Sunday, November 26, 2017

When Did Christ's Life Begin? A Response to Some Miscellaneous Objections + Further Remarks on Colossians 1:15-17 and the Preeminence and Authority of Christ

Before I begin sharing my understanding of certain passages from the letter to the Hebrews that are commonly thought to be inconsistent with the position I’ve been defending concerning when Christ’s life began (which will be the subject of my next article), I want to first address a few objections I’ve received from other believers on the subject of Christ’s preexistence. After this, I want to share a few more thoughts on Col. 1:15-17 and the related subject of Christ’s authority and preeminence.

Response to Miscellaneous Objections

Objections will appear in red.

Should the view that Christ was not the oldest created being in existence when he was conceived be considered “wrong until proven right”?

“More people believe that Christ preexisted his conception than don’t. This is not only the case today but has been the case throughout “church history.” Thus, the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ should be our starting point when we approach scripture to determine what it teaches. It’s the “undisputed champion” that must be considered the “default winner” until one can bring a scripture-based, knock-down argument against it.”

If majority acceptance and tradition are to be understood as determining which doctrines we should assume to be correct when we approach scripture (at least, unless we’re given compelling reasons to believe otherwise), then the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ is, without a doubt, the “undisputed champion” in comparison to the position I’ve been defending (but, of course, Goliath was considered the “undisputed champion” in his day, and we all know how that turned out). Despite the fact that the position to which I hold is not a popular or well-respected one, I believe it is more than capable of “holding its own” against the more commonly-accepted view.

With regards to the subject of when Christ’s existence began, the prophetic narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures concerning the identity of the Messiah and the simple, straight-forward account of Jesus’ origin in the Greek Scriptures should, I believe, be our true starting point. And when we let this be our starting point, I believe it will be difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion that Christ’s existence began when he was supernaturally conceived in his mother’s womb, and that Christ – the “last Adam” - has never been (nor was ever prophetically spoken of as being) anything other than a human being. In other words – and contrary to the preexistence view - Christ was not the oldest created person in existence when he was conceived in the womb of his mother. On his seventh birthday, our Lord turned seven years old. And when he was around the age of thirty-three, our Lord committed his spirit to God, breathed his last, and died.

The belief that the life of a human being – even one supernaturally generated – does not begin until they’ve been conceived is one of the most natural and reasonable beliefs to which one can hold. Believing that Jesus’ life began when he was conceived in his mother’s womb is not something that one should be expected to reject or doubt until one can be 100% certain that the rest of scripture is consistent with it. Even apart from what I see as the scriptural evidence for this position, the belief that Jesus’ life began at conception is, I submit, a reasonable starting point when we’re thinking about the question of Jesus’ origin. And if this is, in fact, the case, then it is actually those who deny that Jesus’ life began when he was conceived in his mother’s womb from whom one should demand compelling, “knock-down evidence” (apart from which, the position that Christ’s life began at conception should be seen as the most natural and reasonable one to take).

So, is there any such compelling “knock-down evidence” for the view that Christ’s life began long before he was actually generated by God in his mother’s womb, and that he was, in fact, the oldest created person in existence when he was conceived? After having examined all of the primary proof-texts that are thought by proponents of the “preexistence” view to provide the sort of compelling evidence needed to overturn what I consider to be a completely reasonable and natural position to take, I’ve found each and every one of the “proof-texts” to be completely consistent with the view that Christ is, and always has been, a human being whose life began at conception. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that, despite my attempt to demonstrate that every “proof-text” for the preexistence view is, in fact, consistent with my own view, I could be wrong about how I think one or more of these passages should be understood. However, it should be noted that, even if my own understanding of a certain verse or passage is mistaken, it doesn’t mean the verse or passage necessarily supports the preexistence view rather than my own overall position. To say otherwise would be like saying that the doctrine of the trinity must be true just because an opponent of this doctrine has misunderstood one of the passages thought to support it.

Does the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ honor and elevate Christ more than the alternative view?

“Why do you not see how glorious and wonderful it is that our heavenly father begot his precious son in heaven billions of years ago? This view elevates and honors Christ more than the view which says his life began in the womb of his mother, and that he has never been anything other than a human being.”

Ironically, this same sort of argument is made by Trinitarians and Modalists against those holding to a “unitarian” view of God and Christ (including the “Arian” view) all the time. It is said that any view which denies that Christ is “fully God” and does not affirm that he is an uncreated, eternal being is less honoring to Christ (and less glorious and praiseworthy) than one that affirms his “absolute deity.” But of course, this simply isn’t the case. The view that most honors and glorifies Christ is whatever view that is actually affirmed by scripture.

Given this fact, I can’t say that I see the view that Christ was begotten “in heaven billions of years ago” as more “glorious and wonderful” than the one to which I hold, simply because I don’t see it as being taught in scripture. I believe our heavenly Father begot his Son when he was supernaturally conceived in the womb of his mother. This, to me, is a more glorious and wonderful truth simply because I believe it’s scriptural. As I’ve argued in my first post on this subject, the very title “Son of God” is inseparably tied to the fact that Jesus was supernaturally generated by God in the womb of his mother, thus making God his Father. The scriptural view is that Christ was begotten on earth (twice, if you count his resurrection), not “in heaven billions of years ago.”

If anything, it is the view which affirms that Christ has never been anything other than a human which I believe makes far more of Christ’s faith than the view which implies that he spent billions of years in heaven in the very presence of God before being “incarnated” as a human on earth. In fact, I'm inclined to believe that Christ's faith in God was actually GREATER than it would've been had he originally existed in heaven in the very presence of God for billions of years.

According to the view which I believe to be most scriptural, Christ had no memory – and couldn’t have had any memory – of having once existed in heaven in the presence of God as a glorious, spiritual being among other celestial beings. The only life he knew while on earth was the life into which he was born and in which he grew up. The memory of previously existing as a glorious spiritual being dwelling in the presence of God among other celestial beings was just as foreign to him as it is to us. Before he committed his spirit to God and breathed his last on the cross, he had no memory or experiential knowledge whatsoever of what it was like to be anything other than a mortal human being – a being who had seen other mortals die and (with only a few miraculous exceptions) remain dead. And even more than this, it doesn’t seem like Christ had any more knowledge of what would happen to him after he died than is provided in the scriptures. It was in these somber and sobering circumstances that Christ - in full obedience to his God and Father - took that last step into the darkness and into the "shadow of death." And the only thing that enabled him to take this final step of obedience was his faith in God, and the expectation that was based on the faith that he had.

When we contrast the doctrine of Christ's preexistence in heaven with the view which affirms that Christ's existence began as a human on a sin-and-death ravaged earth during this “present wicked eon,” it seems to me that the latter view makes far, far more of Christ’s faith than the former.

More on the Word of God in John 1:1-5

“I agree that God’s “word” is something that can be personified (just like God’s wisdom is personified in Proverbs 8). However, I don’t see how the “word” referred to in John 1:1-5 can be interpreted as “merely” that which God spoke whenever he declared or commanded something. For one thing, we’re told that life and light were “in” this word. How can that be said of a spoken word? Also, Jesus is explicitly called “the Word of God” in Rev. 19:13.”

The Greek word translated “word” in John 1:1 and elsewhere (logosis simply the spoken declaration by which a complete thought is expressed, or the manifestation of a thought through speech. In Gen. 1:2 we're told the Spirit of God was vibrating over the surface of the waters, with no indication that God was speaking anything yet. Then, in v. 3, we're told that God began to speak ("And God said..."). This is repeated throughout the remainder of chapter one. Each command that God spoke (and which resulted in what we read of throughout Gen. 1:3-24) is, therefore, an example God's word. It was not a person distinct from God, but something God said to express what he was thinking.

The most natural and straightforward interpretation of John 1:1-5 would, therefore, be to understand the “word” referred to as that which God literally spoke whenever he is described as speaking in Scripture (including in Genesis 1:3). Again, this is the literal meaning of the word “word” (logos), and all of the examples I provided of the “word” of Yahweh in the Old Testament are examples of something (i.e., a command or message) being spoken/declared by God. Even the “word of Yahweh” that we’re told came to Abraham in a vision (Gen. 15:1-4) was a spoken message declared to Abraham, and which was heard by Abraham during the vision (with the voice that Abraham heard being either the voice of Yahweh himself or a celestial messenger speaking on Yahweh’s behalf). But the “word of Yahweh” referred to in this verse was not literally identical with whoever it was directly speaking to Abraham in the vision; rather, the “word of Yahweh” was the message that was declared to Abraham and heard by him in the vision.

But in what sense can it be said that life (which is said to be “the light of men”) was “in” God’s word? Well, we know that, during Christ’s earthly ministry, the “word of God” came through Christ (John 14:24; 17:6, 8, 14). That is, when he spoke to people, it was as if God himself were speaking to them. And significantly, we’re told that the very declarations that Chris spoke were “spirit and life (John 6:63). If one can make sense of the statement that Jesus’ declarations were “spirit and life,” one shouldn’t have much difficulty making sense of the idea that “life” as well as “light” (i.e., truth, or knowledge) was “in” God’s word (which is implied in places such as Psalm 119:105, where we’re told that God’s word is “a lamp to my feet and light to my path”). Christ also said that God’s word “is truth” (John 17:17), which - given the figurative meaning of “light” - was equivalent to saying that God’s word was “light.” Again, if one can make sense of this statement by Christ, then one shouldn’t have much difficulty in understanding how “life” and “light” could be said to be “in” God’s word.

As far as Jesus’ being called the “Word of God” in Rev. 19:13, this is a title applied to the Man, Jesus Christ. It is nowhere said to be the title of a person who came into existence billions of years ago and (after existing for billions of years as a celestial spirit-being) was eventually transformed into a human. Jesus was not the “word” that existed in the beginning, but rather is what the word of God became when it “became flesh” and “tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). The logos of God - the spoken declaration by which God expresses his thoughts to his creatures - “became flesh” in the sense that it came to find its full expression and manifestation in a human being. Since this time, Jesus could appropriately be referred to as the “Word of God.” Through his words and actions, Christ – like the literal “word of Yahweh” that we read about in the Hebrew Scriptures - made known God’s thoughts and heart in a way that cannot be said of any other created being.

Further Remarks on Christ's Words in John 6

“It is clear that what Jesus said about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in John 6 cannot be interpreted literally (Roman Catholic beliefs notwithstanding). This was clearly a figure of speech. But I don’t see how the same can be said about Jesus’ ‘descent from heaven’ language in this chapter. Why not just take these words literally here?” 

As argued in my earlier article in which this language from John 6 is examined, I understand Christ’s “descent from heaven” language as being an example of the same sort of figurative imagery as found in James 1:16 and 3:15, 17. As I remarked in the article, these verses from James do not mean that the good things in our lives literally descend from heaven (much less that they undergo some kind of mystical, supernatural transformation before we receive them). What James meant is clear enough: God is the author and source of the good things in our lives (including the wisdom by which the saints should live). And just as God is the direct source of “all good giving and every perfect gratuity,” so God was the direct source of the ultimate blessing – i.e., the Son whom he supernaturally generated in the womb of Miriam (Luke 1:34-35).

Even aside from the arguments I made in the original two-part article I wrote in defense of what I believe concerning when Christ’s life began, there is good reason to understand Jesus’ “descent from heaven” language as being the same sort of figurative imagery found in James. As I pointed out in my explanation of John 6, if one wants to take Jesus’ words about descending from heaven literally, they should also (to be consistent) believe that it was Jesus in his mortal, fleshly body that descended from heaven, since that’s what Christ identified the “Bread from heaven” as (see John 6:51, 58). If those holding to the doctrine of Jesus’ pre-existence don’t believe that Jesus descended from heaven with a mortal, flesh-and-blood body, then perhaps they should reconsider their view that Jesus’ words in John 6 support the doctrine of Jesus’ preexistence.

“But in John 6:46, Jesus said that only he had seen God literally. I just don’t see how this can mean anything other than that Jesus existed in heaven before his conception.”

The word “literally” wasn’t used by Jesus in John 6:46. The fact is that the word translated “seen” in John 6:46 (horaō) can, in some contexts, be understood to mean something other than “to see with the eyes.” The word can also mean to have knowledge, understanding or realization of something. A similar idiom is used by English-speakers as well, such as when one says “I see” instead of “I understand” (and I’m sure it will not have escaped the reader’s notice that I intentionally used this alternate, figurative usage of “see” in the very wording of the objection itself).

For example, in 3 John 11 we read, Beloved, do not be imitating the evil, but the good. He who is doing good is of God. He who is doing evil has not seen God.” Clearly, no one among the saints to whom John wrote had literally seen God with their eyes (1 John 4:12). What John meant here was that those who were “doing evil” (which, in the context, meant doing what someone – i.e., Diotrephes - was doing within the ecclesia) had an ignorance of God (compare these words with Paul’s similar rebuke in 1 Cor. 15:34, in which he said that certain people within the ecclesia in Corinth had “an ignorance of God”).

In John 14:7-9, the words “see” and “know” are even used interchangeably to convey the same basic idea: If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also. And henceforth you know Him and have seen Him." Philip is saying to Him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is sufficing us." Jesus is saying to him, "So much time I am with you, and you do not know Me, Philip! He who has seen Me has seen the Father, and how are you saying, 'Show us the Father'?

When Christ said “and henceforth you know him and have seen him,” he was using two different words to convey the same idea for the sake of emphasis (cf. 1 John 3:6). Had the disciples literally seen the Father with their own eyes? No. But as a result of the approximately three-year period of time they’d spent with Jesus during his earthly ministry, they had come to know the Father better, and – in this sense - can thus can be said to have seen him.

As far as John 6:46 goes, the sense in which Jesus alone had seen the Father is that the Father had revealed himself more clearly to Jesus than to anyone else, such that Jesus alone had come to truly know the Father in the greatest possible sense. And because Jesus alone had been given this intimate knowledge of who God is, he could then unfold the Father to others (John 1:18), so that when they “saw” (i.e., acquired knowledge of) Jesus they “saw” (acquired knowledge of) the Father.

Further Remarks on Colossians 1:15-17

Here, again, is Colossians 1:13-20 (I’ve placed in bold the verses I’ll be focusing on):

13 “[God, the Father] rescues us out of the jurisdiction of Darkness, and transports us into the kingdom of the Son of His love,
14 in Whom we are having the deliverance, the pardon of sins,
15 Who is the Image of the invisible God, Firstborn of every creature,
16 for in Him is all created, that in the heavens and that on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones, or lordships, or sovereignties, or authorities, all is created through Him and for Him,
17 and He is before all, and all has its cohesion in Him.
18 And He is the Head of the body, the ecclesia, Who is Sovereign, Firstborn from among the dead, that in all He may be becoming first,
19 for in Him the entire complement delights to dwell,
20 and through Him to reconcile all to Him (making peace through the blood of His cross), through Him, whether those on the earth or those in the heavens.

In my original explanation of these verses, I pointed out that, according to New Testament Greek scholar A.T. Robertson, Paul’s use of the verb translated as “is created” in the CLNT (ktizō ) expresses the idea of everything’s remaining created, or standing created, in and through Christ. That is, in Col. 1:16, Paul was conveying the simple truth that God is presently maintaining all in its created state by means of his Son, Jesus Christ. In this sense, it expresses a similar (if not identical) idea as that found in Heb. 1:3, where we’re told that Christ is carrying on all by His powerful declaration.”

In chapter eight of his book The Minister and His Greek New Testament (page 101), A.T. Robertson further explained why the word translated “is created” (ktizō ) should be understood in this way (emphasis mine): “In summary fashion Paul employs the constative aorist indicative (passive) for the work of creation [i.e., in the first part of Col. 1:16]. Then he resumes the subject and repeats what he has said, but with the present perfect (passive) tense: “All things have been created (stand in the state of creation) through him and unto him.” Notice how Robertson expresses the meaning of the second use of the verb ktizō  by Paul in v. 16 as, “stand in the state of creation.” Robertson then goes on to say, ”But Paul is not quite done with the supremacy of Christ in creation. He adds: “And in him all things consist” (1:17) or “stand together” (another present perfect indicative).”

In other words, according to Robertson (and as evidenced by the tenses used by Paul), Paul had the same basic idea in mind in v. 16 as he did in v. 17. According to Robertson, Paul used the “present perfect indicative” for the words he used in both verses 16 and 17. Verse 17 can, therefore, be understood as clarifying for his readers what sort of “creating” Paul believed Christ was/is responsible for in v. 16. That Robertson understood the word sunestēken [translated as “has its cohesion” in the CLNT] in v. 17 as conveying the same basic idea as ektistai” [“is created” in the CLNT] is clear from what he wrote in his commentary. Commenting on Col. 1:17, Robertson noted that the word sunestēken [“has its cohesion”] “repeats the statements in Col. 1:16, especially that in the form ektistai” [“is created”].

Again, this is all from a Greek scholar who had no theological bias against the doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence (since he believed this doctrine himself). What Robertson had to say concerning the Greek tenses and their meaning in the above quotes is, to me, compelling evidence that Paul had in mind all of creation’s “standing in the state of creation” or “remaining in a created state” in Col. 1:16-17. Even if one does not see this grammatical evidence as a “knock-down argument” against the pre-existence interpretation of verse 16, one must admit that what Paul wrote in these verses is CONSISTENT with the view that Christ’s life began when he was generated in the womb of his mother by God, and that everything Paul wrote in Col. 1:13-20 can be understood as involving the preeminent status and work of Christ since the time of his death and resurrection.

The Preeminence and Authority of Christ

Further support for this understanding of Col. 1:16-17 is found in the fact that, until Christ died in perfect obedience to God and was subsequently roused in glory by his Father, Christ didn’t have the absolute authority over all creation that enabled (and enables) him to do what Paul describes him as doing in Col. 1:16-17. Consider the following: In Hebrews 1:4 we’re told that Christ became so much better than the messengers as He enjoys the allotment of a more excellent NAME than they.” The “allotment of a more excellent name” refers to a superior and preeminent position and rank. But when did this take place? When did Christ begin enjoying “the allotment of a more excellent name than they?” Was it before Christ’s death and resurrection, or after? Answer: The writer of Hebrews apparently believed that it was after Christ’s death and resurrection that he received this elevated, preeminent position (see Heb. 2:5-9). In perfect harmony with this fact, we find in Phil. 2:8-11 that it was only after Christ became “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” that God “highly [exalted] him, and [graced him] with the NAME that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should be bowing, celestial and terrestrial and subterranean, and every tongue should be acclaiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God, the Father.”

Did any of the messengers – or indeed, any other created celestial being at all - have such great authority as to be the agent in and through whom everything in the heavens and on the earth “is created?” No. Christ himself wasn’t even given “all authority in heaven and on the earth” until after his death and resurrection (Matt. 28:18). This being the case, it is simply not logical (as far as scripturally-informed logic goes) in saying that Christ was the one through whom God created everything in the heavens and on the earth BEFORE Christ was “highly exalted” by God, graced with “the name that is above every name,” and given “all authority in heaven and on the earth.” The Son of God through whom all “is created” is the same Son of God who received this preeminent authority and complete superiority over all creation by virtue of having made “a cleansing of sins” by his sacrificial death, and who (because of his obedient death) is consequently now “seated at the right hand of the Majesty in the heights.”

There are several ways in which this argument could be more formally and succinctly expressed. Here’s just one example:

1. In order for any created being to be able to do what Christ is described by Paul as doing in Col. 1:16-17 (i.e., be the one in and through whom everything in heaven and on earth “is created” and “has its cohesion”), he would need to have the same supreme authority and preeminent position/rank as that referred to in Matt. 28:18 and Phil. 2:8-11.

2. Christ didn’t receive the supreme authority and preeminent position/rank referred to in Matt. 28:18 and Phil. 2:8-11 until after his death and resurrection.

3. What Paul wrote concerning Christ in Col. 1:16-17 is not something that could’ve been true of Christ until after his death and resurrection.

4. (Conclusion) Col. 1:16-17 pertains exclusively to Christ in his risen and glorified state.

Moreover (and as noted in the article previously referred to), the title “Firstborn of every creature” means that Christ is preeminent in rank and privilege in relation to “every creature,” while “Firstborn from among the dead” means that Christ is preeminent in rank and privilege in relation to those who have died. Even if Christ had been the first being created by God, it was Christ’s obedient, sacrificial death on the cross that made him worthy of the preeminent rank and privilege that is being expressed by these titles. Simply being created first wouldn’t have entitled our Lord to the glory and honor he received because of his obedient death. Both of these titles came to be applicable to Christ after he was resurrected by his Father and highly exalted by him, gracing him with “the name that is above every name.” It was when Jesus was roused and vivified by his Father (and not eons before he was generated) that he became “so much better than the messengers as He enjoys the allotment of a more excellent name than they.”

In light of the above, let’s now briefly consider Revelation 5. In this chapter, we read that God gave his Son a sealed scroll that “no one in heaven, nor yet on earth, nor yet underneath the earth” was worthy or able to open, or even “to look at.” In contrast with every other created being in the universe, Christ alone is said to be worthy to open the scroll and look at it. Why? By virtue of what, exactly, is Christ so much worthier than every other creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth such that he - and no other created being – is able to open the scroll and look at it? Is it because (as those who affirm the doctrine of Christ’s preexistence believe) Christ was the first creature created by God, and the one through whom God created everything else? Not according to what we read in this particular passage (however, it’s worth noting that, in Rev. 4:11, we read that God is “worthy…to get glory and honor and power” by virtue of the fact that it is by his will that all things “were, and are created” - and notice the interesting distinction made between everything’s having been created by God, and everything being, or remaining, created by God).

Again, I ask: By virtue of what, exactly, is Christ so much worthier than every other creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth that he - and no other created being – is said to be able to open the scroll and look at it? I submit that we can answer this question in a completely satisfactory way without having to bring (or rather, force) the doctrine of Christ’s “preexistence” into the equation at all. In fact, I believe that to attempt to account for Christ’s supreme worthiness – even in part – by appealing to the idea that he was the first creature created by God (or that he was the agent through whom God created everything else) is only a distraction from the true basis of Christ’s exalted status and worthiness in relation to the rest of creation. The fact that Christ - a sinless human being who was supernaturally generated by God - died on behalf of all in perfect obedience to God is the true basis of the worthiness that enables him to be the one who opens the scroll:

And one of the elders is saying to me, “Do not lament! Lo! He conquers! The Lion out of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, is to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals!” And I perceived, in the center of the throne and of the four animals, and in the center of the elders, a Lambkin standing, as though slain…And when It took the scroll, the four animals and the twenty-four elders fall before the Lambkin, each having a lyre, and golden bowls brimming with incenses, which are the prayers of the saints. And they are singing a new song, saying, “Worthy art Thou to be taking the scroll and to open its seals, For Thou wast slain and dost buy us for God by Thy blood.” Revelation 5:5-9

To argue (as some who hold to the preexistence of Christ have argued) that, after his death and resurrection, Christ was simply restored to the same elevated, preeminent position that he is thought to have had before he was “incarnated” is, I believe, to lose sight of (and, to a certain extent, to fail to appreciate) the full magnitude and significance of Christ’s death, and what Christ accomplished through it. It is Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross that fully accounts for his supreme worthiness in relation to the rest of creation that we read about in the above passage. And insofar as this is the case, the doctrine of Christ’s “preexistence” simply becomes a distraction from the truth of the all-sufficiency of Christ’s death.

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