Click here to get started today!
Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
Pre-Existence of Jesus Christ
is his existence before he was born of the Virgin Mary. That he really did exist is taught plainly in John 3:13; John 6:50; John 6:62, etc.; 8:58; 17:5, 24; 1 John 1:2; but there are various opinions respecting this existence. Some, acknowledging, with the orthodox, that in Jesus Christ there is a divine nature, a rational soul, and a human body, go into an opinion peculiar to themselves. His body was formed in the Virgin's womb; but his human soul-the first and most excellent of all the works of God-they suppose was brought into existence before the creation of the world, and subsisted in happy union in heaven with the second Person of the Godhead till his incarnation. The doctrine is thus clearly set forth by bishop Bull in his Defense of the Nicene Creed: "All the Catholic orators of the first three centuries taught that Jesus Christ, he who was afterwards so called, existed before he became man, or before he was born, according to the flesh, of the Blessed Virgin, in another nature far more excellent than the human nature; that he appeared to holy men, giving them an earnest, as it were, of his incarnation; that he always presided over and provided for the Church, which in time to come he would redeem with his own blood, and of consequence that, from the beginning, the whole order or thread of the divine dispensation, as Tertullian speaks, ran through him; further yet, that he was with the Father before the foundation of the world, and that by him all things were made."
Those who advocate this doctrine differ in their christological views from those called Arians, for the latter ascribe to Christ only a created deity, whereas the former hold his true and proper divinity. They differ from the Socinians, who believe no existence of Jesus Christ before his incarnation; they differ from the Sabellians, who only own a trinity of names; they differ also from the generally received opinion, which is, that Christ's human soul began to exist in the womb of his mother, in exact conformity to that likeness unto his brethren of which St. Paul speaks (Hebrews 2:17). The writers in favor of the pre-existence of Christ's human soul recommend their opinion by these arguments:
1. Christ is represented as his Father's messenger, or angel, being distinct from his Father, sent by his Father, long before his incarnation, to perform actions which seem to be too low for the dignity of pure Godhead. The appearances of Christ to the patriarchs are described like the appearance of an angel, or man really distinct from God; yet one in whom God, or Jehovah, had a peculiar indwelling, or with whom the divine nature had a personal union.
2. Christ, when he came into the world, is said, in several passages of Scripture, to have divested himself of some glory which he had before his incarnation. Now if there had existed before this time nothing but his divine nature, this divine nature, it is argued, could not properly have divested itself of any glory (John 17:4-5; 2 Corinthians 8:9). It cannot be said of God that he became poor: he is infinitely self-sufficient; he is necessarily and eternally rich in perfections and glories. Nor can it be said of Christ, as man, that he was rich, if he were never in a richer state before than while he was on earth.
3. It seems needful, say those who embrace this opinion, that the soul of Jesus Christ should pre-exist, that it might have an opportunity to give its previous actual consent to the great and painful undertaking of making atonement for man's sins. It was the human soul of Christ that endured the weakness and pain of his infant state, all the labors and fatigues of life, the reproaches of men, and the sufferings of death. The divine nature is incapable of suffering. The covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son is therefore represented as being made before the foundation of the world. To suppose that simple Deity, or the Divine Essence, which is the same in all the three Personalities, should make a covenant with itself, is inconsistent.
Dr. Watts, moreover, supposes that the doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul of Christ explains dark and difficult Scriptures, and discovers many beauties and proprieties of expression in the Word of God, which on any other plan lie unobserved. For instance, in Colossians 1:15, etc., Christ is described as the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature. His being the image of the invisible God cannot refer merely to his divine nature, for that is as invisible in the Son as in the Father; therefore it seems to refer to his pre-existent soul in union with the Godhead. Again, when man is said to be created in the image of God (Genesis 1:2), it may refer to the God-man, to Christ in his pre-existent state. God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." The word is redouble, perhaps to intimate that Adam was made in the likeness of the human soul of Christ, as well as that he bore something of the image and resemblance of the divine nature. Dr. Samuel Clarke, it will be borne in mind by the well-read student of Christology, did not accept the general orthodox view of the Trinity doctrine, but endeavored to form a theory holding an intermediate place between the Arian and orthodox systems, neither allowing Jesus to be called a creature nor admitting his equality with the Father. He held that from the beginning there existed along with the Father a second Person, called the Word or Son who derived his being, attributes, and powers from the Father. The Jews uniformly maintained the pre-existence of the Messiah. In English theology, Dr. Watts was the ablest espouser of this doctrine. In American theology the Rev. Noah Worcester advocated Dr. Watts's theory, but with decided modifications founded on the title "Son of God," which is so frequently applied to Christ in the N.T., and which Worcester alleged "must import that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father as truly as Isaac was the son of Abraham; not that he is a created intelligent being, but a being who properly derived his existence and nature from God." Mr. Worcester thus maintains that Jesus Christ is not a self-existent being, for it is impossible even for God to produce a self-existent son; but as Christ derived his existence and nature from the Father, he is as truly the image of the invisible God as Seth was the likeness of Adam. He is therefore a person of divine dignity, constituted the creator of the world, the angel of God's presence, or the medium by which God manifested himself to the ancient patriarchs. According to this theory the Son of God became mall, or the Son of man, by becoming the soul of a human body.
Those who object to the doctrine of the pre-existence of the human soul of Christ do so on the principle that such a doctrine weakens and subverts that of his divine personality, and assign as grounds for such a position that—
1. A pure intelligent spirit, the first, the most ancient, and the most excellent of creatures, created before the foundation of the world, so exactly resembles the second Person of the Arian Trinity that it is impossible to show the least difference except in name.
2. This pre-existent Intelligence, supposed in this doctrine, is so confounded with those other intelligences called angels that there is great danger of mistaking this human soul for an angel, and so of making the person of Christ to consist of three natures.
3. If Jesus Christ had nothing in common like the rest of mankind except a body, how could this semi-conformity make him a real man?
4. The passages quoted in proof of the pre-existence of the human soul of Jesus Christ are of the same sort with those which others allege in proof of the pre-existence of all human souls.
5. This opinion, by ascribing the dignity of the work of redemption to this sublime human soul, detracts from the deity of Christ, and renders the last as passive as the first is active.
6. This notion is contrary to the Scripture. St. Paul says, "In all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren" (Hebrews 2:17): he partook of all our infirmities except sin. St. Luke says, "He increased in stature and wisdom" (Luke 2:52). Upon the whole, this scheme, adopted to relieve the difficulties which must always surround mysteries so great, only creates new ones. This is the usual fate of similar speculations, and shows the wisdom of resting in the plain interpretation of the Word of God. See Robinson, Claude, 1, 214, 311; Watts, Works, 5, 274, 385; Gill, Body of Divinity, 2, 51; Robinson, Plea, p. 140; Fleming, Christology; Simpson, Apology for the Trinity, p. 190; Hawker, Sermon on the Divinity of Christ, p. 44, 45; Haag, Histoire des Dogmes Chret.; Martensen, Dogmatics; Miller, Doctrine of Sin; Liddon, Divinity of Christ; Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines; Studien u. Kritiken, 1860, No. 3. Comp. (See INDWELLING SCHEME); (See JESUS CHRIST).
These files are public domain.
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Pre-Existence of Jesus Christ'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/pre-existence-of-jesus-christ.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24