Skip navigation.
Links to useful media and resources to serve the Christian community

Part III: Christological, soteriological and ecclesiological reflections

This pattern of teaching is open to being explored further along two interrelated but distinct lines: what concerns Christ (Christology), and what concerns Christians/the church (soteriology and ecclesiology). The reflections that follow are necessarily selective. 6

  1. So far as the Christ is concerned, most striking is the relationship between Christ and the Holy Spirit resulting from the Resurrection. Here the key, single most important passage is also in 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul says of Christ that the last Adam became the life-giving Spirit (v. 45). The observations that follow will have to be brief; an effort at more careful exegesis is found in several footnotes.

    1) The noun pneuma (spirit) in 1 Corinthians 15:45 is definite 7 and refers to the person of the Holy Spirit. 8 This is the view taken, across a fairly broad front, by a substantial majority of contemporary commentators and other interpreters who address the issue. 9 In English translation, Spirit should be capitalised; 10 Paul knows of no other ‘life-giving’ pneuma than the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6; d. Rom. 8: 11). 11

    2) The life-giving Spirit’, it should not be missed, is not a timeless description of Christ - who he has always been. Rather, he ‘became’ egeneto such. The time-point of this ‘becoming’ is surely his resurrection or, more broadly, his exaltation. 12 As ‘first-fruits’ of the resurrection-harvest (vv. 20, 23) he is ‘life-giving Spirit’ (v. 45); as ‘the life-giving Spirit’ he is ‘the first-fruits’. As resurrected, the last Adam has ascended; as ‘the second man’, he is now, by virtue of ascension, ‘from heaven’ (v.47). 13 ‘the man from heaven’ (v. 48). All told, the last Adam, who has become ‘the life-giving Spirit’, is specifically the exalted Christ.

    3) In the immediate context (vv. 42-49). ‘life-giving’ contemplates Christ’s future action, when he will resurrect the mortal bodies of believers (cf v. 22). Within the broader context of Paul’s teaching, however, his present activity, as well, is surely in view. As we have already noted, the resurrection of the Christian, in union with Christ, is not only future but has already taken place (e.g., Gal. 2:20; Col. 2:12-13; 3:1-4).

  2. Here, more pointedly than anywhere else in Paul (or for that matter anywhere else in the NT), the significance of the Resurrection (and Ascension) for the relationship between Christ and the Spirit comes to light. In context, two closely related realities are in view: 1) Christ’s own climactic transformation by the Spirit; and 2), along with that transformation, his unique and unprecedented reception of the Spirit.

    1) Paul affirms what has not always been adequately elaborated in the church’s Christology: the momentous, epochal significance of the exaltation for Christ personally; he has, as the first-fruits, what he did not have previously, a spiritual body. 14 In his resurrection, something really happened to Jesus; by that experience he was and remains a changed man, in the truest and deepest, even eschatological sense.

    As Paul puts it elsewhere (on the most likely reading of Rom. 1:3-4). by the declarative energy of the Holy Spirit in his resurrection, God’s eternal (v. 3a) and now incarnate (v. 3b) Son has become what he was not previously, the Son of God with power (v. 4). Relatively speaking, according to 2 Corinthians 13:4, while Christ was crucified in (a state of) weakness, he now lives by God’s power; his is now, by virtue of the Resurrection and Ascension, a glorified human nature.

    Here, as so often in Paul, Christology and soteriology are inextricable. Christ does not receive his glorified humanity merely for himself but for the sake of the church. In the language of Romans 8:29, the Resurrection constitutes him the image to which believers are predestined to be conformed, so that he, the Son, might be firstborn among many brothers; specifically, the exalted Christ is that image into which Christians are even now already being transformed (2 Cor. 3:18) and which they will one day bear bodily in their future resurrection at his return (1 Cor. 15:49).

    2) This resurrection-transformation of Christ by the Spirit also results in a climactic intimacy, a bond between them that surpasses what previously existed, a relationship involving, in fact, a new and permanent equation or oneness that Paul captures by saying that Christ became the life-giving Spirit, 15 This is not to deny that previously Christ and the Spirit were at work together among God’s people, 16 But now, dating from his resurrection and ascension, their joint action is given its stable and consummate basis in the history of redemption; that culminating synergy is the crowning consequence of the work of the incarnate Christ actually and definitively accomplished in history.

    First Corinthians 15:45 is, in effect, a one-sentence commentary on the primary meaning of Pentecost: Christ is the receiver-giver of the Spirit. What Peter delineates in his Pentecost sermon as inseparable once-for-all events - resurrection, ascension, reception of the Spirit, outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:32-33) - Paul telescopes by saying that the last Adam became the life-giving Spirit.17

  3. It bears emphasising that this oneness or unity of Christ and the Spirit, though certainly sweeping, is at the same time circumscribed in a specific respect; it concerns their activity, the activity of giving resurrection (= eschatological) life, In this sense it may be dubbed ‘functional’ or ‘eschatological’, or, to use an older theological category, ‘economic’ (rather than ‘ontological’). 18

    In other words, the scope, the salvation-historical focus of Paul’s statement, needs to be kept in view, Essential-eternal, ontological­-trinitarian relationships are quite outside his purview here, His concern is not with who Christ is (timelessly), as the eternal Son, but with who he ‘became’, what has happened to him in history, and specifically in his identity - Paul could hardly have been more emphatic - as ‘the last Adam’, ‘the second man’ (v. 47), that is, in terms of his true humanity.

    Consequently, it is completely gratuitous to find here and elsewhere in Paul as the historical-critical tradition has long and characteristically maintained, a ‘functional’ christology in the sense that it denies the personal difference between Christ and the Spirit and so is in conflict with later church formulation of trinitarian doctrine. In no way is Paul here even obscuring, much less denying, the distinction between the second and third persons of the Trinity. The personal, parallel distinction between God (the Father), Christ as Lord, and the (Holy) Spirit - underlying subsequent doctrinal formulation - is clear enough elsewhere in Paul (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6). 19 His trinitarian conception of God is not at issue but is properly made a presupposition in the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15:45.

  4. The last clause in 1 Corinthians 15:45 not only connects closely, as already noted, with Romans 1:4 but also with the subsequent statement at the beginning of 2 Corinthians 3: 17: ‘the Lord is the Spirit’. There, the ‘Lord’ (ho /curios) likely refers to Christ, and an equation between him and the Spirit is affirmed. 20 Here, too, essential, trinitarian identities and relationships are not being denied or blurred, but simply remain outside Paul’s purview. His focus, clear from the immediate context (see esp. v. 18), is the conjoint activity of the Spirit and Christ as glorified, The ‘is’ (estin) of 2 Corinthians 3: 17, we may say, is based on the ‘became’ of 1 Corinthians 15:45, The exaltation experienced by the incarnate Christ results in a (working) relationship with the Holy Spirit of new and unprecedented intimacy. They are one here, specifically, in giving (eschatological) ‘freedom’ (3:17b), the close correlative of the resurrection life, in view in 1 Corinthians 15. That correlation is particularly unmistakable in the phrasing of Romans 8:2: ‘the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free’.