul’s readers would have been able to hear “echoes” from the Greek Scripture that modern readers may not necessarily be capable of recognizing. (This, I think, goes a long way in answering in the affirmative a question frequently posed by theological students: would Paul’s readers have been able to follow his allusions to the OT?) In the exposition of texts, these observations are applied, for example, in the way in which Paul uses the title Kyrios (“Lord”), most notably without the definite article and with certain prepositions. In other words, Kyrios as the LXX’s rendering of the divine name Yahweh means that Jesus is Lord in the same sense that God is. This equation of Christ with Yahweh is demonstrated extensively throughout the book. Additionally, Paul’s familiarity with the LXX, Fee argues, accounts for Paul’s reminder to the Galatians (4:14) that they received him as “the angel of God,” a recurring OT phrase that in English is usually rendered “the angel of the Lord.” This identification is supported by the next phrase, “as Christ Jesus” (229-31). This is a remarkable insight.
Moving to the body of the book, the investigation yields expected results from an evangelical scholar such as Fee, who is fully supportive of Paul’s “high christology.” In summary: (1) Christ is the preexistent and eternal Son of God (King of Israel). (2) As “equal with God,” Jesus is Lord in the “fully loaded” sense of the term (= Yahweh). (3) He is the incarnate redeemer (savior). (4) He possesses divine prerogatives and attributes, such as God’s glory and faithfulness. (5) He shares in divine activities and purposes, including creation, forgiveness and resurrection. (6) He is a member of the “proto-Trinity.” (7) He has now been exalted on high at God’s right hand and given the name above all names. (8) To him prayer may be addressed. (9) He is an object of worship, to whom Paul is completely devoted. (10) Ultimately, every knee will bow to him and every tongue confess that he is Lord. In contending for such theologoumena, Fee is not content to fall back on orthodox assumptions regarding Christ’s person, but rather the materials are examined methodically and microscopically with the aid of the best of contemporary scholarship. And the aggregate of the evidence is overwhelming: Paul had a very high christology indeed! Perhaps the whole can be distilled by one of Fee’s concluding comments on the christology of 1 Corinthians (148):
And finally, the most challenging matter of all remains: the danger of analysis without adequate appreciation for the absolute centrality of Christ for Paul, an analysis of what Paul believed about Christ by way of what he says about his Lord that fails to comprehend and communicate his utter and total devotion to Christ—a devotion that a good Jew could give only to his God. The reason Christ is mentioned more often than God in this letter, and in most of Paul’s letters, is not that Paul is not consistently theocentric in his thinking—he is indeed. Rather, his whole world had been radically reoriented by his encounter with the risen and exalted Lord, Jesus Christ. There is no longer any way that Paul can talk about God without at the same time automatically talking about what God has accomplished in and through his Son. And at the end of the day, however one handles the language of Paul’s express statements about Christ, there is no genuine Christology that does not account for Paul’s utter devotion to and longing for Christ, which finds expression here and in all of his letters.
To take the Analysis first, apart from the central thesis of the work, individual comments on the Pauline texts contain numerous insights for the commentator. As noted above, one of these insights is the translation of Gal 4:14 as “the angel of God,” a reference to the Angel of the Lord in the Hebrew Scriptures. Also in Galatians, there is the matter of Paul’s singular phrase “faith of Jesus Christ” (pistis Iēsou Christou). At least since the publication of Richard Hays’ Yale dissertation,[ii] there has been, as Fee observes, a groundswell of the NT scholarship that interprets the phrase as subjective genitive, i.e., pistis Iēsou Christou bespeaks Christ’s own covenant fidelity. Fee, however, takes issue with the growing consensus and argues persuasively, in my view, for the traditional objective genitive understanding of Paul’s choice of words.[iii] I personally like “adjectival genitive,” as suggested by Arland Hultgren, meaning that our faith is “Christic,” i.e., directed specifically to Jesus as the Lord of the new covenant.[iv] But in the end, objective and adjectival genitives come down to pretty much the same thing. Another instance is that in responding to those commentators on Phil 2:6-8 who have an aversion to the idea of imitating Christ, as though ethics were based finally on self-effort rather than on grace, Fee responds:
But these objections are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of imitatio in Paul’s thought, which does not mean “repeat after me” but rather (in the present context) “have a frame of mind which lives on behalf of others the way Christ did in his becoming incarnate and dying by crucifixion.” One can appreciate the desire not to let this profound passage lose its power by making it simply an exemplary paradigm, but Paul himself seems to have done that very thing (372, n. 6).
Thereafter, Fee explains, Paul follows up 2:6-8 with his own story in 3:5-14 as one who lives out the Christ-paradigm and urges the Philippians to follow his example of following the primary example, Christ, (3:15-17) and thus to live in the present in a cruciform manner. The disputed term harpagmos in Phil 2:6b is correctly taken by fee to be a “matter seized to be upon” in the sense of “taking advantage of it.” In other words, Christ’s equality with God was something that he refused to exploited for selfish ends. Rather, “he poured himself out” and became the obedient Servant of the Lord. This finds immediate application in the Philippians’ concrete situation, where Paul’s demand is for them to stop their internal squabbling (4:2-3) and get on with being God’s blameless children in pagan Philippi.[v] At the end of the day, I would add, Paul’s christology is intended to be practical: we are to imitate the incarnation by our willingness to relinquish our rights for the sake of being the servants of others.
The Synthesis brings together the exegetical data as they form a biblical theology of the person of Christ in Paul’s letters. At the forefront stands soteriology, i.e., the central role of Christ in salvation. As Fee expresses it, the phrase “salvation in Christ” serves as the basic summing up of Paul’s central theological concern. He makes four points. (1) There is a consistent “grammar” of salvation, which takes a triadic form: salvation is predicated on the love of God the Father, it is effected through the death and resurrection of Christ the Son, and it is made effective through the Spirit of God, who is also the Spirit of the Son. (2) The ultimate goal of salvation is not simply the saving of individuals but the creation of a people for God’s name, reconstituted in terms of a new covenant. (3) The framework of God’s salvation in Christ is thoroughly eschatological, meaning that Christ’s death and resurrection and the gift of the Spirit mark the turning of the ages, whereby God has set in motion a new creation, in which all things eventually will be made new at the eschatological conclusion of the present age. (4) The means of salvation in Christ is his death on the cross and his subsequent resurrection, whereby people are redeemed from enslavement to self and sin, and death itself has been defeated. This summary is then followed by a discussion of re-creation into the divine image as the ultimate goal of salvation.
All of this seems natural enough to those of us who have been raised on the Christian Scriptures; but careful reflection causes one to think again. Here is a thoroughgoing monotheist, raised in a context of absolute theocentrism, who now turns the larger part of his devotion to God toward the Lord Jesus Christ. This is Christology in evidence without Paul trying to make it so, and therefore it is all the more telling (490).
Thereafter comes a chapter on Christ the preexistent and incarnate savior. Of the essence of Fee’s approach is the significant point that Paul does not seek to demonstrate preexistence and incarnation as something to be argued for. Quite the opposite. In every case, Paul is arguing for something else on the basis of a commonly held belief in Christ as the incarnate Son of God. As Fee maintains, it is precisely this reality that makes the cumulative effect of the texts carry so much christological weight.
Were Paul arguing for incarnation, then one would pursue him with regard to both the what and the how of his argumentation, as to whether it “works” or is weighty. But when it is something Paul repeatedly argues from, then at issue is not whether Paul and his churches believed in Christ as the divine, preexistent Savior but what was the nature of that belief (501).
After that, the treatment of Jesus as Second Adam is conducted along the lines of a “middling” position, which does not limit itself to explicit references to Adam, but is still less inclusive than other approaches to what else in Paul’s writings actually makes a comparison of Christ with Adam viable, based on what appear to be certain connections made by Paul between Christ and the actual language of Genesis 1-3. There is here a renewed discussion of the new creation and Christ the image of God. The upshot is that Jesus is a truly human/divine savior. The final two chapters are concerned with Jesus the Jewish Messiah and Son of God and Jesus the Jewish Messiah and exalted Lord. Here Fee examines what the data suggest are Paul’s primary categories for understanding the person of Christ, i.e., who it was who functioned as Redeemer and Creator of the new humanity. The answer of these chapters is twofold: (1) the risen Jesus is none other than the preexistent Son of God, who came present among us to redeem; (2) the risen Jesus is the exalted Lord “seated at the right hand of God,” in fulfillment of Ps 110:1. In the first instance, the emphasis is on the relationship of the Son to the Father; and in the second, the stress is on the exalted Christ’s relationship to us and to the world. Both of these themes have their deepest roots in Jewish messianism, as based on the Davidic kingship. In a manner akin to N. T. Wright, Fee surveys the Jesus story as it forms the culmination of Israel’s story: creation, Abraham, Exodus, the law, kingship and the eschatological inclusion of the Gentiles. The outcome is that Jesus as the true Israel, as well as God’s true Son, is where all Son of God christology in the NT must begin, certainly including Paul. It is biblical at its very core: the messianic king of Israel, God’s true Son, is not simply one more in the line of David; he turns out, in fact, to be the incarnate Son, who in his incarnation reveals true sonship and true kingship.
There is little to say but that these chapters make not only for a rich and expansive exposition of Jesus’ messiahship for Paul but as well for an ideal introduction to the apostle’s theology of the new creation. In fact, this entire Synthesis portion of the book should be required reading for students of biblical theology.
Readers may be surprised that in the two places in his letters where Paul appears explicitly to call Christ God, Rom 9:5 and Titus 2:13, Fee denies that such is the case. As regards the former, Fee concludes: “It seems incongruous both to the letter as a whole and to the present context in particular—not to mention Paul’s usage throughout the corpus—that Paul should suddenly call the Messiah theos when his coming in the flesh is the ultimate expression of what God is doing in the world” (277). All things considered, he may very well be right, in spite of the fact that the majority of evangelical commentators favors the opposite conclusion. Paul’s objective in Romans 9-11 is to pursue his salvation historical argument that believers in Christ constitute the true remnant; they are the elect within the elect. As a kind of table of contents, Rom 9:1-5 sets the stage for this agenda. Paul commences by expressing his perpetual sorrow for his “kinsmen according to flesh” (v. 3). His grief is intensified by the fact that his generation has failed to enter into the historic privileges of the Jewish people, the most conspicuous of which is “the Christ (Messiah) according to the flesh” (v. 5). But the mention of the Christ, as he represents the apex of all of God’s good gifts to Israel, causes the apostle to burst out in doxology to the God who is over all, blessed forever. As Fee puts it, at this phase of the argument: “Paul now puts his emphasis on the fact that the Creator God is himself over all things, including especially the list of Jewish privileges that climaxed with the gift of ‘the Messiah in his earthly life’” (277). Titus 2:13 is understood along similar lines. The interpretation of Rom 9:5 hinges to a large degree on punctuation and word order, and Titus 2:13 too entails a certain element of ambiguity. A straightforward translation would be: “Awaiting the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of our great God and savior, Jesus Christ.” But as is frequently the case, there is more than meets the eye in the underlying Greek. What we can state for certain is that the verse contains two pairs of unified concepts. For one, “the blessed hope and manifestation” are bound together by one article and the conjunction “and” (kai), thus making them essentially one and the same. The “blessed hope” is the “manifestation of the glory….” The other part of the sentence is likewise a grammatical unit. It is here that the famous Granville Sharp Rule comes into play, i.e., two nouns controlled by a single article and joined by kai are understood as one entity, not two. Not only so, remarks Fee, the combination of adjective-noun-and-noun-adjective occurs elsewhere in Paul’s writings. To cut to the case, the understanding of the verse hinges on the question of apposition. At first, I was reluctant to accept Fee’s proposal, but on closer examination it would appear that he is right. In terms of both syntax and conceptuality, Jesus Christ is the blessed hope/manifestation of “the glory of our great God and savior.” Although, on this reading, Paul does not call Christ God as such, here is still, as Fee maintains, a very high christology.
My qualification is that even given the likelihood of Fee’s interpretation of Rom 9:5 and Titus 2:13, it is not necessarily out of place for Paul (suddenly or otherwise) to call Jesus God, if in fact his christology is as high as Fee says it is, as per so outstandingly the worship of Jesus. If Christ is the manifestation of God’s glory,[vi] then the question arises, who else but God could be the demonstration of God’s glory?[vii] It is not at all inherently improbably or “anomalous” that Paul should denominate Jesus as God, especially in light of Fee’s efforts to demonstrate that Kyrios for Paul is tantamount to Yahweh. Of course, texts must be subjected to a penetrating analysis. But even after that, we are not in a position to assume what Paul may or may not have written. It has to be remembered that even with all the wealth of the Pauline epistles, we would need an even larger corpus of literature to determine what is actually anomalous and what is not. And even then, there is a limit to what can be deduced, because an occasional reference is not necessarily an anomaly.
I must clarify that my concern is for a biblical theology, i.e., the way in which wisdom as a divine attribute (person) finds its ultimate embodiment in the incarnate Christ. In constructing such a christology as rooted in salvation history, Prov 8:22-31 has to be given its due: wisdom, the master builder, was present with Yahweh at the time of the creation. Bruce Waltke’s exposition of this text favors seeing wisdom not simply as a literary device but as a genuine hypostasis. Its first stanza, vv. 8:22-26, is summarized by Waltke in these terms: “The first stanza establishes that wisdom’s precedence in rank and dignity over the rest of the creation is both qualitative (i.e., begotten, not created) and temporal (i.e., existing “before” any other creature).” Then, after a survey options regarding the operative verb qānâ, Waltke opts for “bring forth” in the sense of begetting.[ix]
The metaphor “brought me forth” signifies that Solomon’s inspired wisdom comes from God’s essential being; it is a revelation that has an organic connection with God’s very nature and being, unlike the rest of creation that came into existence outside of him and independent from his being. Moreover, since this wisdom existed before creation and its origins are distinct from it, wisdom is neither accessible to humanity nor can it be subdued by human beings, but it must be revealed to people and accepted by them.[x]
Coming at the issue from this vantage point of biblical theology, as dependent on the unity of Scripture, I would want to read Paul in the light of the Fourth Gospel and Hebrews (not to say the Synoptics also). It is commonly acknowledged that in the prologues of both documents there is a wisdom christology, particularly as it bears on creation. If, then, Paul’s letters are not to be abstracted from the rest of the NT, then an allusion to preexistent wisdom was no more a problem for him than for John and Hebrews (or Matthew and Luke).
All in all, the bottom line is that Professor Fee’s book is the most thorough and compelling account of Paul’s christology to date and is nothing short of a great achievement. It is sure to remain the standard in the field for some time to come, and I am certain I will return to it repeatedly in my own research.
[i] Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994).
[ii] The Faith of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (Biblical Resource Series; 2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).
[iii] A similar linguistic analysis is provided by J. D. G. Dunn, “Once More, PISTIS CHRISTOU,” Pauline Theology. Volume IV: Looking Back, Pressing On (eds. E. E. Johnson and D. M. Hay; SBLSS 4; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997), 61-81.
[iv] Hultgren, “The Pistis Christou Formulation in Paul, ” NovT 22 (1980), 257, 259-60.
[v] See additionally Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 231-37.
[vi] Cf. James 2:1: “My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glory” (not “the Lord of glory,” because “Lord” is not in the text). James is equating Christ with “the glory,” i.e., the Shekinah.
[vii] In a personal communication, Professor Fee responds: “Doesn’t it seem a bit strange that Paul himself sets the parameters of Kyrios and Theos in 1 Cor 8:6, and that he keeps the distinctions absolutely throughout the corpus, and that the only two possible exceptions are so only by a given reading of the passage? That is, if this is so critical, why not have at least one clear and certain expression of it?” The point is well taken, but with one qualification: it is 1 Cor 8:6 that equates “Lord” with “Father” in this Christian form of the Shema. If our “one God” is both the “the Father” and “one Lord Jesus Christ,” then certainly the way is paved for the equation Christ = God.
[viii] Fee’s scepticism that Paul knew the book of Wisdom stands out rather notably in the present climate of Pauline research. The bulk of contemporary commentators on Romans maintain that Rom 1:18-32 is modeled on passages in Wisdom 10-13. I have provided some bibliography in ‘The Obedience of Faith’: A Pauline Phrase in Historical Context (WUNT 2/38; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1991), 68, n. 13. My friend Kevin Bywater’s nearly completed thesis at Durham advances even more evidence. Moreover, Fee tends to press linguistic analysis too hard, with a minimum of attention paid to conceptual analysis, particularly by insisting that prepositions like dia must be in evidence in order to establish that wisdom was conceived of as the agent of creation in this literature.
[ix] Waltke, The Book of Proverbs (NICOT; 2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004, 2005), 1.408.
[x] Ibid., 409.
[xi] While I would grant that Paul is not dependent on noncanonical literature for his conception of Christ the Creator, Fee too quickly dismisses as context passages like Wis 7:22; 8:4-6; 9:9. In such surroundings, Paul would be informing his contemporaries that eschatological wisdom is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. This would be especially relevant in light of the customary equation of wisdom with Torah. It is further to be noted that Fee acknowledges that Jewish writers celebrate wisdom in the setting of their ardour for monotheism. Likewise, Paul maintains monotheism, but a Christian monotheism that equates the Creator Christ with the wisdom whereby God brought the worlds into existence.