Series in Christology - Part 3: The Preincarnate Son of God

[Author’s note: The previous articles have presented the Person of the preincarnate Son of God. In this article we begin the study of the work of the Son of God before the incarnation.]

{Editor’s note: Footnotes in the original printed edition numbered from 14-18, but in this electronic edition are numbered 1-5, respectively.}

II. The Work of the Preincarnate Son of God

One of the most commonly neglected aspects of Christology is His work in the preincarnate state. It can be granted that this is not as important as His work after the incarnation, but it is important in establishing and presenting His full-orbed deity before He became incarnate. The study is vast in its larger dimensions as it involves the statement and proof of such important doctrines as the decree of God, creation, providence, preservation, salvation, and revelation in the Old Testament. Clearly, a comprehensive treatment is impossible in the scope of these studies. Taking as premises, however, the inspiration of Scripture and the Reformed position in regard to the decree of God and His sovereignty over events in creation, it will enhance the study of Christology to consider the bearing of the work of the preincarnate Son of God on the total doctrine of Christ.

The Son of God in the Eternal Decree

The Scriptural revelation of the work of the Son of God begins with His part in the eternal decree of God. As a working basis, we may accept the concise definition of the decree given by the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “The decrees of God are, his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.”1 It is clear, if the Reformed concept of the decree of God is correct, that Christ had an important part as the Second Person in this eternal decree, and that therefore He is involved in all aspects of the total work of God. (Rom 8:28-30; Eph 1:4-11; 3:11 ; 2 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 1:9; Jas 2:5; 1 Pet 1:1, 2). The plan of salvation was not conceived after the fall of man as a plan of rescue, but it was instead the considered wisdom of God in its relation to the whole decree. It is a matter of great significance that from eternity past it was decreed that Christ should become incarnate, that He should suffer the death on the cross for the sin of the world, and that His triumph in resurrection, the salvation of all who believe, and the ultimate consummation were as clear to Him from eternity past as they will be from the viewpoint of eternity future.

Great as is the importance of the plan of salvation in the decree, it should not be made the sole principle of the works of God. As the Westminster Catechism quoted above brought out, the ultimate principle of the decree is the glory of God. Hence, in the eternal decree and purpose of God for Christ there is included not only His work in salvation, but also His work in creation, preservation, providence, and revelation, His part in the church of the New Testament and the program of Israel in the Old Testament as well as His future fulfillment of the promises given to David of a King who will sit forever on the throne of David. The participation of the eternal Son of God in all these aspects of the decree lend to the total picture the certainty of fulfillment, and the wisdom of God is seen in the complexity of the plan being unfolded in history. There is danger of oversimplification of the doctrine. The use of the eternal promises of God in regard to salvation to deny the revelation of Scripture concerning God’s plan in its separate aspects relating to Israel and the church are an illustration of the reductive fallacy—the attempt to make God’s plan of salvation a total explanation of all God’s purposes.

Thus, before any of the events conceived of as occurring in time is the decree of God with its important relation to the Son of God and His work. All the subsequent unfolding of the will of God and the work of Christ are the fulfillment of that which was in the mind of God from eternity past. We see Christ actively participating in the decree itself as well as promising His part in its fulfillment. In it all is the will and work of a sovereign, wise, and loving God who has designed all to manifest His own perfections and glory.

The Son of God in Creation

The doctrine of creation ex nihilo as the free act of God has been the generally accepted doctrine of the historic Christian church. It is opposed on the one hand to ancient theories of the eternity of matter and the theory that matter emanated from God and is of His substance. It is also opposed to modern theories of evolution as the means or process of creation. If philosophy cannot deal in the last analysis with ultimates, as is commonly admitted, then it cannot solve this problem of the truth or error of the doctrine of creation. It is a doctrine which can be made known only by a revelation of the Creator Himself. Concerning creation, the Scriptures give an adequate testimony for all who are prepared to receive it. From the first chapter of Genesis to the book of Revelation, the universe is presented in the Bible as that which God created.

Creation is commonly conceived as a work of the Father rather than of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures themselves, however, in the work of creation attribute it to all three Persons of the Trinity. The use of Elohim and Jehovah for the triune God gives clear intimation of this even in the Old Testament. It is the Elohim who creates in Genesis 1, and already in Genesis 1:2 the Spirit of God is acting creatively. The Holy Spirit is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament as the Creator (Job 26:13; 33:4 ; Ps 104:30; Isa 40:12, 13). The Father is also mentioned specifically in the New Testament (1 Cor 8:6). It is therefore to be expected that a similar revelation will be given concerning the Son of God.

The Son of God is revealed to be the eternal Word of God of whom it is said: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3, R.S.V.). In 1 Corinthians similar revelation is given: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6, R.S.V.). The doctrine is given its fullest statement in Colossians: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:15-17 R.S.V.).

Many attempts have been made to explain these citations as teaching something less than that the Son of God is the Creator. All such attempts fail before the plain intent of these passages. It can be seen at once that the name of no man or angel could be inserted in these descriptions without blasphemy. The work revealed is the work of God. There is no excuse either for Unitarian interpretations which make Christ merely a manifestation of God. The passages at once distinguish the Son of God from the other Persons of the Trinity and at the same time link the work of creation to all of them. It may be that we can concede with Berkhof that there is a distinction in the form of their work: “All things are at once out of the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. In general it may be said that being is out of the Father, thought or idea out of the Son, and life out of the Holy Spirit.”3 The Scripture does seem to make distinctions which are in keeping with the order of the Trinity, but even the distinctions do not carry through in all passages. Life is said to be in Christ (John 1:4), which seems to be the function of the Holy Spirit. Again it is said of Christ that all things are “in him” (Col 1:16), which is ordinarily said of the Spirit. Again, “In him all things hold together” (Col 1:17). These distinctions do not divide the work of creation or make Christ or the Spirit mere agents. In all the work of creation there is manifest the power and activity of the triune God.

The significance of the work of creation as ascribed to Christ is that it reveals His eternity, power, wisdom, and omnipresence. As the Creator He is specifically “before all things” (Col 1:17), and therefore eternal. The nature of creation reveals His power, wisdom and presence in creation. The telescopic wonder of the heavens as well as the microscopic wonders of the world too small for human eyes to see combine in their witness to His power. It is such a God who became such a Savior.

Preservation and Providence

The doctrine of providence has always formed an essential part of the Christian faith. The fact that God preserves His creation, guides it into intelligent and wise consummation of His purposes, and governs it as sovereign God is by its very character essential to a true theism. Even the liberal scholar Burrows states emphatically: “The basic issue for religious faith in this connection is whether the universe is governed by a personal God…. If it is not, biblical religion is basically false.”4 Conservative theologians have agreed with one voice concerning the fact of providence though struggling somewhat in its definition. It is usually held that providence includes (1) preservation, (2) concurrence or cooperation with creatures, (3) government.5 In regard to the study of the work of the preincarnate Son of God, the question may be raised concerning His part in this undertaking of God.

The Scriptural evidence for providence in its various phases, which involves hundreds of passages, usually uses the names of God which are not specifically related to one Person of the Trinity. Hence, frequently Jehovah or Elohim are used in the Old Testament (Cf. Gen 28:15; Exod 14:29-31; Deut 1:30-31; 2 Chron 20:17; Ps 31:3, 20; etc.). As a work of the triune God, then, providence is a work also of Christ, and all that is said of Jehovah or Elohim may be said of Christ.

There are reasons to believe, however, that the Son of God is specifically active in the work of God in providence. First, the work of the Angel of Jehovah, to be considered separately, presents monumental proof that the Son of God preserved and guided Israel. Second, the various references to Jehovah as the Shepherd of Israel may be taken as specific references to Christ (Cf. Gen 49:24; Ps 23:1; 80:1 ; Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:11-12, 23; 37:24 ). Third, the language of Isaiah 63:9 (A.S.V.) specifically refers to the Son of God under the title, “the angel of his presence”: “The angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.” This is clearly the work of providence and preservation in the Old Testament period.

In the New Testament we have a fourth line of evidence which is also specific: “He is before all things and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17, R.S.V.). Here again is a comprehensive statement—the universe “holds together” because of the immediate agency of Christ. In view of modern discoveries concerning the atomic structure of all matter—in which each atom is a miniature solar system—this work of Christ becomes especially significant. The principle of indeterminism in physics, now generally accepted in relation to motion within the atom, at least confirms that this work of Christ is immediate rather than a work of second causes. The immaterial bonds which hold together the atom as well as the starry heavens are traced in this passage to the power and activity of the Son of God.

The same doctrine as revealed in Colossians 1:17 is found again in Hebrews 1:3, “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power” (R.S.V.). In other words, without denying the validity and use of second causes, the universe is said to be upheld by the word of the power of the Son of God. While the context of Hebrews 1:3 bears on the incarnate Person of Christ, its reference is clearly to His deity and eternal power and authority.

Another important aspect of providence is the Scriptural revelation concerning divine government and the relation of Christ to this. Without attempting to solve here the problems of the relation of this aspect of divine sovereignty to human will and the permission of sin, it is important to note that God has not turned from His purpose to bring every creature under the immediate authority of Christ. This is true in regard to God’s purpose for the earth. The Son of God “shall have dominion also from sea to sea, And from the River unto the ends of the earth…. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him; All nations shall serve him” (Ps 72:8, 11, A.S.V.). It is also the will of God that creatures in heaven acknowledge the Son as supreme Lord: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11, R.S.V.). To a large extent the fulfillment of these prophecies is yet future. Throughout the period before the incarnation, human will and sin were permitted to go on in accomplishing the ultimate purpose of God. The theocracy in the Old Testament is to be related to this place of Christ in the government of God. In the millennium Christ will reign as the Son of David in fulfillment of many prophecies. Taken as a whole, the work of Christ in the preincarnate state in providence includes all the major features of the doctrine, and the Son of God is seen preserving, guiding, delivering, and governing His creatures. The aspects of the work of Christ yet to be considered, the theophanies and their revelation of God, the work of Christ in salvation in the Old Testament, and the types of Christ, combine to confirm and enlarge the doctrine of providence.

Dallas, Texas

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

1 Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Philadelphia: Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1946), p. 293.

3 Op. cit., p. 129.

4 Millar Burrows, An Outline of Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1946), p. 132.

5 Cf. John T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934), pp. 189ff; Berkhof, op. cit., p. 165ff, etc.