November 24, 2008
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
St. Paul at a few points in his writings calls Christ "the image of God." Perhaps the clearest statement comes in his letter to the Colossians where Paul writes, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (1:15).
But does this mean that Paul believes that Jesus is God? After all, the Book of Genesis states, "God created humankind in his image" (1:27). So if human beings in general were created in God's image and Jesus was created in God's image, what's the difference?
Moreover, if Paul is a firm believer in one God, how could he ever come to believe that there are two gods – Jesus and God?
It is somewhat easier to answer the second question. We have a well-developed understanding of God as the Trinity. But St. Paul and the early Church did not have the advantage of being able to think of God as three-in-one. They were monotheists. The idea that there might be diversity within the One God was, at the very least, startling, if not downright blasphemous.
Further, Paul never comes right out and says that Jesus is God.
So, if Jesus is no different than other people, why make such a fuss about him?
Paul, in fact, does make a strong claim for Jesus' divinity. Read, for example, the whole quote from Colossians 1. Paul goes on to state, "In (Christ) all things in heaven and on earth were created, . . . all things have been created through him and for him. . . . In him, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (16, 17, 19). Christ had a role in creation. Moreover, dwelling within him was the fullness of God.
One cannot say this about a human being who, after all, is part of God's creation.
Also in his letter to the Colossians, Paul states that "in (Christ) the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily." In his letter to the Church at Philippi, he says that Jesus "was in the form of God" (2:6).
Then there is the title of Lord, which the early Christians gave to Jesus, a title that Paul uses frequently. The term "Lord" is used frequently in the Old Testament to refer to God without using the name of God.
The detailed commentary on Paul's letters written by the scholars at the University of Navarre notes, "The first Christians, by giving Christ the title of Lord' were making a profession of faith in the divinity of Jesus."
For Paul, a devout Jew, it must have been gut-wrenching to refer to a man as God. Yet apparently, despite all the theological controversies into which Paul entered, he was not accused of worshipping two gods.
The quote above from Colossians 1:19 shows Christ's supremacy is no threat to the honour due to God alone. It was because in Christ, God was pleased to dwell. To acknowledge Christ's lordship was not to diminish God, but to give glory to him.
The early Christians, Paul among them, quickly came to realize that if Jesus was God, there was more complexity in the nature of God than anyone had previously thought. Still, Paul felt no inconsistency, on one hand, in preaching the oneness of God to the Athenians and, on the other hand, of proclaiming that Jesus Christ is God too.
The problem we today have when either Jesus or Adam is said to be in the image of God is that we see an image as a lifeless copy of the original. For the biblical writers, the image partakes of and participates in the original.
Other translations of Genesis describe man as created "according to the image" of God. Such a translation shows that while the human person has a tendency to the perfection inherent in God, this is only a tendency.
But Christ and God share the same divine nature. Christ, like the Father, had a role in creation. Christ, like the Father, existed before all time and in all time.
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