The Apostle Paul often gets a bad rap in certain, non-Christian circles. Atheists, Muslims, and Pluralists all have it out for Paul. Everyone’s got a bone to pick with Paul! He is (infamously) responsible for the idea that Jesus is God. Christianity started out as a nice, little group of hippies who shared their possessions and lived in close community while following the virtuous teachings of Jesus the guru and there was never any talk of Jesus being divine until Paul came around and hijacked Christianity. Besides the fact that Woodstock didn’t come about until some two millennia later, thus making it highly improbable that the earliest disciples were hippies, there are two major problems with the notion that Paul came up with Jesus’ divinity:
1. There is good evidence to show that the early church believed in the divinity of Jesus before Paul came on the scene.
2. The leaders of the early church approved of, and affirmed, the message that Paul preached and did not condemn his writings.
When we take a look at pre-Pauline Christology (the nature and status of Jesus) we see that the early church had a high Christology which included Jesus’ divinity. One good piece of evidence comes from Philippians 2:6-11.
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
This is an early Christian hymn, now known as the the Carmen Christi, which Paul included in his letter to the church in Philippi. We have good evidence that this passage is a hymn because of the poetic structure and the balance of the lines in the original Greek. We also have good evidence that this passage is not originally from Paul because of the non-Pauline, theological language used here and the exclamatory editorializations (“even death on a cross!” in verse 8) that Paul inserts into the hymn, thus breaking the balance of the lines. This hymn illustrates high Christology by:
1. Equating Jesus with the very nature of God (verse 6)
2. Giving Jesus the “highest place” and the “name above every name” (verse 8)
3. Presenting an imperative statement that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (verse 10)
4. Equating Jesus with “Lord” (verse 11)
This hymn shows a clear, high, pre-Pauline Christology that the early church believed and even sang about in communal gatherings.
Now let’s look at the early church’s response to Paul after he died. If Paul had really hijacked Christianity and come up with the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity (which was, supposedly, nonexistent in the teachings of the original disciples) then we would expect to see the first generation of church fathers (leaders of the early church who were followers of Jesus’ original disciples) to condemn Paul and correct the errors in doctrine. To the contrary, we find the church fathers praising Paul and condoning his work!
Clement of Rome, who was a disciple of Peter, calls Paul the “Herald of the Gospel of Christ in the West”.
Polycarp, a disciple of John, says this about Paul, “For neither am I, nor is any other like me, able to follow the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who when he was among you in the presence of the men of that time taught accurately and steadfastly the word of truth, and also when he was absent wrote letters to you, from the study of which you will be able to build yourselves up into the faith given you…”
If the disciples were teaching the early church a message that was completely different from that of Paul, why do we repeatedly see the disciples of the original disciples putting their stamp of approval on Paul and his ministry? There is no dramatic disparity between Post-Pauline Christology and Pauline Christology, otherwise we would see church fathers like Clement and Polycarp arguing against Paul’s false doctrine instead of calling him “blessed”.
Pauline Christology reflects mainstream doctrine that was adhered to in the early church before and after Paul. The idea that Paul commandeered Christianity and inserted Jesus’ divinity is not even remotely tenable given what we know about the doctrine of the early church and the response to Paul and his message after his death.