We students of Paul tend to be rather myopic about the role of the cross in his theology and spirituality. Some of us have begun to broaden a bit to grant the resurrection a more significant role. But few of us have sufficiently listened to Paul on the subject of incarnation.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me, at least, that for Paul incarnation is as inseparable from the cross as is resurrection. A few texts to keep in mind:
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Note here that there are no fewer than four phrases that express incarnation—(1) emptied himself, (2) taking the form of a slave, (3) being born in human likeness, (4) being found in human form—to anticipate and complement the subsequent stress on the cross. To have the mind of Christ is to be incarnational as well as cruciform, and the two realities, both Christologically and practically, are mutually interpreting.
2 Corinthians 8:9
9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Here Paul grounds his plea for generosity on the part of the Corinthians in the incarnation. This is one of Paul’s “interchange” texts that connects his Christology to his soteriology: Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is, as the early Fathers put it. But also, as in Philippians 2, this text is not only about Christology and incarnation, but also about the mind of Christ and ethics.
3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
This is another kind of “interchange” text, with the emphasis on God’s initiative (rather than Christ’s), but again with a combination of soteriology and ethics. There is also a very evident Trinitarian theology here. (2 Corinthians 9:15 is also more theocentric, balancing 2 Corinthians 8:9: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” 2 Corinthians 5:21 is similar in structure to Romans 8:3-4, but its emphasis is on the cross.)
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
This is perhaps the first text people think of when they say “incarnation” and “Paul” in the same breath. Like Romans 8:3-4, here there is a Trinitarian theology expressed in the parallelism between God’s sending of the Son and God’s sending of the Spirit. The soteriology is expressed as redemption and adoption (see also Romans 3:21-26, with emphasis on the cross, and Romans 8:1-17, with similar emphasis on the experience of adoption and knowing God as Father).
With these texts in mind, we can draw five very significant conclusions:
1. Incarnation and cross are inseparable.
2. Both incarnation and cross are necessary for our salvation.
3. Both incarnation and cross express the self-giving love of God in Christ.
4. Both incarnation and cross should narratively shape the Christian believer and community into the image of Christ, decisively affecting Christian praxis in multiple ways and in all areas of life.
5. A Pauline theology/spirituality of theosis (becoming like God, in Christ, by the Spirit) is able to hold incarnation and cross together. And with that link, incarnation, cross, and resurrection/exaltation are all tied together in Paul.
(In addition, at least implicitly, the parousia may be parallel to the incarnation. But that’s for another day. Now we only need to discern how aspects of the “life of Christ”—or at least his teachings—fit into Paul’s narrative theology from incarnation to exaltation. Not enough work has been done here, either.)