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The “Preexistence of the Son”
and the Old Testament

Dennis Bratcher

Trinitarian theology declares that the Son has existed before all time with the Father. Yet some biblical scholars maintain that we should not look for Christological imagery or influence in Old Testament scriptures. For some Christians, this has created a dissonance that leads to the question:  If the idea of the preexistence of the Son is valid, should we not be able to see Christ in the Old Testament?

This question really tries to interface two different modes of thought, biblical interpretation and systematic theology.  It is not that these are mutually exclusive, only that they have different goals and work with different methodologies.  This distinction is acknowledged in the distinction between "Trinitarian theology" and "Old Testament Scripture."  There is a significant difference between trying to understand the communication of the biblical text, and the task of working that communication into a systematic theology.  Not keeping that distinction clearly in mind is one of the major mistakes people make in reading and interpreting Scripture.

By definition, theology is how we talk about God within certain philosophical, cultural, and historical frames of reference.  As such, theology changes depending on how those frameworks change.  That is not to say that the truth changes, only that how we talk about or express the truth changes, because we change.

Likewise, Scripture, since it is certainly theology, is also expressed in those same philosophical, cultural, and historical frames of reference.  The difference is that Scripture was a particular community’s theology from specific contexts (even acknowledging that Scripture is somewhat dynamic and extends over several hundred years).  That is, Scripture cannot be viewed in abstract and absolutist categories apart from its placement within history and culture. It is within that historical dimension of Scripture, which even Scripture itself considers to be a primary feature of its testimony to God, that God acts and reveals himself (see Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture).

So, the simple observation is that there is no "Son" in the Old Testament.  God’s self-revelation to which Scripture bears witness was a historical revelation, to people who lived in particular times and places. Their testimony to God’s self-revelation was from within those historical contexts. Likewise, the incarnation was a historical event that occurred within a specific context in human history. The NT bears witness to that historical action of God.  

However, the Old Testament does not talk about that event because it had not yet happened in the Old Testament. The only way that we can talk about the "preexistence" of the "Son" is from the perspective of the revelation of the Son in the incarnation. In other words, this is not an issue that can be addressed scripturally directly from the Old Testament.

Now, with the incarnation already a historical fact, the early church could turn to asking theological questions about the meaning of this historical event, questions such as, "What does this event reveal about the nature of God?"  But even the ways the theological questions were asked and framed in the early church were already a part of that theological enterprise that is conditioned by "certain philosophical, cultural, and historical frames of reference."  In other words, the questions that were asked were shaped by first and second century AD (functionally meaning "after Christ"!) modes of thought, not by tenth century BC ("before Christ") concerns.

It is in this context that many, if not most, of the "classic" Trinitarian formulations emerged.  The questions tended to be ontological questions, while virtually all of the biblical testimony, even in the New Testament, was in historical and relational terms. And in many cases, the answers provided by the early church were not Scriptural, in the sense that they were direct expositions of the biblical testimony. Rather, they were extrapolations, logical deductions, or in some cases speculation, based more or less on the biblical witness.

This paucity of biblical witness in answering some of  the questions that the early church was asking is one of the reasons that it took nearly 300 years to come up with an "orthodox" Trinitarian Christology.  It is also one reason some recent theologians, and especially biblical scholars, are challenging some of those formulations.  It is not a challenge to truth or to God, but a challenge to some of the speculations and logical conclusions while working from different assumptions (from different "philosophical, cultural, and historical frames of reference").

As to the preexistence of the Son, there is little problem with that as a theological concept.  But I would quickly acknowledge that the issue itself is far more a logically necessary one shaped by certain "philosophical, cultural, and historical frames of reference" than it is a matter of absolute truth or of biblical testimony (much like ex nihilo creation).  Certainly, there are some (although precious few) hints of such an idea in the biblical testimony (for example, John 1).  But then, a careful examination of the background of the images used to describe Jesus in those terms reveals that they are clearly drawn from other more ambiguous and amorphous Old Testament concepts (for example, Lady Wisdom as the agent of creation in Proverbs and Sirach).  

That suggests that the New Testament witness is not directly addressing the issue of the preexistence of the Son in a developed Trinitarian theology. That would come much later in the church.  Rather, it is drawing on traditional biblical images to bear witness to Jesus as the Son of God, to interpret the historical incarnation in first century terms for first century people.  The New Testament does that on many different levels in both the Gospels and the Epistles, without ever building a developed Trinitarian Christology.

So, theologically, the idea of the preexistence of the Son is a logical necessity in any developed Trinitarian theology.  In that sense it is true.  But it is not a matter of specific biblical witness since Scripture does not directly address that particular question apart from a more developed third century AD Trinitarian Christology.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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