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The Eternal Nature Of Christ

The course of our inquiry into Paul's conception of Christ has, up to this point, led us to dwell exclusively on those elements of the conception that are derived from the experience of the Christian life, and are verifiable by the Christian consciousness. In Paul's view, the only Christology that is of value is that which is Soteriological in its character—is that, in other words, which is gathered from the impressions of Christ's personal saving grace received in the life of faith. We rise to the understanding of what He is through the experience of what He proves Himself to be, where the inner life is under the influence of His Personality. There is, however, one aspect of his Christology which is of a different character, and to that our attention is now to be directed. There are in the Epistles statements in which Christ is spoken of as existing in a Preincarnate state. Affirmations are made regarding a Life prior to that which He lived on earth, that belong to an entirely different category from the affirmations that constitute the great bulk of the apostle's teaching. The latter concern Christ in His relation to us, and as the Author of religious benefits that fall within our conscious experience. The former concern Him as He is in Himself, antecedent to that connection with the world into which He entered when He became Incarnate. They are metaphysical in nature and unverifiable by human experience. A peculiar difficulty must, of course, attach to the understanding of statements of this sort; and had a sense of this been more present to the minds of theologians, it might have had a salutary effect in restraining the confidence with which these statements have been made use of by them to explain the Person of Christ on its metaphysical side, and to form theories that have served only to perplex, and to endanger one part or another of the faith regarding Him. This difficulty has been more vividly realised in modern times; and, pressed by it, later theology, in an influential section of its representatives, has rejected the authority of these statements over the faith of the Church, viewing them as belonging to the category of opinion in theological matters, in contrast to what is to be regarded in the light of essential truth. This attitude of mind is, no doubt, a recoil from the excessive tendency of the theologians of the early Church to deal with those passages that bear on the pre-existence of Christ as if they furnished material for a dogmatic understanding of the Person of the Lord of Glory. We are required, therefore, to consider in this lecture not only the question of the objective value of the statements that relate to the Premundane life of Christ, but also the further question how far these statements admit of being employed to construct theories that aim at explaining the mystery lying at the root of His Person. But before entering on these difficult and delicate inquiries, let us see what Paul's teaching on the pre-existence of Christ really is, and in what connection the references to it occur.


Paul is not alone among the writers of the New Testament in asserting a Pre-incarnate life of Christ. John and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews give this doctrine a greater prominence than Paul gives it. They set it forth in forms that are even more explicit. From the almost incidental way in which it is mentioned we arc justified in concluding that it was a familiar representation among the apostolic churches, a self-evident truth. Whatever account may be given by us of the origin of this belief, it seemed to them in harmony with the profound impression made upon them by the Personality of Jesus, and by the contrast between the lowliness of His earthly life and the Divine glory which He had reached, to believe that He who was the subject of so wonderful a history, and had proved Himself in their experience to be so great a Saviour, had existed in heaven before He appeared on earth, had come from a higher sphere into this world. The belief was certainly prevalent, and the Epistles bear evidence of having been written to those who did not need any proof of it.1

This is the character of most of the allusions in Paul's Epistles,—at least in the earlier and undisputed ones, to which we turn our attention in the first instance. The references, then, to the Pre-existence of Christ in the four leading Epistles are exceedingly scanty, and so incidental as to suggest the inference that, while intimately related to his own deepest convictions about Christ, this doctrine formed no part of his formal teaching, until, at least, the necessity for it arose in the special circumstances of the Church at Colosse. We have the two great announcements of the change effected on the religious destinies of men by the mission of Christ: "God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem us,"2 and "God, sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, condemned sin in the flesh."3 The "sending forth" of the Son implies that He existed before He was "made of a woman," and came "under the law," before He appeared in the "like

1 "What strikes us in these statements about pre-existence is, that the apostle nowhere really establishes or teaches the pre-existence of Christ, but, especially in his earlier Epistles, presupposes it as familiar to his readers and disputed by no one" (Beyschlag, JV. T. Theology, voL ii. p. 78, Eng. Trans.).

2 Gal. iv. 4. 3 Rom. viii. 3.

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