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Patristic Interpretation

As we have seen, the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ is explicitly stated in the New Testament documents, and is implicit in much of the story of Jesus as well as the teaching of the Church about his person. J.N.D. Kelly2323J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (New York: Longman Inc., 1981) pp. 87, 91..cw 9 notes this, and given all of this data, it seems incredible that anyone today could still maintain that the doctrine is based on the reflection of the Church. Such "mythologizing" takes more time than the documents now allow.

The Apostolic Fathers do not give us a great deal of information on Christology proper. Hence, the information to be found on this particular aspect of the doctrine of Christ will also be scant. There are still, however, some interesting facts. Ignatius gives us one of the most eloquent statements concerning the early Church's view of Christ in his letter to the Ephesians, 7:2:

"There is one only physician, of flesh and of spirit, generate and ingenerate (gennetos kai agennetos) God in man (en anthropo theos), true Life in death, Son of Mary and Son of God, first passible and then impassible, Jesus Christ our Lord."

The duality of the Lord's nature (God/man) is clearly seen in Ignatius, and is repeated in his letter to Polycarp, 3:2:

"Await Him that is above every season, the Eternal, the Invisible, who became visible for our sake, the Impalpable, the Impassible, who suffered for our sake, who endured in all ways for our sake."

Pre-existence is not just implied but clearly stated in this passage, attributing to Christ eternality, and seeing the incarnation as the point in time at which God broke into human history for the sake of man. It is significant that Ignatius calls Jesus Christ "God" 14 times in his letters.

Discussion of John 1, Colossians 1 and Philippians 2 was fairly limited in the early Fathers' writings, most probably due to the fact that the Arian controversy was still future, and the church's main enemy at that time was gnosticism and docetism, neither of which would require a strong statement of the pre-existence of Christ, at least by itself. Paul is attacking gnostic ideas in Colossians, but even the gnostics believed in some kind of pre-existence for Christ. Irenaeus exegeted John 1:1 against the gnostics in Book V of Against Heresies, chapter 18,2424Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, ed., The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1981) vol. 1:546. and did as Paul did and pointed out that Jesus is the Creator not a part of the creation.

The introduction of Arianism drew the attention of the Church back to the Person of Christ and his relationship with the Father. Origen's synthesis of Greek philosophy and its idea of the Divine Wisdom with Christian doctrine had laid the groundwork for Arius' denial of the absolute deity of Christ and, thereby, the denial of the eternal pre- existence of the Lord Jesus. John's filling of the eternal Logos with personality was reversed somewhat, and the timeless en of John 1:1 seemingly was lost in the shuffle.

It is no surprise, then, that the Church Fathers after Nicea spend much more time on John 1:1, Colossians 1:15-17, and Philippians 2:5-7. The Nicene Creed had clearly stated the Deity of Christ as well as his pre-existence.2525For the text of the Nicene Creed, see J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, (New York: Longman Inc., 1981), pp. 215-216 and Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985) vol. 1:27-28. The six decades that followed saw a resurgence of Arianism and, after great struggle, the victory of the Nicene faith. During that time the great Athanasius wrote volumes in defense of the deity of the Son. Chalcedon reaffirmed Nicea and went farther in attempting to answer the questions concerning the relationship of the divine and the human in Christ.2626Schaff, Creeds of Christendom vol 1:30.

The body of writing of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers is large indeed. The series edited by Schaff takes up 28 large volumes alone. Hence, to overview all of this literature would be far beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, the three main exegetes of the century after Nicea - Chrysostom, Athanasius, and Augustine - will be examined, briefly, to determine how they understood the focal passages listed above.


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