The Incarnation, part 3
Aug 14, 2019
If one accepts that Jesus Christ was incarnated, one must then deal with the basic question of pre-existence. Incarnation, after all, presumes pre-existence; otherwise it is not incarnation at all. Incarnation means that Christ did not originate in the womb of Mary but in an earlier time—or, in the case of a Trinitarian, Christ had no origination point at all. Either way, we must treat the subject of the Son of God’s pre-existence, and also ask if the sons of God pre-existed.
For our purposes, we will define incarnation as a transfer of identity or person-hood from heaven to earth. Incarnation, then, means that one’s birth is only a new landscape or environment in which the person finds himself/herself. Pre-existence, then, is when a person existed in heaven or in a spiritual dimension prior to his natural birth in a fleshly body on earth.
The Jews and Greeks held significantly different concepts of pre-existence. The Greeks believed that we all pre-existed as conscious persons. However, the Jews believed that we pre-existed only in the mind of God, defining it in terms of predestination and foreknowledge.
Trinitarian and Subordinationist Viewpoints
The question of pre-existence, of course, took center stage in the fourth century disputes between the Trinitarians (“God the Son”) and the Subordinationists (Unbegotten Father, Begotten Son later). The Trinitarians said that Jesus Christ pre-existed in heaven as the second member of the Godhead and was later incarnated in Mary. The Trinitarian view of His pre-existence was similar to the Greek understanding.
Holding the Jewish view were those subordinationists who believed that Christ did not exist until He was conceived in Mary. Yet there were other subordinationists who believed that Christ was the first One created at the beginning of time. These affirmed the pre-existence of Christ’s Personhood in the Greek sense.
The View of Mainstream Judaism
Talmudic Judaism’s position is quite clearly defined in Pesikta Rabbati 152b,
“[F]rom the beginning of the creation of the world the King Messiah was born, for he came up in the thought of God before the world was created.”
It was understood that from the dawn of creation the Messiah was predestined to come into existence at a later time in history. In other words, the birth of the Messiah was a certainty in the mind of God, and nothing would be able to stop it.
Mainstream Judaism did not teach that anyone, including the Messiah, pre-existed as a person in the spiritual realm prior to being born on earth. Yet they used terminology which, to one of another religious culture, might suggest actual pre-existence. That is the danger of words whose definitions differ from one religious culture to another. The essential difference between Greek and Jewish pre-existence is the Greeks saw actual persons pre-existing, whereas the Jews saw the Messiah as a divinely-imagined person predestined to be born at some point in time.
Both of the above views seem to have merit in different ways, but both also need some modification to conform to New Testament revelation.
Jesus’ Dispute with the Jews
One of the main themes of the Gospel of John is how the Jews misunderstood Jesus’ teachings.
For the moment, insofar as incarnation and pre-existence is concerned, the most relevant question for us to consider is how Jesus understood His own claims to having “come down from heaven” (John 6:38), how He was “sent into the world” (John 3:17), and how He existed “before Abraham (John 8:58). Did the Jews disagree what Jesus was actually saying, or did they misunderstand Him?
Jesus said in John 6:48-51 that He was the true bread that came down out of heaven as manna in the wilderness. It was bad enough that He claimed to have come down from heaven, as this implied that He existed in the time of Moses. But even more disturbing was that He told them that they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have life at all! The general populace reacted negatively in John 6:52, and He also heard grumbling from His own disciples (John 6:61).
In such cases where the Jews disagreed with Jesus, it is clear to us (as believers in Jesus) that the Jewish view was not the same as Jesus’ view—which (by personal definition) is the Hebrew view of Scripture. From our point of view, Jesus held the Hebrew view, because He had the proper understanding of the law and the prophets.
What is Existence?
As we have shown, the Jewish view denied that anything (other than God Himself) existed prior to its appearance on earth as a part of the created order. The question is this: Does something or someone exist before it appears in physical form on earth? What exactly qualifies someone to the privilege of existing? Is it a physical body, or is it something else?
We know that spirits exist, so (in my view) physical bodies do not determine existence. Likewise, God is spirit (John 4:24), and we are not atheists who deny His existence. So the real underlying question is whether or not man or Christ could have existed in spirit form prior to conception in his/her mother.
Paul affirmed the doctrines of foreknowledge and predestination many times, including Romans 8:29, 30, where we read,
29 For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; 30 and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.
Foreknowledge and predestination are not the same, even though they are related. The moment God predestined something, He then foreknew (knew ahead of the event) that it would manifest in the earth in the way that He had predestined it. Men only object to predestination because they prefer to maintain control of their own destiny through “free will.” But one cannot believe in free will and predestination at the same time, because they are opposites. There is no free will; there is only authority that God has given. Free will is a belief that man is in control and therefore determines his own destiny; authority is constrained and limited by a higher will.
The Father of Spirits
At any rate, if a physical body is not the determining factor of existence, the question is whether we (and Christ) existed in spirit form prior to our appearance on earth. We are told in Hebrews 12:9,
9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live?
This unusual title for God is interesting, because it compares earthly fathers to our heavenly Father. Was this verse referring to God only as the father of angels and/or evil spirits? Certainly, we are included in this verse, since we are to be subject to this “Father of spirits.” In fact, we are subject to Him because we believe in the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Deuteronomy 5:16). A father has the right to discipline and correct his children, and God is our ultimate Father, who has caused us to exist.
If we are “subject to the Father of spirits,” then this implies that we are all spirits. Not only do we each have a spirit within us, but each of us is (or was at one time) a spirit. More than that, God is the Father of spirits. He has begotten spirits. In fact, John 1:3 says,
3 All things came into being by [dia, “through”] Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.
It can be properly stated, I believe, that all things were created by Him, but not all things were begotten by Him. His role as Creator applies to creation as a whole, but fatherhood implies a special act that brings forth sons. Since He is “the Father of spirits,” then it is plain that He has begotten spirits. Furthermore, spirits is plural, so it cannot be limited to Jesus Christ.
The question is WHEN did He beget spirits? When did He beget the spirit of Christ? When did He beget your spirit, or my spirit? Was it when we were conceived by our earthly fathers, who brought forth mortal souls in the image of the first Adam? Is it not rather when God Himself begot us as spirits?
The Only-Begotten Son
Scripture says that Jesus is the “only-begotten son” (John 3:16). Yet John 1:12 says that we have been given the right to become the children of God. Further, when the only-begotten Son finished His work, He brought “many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10). How can there be an “only-begotten Son” and yet have “many sons”?
The Greek term monogenes, “only-begotten,” must be defined through Hebrew lens, rather than Greek lens. Abraham had begotten Ishmael 14 years before Isaac, which, by the modern way of thinking, Abraham had two sons. Yet God later told Abraham in Genesis 22:2 to “take now your son, your only son [yachiyd], whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah.”
The term yachiyd means “that which is dear, that which cannot be replaced.” The root word is yachad, “united, joined together.” The KJV translates it as “darling” in Psalm 22:20 and 35:17. It refers to a son who is the designated heir of the father’s estate, the birthright holder.
The point is that neither yachiyd nor monogenes imply that a father has only one son. It was the designated son, the one called to inherit the birthright. The other sons could share in that birthright but only if they were united with the monogenes. If they rejected him or separated themselves from him, they lost the privilege of being co-heirs with their elder brother.
Did the Father of spirits beget spirits (as His children) at the beginning of creation? If so, was Christ the first-born among them, as some subordinationists claim, or was He co-eternal with the Father, as the Trinitarians claim?
In Jewish terms, how did the predestination of sons actually work out in practice? Did God use His imagination to image spiritual sons who would later be born physically on earth? If so, did they exist? Is it possible for God to imagine anything without it coming immediately into existence? Does God define existence using criteria that men do not use?
This is part 3 of a series titled "The Incarnation" To view all parts, click the link below.