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Anthony Buzzard

The Nature of Preexistence in the New Testament

by Anthony Buzzard

   

 

"Within the Christian tradition, the New Testament has long been read through the prism of the later conciliar creeds . . . Speaking of Jesus as the Son of God had a very different connotation in the first century from that which it has had ever since the Council of Nicea (325 AD). Talk of his preexistence ought probably in most, perhaps in all, cases to be understood on the analogy of the pre-existence of the Torah, to indicate the eternal divine purpose being achieved through him, rather than pre-existence of a fully personal kind."[1]

"The mainstream churches are committed to a certain doctrine about Jesus, but specialists in early Christian thought are questioning the arguments by which that doctrine was reached. New Testament scholars ask if the New Testament teaches it at all, and historians wonder at the gulf between Jesus himself and fully-developed Christianity. These questions are very unsettling, for they imply that Christianity may be in worse condition than was thought. It is perhaps not a basically sound structure that needs only to be modernized, but may be in need of radical reconstruction . . . The New Testament never suggests that the phrase ‘Son of God’ just means ‘God.’"[2] [Yet evangelicalism insists on that equation if one is to be considered a Christian!]

"When the Jew wished to designate something as predestined, he spoke of it as already ‘existing’ in heaven."[3] [Thus "preexistence" statements in the NT really have to do with foreordination and predestination. It was the Greeks who misunderstood Jewish ways of thinking and turned Jesus into a cosmic figure who entered the earth from outer space. But is such a Jesus a human being? Is he the true Messiah of Israel?]

Many dedicated Christians are currently exercised about the Gnostic and mystical tendencies affecting the church. But many are unaware that philosophical, mystical ideas invaded the church from the second century onwards via the "Church Fathers," who were steeped in pagan philosophy and laid the foundation of the creeds now called "orthodox." The seed of Trinitarian doctrine was planted in the thinking of Justin Martyr, the second century Christian apologist who "found in Platonism the nearest approach to Christianity and felt that no break was required with its spirit and principles to pass into the greater light of Christian revelation." "The forces which operated to change apostolic doctrine were derived from paganism …. The habits of thought which the Gentiles brought into the church are sufficient to explain the corruptions of apostolic doctrine which began in the post-apostolic age."[4]

Intelligent Christians need to be informed of these corruptions and how they are currently "canonized" as Scripture by many. Discernment means learning the difference between revealed truth and pagan, philosophical teachings which originated outside the Bible yet affected what is now called "orthodoxy."

I would ask the reader to consider the disastrous effects of not paying attention to the Jewish ways of thinking found in the Bible, which was written (with the exception of Luke) by Jews. Clearly if Jews do not mean what we mean by "preexistence" we are liable to misunderstand them on basic issues about who Jesus is. There is a huge difference between being predestined or foreordained and actually preexisting. Greek philosophy believed in a "second God," a non-human intermediary between the creator and the world. The true Jesus, however, is the "man Messiah," the one Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). "To us Christians there is one God, the Father, and one Lord Messiah" (1 Cor. 8:4-6). Note carefully Paul’s definition of the One God.

The New Testament is a thoroughly Jewish book. Its writers were all Jews except probably Luke (who, however, is as Jewish as any of the writers in terms of his obvious delight in the Jewish salvation [John 4:22] offered in Jesus to both Jew and Gentile). Modern Bible readers approach basic biblical issues with an entrenched Greek outlook on life. This they have inherited from the churches and early post-biblical creeds which overlooked the fact that Jesus was a Jew who thought and taught in Jewish categories.

There is an anti-semitic tendency in traditional, creedal Christianity which must be recognized and forsaken. It has dramatically affected Christian doctrine. It has affected the way we define the person of Jesus, the Messiah.

The idea that the soul separates from the body and survives consciously apart from the body is a thoroughly unJewish idea (this is well established in the Old Testament perspective — and the NT teaching about the nature of man is based on the Old). Modern readers of the Bible are shocked to discover that in the Bible the whole man dies and goes into unconsciousness ("sleep") and is returned to life only by the future resurrection of the whole person. Traditional Christianity persists with the mistaken notion that man has an "immortal soul" which survives death. Many Bible readers have not paid attention to the statement of the Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible:

"No biblical text authorizes the statement that the soul is separated from the body at the moment of death."[5]

The notion that Jesus was really alive and conscious before his birth in Bethlehem is also a very unJewish idea. Human beings in Hebrew thought do not exist consciously before they are born. The preexistence of souls belongs to the world of Greek philosophy and was held by some church fathers (notably the philosophically- and mystically-minded Origen). But they did not derive this idea from the Bible.

Part of repentance is the willingness to admit we have been deceived, that we have not had sufficient information to make good decisions on Bible issues.

One most important fact we need to know before we attempt to understand who Jesus was is this:

"When the Jew said something was ‘predestined,’ he thought of it as already ‘existing’ in a higher sphere of life. The world’s history is thus predestined because it is already, in a sense, preexisting and consequently fixed. This typically Jewish conception of predestination may be distinguished from the Greek idea of preexistence by the predominance of the thought of ‘preexistence’ in the Divine purpose."[6]

________________________________

[1] Maurice Wiles, The Remaking of Christian Doctrine, The Hulsean Lectures , 1973, London: SCM Press, 1974.

[2] Don Cupitt, The Debate About Christ, London: SCM Press, 1979, p. vii, 4.

[3] E.G. Selwyn, First Epistle of Peter, p. 124.

[4] G.T. Purves, D.D., The Testimony of Justin Martyr to Early Christianity. New York: Randolph and Co., 1889, p. 167.

[5] Vol. 1, p. 802. See further our article, "Do Souls Go to Heaven?"

[6] E.C. Dewick, Primitive Christian Eschatology, The Hulsean Prize Essay for 1908, Cambridge University Press, 1912, pp. 253, 254.

 

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