Pre-existence of Christ
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.— John 1:15,18
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.
Some Protestant theologians believe that God the Son emptied himself of divine attributes in order to become human. Others reject this.
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.
Main article: Manichaeism
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.
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.”
Further information: Nontrinitarianism
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.'”
John Locke, William Ellery Channing and Isaac Newton appear to have maintained belief in the pre-existence of Christ despite their rejection of the Trinity.
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”. Mormonism 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.
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.”