When I was a Christian, I simply assumed that all the authors of the books of the New Testament held the “highest” Christology: that Jesus was God, Yahweh himself, incarnate; the Creator, maker of Heaven and Earth; the Co-equal, and Co-eternal Second Person of the Trinity.
However, if you read the books carefully without any presuppositions, and if you read the position of many New Testament scholars, that turns out not to be the case at all. Yes, all the authors of the New Testament held Jesus to be divine…but in what sense?
Here is New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman’s position on Paul’s Christology (at least as of 2013):
I have read, pondered, researched, taught, and written about the writings of Paul for forty years, but until recently there was one key aspect of his theology that I could never quite get my mind around. I had the hardest time understanding how, exactly, he viewed Christ. Some aspects of Paul’s Christological teaching have been clear to me for decades – especially his teaching that it was Jesus’ death and resurrection that makes a person right with God, rather than following the dictates of the Jewish law. But who did Paul think Christ was exactly?
One reason for my perplexity was that Paul is highly allusive in what he says. He does not spell out, in systematic detail, what his views of Christ are. Another reason was that in some passages Paul seems to affirm a view of Christ that – until recently – I thought could not possibly be as early as Paul’s letters, which are our first Christian writings to survive. How could Paul embrace “higher” views of Christ than those found in later writings such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Didn’t Christology develop from a “low” Christology to a “high” Christology (using these terms that I am no longer fond of) over time? And if so, shouldn’t the views of the Synoptic Gospels be “higher” than the views of Paul? But they’re not! They are “lower.” And I simply did not get it, for the longest time.
But I get it now. It is not a question of higher or lower. The Synoptics simply accept a different Christological view from Paul’s. They hold to exaltation Christologies and Paul holds to an incarnation Christology. And that, in no small measure, is because Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human.
…I had always simply read the verse to say that the Galatians had received Paul in his infirm state the way they would have received an angelic visitor, or even Christ himself. But in fact the grammar of the Greek is suggesting something quite different. As the Gieschen has argued, and has now been affirmed in a book on Christ as an angel by New Testament specialist Susan Garrett, the verse is not saying that the Galatians received Paul as an angel or as Christ; it is saying that they received him as they would an angel, such as Christ. By clear implication, then, Christ is an angel.
…If that’s the case, then virtually everything Paul ever says about Christ throughout his letters makes perfect sense. As the Angel of the Lord, Christ is a pre-existent being who is divine; he can be called God; and he is God’s manifestation on earth in human flesh. Paul says all these things about Christ, and in no passage more strikingly than in Philippians 2:6-11, a passage that is often called by scholars the “Philippians Hymn” or the “Christ Hymn of Philippians,” since it is widely thought to embody an early hymn or poem devoted to celebrating Christ and his incarnation.
…And so it (Philippians 2:6-11) may be a poem or even a kind of exalted prose composition. But what is clear is that it is an elevated reflection on Christ coming into the world (from heaven) for the sake of others and being glorified by God as a result. And it appears to be a passage that Paul is quoting, one with which the Philippians themselves may well have already been familiar. In other words, it is another pre-Pauline tradition (see the discussion of Romans 1:3-4 on pp. xxx).