Romans: Greeting (1:3-4), Part 1

3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,

Some scholars and commentators suggest that Romans 1:3-4 involves Paul's perhaps indirect quotation of an early Christian creed. The technical details of this view are beyond the scope of this brief article. At the very least, it's within the realm of possibility. If so, it's another evidence of fast-growing theological clarity and sophistication even within the earliest days of Christianity.

Evangelical scholar, Rev. Dr. Vern Poythress, outlines several of the arguments offered in favor of this view.(1) We will describe some of them briefly.

First, these verses contain a structure characteristic of ancient creeds - specifically, parallelism.

"who...was a descendant of David"

"who...was appointed the Son of God"

The Apostle Paul only employs this structure in two other places. These also appear to cite pre-existing credal statements (1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:8).

In fact, and second, we find Paul's only other reference to the Davidic ancestry of Jesus Christ in the latter of these two passages: 2 Timothy 2:8. Because the theme of Christ's Davidic ancestry is so rare in Paul's writings, and only in these two passages with marks of creedal formula, some suggest it appears more likely that he drew from pre-existing resources than wrote them himself.

Third, Poythress notes others suggest this is the case with Paul's usage of the words "flesh" and "spirit." We find this unique usage only here, making Paul's reference to another outside source possible.

Fourth, some suggest it's highly unlikely that a genuinely Pauline description of the gospel would lack reference to the crucifixion when the event features so prominently in his other New Testament gospel proclamations (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13, 17-18, 23; 2:2; Galatians 3:1; 5:11; 6:12, 14; Ephesians 2:16; Philippians 2:8; 3:18; Colossians 1:20; 2:14).

Finally, some note that Paul's use of the expressions "declared to be the Son of God" and "Spirit of holiness" is atypical of Paul, further suggesting the use of outside source material.

For each of these arguments, there are counterarguments - some perhaps more compelling than others. In the end, Poythress "concludes that 1:3-4 is Paul's own free composition, but that in composing it he has made use of traditional expressions and ideas that are also found in early creeds." (2)

Commenting on this conclusion, Kruse quotes N.T. Wright:

But it must be stressed, here and elsewhere, that the reason why Paul quoted these things, if he did, was that they expressed exactly what he intended to say at the time....Whether or not Paul wrote vv. 3-4 from scratch himself (and we must guard against assuming that a writer such as Paul was incapable of dictating an apparently formulaic statement off the top of his head, especially as he had had countless occasions to sum up his message orally before a wide variety of audiences), the passage as is stands offers a striking statement of that messianic view of Jesus that we shall discover at the heart of the letter.(3)

Here, Wright offers a constructive comment reminding us that affirming the apostles' possible use of pre-existing materials does not erode our confidence in their inspiration by the Holy Spirit as they wrote sacred scripture. Even if Paul directly quoted or even simply alluded to an early creed, the Spirit of God inspired him to do so. His words are the Word of God.


(1) The material in this section derived from Colin G. Kruse, Paul's Letter to the Romans, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Cambridge, U.K.; Nottingham, England; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2012), 47–49.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.

TeachingKevin Labby