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The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke
The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke
Simon J. Gathercole
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006
356 pp., 37.5

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Stephen H. Webb

The Problem with Preexistence

Re-framing the questions.

In the first chapter of his wide-ranging and well-written book, He Came Down From Heaven: The Preexistence of Christ and the Christian Faith, Douglas McCready confesses that his topic is something of an oxymoron. He is right. The pre and exist of preexistence, often pinned together by a hyphen like siblings stuck in the back seat on a long car ride, add nothing in their combination to our understanding of Jesus Christ. Jesus exists, and he exists prior to everything, so talking about his preexistence is incoherent. He certainly does not exist prior to his own existence, which the term seems to imply.

Of course, theologians often retool ordinary words with technical meaning. This word, however, is neither ordinary nor precise. In fact, preexistence actually does not apply to anything, because nothing exists prior to his saying so, and he exists like nothing else. It would be better to speak of his eternal existence than his preexistence.

If preexistence were merely confusing, it might be worth salvaging, but its damage extends beyond the rules of grammar. Although this word has a long history of theological use, it actually drives a wedge into the life of Jesus Christ. The pre of preexistence suggests, in an insidious fashion, that Christians worship a split person if not a split personality: Jesus of Nazareth the miracle worker who had a prior career as the Son of God.

The truth is that Jesus exists in a manner that befuddles the way we are cursed to divide time into before, now, and after. We preexist ourselves, to coin a variant of this term, because we are always looking to the receding past to discover who we are. We have a problem with time, not Jesus. Rather than view the existence of Jesus Christ through the prism of our fragmented sense of time, we should let the coherent wholeness of his life judge our own. The Son of God mixes together time and eternity as if they were as easily interchangeable as mayonnaise and Miracle Whip. That is why we can hope that the rushing blurs of our lives will one day find their rest in him.

Rather than give this misleading term a decent burial, McCready tries to give it new life. He explains that there are at least three interpretations of preexistence. The first is real or personal preexistence. It is one of the awkward features of this term that even heretics such as Arius, who denied the full deity of Christ, could affirm his preexistence as a lesser deity created before the rest of the world. The second is ideal preexistence, which means that Jesus existed in God's mind prior to the incarnation. McCready shows how trivial this position is, because, given God's omniscience, everything preexists in the divine mind. The third interpretation, eschatological preexistence, argues that the experience of the resurrection led Jesus' disciples to create the myth of his preexistence. Post-existence gave rise to pre-existence in order to provide balance to the story of Jesus, as if the prolonged ending of the Gospels in his being raised from death into glory required an equally elongated beginning in his coming down from heaven.

In order to combat eschatological preexistence, McCready conducts a common-sense survey of the New Testament, concluding that the earliest writings affirmed personal or real preexistence. McCready's method keeps as low to the ground as Simon Gathercole's soars into higher criticism, but they both reach the same conclusion. With The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Gathercole—who has previously written a fascinating book on the role of boasting in Paul's letters—has produced what should become the standard scholarly treatment of preexistence in the Synoptic Gospels. Like much of even the best New Testament scholarship, however, Gathercole's book strikes me as an arduous exercise in belaboring the obvious. Gathercole is writing for the skeptics, who make the Bible more complex in order to make it less believable. Yet what the skeptics do with the numerous "I have come" sayings is hardly worth refuting. Jesus did not mean he had come from Nazareth, and his use of the first-person pronoun did not refer to somebody else.

Both McCready and Gathercole seem to regret that the New Testament does not do a better job of defining preexistence, and thus they set out to show how this concept can be pieced together from the broken bits of its biblical expression. The New Testament does not provide the level of clarity that these scholars seek because it presupposes the preexistence of Jesus Christ as a given that makes sense of everything else. Preexistence is the forest that makes sense of the trees.

Rather than view the existence of Jesus Christ through the prism of our fragmented sense of time, we should let the coherent wholeness of his life judge our own.

The title Jesus most frequently gives himself in the Gospels is the somewhat mysterious Son of Man, which evades scholarly efforts at a precise definition. McCready and Gathercole agree that this designation does not offer much help in thinking about preexistence, but to me, it is utterly decisive. By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus was alluding to the brotherhood of all humanity in his personal identity. Just as God the Father is the Father of all men, so God the Son is the Son of Man. By being the son of both God and man, Jesus demonstrates that God chose to be with us from the very beginning of time. Jesus Christ is not a man but the man, which is a crucial distinction.

If McCready and Gathercole are right that the earliest Scriptures affirm personal preexistence, then why do so many modern theologians deny it? According to McCready, there are two main reasons. The first is that preexistence can appear to downplay Christ's humanity. Docetism was an ancient heresy that taught that Jesus only appeared to be human. He was really a divine being who used a human body like a costume, discarding it at will. Liberal theologians in the 20th century liked to argue that docetism had returned as a hallmark of evangelical Christianity. They alleged that evangelical Christians overemphasize Christ's divinity at the expense of his humanity. That charge, which was rarely substantiated, provided liberals with the cover they needed to sacrifice Christ's divinity to his humanity. For liberal theology, preexistence is incompatible with a fully human Jesus.

What liberal theologians miss is how the eternity of Christ is the only guarantee of the reality and perfection of his human form. The Son of God became incarnate; he did not fill somebody else's body with the invisible spiritual fluid of divinity. He took a role in his own production. The Word does not put on flesh like a man who gets dressed in the morning, although, if we were to use this unsuitable metaphor, we would have to say that God's clothing is a perfect fit. The highest honor we can give to the humanity of Jesus is to recognize that his body is not unconnected to his identity as the Son of God. Otherwise, he would not have been resurrected in his human form.

Modern liberal theology wants to portray Jesus as just like us in order to establish his credentials as a great teacher and moral role-model who inaugurated a process of revolutionary social change. The New Testament, however, does not distinguish between the power and the person of Jesus Christ. He himself is the future of the world. When the point of the world comes into final focus, we will recognize his personal features. We will be at home in the end because God made his home in him.

The second reason liberal theology tends to deny preexistence is that this concept smacks of metaphysical speculation. Liberalism focuses on morality more than salvation, and moralistic theologians define the divinity of Jesus by what he does rather than who he is. This so-called functional Christology is predicated on the assumption that metaphysics is foreign to Hebraic thought. From this perspective, speculation about preexistence arises only when Christianity becomes mired in Hellenistic culture.

McCready is right to insist that being and doing are intimately connected in every life, let alone in the harmonious actions of Jesus. Jesus' mission makes no sense apart from his relationship with God. McCready is on more shaky ground when he argues that the being of Jesus is an ontological question. Ontology is the philosophical study of existence as such. Christ's preexistence is the presupposition for ontology, not an aspect of it. We can trust that being has a discernible structure not because our minds correspond to matter but because our minds correspond to Jesus. Because the Son knew the world with the mind of Jesus, we can trust that our minds know the world too.

The only way liberal theologians can coherently deny the doctrine of preexistence is to embrace some form of adoptionism, which portrays Jesus as a very good man upon whom the spirit of God descended at his baptism. Adoptionism was so soundly rejected by the early church that it is something of a straw figure, though McCready demonstrates, in a helpful survey of modern religious thought, how various liberal theologians have adopted adoptionism, often in a cagey manner, so that the heretical genealogy of their positions cannot be easily traced.

But adoptionism is not a temptation to which only liberals are vulnerable. Any Christology that goes too far in separating the fully human person of Jesus from the Son of God risks adoptionism by depicting the flesh of Jesus as a mere appendage to the divine. McCready himself risks this temptation in his anxiety to distance himself from any notion of the preexistence of Jesus' human nature. "Jesus is the name we normally associate with the incarnate One, and it is incorrect to refer to Jesus' existence at any time before the annunciation to Mary," he writes, attributing any talk of the incarnation as "the manifestation of a humanity ever in the heart of God" to Platonic metaphysics. But if metaphysics is defined as the study of eternal truths, then preexistence and metaphysics go hand in hand. The Church Fathers legitimately adopted Plato as a providential gift. Christianity and Western philosophy are inextricably linked, regardless of attempts, from across the spectrum of modern theology, to sever their relationship.

If McCready barely avoids some form of adoptionism, he falls right into the trap of liberal theology when he worries that "teaching Jesus' preexistent humanity would violate one of the major concerns of modern theologians, making his humanity different from everyone else's." The liberal insistence that Jesus is "just like us" has been the cause of much confusion in contemporary theology. If Jesus' humanity were not different from our own, we would have no hope of salvation. We should try to be just like him, but he had no need to be just like us, because he is just like the father, even in his fleshly form.

Indeed, for all of his efforts to demonstrate the consistency of the doctrine of preexistence, McCready ends up cleaving Jesus Christ into two: the eternal Christ and the Jesus bound by time. The problem comes down to the idea of personhood. Jesus does not just reveal the identity of the Son. Jesus is the proper name of the Son of God. He is the Son. That means that nothing in the incarnation that manifests Jesus' identity is alien to or an alteration of the eternal Son. Even his very flesh is not an afterthought to God's triune nature.

To avoid such confusions, theologians should undertake Christology with a simple principle. Do not begin with the characteristics of human flesh that are incompatible with the divine attributes and then subtract them from Jesus in order to obtain what it was about him that preexisted his human form. Instead, begin with the Father begetting the Son, and think of the Son as the furthest reach of God into the space and time of creation. In other words, do not use the concept of preexistence to divide the person of Jesus into two. Rather, begin with the unity of his person, and marvel at the complexity of God.

The physical life of Jesus is more than an illustration of God's purposes. His body is more than a visual aid. Modern Christians have gone too far in purging the spiritual realm of all analogies with physical matter, while scientists, in the meantime, have been busy discovering just how mysterious matter really is. Many in the scientific community have been influenced by the feminist idea that the world is God's body, which veers into pantheism. The more startling truth is that Jesus is God's body, and the world is what was needed to make creatures like us, whom Jesus could call friend (John 15:14).

McCready would probably accuse me of downplaying the newness—the Good News—of the incarnation. That news is good because Jesus Christ is God for us, which makes sense only if we realize that we were created for Jesus. The human form is the Father's gift to the Son for his glory, which was established before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). The incarnation can be understood as the fullest expression of the Son only if the entire cosmos was created by, through, and for him. The theory of evolution will never be able to explain the origin of human nature in natural processes because humanity lies at the beginning, not the end, of nature. We are unique because we are copies of him.

Stephen H. Webb is professor of religion and philosophy at Wabash College. His most recent book, Dylan Redeemed: From Highway 61 to Saved (Continuum), focuses on Bob Dylan's midlife conversion to Christianity. He is currently working on a book entitled Christianity and Its Enemies.

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