Where Was Jesus Before the Incarnation?

posted by James Armstrong | Mar 28, 2019

Introduction


With Easter only a few weeks away, you’re going to hear a lot about how He lived as a man on Earth - from his birth in Bethlehem, to his upbringing as a carpenter, to the miracles he worked during his ministry, and his death and resurrection on the cross.

But where was Jesus before the incarnation? 

The Preexistent Christ


The Apostle John began the Gospel with a remarkable revelation, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1.1)0Fi He reinforced this with, “That which was from the beginning…” (1 John 1.1), which corresponds with the Genesis account that begins with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Finally, Paul declares this about Jesus, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1.16f)

The biblical evidence supports the pre-existence of Christ and His eternal nature as the second person of the Triune God. The aim of this work seeks to provide the framework for a theological construct of Christ as endless and eternal by presenting evidence of His precreation existence as the Logos, His pre-incarnational presence in the Old Testament, and finally preexistent expressions within Johannine and Pauline literature through a lens of both creation and the Trinity.

The resulting framework provides a theology concerning the pre-existence and preincarnational Christ as revealed in scripture. The importance of this research supports the primacy of Christ’s redemptive work as the metanarrative of God’s revelation preceding creation itself. Belief in a preexistent Christ is foundational to Christian doctrine as it validates other doctrines significant to every believer, such as the doctrine of salvation. Both Old and New Testaments disclose the unique deity of Christ as he works in creation and covenant to fulfill His purposes throughout all eternity, past, present, and future. Finally, as a major pillar of Christology, affirmation of the pre-existence belief in Christ reinforces the Christian understanding of the incarnation, resurrection, and atonement—all essential for the claims of Christianity.

Precreation Existence as the Logos


The word pre-existence is defined as “existence in a former state or previous to something else, specifically: existence of the soul before its union with the body.” The assertion with Christ is that He existed prior to the incarnation as the Son, being fully God Himself. His pre-existence is a historic position throughout Christian history, to include the early church, as Bramm states, “It has been standard teaching in historic Christology that the Logos, the Son, existed before the incarnation. That the Son so existed before the incarnation has been called the pre-existence of Christ.” The New Testament establishes the theological framework in that, “…Christ is referred to as the Logos of God.” In light of these scriptural affirmations, it is imperative for Christians that the incarnate Logos should primarily be worshiped as the cosmic Christ, not only as the self-sacrificing preacher of righteousness from Galilee.

The term Logos has been defined differently throughout the ages. The word is both philosophical and theological in nature as explained:

The term is a Greek word, often simply translated “word” but with a range of meanings that includes reason, rational principle, logic and even a divinely ordered structure. In Greek philosophical thought, it referred to the rational matrix of creation, the “soul” of the universe, sometimes personified as a quasi-divine entity. The apostle John, in his Gospel, combined the philosophical concept of the Logos with Hebrew wisdom tradition (such as Ps 33:6 and Prov 8:22-31) to speak about the divine nature of Jesus Christ, which pre-existed his human nature.7 In the incarnation, the divine Logos or Word of God came to be embodied in a human being (Jn 1:14).

The presence of the Son, as second person of the Trinity, also transcends the New and Old Testament. In his ontological existence, as the Logos also reveals, He is not bound by time itself. Barth notes, “Everything we shall say later about the supremely positive and comprehensive relation of fulfillment and promise between His time and His times before and after, rests wholly on the fact that it is always intrinsically and supremely His time…He is the Lord of time.” The proposition of Christ as timeless affirms His Deity; He exists with the Father and Spirit with no beginning and no end, placing him outside of the time and spatial world as we know it.

In John’s revelation of Christ as the Logos, he is disclosed as “light” and as “life.” The description of Jesus as both the revelation and redemptor reveals His distinct work within the God-head yet distinguishes Him from the Father. John’s use of the term Logos also denotes a correlation between the Word spoken at creation and Christ’s presence at the beginning.

By way of introduction in his gospel, “John’s connection of Jesus and Genesis is so plain as to hardly need emphasis…suffice it to say for now that the mentions of the Word, the creation, life, and light all draw the reader back to the early chapters of Genesis, and invite him or her to read Jesus’ story in light of God’s larger purposes in creation.” John proclaims the Logos existed in the beginning. The writer follows the declaration of creation as Genesis 1.1 states, “In the beginning God created…” and in John 1.1, he asserts that all things “came into being through Him.” As St Maximus asserts, “he is the beginning and cause of all things…by his gracious will he created all things visible and invisible out of non-being…the Logos whose excellence is incomparable, ineffable, and inconceivable in himself is exalted beyond all creation and even beyond the idea of difference and distinction.”

His handling of prepositions declares the essence and existence of the Logos, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, (πρὸς τὸν θεόν) and the Word was God.” (καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος) (John 1.1). The Gospel asserts the unity of the Father and Son as Jesus Himself confirms, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10.30). Throughout the New Testament, this unity is visible in the work of revelation, redemption, and creation. The Word, preexisting prior to the incarnation, is now revealed as the Son in John 1.14. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The word Logos (λόγος) certainly prompts debate concerning the usage of the noun. One could translate it as God’s spoken words that brought forth creation, the message by which design and life came into being. Further study, however, reveals the Logos as the Word Himself. The λόγος is actually best comprehended through the predicate θεός (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος) which conveys the more appropriate understanding that “the Word was divine” and the Logos was “in the presence of God,” that is, in intimate, personal fellowship with him.” Firmly debated in the First Council of Constantinople, the council decreed, “we know that he was before the ages fully God the Word, and that in the last days he became fully man for the sake of our salvation.” Prior to this council, the Nicene Creed confirmed Christ’s unity, pre-incarnation, and preexistence with the Father as stated, “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven.”

The eternal generation of the Son is a critical doctrine concerning Christ’s preexistence. In relationship to the doctrine of the Trinity, “eternal generation provides the basis both for the equality of the Son to the Father as well as the distinction between the Father and the Son.”

The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirms that Christ was “begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father,” The confirmation of the nature of Christ reaffirmed that the Father communicated an equal and eternal divine nature with the Son and that while there is distinction, there is no division or disunity between the two. Augustine addresses this issue when he states,

“Through generation, “the Father bestows being on the Son without any beginning in time” (De trin. XV.47, 432, italics added). Thus, the Son is coeternal with the Father…the Son is begotten by the Father in an equality of nature. The Father did not beget a “lesser Son” who would eventually become his equal…the Father “begot [the Son] timelessly in such a way that the life which the Father gave the Son by begetting him is co-eternal with the life of the Father who gave it."

The text that Augustine quotes is found in John’s Gospel and states, “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (John 5.26). Here, the Son has life-giving power as does the Father. There is only one God as the creed reminds us. Jesus has both life in Himself and has been granted this by the Father. Proverbs 8:22-25 and Psalms 2:7 both support the Biblical warrant for eternal generation, while the broader description in John 5 also presents an economic working on the incarnate Son. The relationship of the Father and Son is captured throughout the New Testament and presents opportunities for debate among scholars. Grudem uses the distinction of roles to argue for the eternal nature of the Father and Son within the economy to maintain the unity of the Trinitarian doctrine

Aquinas also speaks to this subject as he responds to Augustine’s statement: “Before the world was, neither we nor yet the mediator of God and man, the man Jesus Christ, existed.” Aquinas qualifies this statement that the human nature Jesus began at the incarnation, but the person, the “subsisting subject, one hypostasis, and one person…must stand for an eternally subsisting subject; and beginning to be is not incompatible with its eternity.” Aquinas is also responding to the Arian heresy in saying that there was not a time he, in subsistence, did not exist. Rather, “The man Christ Jesus did not exist before the world was in being, in his humanity.”

The doctrine of pre-existence is primarily a Christological argument as it relates to the nature of Christ Himself. Historical Christianity seemingly solved this debate, but recently some post-enlightenment scholars reveal a departure from the preexistence of Christ as a necessary doctrine. Rudolf Bultmann, for example, makes the claim that the pre-existence is "not only irrational but utterly meaningless."McCready responds to this perspective with, “Unless Christ preexisted his earthly life, the language of incarnation is nonsense. For Christ to have become flesh, he first must have existed as other than flesh. A non-incarnational christology . . . must be either utterly different from traditional Christology or it must be internally inconsistent." To challenge the pre-existence of Christ, generally begins with questions of His Deity and impacts all Christological doctrines that follow.

Often, the questions that arise originate in arguments concerning Christ’s incarnational representation as God and His hypostatic union. These positions are one coherent theological system, and they all stand together or fall by removing any component of this systematic framework.

A non-Trinitarian viewpoint does not necessitate the pre-existence of Christ as it does not require a coeternal and coequal nature of the Godhead. Examples of this position include historical figures, such as Arius, who would deny that the Father and Son were of the same substance. Arius would later be condemned in the Constantinople council for his heretical views. As previously noted, the deity of Christ and His preexistence are sister doctrines that cannot be divided. McCready emphasizes, concerning this subject, "all the facets of Christian belief are interrelated." In his controversial statements, none are more incriminating than His denial of Christ’s nature accompanied with His pre-existence. Arius writes, “We are persecuted also because we said, he is from nothing. We spoke thus because he is neither a part of God nor (derived) from any (prior) substance…we are persecuted because we said, ‘the Son has a beginning, whereas God is without beginning’.

Alternate views of Jesus as Logos and pre-existent challenge the orthodox position and present differing ideas of the identity of Christ. One view includes the Spirit Adoptionist position that sees Christ as anointed and fully obedient to God’s law but only a human. The next view is the Angel Adoptionist position, which also believes Jesus is human, but is indwelled by a heavenly being. The Hybrid Gnosticism position viewed Jesus as a form of a lesser deity, an offspring of gods and only disguised as a human. The final alternative is Docetic Gnosticism, which also viewed Jesus as a lesser deity, an offspring of gods but not human, merely an illusion. Each of these views attempt to redefine the nature of Christ essentially denying his true essence as revealed in scripture.

Recognizing the pre-existence affirms the doctrine of the deity of Christ; to do otherwise denies His nature. By affirming the Trinitarian relationship, the question of pre-existence is a muted argument for Jesus, as God, not absent from the Father nor the act of creation. His deity places Christ and His divinity outside the created world and identifies Him as Co-Creator. Clearly, the New Testament authors reference Christ’s pre-existence and assumes this premise as it relates to His identity with the Father. Paul and John are the primary advocates through their writing, and their declarative statements are treated later in this paper. In addition to these advocates, there is evidence that “pre-Pauline quotations within the Pauline epistles are evidence that the majority of the earliest Christians did believe in a Logos Christology within the context of the doctrine of the Trinity.”

God’s redemptive plan, even before the foundation of the world (Eph 1.4f), was that Christ would carry out the purposes of His will, ultimately bringing about God’s plan to bring all things under Him in the fullness of time. (Eph 1.9) The salvific work of the incarnated Son is rooted in the premise that the Triune God demonstrates through the incarnation a fulfillment of God’s eternal plan predestined prior to creation. As McCready notes, "people might gain a greater appreciation of the immensity of God's love for us in Jesus Christ. But that can't happen until we know Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Son of God who became incarnate for us and for our salvation." To reject the pre-existence of Christ nullifies the incarnation and questions the very validity of the Son’s redemptive work on the cross and covenantal work established through His death and resurrection.

Conclusion


The evidence of Christ as pre-existent is a cornerstone doctrine as it relates to Christology. Removing this theological framework of Christ as endless and eternal and you have unraveled Christianity as revealed in the Bible and as understood throughout church history. The early church councils debated the person and nature of Christ to affirm His deity. Early doctrinal formation, expressed in the creeds of the councils, made explicit agreement to His precreation existence as it is systematically tied to the doctrine of the Trinity. Across the ages of church history, theologians have confirmed by presenting reasonable scriptural evidence of His precreation existence as the Logos. The author of Hebrews presents, “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life.” (Heb. 7.3)

Jesus’ pre-incarnational presence in the Old Testament continues to be debated and remains an exegetical exercise for theologians to wrestle with ambiguous language that may be too unclear for bold proclamations. Unintended inferences may appear if readers approach the Old Testament with the knowledge of New Testament revelation without an appropriate hermeneutic. While there is no threat in seeing Christ’s presence, not identity, revealed in the Hebrew writings, it is an unnecessary theological position to maintain the unity of the canon and God’s salvific plan as it finds its fulfillment in time.

Finally, the New Testament supports pre-existent expressions within both Johannine and Pauline literature through a lens of both creation and the Trinity. Paul, in no uncertain terms, discloses the truth of Jesus’ nature and person of the Godhead when writing “For in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col 2.9) The New Testament consistently reveals a preexistent Christ in unity with the Father and Spirit, as Paul shares, “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Cor 8.6). The revelation of God’s Word unveils the unique deity of Christ as He works in creation and covenant to fulfill His purposes throughout all eternity, past, present, and future.

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The preceding is an excerpt taken from "The Prexistence and Preincarnational Christ", James Armstrong. Download the full e-book.

 

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