Series in Christology - Part 1: The Preincarnate Son of God

[Author’s note: The series of studies in Christology beginning in this issue is planned to present the whole doctrine of Christ including His Person and His work from eternity past to eternity future. Without undue development of any one theme, the series is intended to include every important aspect of the subject, thereby providing for the student of Christology a comprehensive treatment of the whole doctrine. The articles will present for the first time in print the material which for some years has been mimeographed for the use of seminary classes in Christology. The form of the material is new, however, and the entire treatment has been recast to include new material and to make plain the thought to the reader who may not have had previous instruction in this doctrine. It is intended that the more technical material not absolutely essential to the thought will be included in footnotes for those interested.
The first major division of Christology dealing with the preincarnate Son of God will occupy the articles to be printed in 1947. Instead of following the customary division of the subject into that which is found in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, it will be the plan to include all material in both Testaments having bearing on the preincarnate Christ. Two major divisions will be observed: (1) the preincarnate Person of Christ; (2) the preincarnate work of Christ. In the first division particular attention will be given to the testimony concerning the deity of Christ. In the second division the works of Christ in eternity past, in creation, providence, preservation, revelation, and salvation in the Old Testament will have principal treatment. No attempt will be made to follow the traditional limitation of Christology to the Person of Christ only. The importance of His work in the total revelation of Christ justifies the extended discussion. Messianic prophecies will be included in the later discussion of Christ incarnate.]


Christianity by its very name has always had Christ as its historical and logical center. The doctrine of Christ is vitally related to every important doctrine of theology. The important matter of bibliology—the place of the Bible and divine revelation in theology—is logically inseparable from the doctrine of Christ. It is a matter of history that those who have interpreted literally the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the infallible and inspired Word of God have almost always accepted the deity of Christ. It is normal also for those who accept the unique deity of Christ to also accept the Scriptures. the individual alone determining what is truth. This subjective approach finally had its reductio ad absurdum in the liberalism of a decade ago which was unblushing humanism.

The ultimate in the destruction of the Biblical doctrine of Christ was reached early in the twentieth century when the charge of certain liberal theologians that Jesus was only a myth began to be taken seriously in the theological world. Liberal theology in some quarters had accepted as already proved that Jesus was not essential to Christianity, but it remained for Arthur Drews in his The Christian Myth (1909) to state it blatantly and win a group of followers.1 It is safe to say that the pendulum has swung somewhat back at present and the general opinion of modern liberal theologians is that Jesus was an historical character, though misunderstood by ancients and moderns, and the proper subject of scientific restudy to determine the true Jesus of history. It is taken for granted that the destruction of grounds for implicit faith in the infallibility of Scripture has been achieved and that the Jesus of history was after all only a man with at best a deeper God-consciousness than others. Douglas Clyde Macintosh, Professor of Theology and Philosophy of Religion in Yale University, has perhaps stated what may be accepted as the norm of present liberal attitude toward Jesus in the following statement:

In our sketch of the life and thought of the Reverend John Cotton we noted the theory advanced by Sir Henry Vane the younger, Governor of the Colony in 1636, that the Holy Spirit is united to the believer in the same manner as the divine nature was united with the human Jesus. This rather startling Christological suggestion, which seems to have been rejected as heretical by the theological builders of that day, bids fair to be made, after some slight reshaping, the headstone of the corner in the reconstructed temple of Christian evangelicalism. The modification of Sir Harry Vane’s formula which we would suggest is that it is increasingly possible for the Christian to be united to God the Holy Spirit in essentially the same way in which the human nature of Jesus was united with his divine nature, or indeed with God himself. Conversely, Jesus strengthened the emphasis on progressive revelations substitution of present religious experience as a norm of doctrine for the infallible Scriptures. We are told today, then, that the real question is not whether the Scriptures are infallible, whether Christ was uniquely divine, but rather what Christ speaks to our hearts today through our religious experiences. Barthianism, like other forms of modernism, is utterly bankrupt as far as providing a basis for Christology. It is, in fact, a revival in new terminology of ancient Gnostic ideas which were utterly destructive to Christian faith. The charge that Barthianism is a new form of liberalism rather than a new form of Reformed theology can be sustained on both theological and philosophical grounds.4

While, therefore, the history of Christology in the past and present will serve as a guide in the present study, the time-honored path of dependence upon the Scriptures will be followed instead of the present modern spirit. Christology has a more extensive field of literature than any other aspect of theology. It is not intended that this study should be a resumé, but rather that the great central truths which many others have stated at length should here be reduced to a simple and comprehensive statement based upon the Scriptures themselves for argument and proof. It is an impossibility for any one man to embrace the entire field of Christology in an ordinary lifetime, but it is necessary to define the Scriptural doctrine in reasonable limits without cumbrance of historical data. The objective of life and eternity is defined simply by Paul in the words, “That I may know him” (Phil 3:10). If this study is used to this end, the purpose of the author will be achieved.

I. The Preincarnate Person of the Son of God

The definition of the preincarnate Person of the Son of God is to all practical purposes the statement and proof of the eternal deity of the Second Person of the Trinity. In view of the ancient and modern attempts to reduce in one way or another the deity of Christ to a level below that of the First Person, the Father, it is necessary to emphasize certain aspects of the preincarnate Person of Christ. Crucial in this argument is the proof that Christ is eternal. Supporting this evidence is the full-orbed revelation that Christ possessed all the attributes of God, and that His works, titles, majesty, and promises are all those of God Himself. The theophanies of the Old Testament provide historical evidence of His pre-existence.

In denouncing the Arian heresy that Christ was the first of created spirits and therefore not eternal, the church has, since 325, maintained the eternity and deity of the Son of God in its historic creeds. The purpose of this discussion is to restate in brief form the Scriptural evidence in support of this doctrine. For the sake of brevity in statement, the expression preincarnate Christ will be used as equivalent to the term preincarnate Person of the Son of God, which is more accurate.

The Eternity of the Son of God

The doctrine of the eternity of the Son of God is most important to the doctrine of Christology as a whole. If Christ is not eternal, then He came into existence in time and is a created being and vastly different in being and attributes from God Himself. If Christ is eternal, it is affirming that He has no dependence upon another for His existence, that He is in fact self-existent. It is saying more than that He was pre-existent. This would affirm only that He existed before the incarnation. Arius, for instance, believed in the pre-existence of Christ but not in His eternity. To affirm that Christ existed from all eternity past is to attribute to Him all that self-sufficiency and independence which is true of God.

The Scriptures bear a clear witness to the fact of the eternity of Christ, sometimes directly, often indirectly. The Old Testament foreview of Christ spoke of Him as the child to be born in Bethlehem “whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (Mic 5:2). As Fausset has said, “The terms convey the strongest assertion of infinite duration of which the Hebrew language is capable (cf. Ps 90:2; Prov 8:22, 23; John 1:1).”5 All of the Old Testament anticipations of the coming of Christ which assert His deity are further evidence to establish His eternity. In Isaiah 9:6, Christ is declared to be not only “Mighty God,” but also “Everlasting Father,” or “Father of Eternity.” The very name Jehovah which it will be shown is given to Christ as well as to the Father and the Spirit is assertion of eternity. He is the eternal I AM (cf. Exod 3:14).

The New Testament is, if anything, more explicit than the Old Testament. The incarnate Christ is an unexplainable character apart from His eternal deity. The introduction to the Gospel of John has no other justifiable explanation than a statement of His eternity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The phrase “in the beginning” (ἐν ἀρχῇ) probably in itself is a reference to the point in time in eternity past beyond which it is impossible to go, as Dorner interprets it.6 In any case the verb was (ἦν) is explicit. As Marcus Dods expresses it: “The Logos did not then begin to be, but at that point at which all else began to be He already was.”7 The contrast between the timeless existence of the Word which became flesh and any creature is brought out in Johin 8:58, where Christ said, literally translated, “Before Abraham came (γενέσθαι), I am (εἰμί).” Christ claimed not only to have pre-existed before Abraham, but He was claiming continuous existence. It was so patent to His listeners that He was claiming the eternity of God that some took up stones to stone Him. In 1 John 1:1, Christ is again described by John as “That which was from the beginning.”

The Apostle Paul in his epistles states the same doctrine in unmistakable terms. In Colossians 1:16-17 in one statement both the eternity and the creatorship of Christ is declared. In verse seventeen we find, “And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” In verse sixteen , it is revealed, “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth.” The two statements together assert that Christ is before all creation and therefore self-existent and uncreated. The eternity of Christ is further asserted in the eternal covenant (Eph 1:4), and in the declaration by Christ Himself, “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last” (Rev 1:11). The contributing arguments to these explicit Scriptures are too numerous to mention here. His titles, works, immutability and other divine attributes, His eternal promises, all imply and require eternity. It is a matter of history that no denial of the eternity of Christ has endured which has not also denied the Scriptures as the very Word of God.

The Pre-Existence of the Son of God

Many Scriptures which strictly speaking do not assert the eternity of Christ speak of His existence before the incarnation. For all practical purposes these are corroborating testimony to His eternity and have been taken as such in church history. Theologians who have accepted the pre-existence of Christ have in almost all cases accepted His eternity.

An important line of evidence are the many statements of the heavenly origin of Christ. John 3:17 speaks of the fact that “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3:31 is more specific, “He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all.” Christ states Himself, “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38). Christ further speaks of the glory of heaven as a matter of memory and experience (John 17:5, 24). Other Scriptures too numerous to quote speak of His heavenly origin (John 1:15, 18, 30; 3:13, 16 ; 6:33, 42, 50, 51, 58, 62 ; 7:29 ; 8:23, 42 ; 9:39 ; Eph 1:3-5; 1 Pet 1:18-20). It is significant that while John, Paul, and Peter all speak of His pre-existence, most of the references are in John in connection with the proof of His deity.

The doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ is substantiated by many other lines of evidence, such as His preincarnate works of creation, providence, preservation, His promises made in eternity past, the theophanies, and other intimations of pre-existence. These are considered more properly under the second major division of the preincarnate Son of God, namely, His preincarnate works. Their added testimony leaves no shadow of doubt as to the pre-existence of Christ for anyone accepting the accuracy of the Scriptures. Remaining to be considered under the present division is the important and conclusive testimony to the Person of Christ contained in His divine attributes, His titles, and the argument from the doctrine of the Trinity.

Dallas, Texas

(To be continued in the April-June Number, 1947)

This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.

1 For a more extended discussion of this see The Harvard Theological Review, V (1912), 423-473, or B. B. Warfield, Christology and Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1929), pp. 313-367.

4 Cf. Cornelius Van Til, The New Modernism (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1946), 384 pp. Van Til shows by massive arguments that Barthianism is a new and dangerous form of modernism. Cf. also William H. Chisholm, “A New Heresy in the Christian Church,” The Sunday School Times, December 14, 1946, pp. 1155ff.

5 A. R. Fausset, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments by Rev. Robert Jamieson, Rev. A. R. Fausset, and Rev. David Brown (Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, and Company, 1868) IV, 600.

6 Cf. A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1907), pp. 309-310.

7 The Expositors Greek Testament, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, n.d.), p. 683.