Jesus, “Pre-existence,” etc.: Responding to Questions
Well, my postings over the last couple of days have certainly generated a number of responses, including several rather vigorous ones, and have raised some entirely understandable questions. Instead of responding to the comments individually (thereby burying both questions and my responses down in the “comments” material), however, I thought I’d try to address them here in this blog-posting. I’ll try to be as concise as clarity allows, but this will be a somewhat “longish” posting.
1. First, in response to my emphasis that the NT makes God’s actions (esp. in raising Jesus from death and giving him glory) the basis for the “high” Christological claims and the remarkable devotional practice in which Jesus was included with God, what about the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles, authoritative actions, etc.? Doesn’t this suggest that Jesus was actually exercising his divine power during his earthly life?
The first thing to note is what the Gospels and other NT writings portray as the responses to these actions, particularly the more “friendly” responses. For example, in response to Jesus’ questions to his disciples about what people make of him (as portrayed, e.g., in Mark 8:27-30), the options reported are “John the Baptist” (which I take as meaning “another one like John”), Elijah (possibly in part because Jesus’ reported miracles often mirror those attributed to Elijah),”one of the prophets” (the opinion that Jesus was a “prophet” is reported elsewhere in the Gospels also, e.g., John 6:14; and 7:25-30 where people wonder if he is Messiah). And the disciples’ response (on Peter’s lips) was “Messiah/Christ”. There is no statement of deification, no “cultic” worship offered, and Jesus doesn’t demand it, or claim divinity.
In Acts 10:38, in a speech ascribed to Peter, Jesus is referred to as having gone about “doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Note that this statement is in the context of far more exalted claims about Jesus reflective of the “post-Easter” period: e.g., “the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead . . . everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:42-43). So, for the author of Acts, both things are true: Jesus’ earthly ministry was “anointed” and empowered by God (it was not a god working miracles on the earth, as in Greek myths). But, by virtue of God’s resurrection of Jesus (10:40), Jesus is now judge and the one valid medium of salvation (vv. 42-43).
To be sure, there is good reason to think that Jesus was known as a charismatic healer and exorcist, that he acted with a charismatic/prophetic authority in his teaching, that he excited expectations that he was (or was to be ) Messiah. Indeed, it is even not entirely impossible that Jesus could have trusted in the kind of vindication that is expressed in Mark 14:61-64 (although I personally suspect that as reported this statement is seriously reflective of post-Easter convictions about Jesus). But all of this put together doesn’t amount to a direct claim of divine status, of bearing divine glory, and of being worthy of worship.
As I’ve contended in my book, Lord Jesus Christ (53-64), Jesus himself (his actions and their impact on others) was certainly a major factor/force in the subsequent eruption of “Jesus-devotion” reflected in the NT. But the NT writings rather consistently place that eruption in the “post-Easter” period, and base it heavily on God’s exaltation of Jesus and designation of him as “Lord and Christ” (e.g., Acts 2:36), “The Son of God” (e.g., Rom 1:3-4), the glorified ruler (e.g., 1 Cor 15:20ff; 1 Pet 3:22), etc.
2. What about texts such as John 1:1-2, where, of the “Logos” (here, the “pre-incarnate” identity/form of the incarnate Jesus), we read: “he was with God and he was God”? Well, the first thing to emphasize is that both statements have to be read together, and taking the one without the other results in a serious loss of meaning. The Logos here is portrayed as both “with” God (i.e., distinguishable from “God” albeit in closest relation to God) and “was God” (i.e., in some way partaking of this status). The next statement helps “unpack” this a bit: The Logos was the agent of creation. Creation in biblical perspective is God’s act, and so positing the Logos as the agency through whom God created “all things” places the Logos outside of “all things” and into the action of God. But note that the Logos is the agent/medium of creation, “God” remaining the creator in ultimate sense. (This distinction remained pretty central even in much later creedal developments.)
This role as agent of creation, by the way, isn’t original or confined to GJohn. Decades earlier it is affirmed in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, where explicitly the “Lord Jesus Christ” is posited as the one “through whom are all things and we are through him” (to render the Greek somewhat woodenly). Here, likewise, the “one God the Father” is the one “from who are all things and we (are) for him” (“God the Father” the creator and the ultimate destiny of believers).
3. What are we supposed to make of statements ascribing “pre-existence” to Jesus (to use the typical theological buzzword)? If you entertain these, how could Jesus not have known this and spoken of it?
First, a historical note: The ascription of “pre-existence” to Jesus wasn’t a late development, but appears already presupposed in texts as early as the 1 Cor 8:4-6 text cited above, and also, e.g., in the famous passage in Philippians 2:6-11 (esp. vv. 6-8). (Interesting to note Bart Ehrman’s recognition of this in his new book, and his admission that it took him by surprise and required him to correct earlier suppositions.) Indeed, we can’t really chart some evolutionary scheme in the earliest explosion of Christological beliefs. It all happened so quickly that by the time of Paul’s letters (written scarcely 15-20 yrs after Jesus’ execution) it’s all presupposed as long and widely known among believers.
But how could people ascribe a heavenly “pre-existence” to a real human and mortal figure of recent history? To understand this, you have to enter into the “logic” of ancient theological thought, and especially “apocalyptic” thought. I’ll sketch it briefly. God doesn’t make up his game-plan as the game goes along, but has the plan (of world history, redemption, judgement, etc.) all laid out even before creation. So, as God acts in revelation, each action is also an unveiling of his prior purpose and plan. So, “eschatological” events were actually in God’s purpose from the beginning: “final things = first things” (to paraphrase a scholarly formula). Indeed, in ancient Jewish texts there are references to various things, e.g., Torah, or the “name” of the messianic figure in the “Parables” of 1 Enoch (37-70) as “pre-existent” (see, e.g., my article, “Pre-Existence,” in the Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. G.F. Hawthorne, et al., pp. 743-46 (and bibliography there).
So, in this case, if Jesus has been vindicated by God and exalted to heavenly glory, made Lord and judge, declared to be “the Son of God,” and the unique redeemer, then in some sense this is the eschatological revelation and articulation of what must have been God’s purpose, and the revelation of heavenly realities, from before creation. As various other scholars as well have observed, the conviction that Jesus had been exalted to heavenly/divine glory seems to have triggered the logical corollary that he must, in some sense, have been “there” from the beginning, and that God’s redemption work is tied closely to God’s creation work. (Note that NT statements about Jesus’ “pre-existence” are essentially confined to connecting him to creation, and there is scant interest in speculations about what else his “pre-existence” involved. There, isn’t in other words, the proliferation of elaborate “myth” narratives about the matter such as we have in the classic Greek myths of the gods.)
But the NT also, even more emphatically, insists that Jesus of Nazareth was a real, mortal, human being, not a “god-in-drag” walking the earth, only pretending to eat, sleep, die, etc. (in contrast, e.g., to the angel Raphael in Tobit). “Born of a woman” declares Paul (Gal. 4:4), and “crucified and buried” is a pretty sure indication of things! Moreover, the NT doesn’t present Jesus as raising himself from death, as if by his own innate divine power, but declares Jesus was raised by God (e.g., 1 Thess 1:9-10).
As a human, say the NT texts, Jesus was only able to declare what God had revealed to him (even, perhaps especially, in the Gospel of John, e.g., 5:30-38). He is pictured as empowered by God (via God’s Spirit) for his ministry (e.g., the descent of the Spirit in the baptism scenes). He declares ignorance of “the day or hour” of eschatological consummation (Mark 13:32, a text that clearly troubled some early readers, as the variant readings show). It has been a common mistake to assume that if Jesus bears divine glory, status, etc., now (in Christian faith), and if in some sense he was “pre-existent”, then this must have affected (or even limited) how he could have been truly human. To think this, however, is both to ignore the NT texts, and (in theological terms) to descend into a kind of heresy (classically called, “Docetism”). Indeed, in later creedal statements, “orthodox” Christian “Fathers” often declared “that which the Son did not take on him self he cannot redeem” (meaning that a fully human Jesus was necessary for him to be an adequate redeemer of humans, an emphasis that actually emerged as early as Hebrews 2:5-18). In short, ascribing to Jesus divine honour, status, glory, etc., in the NT texts was never at the expense of Jesus being truly, fully, human. The statement in John 1:14 bears as much force as the statement in 1:1-2. “The Word became flesh” (i.e., fully, mortal human). And so, e.g., operating within the knowledge available to humans, whether about themselves or anything else.
4. What about subsequent creedal controversies and formulations? E.g., the three “persons” (or “hypostases”) that comprise the “Trinity,” etc.?
To my mind, these should be seen as valiant and impressive attempts by Christians living in later (than the NT texts) times, engaging and appropriating conceptual categories of those later times, to address questions and issues that had arisen then. But these conceptual categories and issues weren’t always the same ones that we find in the NT texts. E.g., referring to “persons” of the “Father” and the “Son” seems to have emerged sometime in the 2nd century (e.g., Justin Martyr’s references to the “prosopon” of the Son or the Father (literally = “face”, the Latin “persona” a subsequent attempt at an equivalent term). Simply reciting NT terms and expressions wasn’t sufficient (and is never sufficient for the theological task, to my mind). The questions had shifted, and the conceptual categories (heavily shaped by Greek philosophy) were different (the NT texts still heavily steeped in biblical/Jewish categories), and couldn’t rightly be avoided.
But I suspect that if Paul were asked whether Jesus was the “second person of the Trinity,” he would likely have responded with a quizzical look, and asked for some explanation of what it meant! Were the patristic texts and creedal statements saying something beyond or distinguishable from what the NT texts say? Certainly. Does that invalidate those later creedal discussions and formulations? Well, if you recognize the necessity of the continuing theological task (of intelligently attempting to articulate Christian faith meaningfully in terms appropriate and understandable in particular times and cultures), then probably you’ll see the classic creedal statements as an appropriate such effort. But that’s a historical judgement about that later period, and/or a theological judgement. And my emphasis is on the historical question of what the NT texts say and how to understand them in their own historical context.