Lesson 3: The New Testament: St. Paul's Hymns of Christ

St. Paul has at least two central motifs in his letters: the justification of the sinner in Christ and the Church as the Body of Christ. By speaking of justification (especially in Romans and Galatians), he teaches that sinners have been made righteous by Christ's death and resurrection. Thus we have the establishment of a holy people. The reality of the Body of Christ shows that the same Spirit indwelling Jesus now indwells the Church. Thus we see the establishment of a holy land. Taking together the twin themes of holy people - holy land, St. Paul depicts Jesus as the Messiah through whom God has established the universal kingdom of the Church.

The Christological Hymns

Among all of the central texts for the development of the theology of the person of Christ, certain sections of St. Paul take prominence. Because these passages are so carefully written and concisely expressed, and because they often bring in peculiar vocabulary, many scholars believe that these passages may have been hymns about Christ already used by the early Church. Whether that is the case, or whether Paul composed them while writing his letters, they give a wonderful testimony to Christ.

Colossians 1:15-20: Creation and Redemption

The greatest teaching of this passage comes across through the strict parallel between the order of creation and the order of redemption, both accomplished in and through Christ.

See the following chiastic structure. A chiasm is a literary structure that moves from A to B and then from B' to A' in order to hold two ideas in juxtaposition. President John F. Kennedy's famous challenge, "Ask not what your country can do for you; but what you can do for your country," can be diagrammed as follows:

A          Ask not what your country
B                   can do for you;
B'                   but what you
A'          can do for your country.

A similar pattern can be seen in Colossians 1:15-20.

"He is the image of the invisible God,

A         the first-born of all creation;

for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him.

B                 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

B'                He is the head of the body, the church;

A'         he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.

For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross."

Important parallels:

Christ holds together all creation -- He holds together the new creation, the Church.

Christ was the first-born of creation (not being literally created or else all things would not be created through him, but first-born as the pattern of all things created) -- He is the first-born from the dead, i.e. the first born of the resurrection.

All things created through him -- all things reconciled through him.

Philippians 2:5-11

5Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God (morphe theou),
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped ,
7but emptied himself (kenosen), taking the form of a servant (morphe doulou), 
being born in the likeness of men.
8And being found in human form (anthropos) he humbled himself
and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
9Therefore God has highly exalted him 
and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, 
to the glory of God the Father.

Key Themes

"A thing to be grasped": This passage has been interpreted in many different ways. "Grasped" can be read as "robbed". St. Augustine said that it meant that equality with God was not a thing to be robbed because Christ was already equal to God. Others have seen in this same line that equality with God was not a thing to be robbed because Christ who was unequal to God did not fall prey to Adam's sin of wanting to be like God. These interpretations both see that the text is primarily about whether Jesus Christ is equal or unequal to God. But this does not seem to fit with the context of the passage. The interpretation that fits best, I would argue, is to interpret "grasped" not as "robbed" but as "exploited" (see N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant). Thus is would read, though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited. Namely, Jesus did not exploit his power as God to avoid suffering. This presumes that Jesus was equal to God, but tells us more than this -- Jesus did not exploit his equality. This is the moral example we are to follow. This leads quite appropriately into the next part describing Jesus becoming man and suffering death.

"Emptied himself": The Greek word here is kenosis. This has given rise to the so-called kenotic theories of Christology. These tend to say that Jesus literally emptied himself of his divinity to become a man. The Word, according to this view, no longer was present in the governance of the universe while he walked among men. But the emptying himself does not need to be interpreted this way. Kenosis does mean "to empty oneself", but it also can mean "to stoop down" or "to humble oneself". And this fits again with the overall context of the passage. Paul introduces this hymn of Christ as a way of exhorting his Christians to humility. Look at Philippians 2:3-4: "Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interested, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus. . . ." If "emptied himself" meant literally to give up his divinity, then the parallel would be that Paul's listeners should literally give up their humanity or something. But this parallel fails. If we interpret it as "humbled himself", then the parallel works. Jesus, though God, humbled himself. So also, Paul's listeners, however great they might think they are, can also humble themselves in imitation of Christ.

"The Name of Jesus": The significance of Jesus' name cannot be overemphasized. The Old Testament is full of references to the name of God which is uniquely given to the people Israel. When Jacob wrestles with God in the wilderness and asks to know God's name, he personifies Israel's destiny to be the bearer of God's name. Later in when God appears to Moses in the burning bush, he reveals his name to Moses as "I am who am". In Deutoronomy 12, the central sanctuary / temple is the place where God will choose to make his name dwell, "the place which the Lord your God will choose, to make his name dwell there, thither shall you bring burnt offerings and your sacrifices . . ." (Dt 12:11). When King Solomon dedicates the Temple in 1 Kings 8, he prays to God, "O Lord my God, the place of which thou has said, 'My name shall be there,' that thou mayest hearken to the prayer which thy servant offers toward this place" (1 Kgs 8:29). As can be seen from this brief sketch, the entire Old Testament is the ongoing manifestation of God's name to man. To know God's name is shorthand for being in right relationship with him. Paul clearly has this in mind when he writes in this hymn, "the name which is above every name". But the shock to Jewish ears is that this name, the name above every other name, has now been bestowed on Jesus. Paul as an excellently trained Pharisee under Rabbi Gamaliel would have known just what this meant. Jesus was divine. If Jesus was not divine, to give him God's name would be idolatry. In fact, many Jews thought and continue to think of Christians as idolaters for worshiping as God the man Jesus. Paul's hymn explains how it is that Jesus can have God's name precisely because he was in the "form of God" from the beginning. "That at that name of Jesus every knee should bow." Jesus is to be worshiped as God.

"Jesus Christ is Lord": This also is an explicit claim of Christ's divinity. Jews do not pronounce the tetragrammaton (YHWH) in the Hebrew and thus simply translated God's name as "kyrios" "Lord" in the Greek translation, the Septuagint. The story of Israel until the time of Jesus was a constant reminder that there is but one Lord, "kyrios". The word "kyrios" was also used in the first century as a title of polite address, such as "sir". But this is clearly not the context of this hymn. Paul is deliberately transferring the title given only to the one God to Jesus Christ. The person of the Father has not become Jesus, but rather Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father. This is the seismic shift in Jewish monotheism that Paul's theology begins to articulate. There is one God, the Father and Christ Jesus.

Reading Assignment

Philippians 2; Colossians 1; Ephesians 1; CCC 205-209, 430-455

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay on one of the following:
The relation of creation and redemption in Col 1 (the whole chapter);
The role of humility and the imitation of Christ in Phil 2 (the whole chapter).

Suggested Reading

N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant.


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