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Pre-Existence of Christ

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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With regard to pre-existence, the apostolic Scriptures furnish material for the two-fold conclusion, that it does not belong to the primary data of Christian faith in the Historic and Exalted Jesus, but that it is a necessary implicate of that faith. It forms no element in the primitive doctrine recorded in the opening chapters of Acts. Under the impulse of the Spirit, the conviction of their Master’s resurrection wrought in the first disciples a victorious re-assertion of faith in Him as the Messianic Redeemer. He is proclaimed as ‘both Lord and Christ’; and under the category of Messiahship this primitive gospel involves all that is characteristic in historical Christianity (see Denney, Jesus and the Gospel, p. 15 ff.). Jesus is sovereign in the government of the world as in the realm of spiritual ideals, author of salvation in every sense of the word, moral and eschatological; but there is no emergence of the thought that His origin must be transcendent as His destiny-no hint of pre-existence. Christ’s place in eternity is in the foreknowledge and counsel of the Father.

Coming to the Pauline Epistles, we enter a Christological atmosphere which is startlingly different. In the earlier Epistles the Pre-existence is not so much asserted as taken for granted. In marked contrast with such themes as the Atonement or Justification, it is never made the subject of the Apostle’s dialectic; but deductions, both practical and speculative, are drawn from it as an axiomatic truth, familiar equally to writer and to readers, and disputed by no one. And although it is only in the later Epistles that the necessity of the Pre-existence as the basis for a full world-embracing redemption is deliberately set forth, there is no evidence of a real development either in the conviction of the fact or in the conception of its significance.

The chief Pauline passages are the following. With regard to the closely parallel texts, Galatians 4:4 and Romans 8:3, it is not too much to say that the obviously intended contrast between the dignity of God’s ‘own Son’ and the conditions of His earthly life (‘born of a woman, made under the law,’ ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’) is fully illuminated only by the assumption of His pre-existence. In speaking of the sacraments of the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:1-4) St. Paul clearly presupposes the activity of the pre-incarnate Christ in the history of Israel. The statement that the Rock in Kadesh was Christ does not imply that he regarded it as an actual Christophany (Bousset, Die Schriften des NT, ii. [1908] 115); but it does imply that, in St. Paul’s view, the water miraculously furnished by it was ‘spiritual drink’ because in it Christ was sacramentally active for receptive souls. In 1 Corinthians 8:6, as one God, the Father, is the ultimate source and end of all creation, so one Lord, Jesus Christ, is its Mediator-the first hint of that more fully formulated conception of the ‘cosmic’ Christ which is a feature of later Epistles. A similarly anticipatory passage is 2 Corinthians 8:9 -‘Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, he for your sakes became poor,’ which cannot be naturally understood in any other sense than that Christ’s earthly life was to His prior condition as beggary to wealth. This thought of the Incarnation as an act of self-abnegation, by which an original state of heavenly glory was voluntarily exchanged for one of human limitation and suffering, is expanded in Philippians 2:5-11, the most deliberate and majestic of St. Paul’s utterances upon the subject. Whether we understand by μορφὴ θεοῦ a form which is separable or that which is inseparable from the Divine essence, one which was surrendered or that which could not be surrendered, does not affect the assertion of pre-existence. Christ became man only by laying aside a state of being to which an equal participation with God in all Divine prerogatives (τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ) naturally belonged. Finally, in Colossians and Ephesians St. Paul develops the thought of Christ’s relation to created being as a whole. In His pre-incarnate state, He is the ἀρχή, the Head or Origin, the πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, begotten before all creatures and the agent of their creation, therefore possessing supremacy, absolute and universal (Colossians 1:15-16). The same conception is implied in Ephesians 1:10 -as all things are originally centred in Him, so they are destined to be gathered together and re-centred in Him; while in Ephesians 1:4 His pre-existence is brought more directly into relation with human redemption-we are chosen ‘in him before the foundation of the world.’

In the later Epistles, it thus appears, there is a larger use of the concept of pre-existence, a more deliberate unfolding of its relations to God, humanity, and the created universe; but, while this enables us to apprehend more clearly how the concept was already latent in the primary faith experience of the Exalted Christ, it cannot be said that the later Epistles, as compared with the earlier, show any distinct advance in the Apostle’s or in the Church’s belief in the fact. And here we are confronted with a problem. The thought of the Apostolic Church has advanced from the position reflected in the first chapters of Acts, in which there is no hint of a doctrine of pre-existence, to that presupposed even in the earlier Pauline Epistles, where its presence and activity are fully assumed; and apparently nothing save a process of development so gradual, silent, and unconscious as to have left no trace, bridges the distance between the Pentecostal discourses and Colossians. By what processes of thought may it be supposed that this remarkable transition was effected? Various attempts have been made to find a solution of the problem ab extra.

(a) Jewish apocalyptic.-‘Even as a Jew, Saul believed the Messiah to be already in existence’ (H. Weinel, St. Paul, Eng. tr._, 1906, p. 45). ‘Jewish Messianic speculation had already imagined a picture for the completion of which really nothing was wanting but the Nicene dogmas’ (ib. p. 313). It is true that such passages as 2 Esdras 12:32; 2 Esdras 13:26; 2 Esdras 14:9, En. xlviii. 6, lxii. 7 bear out the statement that pre-existence of the Messiah was a feature of traditional apocalyptic doctrine; nor is there any antecedent improbability that the development of Christian belief may have been influenced from this quarter. At the same time it is to be noted that the apocalyptic tenet has its place in a connexion of ideas quite different from the Christian. Since according to the cherished apocalyptic hope the Redemption was imminent and might arrive at any moment, it followed that the Messiah must be already in existence, waiting only to be revealed (Dalman, Words of Jesus, Eng. tr._, 1902, p. 302). No such stimulus was applicable to the development of the Christian belief.

(b) Rabbinism.-According to its peculiar mode of thought, Rabbinism expressed the transcendent value of any person or thing by assigning to it a pre-existent celestial archetype. Thus, according to the Midrash on Psalms 8:9, the Throne of Glory, Messiah the King, the Torah, ideal Israel, Repentance, Gehenna, were created before the world. But the inclusion of Repentance in this list sheds a significant light upon the sense in which these entities are regarded as having preternatural existence. In Rabbinism, according to the best authorities, the pre-existence of the Messiah was only ideal-‘not literal, but present only in God’s eternal counsel of salvation’ (Weber, Jüdische Theologie, p. 355). The name of the Messiah was ideally pre-existent (ib. p. 198). ‘As a matter of fact, the earlier rabbinism was content with holding, on the basis of Psalms 72:17, the pre-existence of the name only’ (Dalman, Words of Jesus, p. 301).

(c) Alexandrian, Judaism.-According to Philo (Sac. leg. alleg. on Genesis 2:7 [ed. Mangey, i. 49], de mundi opificio, ed. Mangey, i. 30), God created two kinds of men-a ‘heavenly’ man, made after the image of God, incorruptible and super-terrestrial; the other formed of the dust, composed of body and soul, male and female, by nature mortal. And, with 1 Corinthians 15:44-49 as almost a sole support, it has been maintained by various scholars since Baur, that St. Paul has simply taken over the Alexandrian theory. That some such theory has, directly or indirectly, suggested the wording of the Pauline passage seems certain. But if there is any intentional reference, it can only be by way of refuting the Philonic view (see Bousset, Religion des Judenthums, p. 406). The ‘heavenly’ man, who with Philo is the ‘first,’ is with St. Paul the ‘second’ (as if to emphasize the point, it is expressly said, ‘that was not first which was spiritual, but that which was natural; and afterward that which is spiritual’). When, moreover, St. Paul distinguishes the two as ‘from earth’ and ‘from heaven,’ he points to their respective sources and qualities of being, implying nothing as to a previous state of being.

While the history of primitive Christianity proves its eclectic genius, its hospitality towards all ideas and forms of thought by which it could express its sense of the inexpressible religious value of Christ, and while there is no a priori reason to deny that it may have incidentally woven into its own web sundry hints of a pre-existent Messiah or Ideal Man, it seems impossible that the rapid Christological advance which had taken place by the time the Pauline Epistles were written can have been in any vital way influenced by the recondite speculations of apocalyptic, Rabbinical, or Hellenistic Judaism.

That this advance was connected chiefly with Pauline lines of thought is perhaps suggested by the fact that little or no use is made of the conception of pre-existence in 1 Peter. The language of 1:11-τὸ ἐν αὑτοῖς πνεῦμα Χριστοῦ-suggests but does not necessarily imply it (see Hort’s note in loc.). To say that the Spirit who inspired the prophets was the Spirit of Christ does not imply that Christ was personally cceval with the prophets (cf. Hebrews 11:26). In 1 Peter 1:20 it is claimed that φανερωθέντος implies pre-existence, since only that which already exists can be manifested; but, on the contrary, the parallelism between φανερωθέντος and προεγνωσμένου excludes a reference to personal pre-existence. He who was manifested is He who was foreknown, and the object of Divine foreknowledge must be the incarnate, not the pre-existent Christ. Nor is the present writer able to appreciate the force of the reason for which Chase (HDB_ iii. 793b) regards 1 Peter 3:18-19 as decisive-viz. that the ‘spirit’ in which Christ was ‘quickened’ and ministered to the ‘spirits in prison’ is represented as something assumed by Him no less than the ‘flesh’ in which He was ‘put to death,’ and that, therefore, Christ is conceived as having existed before the beginning of His human life. To deduce from the words ἐν ᾦ that Christ had a personal existence prior to His possession of the ‘spirit’ in which He acted after His death in the flesh, seems to lay on them a greater stress than they are fitted to hear.

The advance in Christological ideas which had taken place by the time of the Pauline Epistles must be ascribed to an innate necessity of thought. The concept of pre-existence lay implicit in the Church’s most primitive consciousness of the Crucified and Exalted Christ as Saviour. The form in which this first found expression was Messianic. Jesus was the Lord Christ, the Person by whom the people of God were to be turned from their iniquities, and the Divine Kingdom brought to men. Without intellectual perception that this implied His proper Divinity, the Exalted Lord was felt as God; the instinctive attitude towards Him was that of faith and worship. But in a community which entirely retained the fundamental theocentric postulate of OT religion, such an attitude could not long remain merely instinctive. Granted the premise that Jesus is Saviour and that only the Eternal God can save, we pass, logically, at a single step from the Acts of the Apostles into Colossians. The inevitable conclusion, slowly as it may come to formulation, is that in Him the fullness of the God-head dwells; otherwise it is a man, not God, who takes the central place in faith’s universe. And to connect the Historical Christ with the being of Eternal God, the category of pre-existence was indispensable; for to Jewish monotheism the idea of θεοποίησις-that any one should become God-was unthinkable. He who was Divine unto everlasting must have been Divine from everlasting; in whatever sense God is preternatural, in the same sense must Christ also be.

Further, there are two lines along which this necessity of thought is seen to be especially urgent.

(a) Ethical.-It cannot be said that the great ethical appeal of the gospel to self-sacrificing love is explicit in its first proclamation. It is implicit there in its central truth of the suffering Messiah; but the presentation is shaped by the polemical necessities of the hour, and the chief aim is to establish that the Crucified Jesus is Lord rather than to emphasize that His sovereignty is won by sacrifice. In St. Paul’s Epistles the ethical appeal is dominant throughout. His experience of salvation was an experience of forgiveness and eternal life bestowed with an unspeakable fervour of Divine love-love that by infinite sacrifice reconciled the sinner unto God. And in his conception of this love, the pre-existence of Christ had a two-fold function. (i.) It raised the earthly manifestation to infinitude. The redeeming sacrifice of Christ was not a love that was commensurable with any human self-sacrifice. It is voluntary poverty seen against a background of Divine wealth. The most amazing in the series of His self-emptyings is the first-the choosing to renounce the Divine form of existence for another in which He was destined to reach the absolute point of humiliation and suffering. This was the love beyond compare, passing knowledge. (ii.) In the same way, we may suppose, the conception of pre-existence helped St. Paul to relate the love of Christ to the love of God. It is not inconceivable, indeed, that St. Paul should have found in the historical life and death of Jesus ample reason for such expressions as, ‘Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift,’ ‘He that withheld not his own Son’; but how much more amazing and subduing is the thought, if the Son thus ‘delivered up for us all’ was God’s own image,’ His ‘first begotten before every creature.’ It scarcely permits of doubt that this was the thought in the Apostle’s mind.

(b) Soteriological.-Salvation in the full sense includes not merely a subjective change in man, but a corresponding change in man’s environment. No more than humanity itself does nature embody the perfect final will of God. In its present constitution it is the correlative of human sin; it lies under the dominion of ‘principalities and powers’ that are unfriendly to man; and for man to be spiritually renewed and reconciled to God, and yet left in the midst of a hostile universe, would be no complete redemption. Thus, even in St. Paul’s earlier Epistles it is seen that Christ’s redeeming work must extend its influence over all created things (1 Corinthians 15:24-28, Romans 8:19-22; Romans 8:37-39); and in Colossians the cosmic Redemption, the vision of a ‘Christianized universe,’ becomes one of the Apostle’s central themes. The Church’s Lord and Redeemer must be Lord and Reconciler of all things (Colossians 1:15-20; Colossians 2:14-15; cf. Philippians 2:10-11). But this is possible only to One in whom the undivided fullness of the God-head dwells (Colossians 1:19-20; Colossians 2:9-10; cf. Philippians 2:6; Philippians 2:9), who is the one Mediator between God and the created universe. And this, again, involves His pre-existence (πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, Colossians 1:15). Only He who is the original and eternal principle of unity in all things (Colossians 1:17), who stands in such a relation to God (εἰκὼν τοῦ ἀοράτου θεοῦ, Colossians 1:15) that this must be His relation to the universe, can bring the universe into final unity with the Divine character and purpose. Only He who is the mediatorial beginning can be the mediatorial end; only the First can he the Last.

The question immediately arises for theology: How is one to relate this conception of the Pre-existent Christ to the Eternal Unity of the God-head? Beyschlag’s theory of an ideal pre-existence in the Divine thought and will is wholly inadequate as a historical interpretation of Pauline thought; and the same may be said of the theory (Baur, Pfleiderer) according to which the conception of the ‘Man from Heaven,’ the ‘Second Adam,’ is the fountainhead of the Pauline Christology. The point in which the effort of NT thought to answer this question culminates is the Johannine doctrine of the Logos; and to treat of this lies beyond the scope of the present article. Suffice it to say here, that for the whole Johannine group of writings-Apocalypse, Gospel, Epistles-the truth of Christ’s pre-existence is absolutely fundamental. On the one hand, there is the deliberate endeavour to relate this, through the concept of the Logos, to the God-head; on the other hand, and especially in the First Epistle, the strongest emphasis is laid upon the complete, personal, permanent identity of the Pre-incarnate with Him who became flesh and tabernacled among us. That ‘Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh’ is the test and watchword of the Christian faith. Though the foundation for the cosmic significance of the Incarnation is laid in the prologue to the Gospel (1:3) this is nowhere elaborated as by St. Paul. The ethical interest absorbs all others; and here St. John has spoken the last word (John 3:16, 1 John 4:9-10). The love of Christ is the manifested love of God. He who died on Calvary, the propitiation for our sins, is He who came forth from the bosom of the Father.

Literature.-This is enormous: all the text-books on NT Theology, including those by Baur (1893), Beyschlag (Eng. tr._, 1895), Feine (1910), Holtzmann (21911), Schlatter (31905), Stevens (1899), Weinel (21913), B. Weiss (Eng. tr._, 1882-83). Among special treatises the following may be mentioned: H. R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, 1912; A. B. Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ2, 1881; W. Bousset, Die Religion des Judenthums2, 1906; J. Denney, Jesus and the Gospel, 1908; A. Harnack, History of Dogma, Eng. tr._2, 1897, vol. 1. app._ i.; P. Lobstein, Notion de la préexistence du Fils de Dieu, 1883; W. Olchewski, Die Wurzeln der paulinischen Christologie, 1909; R. L. Ottley, The Doctrine of the Incarnation, 1896; O. Pfleiderer, Paulinism, Eng. tr._, 1891, i. 123-159; D. Somerville, St. Paul’s Conception of Christ, 1897; F. Weber, Jüdische Theologie, 1897.

R. Law.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Pre-Existence of Christ'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​p/pre-existence-of-christ.html. 1906-1918.
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