Paul’s Use of the “In Christ” Formula -- By: Brenda B. Colijn

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 23:0 (NA 1991)
Article: Paul’s Use of the “In Christ” Formula
Author: Brenda B. Colijn


Paul’s Use of the “In Christ” Formula

Brenda B. Colijn

Dr. Colijn (Ph.D. in English from Cornell University) is an M.A. student at ATS.

Paul’s use of the expression “in Christ” or “in the Lord” has received a great deal of attention in this century. He uses the formula quite frequently.1 His use of it has implications for his Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and ethics.

The development of scholarship on this formula seems to have proceeded from a personal “mystical” conception (communion with Christ) to a more “objective” emphasis (judicial or ecclesiological or eschatological) to an interest in corporate personality.2 The “mystical” approach was initiated by Deissmann and followed by Schweitzer, who gave it an eschatological twist.3 Others, such as Bultmann and Connzelmann, reacted against an interpretation of personal “mysticism” and sought to make the formula more “objective” in different ways: by removing the transcendent element, by reading it as purely metaphorical, by interpreting it as eschatological, or by connecting it to the objective events of salvation history.4 These scholars rightly observed that the “mystical” interpretation detached the formula from Christ’s saving work. But in their reaction against an overly mystical approach, some have located the formula too firmly in the past. The “objective” approach fails to recognize Paul’s statements about the present identification of Christ with his church and of believers with him.

It is now generally recognized that Paul uses the phrase in several different senses, some “mystical” and some “objective.” The mystical and nonmystical camps seem to be converging toward the concept of corporate personality.5 Those who want to make the “in Christ” formula “objective” can emphasize federal headship without actual participation. Christ was our representative, and his merits are applied to us to change our judicial standing before God. Those who want to retain the “mystical” communion with Christ can opt for a more realistic headship. We participate in his death and resurrection (past tense) and in his life (present and future tenses).

It is not enough to say, as Bultmann does, that “in Christ” is a metaphor for “Christian.”6 Of course it is. But the question remains, what does this expression tell us about what Paul felt it meant to be a Christian? T...

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