Saturday, November 18, 2017

Was Jesus Christ alive before his life on earth began? (Part One)

I believe scripture reveals that, from the very beginning of his life, the Lord Jesus Christ has been a human being, and that his human existence began at the moment of his supernatural conception in the womb of his mother, Miriam. But why does it matter whether or not scripture affirms or denies this view concerning Christ? Why should this subject be considered one of importance, or something that is worth arguing about?

Insofar as I believe all scriptural truth is intrinsically valuable (especially that which concerns Christ), I think that whatever scripture has to say concerning this subject is important and worth looking into. But the question of whether or not Christ’s existence began on earth also has weighty implications with regards to other doctrines and beliefs. For example, the view that Christ pre-existed his life on earth is essential to Trinitarianism, and (as such) is a view affirmed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and most Protestant denominations. The pre-existence of Christ could even be considered as one of the main “pillars” on which the doctrine of the trinity is supported. Were this pillar to be removed, the doctrine of the trinity would collapse.

The doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ is also essential to the so-called “Modalist” (or “Oneness”) view of Christ. Although not as common as the Trinitarian view, this position is affirmed by more than 24 million Christians today (although the majority of Christians holding to this view would identify as “Oneness Pentecostals,” they are not the only Christians today who hold to a “modalist” view concerning Christ and the Father). In contrast with Trinitarians (who view Christ as ontologically equal to, yet personally distinct from, the Father and the Holy Spirit), those who hold to a Modalist/Oneness position see Christ as being personally and ontologically identical with the Father and Holy Spirit (with each “person” being understood as a different “mode,” “aspect” or “manifestation” of one individual divine being).

Despite these and other differences (which I need not get into here), both of these positions have one essential belief in common: the view that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is (or at least is the manifestation of) an uncreated and eternal being who pre-existed the beginning of his life on earth. Given the importance that the doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence has to both of these doctrinal systems within Christianity, it follows that, if the doctrine can be shown to be unsupported by scripture, then both of these doctrinal systems will be very much undermined, if not utterly refuted. This, to me, is justification enough to carefully consider whether or not the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ is, in fact, scripturally sound.

Before I begin my defense of what I believe on this subject (which will include examining certain passages that are commonly thought to reveal or imply a position contrary to what I affirm), I need to emphasize that not all who believe in the pre-existence of Christ agree with Trinitarians and Modalists that Christ is an uncreated and eternal person/being. The Christological view which denies Christ’s absolute deity but affirms his pre-existence has historically been known as “Arianism” (named after Arius, a Christian teacher in the early 4th century A.D.). In contrast with the Trinitarians of his day, Arius denied that Jesus was uncreated and eternal, or “co-equal” with the Father. Rather, Arius held that Jesus, the Son, was created by God, the Father, as the first act of creation, and that God subsequently created everything else through his Son. This particular belief is most commonly associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses, but is also held by a number of groups and individuals who are in no way affiliated with this particular Christian denomination.

Although I do not subscribe to an “Arian” Christological view, I must emphasize that, unlike Trinitarinism or Modalism, I believe that this position is fully consistent with the truth of Paul’s evangel. That is, I believe that one can hold to a full-fledged “Arian” view concerning Christ while still believing everything that Paul wrote concerning the evangel of our salvation (for Paul’s evangel is concerned with Christ’s death for sins and his resurrection, and neither affirms nor denies any sort of “pre-incarnate” life that Christ may or may not have had). The reason I’m focusing on what Trinitarians, Modalists and Arians all have in common (i.e., the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ) is not because I believe it to be a worse or more destructive heresy than those doctrinal views that are distinctive to Trinitarinism or Modalism (for I don’t think that it is). The reason I’m writing against this view is because, if it turns out to be false, then it follows that both Trinitarian and Modalist views concerning Christ are necessarily false as well.

When did Christ’s life begin?

In Matt 16:13-17, we read:

Now Jesus, coming into parts of Caesarea Philippi, asked His disciples, saying, “Who are men saying the Son of Mankind is?” Now they say, “These, indeed, John the baptist; yet others Elijah; yet others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He is saying to them, “Now you, who are you saying that I am?” Now answering, Simon Peter said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Now, answering, Jesus said to him, “Happy are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood does not reveal it to you, but My Father Who is in the heavens.”

This is a key passage to our understanding of the identity of both Jesus Christ and God. What did Peter mean when he declared Jesus to be the “Son of the living God?” To begin to answer this question we must first identify the “living God” of whom Peter spoke. In Jeremiah 10:10 we read, “But Yahweh is the true God; he is the living God and the eonian King.” Here the “living God” is identified by the prophet Jeremiah as Yahweh, the one God of Israel. He is also referred to as the “true God” by Christ (John 17:3) and as the “eonian King” by Paul (1 Tim 1:17). Thus, when Peter identified Jesus as the “Son of the living God” he was affirming that Jesus is the Son of Yahweh, the one, true God of Israel. But what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of Yahweh? Clearly it does not mean that Jesus is Yahweh, the one God of Israel. If Yahweh is Jesus’ Father, then he is necessarily distinct from Jesus. When Peter called Christ the “Son of God,” he was expressing his understanding that Christ had been directly fathered by Yahweh, and thus enjoyed a unique relationship with him.

The Messiah had consistently been prophesied in the Hebrew scriptures as being a human man – a created person belonging to Adam’s race – and thus distinct from the one God of Israel (Gen 3:15; 12:3; 22:18; 28:14; 49:10; Numbers 24:17-19; Deut. 18:15; 2Sa 7:12-13; 1 Chronicles 17:13; Psalm 45:2-7, 17; 72:1; 89:3-4; 110:1; 132:11; Isaiah 7:14; 11:1-5; 52-53; Jeremiah 23:5; 30:21; Dan 7:13; Zech. 6:12-13; Micah 5:2). The first prophetic reference to Jesus, the Son of God, is to the “seed of the woman” who would bruise the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). We thus find that, from the very beginning, Christ’s identity has been tied to his humanity (being the human “seed” of someone who existed before him). Every other prophetic reference to Christ is consistent with this fact, and is in no way suggestive of the idea that the Messiah was already in existence as some “pre-human” celestial being.

Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13 are also highly relevant with regards to Jesus’ identity. In Psalm 110:1, we read, “Yahweh said to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Here we find God inviting a person distinct from himself to sit at his “right hand.” While it is clear that this person would be superior in authority to David (hence David calls him adoni, or “Lord”), it is equally clear that he is distinguished from - and in some sense inferior to – Yahweh himself. We also know that this verse did not begin to be fulfilled until after Christ’s resurrection and ascension (Acts 2:32-35; Heb. 10:12-13). There was, in other words, no pre-human, celestial “Jesus” to whom this verse had any application prior to the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth.

In Daniel 7:13, the Messiah is described in a prophetic vision as being “one like a son of mankind” and is distinguished from “the Ancient of Days” (or “Transferrer of Days,” as the CVOT has it) before whom he is presented, and from whom he receives his kingdom and authority. This “Transferrer of Days” is portrayed as a single, personal being (v. 9), and is clearly a title for Yahweh, the God of Daniel and his people (Dan 9:4, 9, 13). It is Yahweh who is also (and more frequently) referred to in Daniel as the “Most High” or “the Supreme” (Dan 3:26; 4:2, 17, 24, 25, 32, 34; 5:18, 21; 7:18, 22, 25, 27). In both verses we find that the Messiah would be a man who, although highly exalted far above all other human beings and given authority that is second only to Yahweh’s, is not to be identified with Yahweh himself.

We know that it had been prophesied long before Peter’s day that the Christ would be fathered by Yahweh himself. Quoting Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:1, the author of Hebrews wrote in Heb. 1:5: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’? Or again, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’?” If these verses are to be understood as conveying anything meaningful, there must have been a time before the Messiah was begotten by God and became God’s Son. But when did God become the Father of Jesus?

In Matt 1:18-21 we read:

Now Jesus Christ's birth [Greek: gennēsis] was thus: At the espousal of His mother, Mary, to Joseph, ere their coming together, she was found pregnant by holy spirit. Now Joseph, her husband, being just and not willing to hold her up to infamy, intended covertly to dismiss her. Now at his brooding over these things, lo! a messenger of the Lord appeared to him in a trance, saying, “Joseph, son of David, you may not be afraid to accept Miriam, your wife, for that which is being generated [gennaō] in her is of holy spirit. Now she shall be bringing forth a Son, and you shall be calling His name Jesus, for He shall be saving His people from their sins.”

And in Luke 1:31-35, we read:

“And lo! you shall be conceiving and be pregnant and be bringing forth a Son, and you shall be calling His name Jesus. He shall be great, and Son of the Most High shall He be called. And the Lord God shall be giving Him the throne of David, His father, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for the eons. And of His kingdom there shall be no consummation.” Yet Miriam said to the messenger, “How shall this be, since I know not a man?” And answering, the messenger said to her, “Holy spirit shall be coming on you, and the power of the Most High shall be overshadowing you; wherefore [i.e., as a result of which] also the holy One Who is being generated [gennaō] shall be called the Son of God.”

The Greek word translated “generated” in Matthew 1:20 and Luke 1:35 (gennaōsimply means “become.” However, the exact idea that the writer or speaker intended to communicate by means of it depended on its usage. When the word was used in reference to what a child’s father was understood as being responsible for, it meant “to generate” or “beget” (see, for example, all the “begetting” that is referred in Matt. 1:2-16). On the other hand, when the word was used in reference to what a child’s mother was understood as being responsible for, it meant “to bear” or “give birth to” (for this latter usage, see, for example, Luke 1:13 and 1:57). Since, in the passages quoted above, the one who is responsible for the gennaō of Jesus is clearly God, the Father, the word is rightly translated “generated.”

This is a key point to keep in mind. For, in contrast with when a woman “bears” or gives birth to a child, when a man “generates” or “begets” a child it involves the bringing into existence of a human person that previously did not exist. With the exception of Mormons and those who believe in reincarnation, no one imagines that, before Isaac was begotten by Abraham or Jacob was begotten by Isaac (Matt. 1:2), these two human beings were already alive and in existence somewhere. No, we rightly understand the “begetting” (or generating) of Isaac by Abraham and of Jacob by Isaac to have involved their being brought into existence by means of their fathers. And in the two passages quoted above, we’re being told that Jesus was “generated” – i.e., brought into existence - by God himself (thus making God - rather than Joseph - Jesus’ actual father).

A straight-forward understanding of what we’re being told in Matt. 1:20 and Luke 1:35 will, I believe, lead one to the logical conclusion that the “generating” of Jesus within his mother Miriam involved the coming into existence of someone who did not previously exist. Moreover, it is clear from Luke 1:35 that Jesus’ being the holy “Son of God” is directly tied to (being the result of) his being supernaturally generated by the direct power of God. That is, Jesus Christ is the “Son of God” because he was directly “generated” within Miriam by the unseen power of God. This fact is crucial to understanding Christ’s identity as the Son of God. Simply put, there was no Son of God (and thus no Father-Son relationship between God and Jesus) until after Jesus was “generated” in the womb of his mother by God. The assertion of uninspired Roman Catholic and Protestant creeds notwithstanding, there is no suggestion in Scripture that Jesus was “begotten by the Father before all ages,” or that he pre-existed as the Son of God (let alone as “God the Son”) before the time he was “being generated” by God within the womb of his mother.

Notice that the generating of Jesus within Miriam is attributed solely to the activity of Jesus’ God and Father. In Matthew’s account we read that Miriam ”was found pregnant by holy spirit” and that he who was ”being generated in her is of holy spirit.” Similarly, in Luke’s account, we read that Miriam was told by Gabriel, “Holy spirit shall be coming on you, and the power of the Most High shall be overshadowing you.” There is absolutely nothing said in these accounts or elsewhere about a pre-existent Christ - human or otherwise - entering into Miriam and being transformed into an (embryonic) human person. When Gabriel told Miriam that “holy spirit” would be “coming on [her],” the celestial messenger wasn’t referring to anything personally distinct from God himself (who, we’re by Christ in John 4:24, “is Spirit”). The “holy spirit” referred to in each of the verses quoted above is God’s own spirit (i.e., his unseen, personal essence), and the “power” referred to in Luke 1:35 is God’s own power. God’s power and his holy spirit are inseparable; no matter how subtle or inconspicuous the activity of God’s spirit may seem, it is always an expression of his divine power.[1]

There is, consequently, no indication that a pre-existent human person was either actively or passively involved in Jesus’ being generated by God within the womb of his mother (something which should come as no surprise to the reader, given the fact that for someone to be “generated” by their father - including the human person who received the name “Jesus” and the title “Christ” – is for them to be brought into existence). Miriam, of course, passively contributed to the generation of Christ by providing the egg that God supernaturally fertilized (as well as the womb in which Christ came into being), but the only other person who we’re told was involved in Christ’s being generated was God himself.

It should also be noted that the same word translated “generated” in Matt. 1:20 and Luke 1:35 (gennao) is translated “begotten” in Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5. In each of these verses, it is the resurrection of Jesus - rather than his conception - that is in view; thus, the gennao of Jesus by God referred to here most likely refers to Jesus’ resurrection. If this is the case, then this usage of gennao provides further evidence that, when used in reference to that for which a father is responsible, the word involves the child’s being brought into existence. For, as those who understand the nature of death will know, Christ ceased to exist when he died. That is, for three days and nights, Jesus did not exist, and was utterly dependent on his God and Father to bring him back into existence by resurrecting him. It is because Christ’s resurrection was an event that involved God’s bringing Christ back into existence that the “begetting” imagery was used. Christ’s resurrection was essentially the second time that the Son was brought into existence by the Father. Although Jesus did not become the Son of God for the first time when he was resurrected, it was at this time that he was “designated the Son of God with power(Rom. 1:4).

As a summary of this section, consider the following argument:

1. The person who was given the name “Jesus” and the title “Christ” is said to have been “generated” (gennao) by God.

2. When referring to an event for which the father of a child was understood as responsible, the word translated “generated” or “begotten” in scripture (gennao) is to be understood as involving a person’s being brought into existence.

3. The person who was given the name “Jesus” and the title “Christ” was first brought into existence by God within the womb of his mother, Miriam, and after he died was subsequently brought back into existence by God when he was roused from among the dead.

With regards to the question of whether or not Christ was alive before his conception, the burden of proof is, I believe, on those who would disagree with the conclusion of this argument. That Jesus’ existence began within the womb of his mother should be the “default” position that is affirmed by the believer unless it can be shown that scripture clearly and unambiguously reveals otherwise. In order to refute the above argument, compelling evidence from scripture must be provided that proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Jesus’ life began at some point prior to when he was generated by God within his mother’s womb. If this can’t be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then the most reasonable position to take is that Jesus’ existence began when he was generated by his Father.

Part Two:

[1] The words “holy spirit shall be coming on you, and the power of the Most High shall be overshadowing you” are most likely an example of the figure of speech known as “synonymous parallelism.” According to this figure of speech, the same basic/general idea is repeated by using two different words or expressions for the sake of emphasis (for some other examples of this figure of speech, see Job 4:17; 8:11, 15; 27:3-4; 34:14; Psalm 1:5; 19:1-2; 24:1-2; 38:1; 119:105; Prov. 3:1; Isaiah 42:5).

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