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LECTURE VI NOTE A.—P. 220.

THE DOCTRINE OF PRE-EXISTENCE.

Themore recent theology admits the application of the notion of pre-existence to Christ in the New Testament, but explains it out of current Jewish modes of thought on this subject. See on this Harnack’s Dogmengeschichte, i. pp.89–93, 710–719; Baldensperger’s Das Selbstbewusstsein Jesu, pp. 85–92 (2nd edition); Bornemaunn’s Unterricht im Christenthum, pp. 92–96, etc. According to these writers, the conception of pre-existence was a current one in the Rabbinical schools and in apocalyptic literature. Not only distinguished persons, as Adam, Enoch, Moses, but distinguished objects, as the tabernacle, the temple, the tables of the law, were figured as having had heavenly archetypes, i.e. as pre-existent. Various causes are assigned for this mode of representation:—

1. There is the desire to express the inner worth of a valued object in distinction from its inadequate empirical form, which leads to the essence being hypostatised, and raised above space and time (Harnack).

2. There is the conversion of an “ end “ into a “ cause “—this specially in the case of persons (the Messiah), peoples (Israel), a collective body (the Church). “Where something which appears later was apprehended as the end of a series of dispositions, it was not unfrequently hypostatised, and made prior to these arrangements in point of time; the conceived end was placed in a kind of real existence before the means through which it was destined to be realised on earth, as an original cause of them.”—Harnack, pp. 89, 90.

3. There is the thought of predestination, which leads to an ideal pre-existence being realistically conceived as an actual one (Baldensperger).

This category, existing in Jewish circles, was, it is thought, simply taken over and applied to Christ, believed In as the Messiah, risen and exalted to heaven. In this way, Harnack thinks, the first Christians “went beyond the expressions developed out of the Messianic consciousness of Jesus Himself respecting His Person, and sought notionally and speculatively to grasp the worth and absolute 449significance of His Person” (p. 90).904904On Harnack’s distinction between the Jewish and Hellenistic forms of this notion, see the criticism by Baldensperger in his Das Selbstbewusstsein Jesu, 2nd ed. p. 89. “The thought of preexistence,” says Bornemann, “was not supernaturally communicated to the apostles, nor was formed for the first time by Paul, nor generally was unusual in that time; but we have to do here with a self-evident application to Jesus of an attribute already firmly established in Judaism as belonging to the Messiah.”—Unterricht, p. 93. In short, the predicate of pre-existence was only one of several ways which the early Church took to express its sense of the abiding worth and felt mystery of the Person of Jesus. Bornemann mentions three of these—1. The supernatural birth; 2. The thought of pre-existence; 3. The incarnation of the eternal Divine Word of Revelation “ideas,” he says, “subsisting independently of each other, and alongside of each other, as distinct but disparate attempts to ground the mystery of the life of Jesus in its Divine origin” (p. 92).

It appears from this that the application of the category of preexistence to Jesus was a mere deduction of faith on the part of the first disciples—the application to Rim, as Bornemann says, of one of “the religious and philosophical notions and forms of ‘Vorstellung’ generally current in that time,”—and is therefore of no normative value for the Church to-day. I presume that not one of the writers I have quoted holds that Christ really pre-existed as the apostles thought He did. Before we accept this view, we would require to be satisfied of several things:—

1. That this Rabbinical mode of representation was really so widely current as is alleged, and that it was indeed the source from which the apostles derived their belief in Christ’s eternal pre-existence.

2. That this belief had not its origin in very distinct utterances of Christ Himself, proceeding from the depths of His Divine self-knowledge (John viii. 58, xvii. 5, etc.).

3. That there is a true analogy between the New Testament conception of Christ’s pre-existence and this Rabbinical notion. The Jewish notion, according to Harnack, was that “ the earthly things pre-exist with God just as they appear on earth, with all the material properties of their being “ (p. 710). They do not exist eternally—at least the Law (which was exalted most highly of all) did not (two thousand years before the creation of the world, the Rabbis said). But Christ (1) exists from eternity; (2) as a Divine Person with the Father; (3) one in nature amid glory with the Father; (4) His Divine nature is distinguished from His humanity which He assumed in time; (5) His appearance on earth is the result of a voluntary act of self-abnegation and love—an ethical act. It is only confusing things that differ to pretend that the Rabbinical absurdities alluded to explain a Christian doctrine like this.

4. Many special facts testify against the sufficiency of this explanation.

(1) The support sought for it in the New Testament is of the most flimsy character, e.g. Gal. iv. 26; Heb. xii. 22; Rev. xxi. 2.

450

(2) It is admitted that “ the representations of a pre-existent Messiah in Judaism were in no way very widespread “ (Harnack, p.. 89), and that they do not appear in all the New Testament writings. In truth, the writings in which they do appear are not specially the; Jewish ones, but those in which scholars have thought they detected most traces of Hellenistic influence.’

(3) It is plain that in the writings in which they do appear, these Jewish modes of thought were not dominant. Paul, e.g., regards believers as eternally chosen and foreordained in Christ to salvation; but he does not attribute to them any such pre-existence as he ascribes to Christ. On this hypothesis, he ought to have done so.

I cannot therefore accept this new theory as adequate to the facts. Nor do I believe that the apostles were left simply to their own gropings and imaginings in this and other great matters of the Christian faith. I take it as part of the Christian view that they were guided by the Spirit of Revelation into the truth which they possessed, and that their teachings laid the foundations of doctrine for the Church in all time.


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