The pre-existence of Christ asserts the existence of Christ before his incarnation as Jesus. One of the relevant Bible passages is John 1:1–18 where, in the Trinitarian interpretation, Christ is identified with a pre-existent divine hypostasis (substantive reality) called the Logos or Word. There are nontrinitarian views that question the aspect of personal pre-existence or the aspect of divinity or both.
More particularly, John 1:15,18 says:
John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’”...No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.
This doctrine is supported in John 17:5 when Jesus refers to the glory which he had with the Father "before the world existed" during the Farewell Discourse. John 17:24 also refers to the Father loving Jesus "before the foundation of the world".
The pre-existence of Christ is a central tenet of mainstream Christianity. It explores the nature of Christ's pre-existence as the divine hypostasis called the Logos or Word, described in John 1:1–18, which begins:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.— John 1:1–3, NRSV
In Trinitarianism this "Logos" is also called God the Son or the second person of the Trinity. Theologian Bernard Ramm noted that "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." In the words of the Nicene Creed, Christ "came down from heaven, and was incarnate."
Douglas McCready, in his analysis and defence of the pre-existence of Christ, notes that whereas the preexistence of Christ "is taken for granted by most orthodox Christians, and has been since New Testament times", during the past century the doctrine has been increasingly questioned by less orthodox theologians and scholars.
James Dunn, in his book Christology in the Making, examines the development of this doctrine in early Christianity, noting that it is "beyond dispute" that in John 1:1–18, "the Word is pre-existent, and Christ is the pre-existent Word incarnate," but going on to explore possible sources for the concepts expressed there, such as the writings of Philo.
Tertullian in Against Marcion Ch.21 sees a pre-existent appearance of Christ in the fiery furnace of one who is "like the son of man (for he was not yet really son of man)." The identification of specific appearances of Christ is increasingly common in evangelical literature from the 1990s onwards. For example, W. Terry Whalin states that the fourth person in the fiery furnace is Christ, and that "These appearances of Christ in the Old Testament are known as Theophanies or 'appearances of God' ".
Orthodox Christianity teaches that Jesus was personally identical with the eternally pre-existent Son of God or Logos. He did not come into existence as a new person around 5 BC but exists personally as the eternal Son of God. To adopt tensed language from Nicaea I ("there never was [a time] when he was not" – DzH 126) According to Thomas Aquinas, "the humane nature" of Christ was created and began in time, where "the subsistent subject" is both uncreated and eternal.
A clear idea of Christ's pre-existence is given in Manichaean thought, where he is conferred the name Jesus the Splendour. Considered a divine being, he was believed to have been the entity to lead Adam into eating from the Tree of Knowledge instead of the Devil (AKA Prince of Darkness) who, according to Manichaeism, actually wanted humanity to stay away from it so they would remain trapped in matter and never find gnosis. Likewise, Manichaeans associated Christ with the Tree of Life and saw him as a holy emanation of the Father of Greatness.
Some accept the pre-existence of Christ without accepting his full divinity in the Trinitarian sense. For example, it is likely that Arius and most early advocates of Arianism accepted the pre-existence of Christ. However, Thomas Aquinas says that Arius "pretended that the Person of the Son of God is a creature, and less than the Father, so he maintained that He began to be, saying 'there was a time when He was not.'"
Today, several nontrinitarian denominations also share belief in some form of the pre-existence of Christ, including the Church of God (Seventh-Day) and the Jehovah's Witnesses, the latter group identifying Jesus as the archangel Michael, interpreting John 1:1 by translating with the phrase "a god," rather than "God". The Latter Day Saint movement teaches Christ's pre-existence as the first and greatest of the spirit children of God the Father.
Among the many churches which separated from the Worldwide Church of God, also referred to as the "Sabbatarian Churches of God" or, more pejoratively, Armstrongites, there is a shared belief in binitarianism, and that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament through whom God the Father created the world (based on Ephesians 3:9 and John 1:1–3), and that it was Jesus Christ who personally interacted with Adam and Eve, Noah, the patriarchs, ancient Israel, and the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. It is held that in his incarnation, Jesus was sent to reveal the Father who was previously unknown. This is based on an interpretation of John 5:37, Luke 10:22, and by the large number of references Jesus made about the Father in the New Testament compared to the very few, almost figural references to God as Father in the Old Testament. This belief is also based on an interpretation of verses where Christ is believed to be discussing his personal presence in the Old Testament and interaction with ancient Israel, and on a Christological interpretation of Melchizedek.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
In ways similar to the way Orthodox Christianity views the preexistence of Christ, the belief is that the Christ that was born on this Earth is same Son of God or the Word who existed before this world. However, He is seen as having been created by God the Father. This is because within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the Trinity is seen as three separate beings, each with their own bodies and personage. In reference to the doctrine of John 1:15-18, the belief continues that the God who is worshipped in the Old Testament, the Great Jehovah, is the same being who is the Son of God. During this time before Earth life, He was speaking as a representative of God the Father, which is why in some instances He refers to Himself as God the Father. This was a customary practice in Jewish culture for a representative to speak as the master in the master's place. Though this scripture makes the assertion that no man has seen God the Father it is believed within the Latter-day Saint community that God the Father and God the Son were in the presence of Adam and Eve whilst they were in the Garden of Eden. As well as was seen by Joseph Smith in what believer refer to as the Sacred Grove in New York in 1820 in an event commonly referred to as the First Vision.
Oneness Pentecostals are nontrinitarian Pentecostal Christians who do not accept the pre-existence of Christ as distinguished from God the Father, believing that, prior to the incarnation, only "the timeless Spirit of God (the Father)" existed. Afterwards God "simultaneously dwelt in heaven as a timeless Spirit, and inside of the Son of Man on this earth." However, the United Pentecostal Church International, a large Oneness denomination, says in their statement of faith that "The one God existed as Father, Word, and Spirit" prior to the incarnation.
Although Oneness Pentecostals accept that "Christ is the same person as God," they also believe that "The 'Son' was 'born,' which means that he had a beginning." In other words, "Oneness adherents understand the term [Son] to be applicable to God only after the incarnation." They have consequently been described as holding an essentially unitarian position on the doctrine, and of denying the pre-existence of Christ. However, some members of the movement deny this interpretation of their beliefs.
Denial of the doctrine
Throughout history there have been various groups and individuals believing that Jesus' existence began when he was conceived. Those who consider themselves Christians while denying the pre-existence of Christ can be broadly divided into two streams.
First, there are those who nevertheless accept the virgin birth. This includes Socinians, and early Unitarians such as John Biddle, and Nathaniel Lardner. Today the view is primarily held by Christadelphians. These groups typically consider that Christ is prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, but did not exist prior to his birth.
Second, there are those who also deny the virgin birth. This includes Ebionites and later Unitarians, such as Joseph Priestley, and Thomas Jefferson. This view is often described as adoptionism, and in the 19th century was also called psilanthropism. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described himself as having once been a psilanthropist, believing Jesus to be the "real son of Joseph." Friedrich Schleiermacher, sometimes called "the father of liberal theology", was one of many German theologians who departed from the idea of personal ontological pre-existence of Christ, teaching that "Christ was not God but was created as the ideal and perfect man whose sinlessness constituted his divinity." Similarly, Albrecht Ritschl rejected the pre-existence of Christ, asserting that Christ was the "Son of God" only in the sense that "God had revealed himself in Christ" and Christ "accomplished a religious and ethical work in us which only God could have done." Later, Rudolf Bultmann described the pre-existence of Christ as "not only irrational but utterly meaningless."
When the Trinity is depicted in art, the Logos is normally shown with the distinctive appearance, and cruciform halo that identifies Christ; in depictions of the Garden of Eden this looks forward to an incarnation yet to occur. In some Early Christian sarcophagi, the Logos is distinguished with a beard, "which allows him to appear ancient, even preexistent."
In Eastern Orthodox theology, the Old Testament title Ancient of Days, signifying God's eternal and uncreated nature, is commonly held to identify the pre-existence of God the Son. Most of the eastern Church Fathers who comment on the passage in Daniel (7:9-10, 13–14) interpreted the elderly figure as a prophetic revelation of the Son before his physical incarnation. As such, Eastern Christian art will sometimes portray Jesus Christ as an old man, the Ancient of Days, to show symbolically that he existed from all eternity, and sometimes as a young man, or wise baby, to portray him as he was incarnate. This iconography emerged in the 6th century, mostly in the Eastern Empire with elderly images, although usually not properly or specifically identified as "the Ancient of Days."
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- Bernard L. Ramm, An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic and Historic, 1983, reprinted by Regent College Publishing, 1993, ISBN 1-57383-008-9, p. 47.
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- Philippians 2:7, as translated in the New Revised Standard Version or Holman Christian Standard Bible.
- Pope Pius XII condemned this in 1951 in Sempiternus Rex Christus, and Protestant theologian Wayne Grudem likewise denies it in his Systematic Theology (Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, ISBN 0-85110-652-8, pp. 549–552).
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- Cf. also J. Neuner & J. Dupuis (eds), The Christian Faith, 7th edn, Bangalore: Theological Publications in India (2001), p. 8 – this publication hereinafter referred to under the authors' initials, as ND, followed by spec. page number.
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- Douglas Gordon Jacobsen, A Reader in Pentecostal Theology: Voices from the first generation, Indiana University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-253-21862-4, p. 14: "many Jesus-only pentecostals began to champion a decidedly unitarian, or oneness, view of the Godhead."
- Richard G. Kyle, The Religious Fringe: A history of alternative religions in America, InterVarsity Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8308-1766-2, p. 164: "They deny the preexistence of Christ."
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- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Trinity > Unitarianism: "This Racovian Catechism identifies the God of Israel with the Father of Christ... Both the Trinity and the doctrine of two natures (divine and human) in Christ are argued to be both contradictory and unsupported by the Bible. It is argued that Christ is a man who did not pre-exist his miraculous conception in Mary, though he's denied to be 'merely' a man, but affirmed to be the unique Son of God, the Messiah, worthy of worship and a proper recipient of prayer."
- J. Biddle A Twofold Catechism Archived 12 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine, chap. 4: "How was Jesus Christ born?" as well as "How many Lords of Christians are there, by way of distinction from the one God?" and "Doth the Scripture avouch Christ to be the Son of God because he was eternally begotten out of the Divine essence; or for other reasons agreeing to him only as a man?"
- Lardner N. Letter on the Logos (1759) in The works of Nathaniel Lardner in five volumes, Volume 5, p. 380–3. Online: "All these texts seem to me sufficient to satisfy us, that by 'the Word,' which St. John says, 'was in the beginning, and was with God, and was God,' he does not mean a being separate from God, and inferior to him, but God himself, or the wisdom and power of God, which is the same as God, even the Father, who alone is God, nor is there any other." as well as "Jesus is the Son of God, upon account of his miraculous conception and birth. Luke i. 31–35." (pp. 82–3)
- Alan Hayward, Did Jesus Really Come Down from Heaven?, pamphlet from the Christadelphian Auxiliary Lecturing Society, 1975: "The third view is held by Christadelphians and some others. According to this view Jesus did not live personally in heaven before he was born on earth; and the verses which refer to his heavenly origin must be understood figuratively.... The birth of the Lord Jesus Christ was the result of a mighty miracle. His mother was a young unmarried woman of excellent character. She was a virgin."
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- Sanford, Charles B. The religious life of Thomas Jefferson 1984 p112 "The question of the virgin birth occupied a good part of Priestley's book The Corruptions of Christianity . .. The account of the miraculous birth of Christ is only found in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. Priestley suggested that the earliest copies of Matthew and Luke did not have these introductions, writings of Marcion of the second century as evidence"
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