By Anthony Buzzard
A very significant theological school has long protested the notion that one can preexist oneself. That school has asked its opponents to explain how such a thing is even imaginable. How can you be before you are!? I think that many students of the Bible have not thought this issue through, and it is the task of educators to invite reflection. It is reflection which is so significant that it will determine our view of who Jesus really is.
I maintain that the NT says, if one looks at the forest first, and not just certain isolated trees in John and Paul, that Jesus is the human Messiah promised by the Hebrew Scriptures. He is the Son of God promised for a time future to David (2 Sam. 7:14-16; note the future tenses). The son of David is raised up “after David” and thus does not exist before! If this is not the first premise of all Christology, we might as well discard Scripture as the foundation of our faith. Is it unreasonable to insist that David’s son, who is also to be God’s Son, is younger than David, his ancestor?
The whole point of the Messiah is that he is a member of the human race, not God Himself and not an angel. He is an expression of the One God — His image, yes, but still a member of the human race. The profound truth in all this is the amazing thing God has chosen to do with a human being begotten personally by Him. It is the Devil who keeps saying “Jesus is too good to be man or ‘mere man.’” The Devil is the inveterate enemy of the human race. He has been relentlessly opposed to mankind as the pinnacle of God’s great creation. But if God so decrees — and He has — a mediating human being can forgive sins and raise the dead, performing all sorts of miracles. He can do this, as Jesus did, as the One God’s human agent and plenipotentiary.
I think that there is a great danger that Scripture on this point about the human Messiah Jesus is discarded. As I hope to show, this is what in fact happens when “orthodox” scholars write whole books to defend the ancient and classic Trinitarian idea that Jesus preexisted as the Son of God and then “assumed human nature” (the Incarnation, capital “I”). I maintain that one can only begin to get such a theory off the ground if 1) one forgets who it was God promised as Savior throughout the OT; 2) one ignores the primary and clear Christology of Matthew and Luke, who brilliantly develop their Christology on the basis of the expectations and promises of the Hebrew Bible, 3) one does not critically inspect the whole concept of personal preexistence, and 4) one is willing to speak of two Persons who are God — a subtle polytheism.
Naturally enough I think that John and Paul did not overthrow the work of Matthew and Luke and thus agreed with them — and this they both say constantly — that Jesus is the Messiah. That is what the NT says plainly and constantly. That is their common confession, and it is chaotic for me to imagine that Paul disagreed with Luke, his companion, or that John who knew of the Synoptic gospels set out to contradict their clear teaching about the origin of the Son of God, the Messiah.
Yes, the origin of the Son as the Greek text has it in Matthew 1:18, the genesis of the Son, his beginning. Remember that according to mainstream churches the Son is not supposed to have a beginning at all. He has always existed! That is the umbrella teaching (the Trinity) under which some readers are gathering.
The same person cannot begin from two different points. Can the same single line begin at two points? The same person cannot be six months younger than his cousin (Jesus was six months younger than John the Baptist) and at the same time billions of years older. I think it impossible for the son of David, which Jesus must be, to be also the creator of David, or even the ancestor of David. Such mythology is not much less amazing than the fictions of The Da Vinci Code.
The notion that Jesus preexisted his own begetting in Mary (please think long and hard as to how this could be!) and was thus active and vocal during the OT period contradicts the plain statement in Hebrews 1:1-2 that God did not until the NT period speak through His Son. I don’t know how language can more clearly exclude the Trinitarian idea that the Son was in fact active and speaking in the prophets, appearing visibly as an angel or as a man. Yet this contradiction of Hebrews 1 is the view of the earliest church fathers, as is well known. It became the foundation of later Trinitarianism.
Yes, the early church fathers and apologists plainly declare that it was the preexisting Son who spoke throughout the OT period, beginning by speaking to Adam. In so doing they are telling us that they were imagining a different, pre-human and therefore non-human Jesus. You just cannot preexist yourself. You cannot be pre-human and human without being two persons. A son cannot be begotten, i.e., come into existence, if he is already in existence. Oh, he might be “morphed” into an embryo, but that is a curiously pagan idea, much more akin to reincarnation.
Trinitarian scholar A.T. Hanson refers to the problem “which it seems so difficult to make sense of, a personal preexistence of Jesus Christ and a glorified humanity belonging to the risen Christ.” He candidly admits that “there is thus in the prologue to the 4th Gospel nothing that demands a doctrine of a preexistent person called Jesus Christ, only of the preexistent Word of God.” Dr. Colin Brown is even more assertive on this point:
“To read John 1:1 as though it said ‘In the beginning was the Son’ is patently wrong.”
The same Dr. Colin Brown, seasoned systematician at Fuller Seminary, says correctly, “to be called Son of God in the Bible means you are not God.”
Of Hebrews 1 Hanson says:
“It is not even certain that the name Son is unhesitatingly applied by him to the preexistent state. Hebrews 1:2 could be rendered: ‘He has in these last days spoken to us in the mode of a Son,’ which would imply that the Sonship only began at the incarnation.”
This gives away a great clue. The church fathers were mistaken in their claim that the Son of God spoke constantly in the OT period. Hebrews denies this. Hanson picks up on another important fact, and as a Trinitarian is puzzled by it:
“The puzzling fact is that the synoptic gospels, which as publications are later than Paul and contemporary with Hebrews, do not exhibit any tendency to elaborate a doctrine of preexistence.”
In other words, if the synoptics are offering the faith to the public in the later NT period, how come they say nothing at all about a pre-historic existence of Jesus as Son of God? How is it that they exclude a pre-human Jesus altogether? Hanson, I would think, is on the verge of giving up his Trinitarianism. He concedes that “the historical evidence that in fact Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of his Divinity and remembered his pre-incarnate state is totally insufficient.”
I suggest that the whole theory of the Son existing as a conscious person before his birth is unwarranted and has led to a deluge of conflict and division in the faith, not to mention some martyrdoms and violent excommunications. Neither the angel Jesus nor the eternal Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible. There is no God the Son in the text of Scripture. But there is the uniquely begotten one Son of God, the human Messiah.
This whole concept of personal preexistence was an import from Greek thinking which invaded the Church by 150 AD. Adolf Harnack, the “prince” of church historians, was right that the entire orthodox dogmatic system is based on the false premise found in II Clement (9:5): “Jesus Christ being first spirit became flesh.” This contradicts Paul flat in I Corinthians 15:46 where he says that the spirit Jesus was not before Adam, but the other way round. Adam came first, then the second Adam. Of the mistaken idea of II Clement Harnack rightly says:
“This is the fundamental, theological and philosophical creed on which the whole Trinitarian speculations of the Church of the succeeding centuries are built and it is thus the root of the orthodox system of dogmatics.”
Those dogmatic decisions bind church members to this very day.
Let us 1) think about what we mean when we say “preexistence,” and 2) listen carefully to Matthew and Luke and see if they describe the assumption of human nature by an already conscious Person living in heaven.
Preexistence: Albert Reville, professor of the history of religion, wrote:
“The fact is that the two ideas — preexistence and Virginal birth — cannot be reconciled. A Preexistent person who becomes man reduces himself, if you will, to the state of a human embryo; but he is not conceived by action exterior to himself in the womb of a woman. But conception is the point at which an individual is formed, who did not exist before, at least as an individual.”
Scripture says that the Son of God was conceived (the mother’s part) and begotten (the action of the Father).
Listen to Professor Mackay on the extraordinary difficulty involved in preexistence as a concept at all:
“It is best to begin with the problem of preexistence, not only because there are linguistic difficulties here, but because it leads directly into the main difficulties encountered in all Incarnational and Trinitarian theology. As soon as we recoil from the suggestion that something can preexist itself, we must wonder what exactly preexists what else, and in what sense it does so.”
“It does not take a systematician of any extraordinary degree of perspicacity to notice how exegetes themselves are the unconscious victims in the course of their most professional work of quite dogmatic (that is, uncritical) systematic assumptions.”
I think this is absolutely right. Prince of church history, Adolf Harnack, agrees:
“The miraculous coming into being of Christ in the virgin through the holy spirit and real preexistence of Christ mutually exclude each other. Later, and in fact very soon, people were admittedly forced to think of them as compatible.”
Pannenberg makes our point well:
“Jesus’ virginal birth stands in irreconcilable contradiction to the Christology of the Incarnation of the preexistent Son of God…[According to the virgin birth] Jesus first became God’s Son through Mary’s conception. [Preexistence] is irreconcilable with this: that the divine Sonship as such was first established in time [as Matthew and Luke teach]. Sonship cannot at the same time consist in preexistence and still have its origin only in the divine procreation of Jesus in Mary…[Matthew and Luke] teach that from his birth onward Jesus has been God’s Son, because through his birth he is God’s Son…Preexistence cannot be connected without contradiction conceptually with the original motif of the virgin birth…The contradiction of preexistence and Virgin Birth the patristic church apparently did not notice…How was such a transformation of the original faith in Christ possible? How did Jesus, exalted through the resurrection from the dead, become the preexistent divine being descending from heaven? This remains to the present a chief problem of the history of the primitive Christian tradition.”
The problem is resolved by believing what Matthew and Luke have to say, and of course Acts and Peter, and then agreeing that Paul and John did not contradict them. The Son of God did not exist literally until he was supernaturally begotten in Mary. Luke 1:35 deserves to be shouted from the housetops. Pastors should be urged to give full-length expositions of this verse.
Virginal begetting, the supernatural coming into existence of the person Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God, is the unquestioned teaching of Matthew and Luke. It is a hopeless task to try to read a doctrine of Incarnation into them. This can only be done by destroying their testimony. Until recently the clear teaching of Matthew and Luke as having nothing to say about preexistence has been widely accepted. Now recently amazing efforts are being made to make Matthew and Luke believe in a preexisting Son.
Douglas McCready says that the Synoptics teach not directly but implicitly that Jesus preexisted as the eternal Son. He turns to Luke but in a section dedicated to discussing the title “Son of God” (several pages) fails to take any note of Luke 1:35.
This is really an amazing phenomenon. That statement of Gabriel provides the Bible’s main key to the status of Jesus as Son of God. Few verses actually unpack themselves with the clarity of Luke 1:35. Few verses actually interpret themselves. But this one does. Gabriel and Luke here tell us exactly how, why, when and where the Son of God was begotten. They provide a biblical definition of Son of God as applicable to Jesus. It was “precisely for this reason” (dio kai), i.e. the creative miracle in Mary, that the “holy thing to be begotten is the Son of God.” Matthew is no less clear that the genesis (Matt. 1:18) of Jesus is found in the miraculous begetting which is to occur “in Mary” (1:20). To beget means in Greek and English to cause to come into existence. To come into existence means you are not in existence already. Language has no clearer way of telling us this. Matthew has rehearsed the word “beget” some 40 times in his first chapter. He has called the Messiah son of David and son of Abraham and then proceeds to tell us how the Son of God came into existence, was begotten, in Mary (1:20), not through Mary. It was the Gnostics who first said that Jesus came through Mary, preexisting himself in some mystical way. Orthodoxy, with its notion of a preexisting Son, is in fact harboring a subtle Gnostic tendency. Harnack recognized what has happened. He spoke of the “Gnostic leaven” which orthodoxy never got rid of.
It is the paradox of all paradoxes then that the Nicene Creed actually anathematizes any who say that “before he came into existence he was not in existence.” The creed therefore excommunicates Matthew and Luke — and Paul in Galatians 4:4 and John in I John 5:18 (not the KJV). Paul speaks of the Son as “coming into existence” from a woman. And John speaks of a point in time when the Son was begotten, i.e. brought into existence (gennetheis).
No wonder that the very candid and celebrated Roman Catholic commentator on the birth narratives, Raymond Brown, confesses that Luke 1:35 “has embarrassed many orthodox theologians since in preexistence Christology a conception by the holy spirit in Mary does not bring about the existence of God’s Son. Luke is seemingly unaware of such a Christology [he was no Trinitarian]. For Luke conception is causally linked to divine Sonship.”
Dunn is right with us on this point. Dunn incidentally has now given up belief in preexistence even in John’s Gospel. “Luke is more explicit than Matthew in his assertion of Jesus’ divine sonship from birth (1:32, 35). But here too it is sufficiently clear that it is a begetting, a becoming, which is in view, the coming into existence of one who will be called, and will in fact be the Son of God, not the transition of a preexistent being to become the soul of a human baby, or the metamorphosis of a divine being into a human fetus…Luke’s intention is clearly to describe the creative process of begetting…Similarly in Acts there is no sign of any Christology of preexistence.” No Incarnation, according to Luke!
Godet is quite clearly in line with Luke: “By the word ‘therefore’ the angel alludes to his preceding words: he will be called the son of the Highest. We might paraphrase it: ‘And it is precisely for this reason that I said to you…’ We have then here, from the mouth of the angel himself, an authentic explanation of the term Son of God, in the former part of his message. After this explanation Mary could only understand the title in this sense: a human being of whose existence God Himself is the immediate author. It does not convey the idea of preexistence.”
Equally frank is Fitzmeyer, the commentator in the Anchor Bible on Luke. He puts his finger on the enormous change that came over the faith as early as the mid-second century: Justin Martyr reads the account in Luke to mean that the preexisting Son, called the power of God and holy spirit, engineered his own conception in Mary. Preexisting himself he caused his own existence in Mary. Justin was driven to this by his premise that the Son had been fully active in OT times, as a buffer between the world and the ineffable God the Father who did not directly deal with the world.
Note how clear Fitzmeyer is about what had happened by way of obstructing the plain sense of Luke 1:35 by Justin (150 AD):
“Holy spirit is understood in the OT sense of God’s creative and active power present to human beings. Later church tradition made something quite other out of this verse. Justin wrote: ‘It is not right therefore to understand the Spirit and power of God as anything else than the Word, who is also the first begotten of God’ (Apology 1:33). In this [Justin’s] interpretation the two expressions, spirit and power, are being understood of the Second Member of the Trinity. It was scarcely however before the 4th century that the Holy Spirit was understood as the third person…There is no evidence here in the Lukan infancy narrative of Jesus’ preexistence or Incarnation. Luke’s sole concern is to assert that the origin of God’s Messiah is the effect of His creative spirit on Mary.” (He says the elements of the Trinity but not the doctrine itself are found in Luke.)
The Christology of the Synoptics is a barrier to all speculation about a Jesus who does not originate in the womb of his mother. Thus the human Jesus is established and emerges as a credible model for human spirituality as well as the chosen instrument for human salvation as the lamb of God, so constituted by God Himself. God, rather than councils, should be allowed the freedom to choose what sort of Savior is adequate to the task. I thank Him that He graciously appointed a member of the human race as mediator, savior and judge. “Every High Priest is selected from among men” (Heb. 5:1), not from among angels, and certainly God cannot be a High Priest to Himself.
If the Savior has to be God, it is hard to see how the immortal God can die (when God declares that He is immortal, I Tim. 6:16) and how even a created preexisting holy angel, who also has immortality, can do the job. Only a human being who is mortal can die as Savior for the sins of the world. All the later complex divisions of the one Person Jesus into two, will not answer this point.
Moreover if Jesus as the Trinitarians officially say is “man” and not “a man,” who did Mary bear? It is really incredible to believe with orthodoxy that Mary bore “human nature” and not a newly existing son of David. Does the Hebrew Bible promise us “human nature” as the descendant of David or the seed of Eve? Hardly. The Bible simply does not deal in such abstractions, and this fully justifies the remarks of Bart Ehrman and Geza Vermes that “The official line taken by Christianity…was not directly tied to the actual words and deeds of the historical Jesus.” “Compared to the dynamic religion of Jesus, fully evolved Christianity seems to belong to another world.”
“Polytheism entered the Church camouflaged.”
Harnack puts his finger on the whole problem that arose in Christology when Greek philosophical paradigms were brought in to explain the Bible:
“The church opposed the gross docetism and the tearing apart of Jesus and the Christ. But did not the teaching of a heavenly Aeon, who was incarnated as the Savior, contain a remnant of the old Gnostic leaven? Does not ‘emanation of the Logos’ for the purpose of the creation of the world remind us of the emanation of Aeons [in Gnosticism]? Was not ditheism promoted when two or three divine Beings were prayed to?…A struggle began…which was the history of the suppression of the historical Christ by the preexisting Christ in dogmatics, that is to say the suppression of the real Christ by the fictitious Christ in dogmatics, the triumphant attempt to regiment the faith of the laity by means of a formula incomprehensible to the laity…and to put the mystery of the Person of Christ in the place of the Person himself. When the Logos Christology triumphed [i.e. the Son was read back on to the logos], the traditional view of the supreme deity as One Person and along with this every thought of the real and complete humanity of the Redeemer was in fact condemned as being intolerable in the Church. Its place was taken by the ‘nature’ of Christ which without ‘the person’ is simply a cipher.”
Thus the precious son of David was turned into a cipher. Trinitarians were committed to the view, inevitable once the Son preexists, that Jesus was “man” but not “a man.” Who is willing to defend this view when in the future Jesus inspects what we have been teaching about him? Happily in our times voices of protest have arisen from many quarters (cited in our book The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound). Notably J.A.T. Robinson of Cambridge who remarks, “John is as undeviating a witness as any in the NT to the unitary monotheism of Judaism.” And from Professor Caird of Oxford, who warns us to beware of any theory which tries to make the God of Judaism into more than one Person:
“The Jews had believed only in the preexistence of a personification. Wisdom was the personification, either of a divine attribute, or of a divine purpose, but never a person. Neither the fourth Gospel nor Hebrews speaks of the eternal Word or Wisdom of God in terms which compel us to regard it as a Person.”
They knew this at Qumran also when they wrote “By God’s knowledge everything has been brought into being. And everything that is, God established by His purpose, and apart from Him nothing is done” (I QS XI.11). And Philo said of Moses, who preexisted in the plan of God according to Jews, that he was “by divine foreknowledge the logical embodiment of the Law” (nomos empsychos). No wonder then that John could think of Jesus as the embodiment of grace and truth — God’s expression.
Finally, this from Roman Catholic professor Roger Haight in his mammoth Jesus Symbol of God:
“Once Logos is hypostatized [i.e. made to be a Person before the birth of Jesus] one has the problem of a second God.”
That says it all. And if polytheism is a problem, we had better take note.
I remind you that no one reading the eight English translations before the KJV would have been misled into reading “All things were made through him [the Son].” They read “all things were made through it [the word].” Only under the influence of the Roman Catholic Rheims version did the English Protestant versions change the pronoun to introduce a preexisting Son.
To make sense of the God of Scripture we must return to that unitary God of Jesus, the Father who in Jesus’ words is “the only one who is truly God” (John 17:3), the God of Jesus as well as of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.