Theological Institutes

Part Second - Doctrines of the Holy Scriptures

By Richard Watson

Chapter 10

TRINITY-Pre-existence of Christ.

By establishing, on Scriptural authority, the pre-existence of our Lord, we take the first step in the demonstration of his absolute Divinity. His pro-existence, indeed, simply considered, does not evince his Godhead, and is not, therefore, a proof against the Arian hypothesis; but it destroys the Socinian notion, that he was a man only. For since no one contends for the pre-existence of human souls, and if they did, the doctrine would be refuted by their own consciousness, it is clear, that if Christ existed before his incarnation, lie is not a mere man, whatever his nature, by other arguments, may be proved to be.

This point has been felt to press so heavily upon the doctrine of the simple humanity of Christ, that both ancient and modem Socinians have bent against it all those arts of interpretation which, more than any thing else, show both the hopelessness of their cause, and the pertinacity with which they cling to oft and easily refuted error. I shall dwell a little on this point, because it will introduce some instances in illustration of the peculiar character of the Socinian mode of perverting the Scriptures.

The existence of our Lord prior to his incarnation might he forcibly argued from the declarations that he was "sent into the world ;" that "he came in the flesh ;" that "he took part of flesh and blood ;" that lie was "found in fashion as a man ;" and other similar phrases. These are modes of speech which are used of no other person; which are never adopted to express the natural birth, and the commencement of the existence of ordinary men; and which Socinianism, therefore, leaves without a reason, and without an explanation, when used of Christ. But arguments drawn from these phrases are rendered wholly unneces­sary, by the frequent occurrence of passages which explicitly declare his pre-existence, and by which the ingenuity of unsubmissive criticism has been always foiled; the interpretations given being too forced, and too unsupported, either by the common rules of criticism, or by the idioms of language, to produce the least impression upon any, not previously disposed to torture the word of God in order to make it subservient to an error.

The first of these proofs of the pre-existence of Christ is from the testimony of the Baptist, John i, 15, "He that cometh after me is pre­ferred before me, for he was before me;" or as it is in verse 30, "After me cometh a man which is preferred before me, for he was before me."  The Socinian exposition is, "The Christ, who is to begin his ministry after me has, by the Divine appointment, been preferred before me, because he is my chief or principal." Thins they interpret the last clause "for he was before me," in the sense of dignity, and not of time, though St. John uses the same word to denote priority of time, in several places of his Gospel, "If the world hate you, you know that it hated me, before it hated you ;" and ch. i, 41 ; viii, 7; xx, 4-8. If they take the phrase in the second clause emprosqen mh gegonen in the sense of" preferred," then, by their mode of rendering the last clause, as Bishop Pearson has observed, "a thing is made the reason of itself; which is a great absurdity and a vain tautology."-" He is preferred before me, because lie is my chief;" whereas by taking wrwto~ mh in the sense of time, a reason for this preference is given. There is, however, another rendering of the second clause which makes the pas­sage still more impracticable in the sense of the Socinians. emprosqen  never in the Septuagint or in the New Testament used for dignity or rank; but refers either to place or time, and if taken in the sense of time, the rendering will be, "He that cometh after me was before me ;" and oti, in the next clause, signifying "certainly," " truly," (Schleusner sub voce,) the last clause will be made emphatical, "certainly, he was before me," and is to be considered, not as giving a reason for the senti­ment in the preceding clause, or as tautological, but as explanatory and impressive; a mode of speaking exceedingly natural when so great a doctrine, and so high a mystery was to be declared, that he who was born after John, was vet, in point of existence, before him;- "certainly, he was before me." This rendering of the second clause is adopted by several eminent critics; but whether this or the common version be preferred, the verb in the last clause, he WAS before me, sufficiently fixes wrwto~ in the sense of priority of time. Had it referred to the rank and dignity of Christ, it would not have been, "he WAS," but "he is before me," exi not hn.

The passages which express that Christ came down from heaven, are next to be considered. He styhes himself "the bread of God which cometh down from heaven.-The living bread which came down from heaven.-He that cometh from above is above all; he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth; he that cometh from heaven is above all ;" and in his discourse with Nicodemus, "No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven." In what manner are declarations so plain and unequivocal to be eluded, and by what arts are they to be interpreted, into nothing? This shall be considered. Socinus and his early dis­ciples, in order to account for these phrases, supposed that Christ, between the time of his birth and entrance upon his office, was translated into heaven, and there remained some lime, that he might see and hear those things which he was to publish in the world. This hypothesis, however, only proves the difficulty, or rather the impossibility of interpreting these passages, so as to turn away their hostile aspect from the errors of man. It is supported by no passage of Scripture, by no tradition, by no reason in the nature of the thing, or in the discourse. The modern Socinians, therefore, finding the position of their elder brethren untenable, resolve the whole into figure, the most convenient method of evading the difficulty, and tell us, that as we should naturally say, that a person who would become acquainted with the secret purposes of God, must ascend to heaven to converse with him, and return to make them known, so our Lord's words do not necessarily imply a literal ascent and descent, but merely this, "that he alone was admitted to an intimate knowledge of the Divine will, and was commissioned to reveal it to men." (Beisham's Calm Inquiry.)

In the passages quoted above, as declarations of the pre-existence of Christ, it will be seen that there are two phrases to be accounted for, -ascending into heaven,-and, coming down from heaven. The former is said to mean the being admitted to an intimate knowledge of the Divine counsels. But if this were the sense, it could not be true that "no man" had thus ascended but "the Son of man ;" since Moses and all the prophets in succession had been admitted to "an intimate knowledge of the Divine counsels," and had been "commissioned" to reveal them. It is nothing to say that our Lord's acquaintance with the Divine counsels was more deep and comprehensive. The case is not stated comparatively, but exclusively,-" No man hath ascended into heaven but the Son of man ;" no man, but himself, had been in heaven.[1] Allowing therefore the principle of the Socinian gloss, it is totally inapplicable to the text in question, and is in fact directly refuted by it.

But the principle is false, and it may be denied, that "to ascend into heaven" is a Hebrew phrase to express the knowledge of high and mysterious things. So utterly does this pretence fail, that not one of the passages they adduce in proof can be taken in any other than its literal meaning; and they are therefore, as are others, directly against them. Deut. xxx, 11, is first adduced. "Who shall go up for us into heaven, and bring it unto us ?" This we are told we must take figuratively; but then, unhappily for them, it is also immediately subjoined, "neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, who shall go over the sea for us?" If the ascent into heaven in the first clause is to be taken figuratively, then the going beyond the sea cannot be taken literally, and we shall still want a figurative interpretation for this part of the declaration of Moses respecting the law, which will not so easily be furnished. The same observation is applicable to Romans x, 6, in which there is an adaptation of the passage in Deuteronomy to the Gospel. "Who shall ascend into heaven? that is, to bring Christ down from above," &c, words which have no meaning unless place be literally understood, and which show that the apostle, a sufficient judge of Hebrew modes of expression, understood, in its literal sense, the passage in Deuteronomy. A second passage to which they trust, is Prov. xxx, 4, "Who hath ascended and descended," but if what immediately follows be added, "who hath gathered the winds in his fists, who bath bound the waters in a garment," &c, it will be seen that the passage has no reference to the acquisition of knowledge by a servant of God, but expresses the various operations in nature carried on by God himself. "Who hath done this? What is his name, and what is his son's name, if thou canst tell?"

In Baruch iii, 29, it is asked of wisdom, "Who hath gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds?" but it is here also added, "Or who hath gone over the sea for her?" Wisdom is, in this passage, clearly personified; a place of habitation is assigned her, which is to be sought out by those who would attain her. This apocryphal text, therefore, gives no countenance to the mystical notion of' ascending into heaven, advanced by Socinian expositors.

If they then utterly fail to establish their forced and unnatural sense of ascending into heaven; let us examine whether they are more suc­cessful in establishing their opinion as to the meaning of" coming down from heaven." This, they say, means "to be commissioned to reveal the will of God to men;" (Belsham's Calm Inquiry;) but if so, the phrases, "to ascend up into heaven," and "to come down from thence," which are manifestly opposed to each other, lose all their opposition in the interpretation, which is sufficient to show, that it is, as to both, entirely gratuitous, arbitrary and contradictory. For, as Dr. Magee has acutely remarked, "it is observed by the editors of the Unitarian Version, and enforced with much emphasis by Mr. Belsham and Dr. Carpenter, that to 'ascend into heaven' signifies 'to become acquainted with the truths of nod,' and that consequently the 'correlative' to this, (the opposite they should have said,) to 'descend from heaven,' must mean 'to bring and to discover those truths to the world.' (Imp. Vers. p. 208 Calm Inq. p. 48.) Now allowing those gentlemen all they wish to establish as to the first clause,-that to go up into heaven means to learn and become acquainted with the counsels of God,-what must follow then if the reasoned justly upon their own principles? Plainly this, that to come down from heaven, being precisely the opposite of the former, must mean to unlearn, or to lose the knowledge of those counsels: so that, so far from bringing and discovering those counsels to mankind, our Lord must have disqualified himself from bringing any. Had indeed 'ASCENDING into heaven' meant 'BRINGING the truth (any where) FROM men,' then 'DESCENDING from heaven' might justly be said to mean BRINGING it back to men.' Whatever, in short, ASCENDING may be supposed to signify in any figure, DESCENDING must signify the opposite, if the figure be abided by: and therefore, if to ASCEND be to learn, to DESCEND must be to unlearn." (Discourses on the Atonement.)

It is farther fatal to this opinion that "if to come from heaven; to descend from heaven," &c, signify receiving a Divine commission to teach; or, more simply to communicate truth after it has been learned, it is never used with reference to Moses, or to any of the prophets, or Divinely appointed instruments who, from time to time, were raised up among the Jews. We may therefore conclude, that the meaning attached to these phrases by Socinian writers of the present day, who, in this respect, as in many others, have ventured to step beyond their predecessors who never denied their literal acceptation, was unknown among the Jews, and is a mere subterfuge to escape from the plain testimony of Holy Writ on a point so fatal to their scheme.

The next passage which may be quoted as expressing, in unequivocal terms, the pre-exisetnce of Christ, occurs John vi, 62, and is, if possible, still more out of time reach of that kind of criticism which has just been exhibited. The occasion, too, fixes tine sense beyond all perversion. Our Lord had told the Jews that he was the bread of life, which came down from heaven. This the Jews understood internally, and them before asked, "Is not this the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know how is it theme that he saith, I came down from heaven?" His disciples too so understood his words, for they also "murmured." But our Lord; so far from removing that impression, so far from giving them the most alistaait hint of a mode of meeting the difficulty like that resorted to by Socinian writers, strengthens the assertion, and makes his profession a stumbling block still more formidable, "Doth this offend you?" referring to what he had just said, that he had descended from heaven, "What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up WHERE HE WAS BEFORE." Language cannot be more explicit; though Mr. Belsham has ventured to tell us that this means, "What if I go farther out of your reach, and become more perplexing and mysterious!" And indeed perplexing and mysterious enough would be the words both of Christ and his apostles if they required such criticisms for their elucidation.

The phrase to be "sent from God," they think they sufficiently avert, by urging that it is said of the Baptist, "There was a  mane sent from' God, whose name was John." This, they urge, clearly evinces, "that to come from God is to be commissioned by him. If Jesus was sent from God, so was John the Baptist; if time former came down from heaven, so did the latter." This reasoning must be allowed to be falla­cious, if it can be shown that it contradicts other scriptures. Now our Lord says, John vi, 46, "No one hath seen the Father, save he who is from God, he oucog, hath seen the Father;" namely, this one person. For it is singular, and no one else hath scene tine Father. Therefore, if Christ was that person, as will not be disputed, John could not be "sent from God," in the same manner that Christ was. What does the Baptist say of himself? Does he confirm the Socinian gloss? Speaking of Christ and of himself he says, "He that cometh from above is above all; he that is of the earth is earthly, he that cometh from heaven is above all," John iii, 31. Here John contrasts his earthly origin with Christ's heavenly origin. Christ is "from above;" John from "the earth," Ex th~ gh~. Christ is "above all," which he could not be, if every other prophet came in like manner from heaven, and from above; and therefore if John was "sent from God," it cannot be in the same sense that Christ was sent from him, which is enough to silence the objection. (Hoiden'sSc &ripture Testimonies.) Thus, says Dr. Nares. "we have nothing but the positive contradictions of the Unitarian party, to prove to us that Christ did not come from heaven, though he says of himself, he did come from heaven; that though he declares he had seen the Father, he had not seen time Father; that though he assures us that he, in a most peculiar and singular manner came forth from God, (ek tk Qek exhlqen, a strong and singular expression,) he came from him no otherwise than like the prophets of old, and his own immediate forerunner." (Remarks on the Imp. Version.)

Several other equally striking passages might claim our attention; but it will be sufficient for the argument, to close it with two.

"Before Abraham was, I am," John viii, 58. Whether time verb eimi "I am," may be understood to be equivalent to the incommunicable name Jehovah, shall be considered in another place. Tine obvious sense of the passage at least is, "Before Abraham was, or was born, I was in existence." Abraham, the patriarch, was the person spoken of; for the Jews having said, "Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham ?" our Lord declares, with his peculiarly solemn mode of introduction, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am." I had priority of existence,  together with a continuation of it to the present time," (Pearson on the Creed.) Nor did the Jews mistake his meaning, but being filled with indignation at so manifest a claim of Divinity, "they took up stones to stone him."

How then do the Socinians dispose of this passage? The two hypo­theses on which they have rested, for one would not suffice, are, first, "That Christ existed before the patriarch Abraham had become, according to the import of his name, the father of many nations, that as, before the Gentiles were called;" which was as true of the Jews who were discoursing with him, as of himself. The second is, "before Abraham was born I am he, i.e. the Christ, in tine destination and appointment of God;" which also was saying nothing peculiar of Christ; Since the existence and the part which every one of his hearers was to act, were as much in time destination and appointment of God as his own. Both these absurdities are well exposed by Bishop Pearson :-

"The first interpretation makes our Saviour thus to speak -Do ye so much wonder how I should have seen Abraham, who am not yet fifty years old? Do ye imagine so great a contradiction in this? I tell you, and be ye most assured that what I speak unto you at this time is most certainly and infallibly true, and most worth of your observation, which moves me not to deliver it without this solemn asseveration, (Verily, verily, I say unto you,) before Abraham shall perfectly become that which was signified in his name, the father of many nations, before the Gentiles shall come in, I am. Nor be troubles at this answer, or think in this I magnify myself; for what I speak is as true of you yourselves as it is of me: before Abram be thus made Abraham, ye arc. Doubt ye not, therefore, as ye did, nor ever make that question again whether I have seen Abraham."

The second explication makes a sense of another nature, but with the same impertinency :-Do ye continue still to question, and with so much admiration do ye look upon my age and ask, Hast thou seen Abraham? I confess it is more than eighteen hundred years since that patriarch died, and less than forty since I was born at Bethlehem: but look not on this computation, for before Abraham was horn I was. But mistake me not, I mean that I was in the foreknowledge and decree of God. Nor do I magnify myself in! this, for ye also were so. How either of these answers should give any reasonable satisfaction to the question, or the least occasion of the Jews' exasperation, is not to be understood. And that our Saviour should speak of any such impertinencies as these interpretations bring forth, is not by a Christian to be conceived. Wherefore, as the plain and most obvious sense is a proper and full answer to the question, and most likely to exasperate the unbelieving JEWS; as those strained explications render the words of Christ not only impertinent to the occasion, but vain and useless to the hearers of them; as our Saviour gave this answer in words of another language, most probably incapable of any such interpretations; we must adhere unto that literal sense already delivered, by which it appeareth Christ had a being, as before John, so also before Abraham, and consequently by that he did exist two thousand years before he was borne, or conceived by the virgin." (Exposition of the Creed.)

The observations of Whitaker on this decisive passage, ire in his usual energetic manner :-

"'Your Father Abraham,' says our Saviour to the Jews, 'rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad.' Our Saviour thus proposes himself to his countrymen, as their Messiah; that grand object of hope and desire to their fathers, and particularly to this first father of the faithful, Abraham. But his countrymen, not acknowledging his claim to the character of Messiah, and therefore not allowing his supernatural priority of existence to Abraham, chose to consider his words in a sig­nification merely human. 'Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not fifty years old, and hunt thou seen Abraham?' But what does our Saviour reply to this low and gross comment upon his intimation? Does he retract it, by warping his language to their poor perverseness, and so waiving his pretensions to the assumed dignity? No! to have so acted, would have been derogatory to his dignity, and injurious to their interests. He actually repeats his claim to the character. He actually enforces his pretensions to a supernatural priority of existence. He even heightens both. He mounts up far beyond Abraham. He ascends beyond all the orders of creation. And he places himself with God at the head of the universe. He thus arrogates to himself all that high pitch of dignity, which the Jews expected their Messiah to assume. This he does too in the most energetic manner, that his simplicity of language, so natural to inherent greatness, would possibly admit. He also introduces what he says, with much solemnity in the form, and with more in the repetition. Verily, verily, I say unto you,' he cries, 'BEFORE ABRAHAM was, I Am.' He says not of himself; as he says of Abraham, 'Before he was, I was.' This indeed would have been sufficient, to affirm his existence previous to Abraham. But it would not have been sufficient, to declare what he now meant to assert, his full claim to the majesty of the Messiah. He therefore drops all forms of language, that could be accommodated to time mere creatures of God. He arrests one, that was appropriate to the Godhead itself. 'Before Abraham was,' or still more properly, 'Before Abraham was MADE,' he says, 'I AM.' He thus gives himself the signature of uncreated and continual existence, jam direct opposition to contingent amid created. He says of himself,

That an eternal NOW for ever lasts,

with him. He attaches to himself that very stamp of eternity, which God appropriates to his Godhead in the Old Testament; and from which an apostle afterward describes 'Jesus Christ' expressly, to be 'the same yesterday, and to-slay, and for ever.' Nor did the Jews pre­tend to misunderstand him now. They could not. They heard him directly and decisively vindicating the noblest rights of their Messiah, and the highest honours of their God, to himself. They considered him as a mere pretender to those. They therefore looked upon him, as a blasphemous arrogator of these. 'Then took they up stones, to cast at him' as a blasphemer; as what indeed he was in his pretensions to be God, if he had not been in reality their Messiah and their God in one. Bait he instantly proved himself to their very senses, to be both; by exerting the energetic powers of his Godhead, upon them. For he 'hid himself; and went out of time temple, going through 'he midst of them; and so passed by."

The last passage which I shall quote, may properly, both from its dignity and explicitness, close the whole. John xvii, 5, "And now, 0 Father, glorify thou me with thine own self, with the glory which I had with thee before the world was." Whatever this glory was, it was possessed by Christ before the world was; or, as he afterward expresses it, "before the foundation of the world." That question is therefore not to be confounded with the main point which determines the preexistence of our Lord; for if he was with the Father, and had a glory with him before the world was, and of which "he emptied himself" when he became man, then he had an existence, not only before his incarnation, but before the very " foundation of the world." The Socinian gloss is, "the glory which I had with thee, in thy immutable decree, before the world was; or which thou didst decree, before the world was, to give me." But h eikon para soi, "which I had with thee," cannot bear any such sense. The occasion was too peculiar to admit of any mystical, forced, or parabolic modes of speech. It was in the hearing of his disciples, just before he went out into the garden, that these words were spoken; and, as it has been well observed, it is remarkable, that he introduces the mention of this glory, when it was not necessary to com­plete the sense of any proposition. And yet, as if on purpose to prevent the apostles, who heard his prayer, from supposing that he was asking that which he had not possessed in any former period, he adds, "with the glory which I had with thee before the world was." So decisive is this passage, that as Dr. Harwood says, "Were there no intimation in the whole New Testament of the preexistence of Christ, this single passage would irrefragably demonstrate and establish it. Our Saviour, here in a solemn act of devotion, declares to the Almighty, that he had glory with him before the world was, and fervently supplicates that he would be graciously pleased to reinstate him in his former felicity. The language is plain and clear. Every word has great moment amid emphasis :-' Glorify thou me with that glory which I enjoyed in thy presence, before the world was.' Upon this single text I lay my finger. Here I posit my system. And if plain words be designedly employed to convey any determinate meaning; if the modes of human speech have any precision, I am convinced, that this plain declaration of our Lord, in an act of devotion, exhibits a great and important truth, which can never be subverted or invalidated by any accurate and satisfactory criticism." (Socinian Scheme.)

Whatever, therefore, the true nature of our Lord Jesus Christ may be, we have at least discovered from the plainest possible testimonies; testimonies which no criticism, and no unlicensed and paraphrastic comments have been able to shake or to obscure, that he had an existence previous to his incarnation, and previous to tine very "foundation of the world. If then we find that the same titles and works which are ascribed to him in the New Testament, are ascribed to a Divine person in the Old, who is yet represented as distinct from God the Father, and especially to one who was to come into the world to fulfil the very offices which our Lord has actually fulfilled, we shall have obtained another step in this inquiry, and shall have exhibited lofty proof, not only of the pre-existence of Christ, but also of his Divinity. This will be the subject of the next chapter.


[1] "No man, except myself, ever was in heaven." (Pearce.)