“He Came Down From Heaven”: The Preexistence Of Christ Revisited -- By: Douglas McCready

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 40:3 (Sep 1997)
Article: “He Came Down From Heaven”: The Preexistence Of Christ Revisited
Author: Douglas McCready

“He Came Down From Heaven”:
The Preexistence Of Christ Revisited

Douglas McCready*

The preexistence of Christ is not a doctrine most people give much thought to. From the early ecumenical councils until recently, its truth has been assumed. Few books or articles concentrate on the subject. Theologians who discuss the doctrine usually treat it as an appendage to some other aspect of Christology. Christ’s preexistence is not part of the readily visible superstructure of Christianity in the way his incarnation, resurrection and atoning work are. And this is not inappropriate.

The preexistence of Christ is part of the foundation of Christian faith on which these other doctrines depend. It is a necessary premise for belief in Christ’s deity, but by itself it is not sufficient. Because Christ’s preexistence is foundational, how one understands it or rejects it affects the remainder of Christology and one’s overall understanding of Christianity. This has been nowhere more evident than in the modern attempts to explain (or explain away) the doctrine. Those modern theologians who ignore or deny Christ’s preexistence do so because it is incompatible with their understanding either of his humanity or of the nature of religion.

The traditional teaching of the Church is that God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, became human in Jesus of Nazareth. So the preexistence of Christ means not that the man Jesus existed in any real sense before the incarnation but that God the Son existed apart from and prior to the incarnation. Without the Son’s preexistence there can be no incarnation.

Christ’s preexistence as the Son of God is presumed in early Christian confessions and creeds and is taught explicitly in the Nicene Creed: “For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven … was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” These creeds and confessions teach preexistence because those who wrote them found existence for the doctrine in the NT.

Recently there has been a reconsideration of the doctrine of Christ’s preexistence, and it is this I wish to examine. Preexistence in Christology means that the one we know as Jesus Christ existed in reality before he entered into our world through the incarnation. This has been called “real preexistence” in contrast to several other understandings we will look at later. The doctrine also means Jesus finds his identity on the side of God before he finds it as a human. Thus the doctrine of Christ’s preexistence explains why the incarnation is an expression of God’s love for fallen humanity.

* Douglas McCready teaches religion and philosophy at Holy Family College, Grant and Frankford Avenues, Philadelphia, PA 19114–2094.

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