2

This question is inspired by a Biblical Unitarian article on Jesus' Pre-Existence. The thesis defended by the article is that Jesus had notional or ideal pre-existence in God's mind rather than a literal, personal, conscious pre-incarnate existence. In conversations with Biblical Unitarians, recently someone brought up to me 2 Timothy 1:9 to illustrate this point:

who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, [2 Timothy 1:9, ESV]

The argument would go something like this: before the creation of time, God already had us (and our callings) in mind (i.e. we had notional/ideal pre-existence within God's mind), even though we didn't exist yet in a literal sense. Likewise, one could reinterpret any passage that talks about Jesus' pre-existence as if it were talking in a notional/ideal sense, including passages that at face value appear to be very explicit, such as John 17:5:

And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. [John 17:5, ESV]

Thus, from a notional pre-existence viewpoint, we should interpret John 17:5 as it were saying "Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that you had in mind about me before the world existed".

Question: Does this make sense? Would this be a valid and consistent way of doing exegesis of John 17:5 and similar passages that are commonly cited to argue in favor of Jesus' pre-incarnate existence?

4
  • @Constantthin - maybe you should post your own answer. – Spirit Realm Investigator Jun 9 at 22:27
  • When Jesus was baptized a voice from heaven (the Father speaking) said: “you are my son and today you have been born”. When the Father said this he was referring to his Christ, because Jesus was already 30 years old. And after he had said this he as a spirit also entered Jesus. He used a white dove as a visual sign of this event. From that time on, and through the next 3 1/2 years a conglomerate of two persons were within the body of Jesus. This was explained by Jesus with the words: My Father and I are one. Thus, the Father was in essence his own Christ. – Constantthin Jun 9 at 22:31
  • There is just one God, not three. God through his own Spirit gave birth to his Son about 2000 years ago to fulfill the prophetic Proto Evangelium, of Genesis 3. All appearances to men by God earlier than Christ was done by intermediaries. By angels who acted in unison with the Father. – Constantthin Jun 9 at 22:32
  • @Spiirit realm investigator. I may do that if I can get my thoughts straightened out. – Constantthin Jun 9 at 22:34
5

The problem with the Unitarian position is that it attempts to create a special meta-narrative by which it then makes special pleadings for verses that are troublesome. Thus, any "theory" about the nature of God must be jealously guarded against this very human problem. The Trinity and Arianism are NOT immune to this.

The difficulty with Unitarianism is the very large number of special pleadings that it creates because there is so much evidence of Christ's actual pre-existence. It is agreed that some of it could be construed to mean purely cognitive metaphysical existence (ie, not actual existence, but only in the Mind of God, 1 Peter 1;20, - but not many!), but that very assertion flies in the face of much other evidence about Jesus actually being with (not in) God and seeing God, such as:

  • John 1:1-3 - In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made.
  • John 1:14 - The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
  • John 1:15 - John testified concerning Him. He cried out, saying, “This is He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ ”
  • John 1:18 - No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.
  • John 3:13 - No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven—the Son of Man.
  • John 3:16, 17 - For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. [NOTE - God cannot send someone who does not exist!]
  • John 3:31 - The One [= Jesus] who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks as one from the earth. The One who comes from heaven is above all.
  • John 6:38 - For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but to do the will of Him who sent Me.
  • John 8:58 - “Truly, truly, I tell you,” Jesus declared, “before Abraham was [born], I am!"
  • John 13:1, 3 - It was now just before the Passover Feast, and Jesus knew that His hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the very end. ... Jesus knew that the Father had delivered all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was returning to God.
  • John 16:27, 28 - for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”
  • John 17:5 - And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed. See also V24.

The same idea is taught in other places as well.

  • Phil 2:5-8 - Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross.
  • Col 1:16, 17 - For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.
  • Heb 1:2, 3 - But in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, and through whom He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His nature, upholding all things by His powerful word. After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

Jesus could not create the universe if He did not exist.

In places John 16 & 13 above, whatever is said about Jesus coming from the Father MUST also be said about Jesus going to the Father. Thus, IF Jesus was only in the mind of the Father before the incarnation, then when Jesus returns to the Father, again, He will not physically exist but be only in the mind of the Father.

Then there is the problem that "no one has ever seen God" (John 1:18, 6:46, 1 John 4:12), yet we have numerous places where people see and talk with YHWH such as:

  • Gen 18:1, 10 - Then the LORD appeared to Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent. ... Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son!”
  • Gen 32:30 - So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."
  • Ex 3:5, 6 - “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then He said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
  • Josh 5:13 - 6:2 - And the LORD said to Joshua, “Behold, I have delivered Jericho into your hand, along with its king and its mighty men of valor. (V2)
  • Judges 6:14 - The LORD turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel from the hand of Midian. Am I not sending you?” [See also V16]
  • Eze 1 - the prophet's vision of God; many elements of which are repeated in Rev 4 & 5.
  • See also instances of the “Angel of the LORD” clearly being the LORD - Gen 16:7-13, 22:11-17, 32:24-30, 48:16, Ex 3:2-6, 32:34, Num 22:22-35, Josh 5:13-15, Judg 2:1-4, 6:11-23, 13:3-23, Isa 63:9, Dan 3:25, 28, Hos 12:4, 5, Zech 3:1-7, Mal 3:1, Rev 8:3-5, 10:1-10, 18:1, 20:1-4.
  • A closely related phrase, “Angel of God” who is clearly God as in Gen 6:13, 8:15, 9:8, 17, 15:13, 17:3, 4, 21:12, 16-21, 35:1, 10, Ex 4:3-8, 6:2, 23:20, 21, Deut 1:6, 1 Kings 12:22, etc. See also Acts 10:3, 4, Gal 4:14.

The very fact that the NT so confidently asserts that no human has seen God the Father, but many people have seen God/YHWH in the OT means the inescapable conclusion is such epiphanies were of the pre-incarnate Jesus as per John 8:58 – “Truly, truly, I tell you,” Jesus declared, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

CONCLUSION

Thus, there appears to be a difference between Jesus being in God's actual presence from eternity and God's foreknowledge about our existence as discussed in 2 Tim 1:9, Eph 1:4. Further, if Jesus had no pre-incarnate actual existence, then the "kenosis" of Phil 2:5, 6 has no meaning either.

5
  • 1
    "The problem with the Unitarian position is that it attempts to create a special meta-narrative by which it then makes special pleadings for verses that are troublesome." By this, do you mean something like how trinitarians try to paraphrase a bunch of references to 'God' where it is troublesome to their theory as 'God the Father' instead? – One God the Father Mar 31 at 4:56
  • 1
    @AnthonyBurg - that is a problem with SOME trinitarians. I agree that some references to "God" could mean the Godhead generally. – Dottard Mar 31 at 4:57
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Dottard Mar 31 at 21:44
  • Jesus could not create the universe if He did not exist. In John 1:3 we read: πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν (lit. "all things through [the logos] came into being, and apart from [the logos] came into being not even one thing that has come into being"). The pronoun αὐτός refers back to the λόγος, of John 1:1, and is masculine not because it refers to a personal entity (the "pre-existent Jesus") but because it has to agree in gender with λόγος, which (in Greek) is masculine. – Miguel de Servet Jun 7 at 9:22
  • BTW, in Greek σοφία ("wisdom") is a feminine noun, and πνεῦμα ("spirit") is a neuter noun. – Miguel de Servet Jun 7 at 9:26
2

This argument cuts both ways. My post will make some uncomfortable. Those feeling weak in the knees may be relieved to know that there is a down-vote button just to the left and a flag button at the bottom of this post.


  1. If 2 Tim 1:9 is interpreted to indicate only notional pre-mortal existence, it is used to argue against pre-mortal existence for Jesus and for us.

  2. If 2 Tim 1:9 speaks of literal pre-mortal existence, it can be used to argue for pre-mortal existence for Jesus and for us.

  3. A common approach to this passage is to understand Jesus' pre-mortal existence to be literal, and our pre-mortal existence to be notional.

Reasons to disbelieve options above

  1. As already noted by Dottard, I agree that the pre-mortal existence of Jesus is well-attested elsewhere. Rather than reiterate numerous passages already cited, I'll comment on just 2 passages:

Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am. (John 8:58)

I believe this statement is potent and unambiguous, especially when considering the relationship with Exodus 3:14, and the absence of a predicate nominative. I do not believe Jesus is stating that He was merely foreseen; I believe "I am" is a statement of existence.

--

[God] Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; (Hebrews 1:2)

Jesus' creation of the worlds indicates He existed prior to His mortal sojourn on one of those worlds.

My assessment: #1 is inconsistent with clearer passages.

--

  1. If we existed pre-mortally but were not permitted to remember that existence, I see no reason to rule out this possibility (except to avoid a conclusion some dislike)

    Note that Job 38 would not be a counterargument to #2--see comment about not being permitted to remember.

    My assessment: #2 would be the most straightforward way to read that we were "called" and "given something"; no need to appeal to more complex interpretations if we already existed.

    This would also allow for the most straightforward reading of Jeremiah 1:5

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.

--

  1. I recognize that this interpretation is popular, but I find it to be an inconsistent handling of the text. Special pleading has been mentioned--I suggest it may be special pleading to apply this passage literally to one of its subjects and notionally to the others.

Conclusion

In all fairness to the difficulty of the passage, it has been used by intelligent people to support all 3 of the possibilities listed above. One of my hopes on this site is that we can discuss different perspectives on a challenging passage, and come away from it realizing that people who disagree with us are not unilaterally irrational. Perhaps we might even be more motivated to "trust in the Lord with all thy heart and lean not unto thy own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5), and, if we find that we lack wisdom, seek it from God (see James 1:5).

I am certainly not claiming that we were on the same plane with Jesus pre-mortally. "And the Word was God" is a statement made about Him and nobody else.

I am suggesting that if we conclude that 2 Tim 1:9 means Jesus literally existed (in spiritual form) prior to His mortal life (as shown above, I do believe this), it would be an inconsistent handling of the text to rule out the possibility that we did as well.

In short: I do not believe the argument cited in the OP for notional pre-existence works. But in acknowledging this, Pandora's box has been opened.

11
  • "#1 is inconsistent with clearer passages" How is the idea of Jesus' notional pre-existence inconsistent with passages like "Before Abraham was, I am."? Especially when you note what comes just before it: "Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see My day. He saw it and was glad." It's a reference to God's plan. – One God the Father Mar 31 at 4:10
  • "I agree with the points already made that the pre-mortal existence of Jesus is well-attested elsewhere." The whole question is about interpreting claims about pre-mortal existence! You can't say "There are claims at various points about pre-existence, therefore it's literal pre-existence" and not be begging the question here. IMO to be fair this gets down to the most reasonable interpretation of each passage, first by looking at it through a literal pre-existence lens, then looking at it through a notional pre-existence lens. ... – One God the Father Mar 31 at 20:57
  • Hi @AnthonyBurg, no desire to beg the question; my reference was to Dottard's answer posted prior to mine. I realize this was ambiguous and I have amended my post to clarify. I know we disagree in multiple respects on the meaning of John 8:58; I am not familiar with your thoughts on Hebrews 1:2. My own take is that these passages are less ambiguous than the passage cited in the OP, and that the more clear passages should be used to interpret the more vague one, rather than vice-versa. I hope my comments in the conclusion regarding plausible disagreement convey respect rather than contention. – Hold To The Rod Apr 1 at 0:03
  • I believe this statement [πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί] is potent and unambiguous You may revise your persuasions reading this – Miguel de Servet Jun 7 at 9:37
  • ... if we conclude that 2 Tim 1:9 means Jesus literally existed prior to His mortal life, it would be an inconsistent handling of the text to rule out the possibility that we did as well This idea, that you refer to as "Pandora's box been opened" is the rehashing of Origen's Doctrine About Pre-Existence Souls. – Miguel de Servet Jun 7 at 9:46
0

... for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?

Only the Gospel of Luke has the narration of the encounter between the resurrected Jesus and the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Central to this account is that Jesus explains to the two disciples how the life, suffering and death of the Messiah were inscribed in "all the scriptures", "Moses and all the prophets". This is the question with which Jesus precedes his "interpretation" of the Scriptures for the benefit of the disciples:

“Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 - bolding added)

The Greek verb translated with "enter" is εἰσέρχομαι (Strong's G1525 - eiserchomai), which definitely and only means "enter", either literally or metaphorically. There is no hint whatsoever, in the verse, of any form of "pre-existence" of the Messiah, let alone "eternity".

Then he appeared to the Apostles:

44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it stands written that the Christ would suffer and would rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47 NET).

Again, no hint whatsoever of any form of "pre-existence" of the Messiah, let alone "eternity".

Shouldn't John 8:58, shouldn't John 17:5 be interpreted in the light of Luke 24:26?

0

A notional existence is considered as something that exists in theory or idea but not in reality. Those who do not see Jesus as having a timeless existence use His physical presence as support for this position. However, any analysis is flawed unless it is able to show everything about His earthly existence can be placed in category of "notional" existence. A viable theory must offer a reasonable explanation and there can be no exceptions. Or stated differently, all that is needed to disprove a theory is a single exception.

The question of the notional Jesus focuses narrowly on His physical existence. However, He did not simply take up a physical life, He also experienced a cessation of His physical life and that is the point of Paul's message:

9 who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel
(2 Timothy 1 ESV)

It is not Paul and Timothy who existed "before the ages began, it is the gospel: Christ crucified.

Here the notional question fails. How does one explain a God who first envisions life and then only envisions the cessation of that life as an interruption to the life first envisioned? But proceeds to see the envisioned interruption as a meaningful reality which will enable Him to dwell with those who believe this act was real?

On the other hand, the death of God who existed from the beginning is certainly notional from before the ages began. That is, only a Living God can envision His death before it actually occurs:

11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10)

1
  • .... only a Living God can envision His death before it actually occurs Phrased this way, it is simply incomprehensible. I suggest that you expand your "argument". – Miguel de Servet Jun 7 at 9:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.