It has been alleged by neo-orthodox and "liberal" scholars that the idea that Jesus as God in the Flesh was not taught or claimed by the first disciples, but was instead a slow development in the church. References in the New Testament to Christ's Deity are alleged to have been added over the course of time. To test this claim, I wish to employ the principles of Form Criticism to detect what may have been the earliest "kerygma" or preaching of the apostles- as evidenced by the traces of verbal tradition carried over to the New Testament and mentioned in extra-biblical material.
.If we want to find out more about the earliest verbal tradition in the church before the acceptance of canon, we need to carefully scrutinize the forms and patterns of the phrases in the earliest Christian writing in the Bible. If we do, we can find evidence of the pre-biblical faith of the early church.
"The Form of Sound Words"-Verbal tradition before the Bible
When Paul had gone throughout the cities in Asia Minor preaching the gospel, he constantly had before him the need to preserve the work of his apostolic office. Most are familiar with the fact that he made a return trip to Iconium, Lystra and Antioch to "ordain elders" ( Acts 14:23) in each place to maintain order and solid church leadership. As far as the doctrinal legacy that he left, he, as well as the rest of the apostles, had to judiciously decide how to best assure that the gospel they committed to the believers would be remembered and preserved. In the churches that were comprised largely of Jews from the local synagogue, for example, the apostles corresponded with epistles that relied heavily on the Old Testament for it's philosophical base. (ie. Romans, Hebrews, Petrine epistles and James' epistle). However, we see in the epistles that are largely addressed to a Hellenistic audience (ie. Thessalonians, epistles to Timothy, and Titus) a completely different paradigm for the transmission and anchoring of the gospel. In these cases, there is a constant repetition to refer to a verbal tradition that was imparted to these churches. More specifically, it seems that this oral tradition had some type of either poetic or hymnic qualities to it. Paul put significant stress on these traditions. In 2 Timothy 1:13-14 he says:
Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.
Likewise in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, he urges the Thessalonians to persevere with this tradition, in both written and verbal forms:
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.
I would not, as many have done before, attempt to say that any of this verbal tradition has been hidden from the church for the ages or that there is anything esoteric involved. On the contrary. If we look at these same epistles, we can see a large amount of popularly received "sayings" and credal statements that appear to be the essence of this verbal tradition. Woven in to these letters of Paul are these commonly held statements about Christ and faith, presented as doctrinal touchstones for the whole church. They come in two main categories. The first and most majestic, address the person of Christ, namely His dual-nature and his redemption of mankind. The others deal largely with our response to God's gift of grace. The texts that deal with his dual-nature have the added qualities of being arranged in stanzas or couplets, as if they were part of a hymn. Three of the most outstanding examples of this are as follows
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not
robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and
took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness
1 Timothy 3:16
And without controversy great is the mystery
In both of these cases, the "hymns" couple the ideas of Christ's pre-existent Deity, his self-emptying in the incarnation, and his subsequent exaltation. Both also have a rhythmical style or metrical quality in the original language. A similar text can be found in Hebrews.
Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
The importance of the hymnal quality of these texts dealing with Christ's Deity is accentuated all the more, when we recall that one of the most memorable descriptions of the early church from the Roman historian Pliny the Younger. In the late 1st century, Pliny said that the early believers would regularly "recite a hymn antiphonially to Christ, as to a god".. It is clear that well before there was debate on such issues as the Trinity and Christ's Deity, Paul and the other apostles went to great lengths to assure the questions of Christ's nature were already settled in the music and worship of the church. After all, what better way is there of locking in important truths to our long term memory then by putting something to poetry or music? This is the same concept that has spawned the need for advertisers today to come up with jingles. Even the most mundane statement can be burnt into our neural synapses by attaching it to music. Philo likewise in the 1st century noted that the believers in Alexandria spent time singing "hymns and such other things as augment and make perfect their knowledge and piety." The apostles, therefore knew exactly what they were doing with respect to the oral tradition in these churches. They knew that the spiritual truths regarding the Deity of Christ would remain if they put it into an antiphonal/hymn format. To confirm this fact, we have the testimony of Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History (V.28), who when citing Caius (210 A.D.) on the historicity of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, puts the Christ-hymns on the same footing of the writings of the apologists in this matter:
For who is ignorant of the books of Irenaeus and Melito, and the rest, which declare Christ to be God and man? All the psalms, too, and hymns of brethren, which have been written from the beginning by the faithful, celebrate Christ the Word of God, ascribing divinity to Him.
There can be little doubt that he was referring to the above hymns, as well as untold numbers that were never codified in the pages of the New Testament. Clearly, the issue of Christ's divinity was not to be a ambiguous theological matter, but instead, an essential and integral part of the daily worship of the church even before there was a New Testament..
In addition to these musical odes and hymns of the nature of Christ, there are also many examples from these epistles of common sayings and "slogans" that were held as apostolic statements about Christ. These are additional clues that tell us something of the pre-New Testament faith. When we see words of either Aramaic or Hebrew origin, that appear in letters addressed to Hellenists or Romans, we can certain that the saying was Pre-New Testament. For example, the fact that Paul used the Aramaic words "Maranatha" (Come, Lord) in 1 Corinthians 16:22, as well as "Abba" (Father, Daddy; Romans 8:15) with his Greek and Latin speaking audiences tells us that these terms carried over very early, before the advent of his epistles, and were already part of the liturgical language of the church. The most significant phrase, however, which is most commonly used is the simple term "Jesus is Lord". Although we do not know for certain if it had an antecedent in Hebrew or Aramaic, we know by the importance laid upon it that it was universally part of the pre-New Testament faith. It is said to be the invoked only with the aid of the Holy Spirit ( 1 Corinthians 12: 3) and it is the prime determinant as to whether one is saved or not. ( Romans 10:9,10; Acts 8:35-38; 16:31-33). This absolute and defining declaration of the Lordship of Christ likewise settles not only the allegiance of the believer, but also the believer's view of the nature of Christ, since "Lord" in the mind of both Jew and Gentile in that age would have seen the clear claims upon Deity.
The other evidences of verbal tradition are clearly identified in the New Testament by Paul himself. Paul will either introduce or conclude them with the phrase that this is "a faithful saying", which tells us that he is merely presenting commonly oral tradition that pre-dates his epistles. Some examples are:
1 Tim 1:15; Titus 3:4-7; 1 Timothy 4:9-10; 2 Timothy 2:11-14; 2 Timothy 2:19; Ephesians 5:14
They all pertain to the salvific work of Christ, and our response to that offer of salvation. It is interesting that the contemporary ideas of the Gospel as found in the "liberal" sectors (ie. "Just love one another"; "brotherhood of man" etc.) are completely absent from the verbal tradition of the early church. Instead, the verbal tradition of the church was centered first on the person of Christ (His Deity and Incarnation) and the mechanics of salvation in Christ.
These pre-New testament hymns and odes, as well as the common sayings of oral tradition show us what the faith of the church was like before there was a New Testament to officially cite. They universally affirm the Deity of Christ, and the centrality of trusting Christ for salvation.