“It has been standard teaching in historic Christology that the Logos, the Son, existed before the incarnation.”1
The claim by Trinitarians that Jesus existed as “the Son…before the incarnation”, one of the three “Persons” that make up the one triune God, is hard pressed in view of the biblical evidence. The simple fact is that nowhere do we find this teaching in the Bible. The only reference to “the Son” is in connection with Jesus of Nazareth who, from his birth some 2 000 years ago, is said to be “the unique Son [monogenes huios]” and last spokesman for the one God of Israel, YHWH. When we carefully analyze the NT references to Jesus as “the Son”, we will see how this “historic Christology” is simply not true!
Where is “God the Son”?
Hebrews 1 says that “in many places and in various ways” in ancient times, God spoke to the fathers by His human prophets. Another way was through spiritual figures called “angels” [Gk. angelos]. And although these spiritual figures were called “sons of God” [Gen. 6.4; Job 1.6; Ps 29.1] and had individual names [Gabriel, Michael, see Dan 9.21; 10.13]”2, they were never referred to as God’s “unique Son”. These were not “begotten” [gennao] by God [Heb 1.5; cp. Ps 2.7 below].
God goes on to say that the reason for the creation of His angels was so that they could function as “public servants/ministers” [leitourgos, Heb 1.7]. This means that angels were created to serve us, the public, by ministering to our needs. So if the Son before his incarnation was an angel, this would not fit in with his Trinitarian title “very God of very God, begotten, not made…the Son eternal”3. (NOTE: Heb 8.2 says that Jesus is the present heavenly High Priest who ministers "in the holy places-sanctuary, in the true tent-Tabernacle that the Lord [God] has set up, not man". Referring to the Son's new ministerial role in the presence of his God and Father's throne. Remembering that angels cannot be said to serve as High Priests since they are chosen from "among humans...For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; thus it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer." Heb 5.1; 8.3)
In their attempt to force the existence of an eternal Son into the Hebrew Scriptures, Trinitarians argue that Jesus was the “angel of the LORD (YHWH)” [Ex 3], perhaps without even realizing that this is the same claim espoused by various other groups like the JWs. The mind boggles at this claim since Hebrews 1 is all about how “the unique Son of God” has been made so much greater than even God’s many angels, who were created to minister to humans like him. The text goes on to explain how God never said to any of them what He says about His “unique Son”, Jesus of Nazareth:
“You are my son, this day have I fathered you [gennao].” Heb 1.5; Cp. Ps 2.7The Complete Word Study Dictionary remarks that the usage of the word gennao [procreated/begotten] in reference to the creation of “the Son” marks the “relationship between God and the Messiah, called His Son. The designation of this relationship by words with a temporal notion [i.e. “this day…”] has troubled theologians, who have proffered various explanations.” One of these was the extra-biblical meaning that was given hundreds of years later by the noted “Church Father” Origen when he used this verse to refer “to the Son's relationship within the Trinity…Because His generation is as eternal and everlasting as the brilliancy which is produced from the sun. For it is not by receiving the breath of life that He is made a Son, by any outward act, but by His own nature.”4
At this point, let’s ask a few questions regarding this topic:
• How could Jesus, said to be “in very nature God” [as it is mistranslated in the NIV/TNIV, see Phil 2.6] function as a “public servant”? Isn’t this contrary to his title as “very God of very God”?
• Shouldn’t we be talking about a tripartite [God-angel-man] Son as opposed to a double nature Son [God-man]?
The origin/creation of “the Son”
The next problem for this doctrine is the fact that the NT tells us that “the unique Son” is said to have an “origin” [genesis, Mat 1.1, 18] that occurred when he was caused to come into existence [gennao-ginomai, Luke 1.35; Rom 1.3] in the womb of a young Jewish virgin called Mary.
It is self-evident that this account is often neglected or just plain ignored, since both virgin accounts in Matthew and Luke explain in detail the means by which this miraculous and long-awaited event took place. For example, note the technical nature of the words used by the writers to describe the origin/creation of the unique Son of God:
“This is an account of the origin [genesis] of Jesus the Messiah…The origin [genesis] of Jesus the Messiah was like this. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit…the angel [Gabriel] said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son…He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. For this reason the child will be the Son of God…All this took place to fulfill what the Lord [God] had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth [tikto] to a son…’” Mat 1.1, 18; Luke 1.31, 35; Mat 1.22-23(Compare the above with Gal 4.4; Rom 1.3 [Phil 2.7] and “note the deliberate and unusual use of ginomai to express the beginning of existence, not just birth.”5)
According to the IVP Bible Background Commentary, Luke 1.31 “follows the typical Old Testament structure for a divine birth announcement”6. The story echoes the miraculous accounts of the patriarch Isaac, whose parents were too old to conceive [Gen 21], and Samson, whose story closely parallels that of Jesus [Judg. 13]:
“The point of [Luke] 1:36–37 is that God, who acted for Elizabeth as he did for Sarah, could still do anything (Gen 18:12–15).”7What many fail to see when it comes to the belief in “the Son…before the incarnation”, are the clear Gnostic-pagan overtones that this introduces to the biblical text. As many scholars note, “what we find in Matthew and Luke is not the story of some sort of sacred marriage (hieros gamos) or a divine being [“the Son”] descending to earth…in the guise of a man…but rather the story of a miraculous conception without aid of any man, divine or otherwise…As such this story is without precedent either in Jewish or pagan literature, even including the OT (Machen).”8
(This biblical fact regarding Jesus’ uniqueness [monogenes] also speaks against “the straw man argument” used against those who do not believe in this doctrine, accusing their opponents of making the Son a “mere man”.9)
Note the technical words used to describe “the holy child to be born”. The first is the word tikto, variously translated “to bring forth, give birth”. This word is related to another that is often used in reference to the Son, prototokos [“firstborn”] as well as gennao [“cause to exist”] and used synonymously with ginomai [“come into existence”]. The latter introduces us to dio kai in Luke 1.35, describes the cause and effect of the Son miraculously created by God through His spirit [“for this reason precisely”]. This explains why throughout the rest of the NT Jesus is identified by both spiritual beings [the Devil, Mat 4.1,3] and humans [the Baptist; Nathaniel, John 1.34; 49] as the unique Son of God.
Similarly to the Word Study Dictionary comments above regarding the word gennao, Matthew’s use of words “with a temporal notion” [i.e. genesis] has long “troubled theologians”. Some early scribes who were uncomfortable with “genesis” (“engendering”) changed it to “gennesis” (“birth”). Textual critic Bart Ehrman explains why.
“Both genesis and gennesis can mean ‘birth’, so that either one could be appropriate in the context. But unlike the corrupted reading, genesis can also mean ‘creation’, ‘beginning’ and ‘origination’. When one now asks why scribes might take umbrage at Matthew’s description of the genesis of Jesus Christ, the answer immediately suggests itself: the original text could well be taken to imply that this is the moment in which Jesus Christ comes into [existence]. In point of fact, there is nothing in Matthew’s narrative, either here or elsewhere throughout the Gospel, to suggest that he knew or subscribed to the notion that Christ had existed prior to his birth.”10So, according to the virgin birth narrative, our only source describing the precise point at which the Son began to exist, there is no evidence that “the Son…existed before the incarnation”—“eternally generated…begotten of the Father before all aeons”11—only found in the later Catholic/Protestant creeds.
• If Jesus of Nazareth is the only figure given the exclusive title “the unique Son”, why is he never ascribed the added appellative “God”, “Lord our God” or “Almighty God”?
• Why is this figure given no recognition at all in the OT, let alone a voice?
Does “the Son” know “all things”?
The way early Trinitarians tried to get around the clear biblical fact that the Son is said to lack knowledge of “all things” [ta panta] is by creating the doctrine of double nature at the council of Chalcedon in 451AD. The ESV Study Bible note on Mat 24.36 is particularly enlightening, since it seeks, but fails, to teach what frankly cannot be taught. Here I quote it in full:
“In his incarnate life, Jesus learned things as other human beings learn them (cf. Luke 2:52; Heb. 5:8). On the other hand, Jesus was also fully God, and, as God, he had infinite knowledge (cf. John 2:25; 16:30; 21:17). Here he is apparently speaking in terms of his human nature. This is similar to other statements about Jesus which could be true of his human nature only, and not of his divine nature (he grew and became strong, Luke 2:40; increased in stature, Luke 2:52; was about 30 years old, Luke 3:23; was weary, John 4:6; was thirsty, John 19:28; was hungry, Matt. 4:2; was crucified, 1 Cor. 2:8).But a big monkey wrench is thrown in the works once we analyze the text. For example Mat 24.36 says “of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone”. In other words, it cannot be argued from the doctrine of double nature that in this instance Jesus is “speaking in terms of his man/human nature” since neither the “man” or “human nature” are in view here [equated with “Jesus Christ, son of man”], only the “God/divine nature” [“the Son”].
Taking account of these verses, together with many verses that affirm Christ's deity, the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 affirmed that Christ was ‘perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man.’ Yet it also affirmed that Jesus was ‘one Person and one Subsistence.’ With regard to the properties of his human nature and his divine nature, the Chalcedonian Creed affirmed that Christ was to be ‘acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.’ That meant the properties of deity and the properties of humanity were both preserved. How Jesus could have limited knowledge and yet know all things is difficult, and much remains a mystery, for nobody else has ever been both God and man. One possibility is that Jesus regularly lived on the basis of his human knowledge but could at any time call to mind anything from his infinite knowledge.”
Just like the word “genesis” in Mat 1.1, 18, the problem [called a “mystery” by the ESV note above] this posed for the Chalcedon component of the doctrine of the Trinity is reflected in the textual history of Mat 24.36. According to textual critics, the “longer reading” in Matthew [“nor the Son”] appears only in “some important witnesses, including early Alexandrian and Western mss.”12 Bruce Metzger, in his Textual Commentary on the NT, says that a shorter reading without “nor the Son…appears in the majority of the witnesses of Matthew, including the later Byzantine text [due to the] doctrinal difficulty” the longer phrase exposed. (The NET Bible refers to it as an “intentional change on the part of the author [given its] theologically significant issue”.) But the majority of NT scholars today support “the originality of the [longer] phrase” [Metzger again] not only due to the appearance of it in the Markan text [Mar 13.32, which is uncontested] but simply on contextual consistency alone.
“That the phrase in Matthew was seen as problematic by Christian scribes is demonstrated with particular clarity by the history of codex Sinaiticus. The original hand of the manuscript included the phrase, a corrector erased it, and a second corrector restored it. The reason scribes in general found the phrase problematic should be self-evident: it suggests that the Son of God is not all-knowing...”13(Similarly, Jesus doesn’t know the name of the “unclean spirit” [“demon”, Legion] who identifies him as “Jesus, the Son of the Most High God” [Mar 5.7; Luke 8.28]. NOTE: later on Jesus does not know who touches him [Mar 5.30; Luke 8.45]. For other examples where ‘Jesus only’ is in view see Mar 9.16; John 11.34; 21.17.)
The subordination of “God the Son”
The subject of subordination when it comes to “God the Son”, who is said to be “coeternal/uncreated/infinite”14 with the other “Persons” of the Godhead, is also made difficult by 1Cor 15.24-28.
In Patrick Navas’ detailed study of 1Cor 15.28, he quotes many evangelical scholars who admit that “some Nicene expositors, in their anxiety to defend the hardly yet established doctrine of the Trinity, resorted to the desperate expedient of interpreting ‘the Son’ as the Church, His body, as in 12:12, where the word Christ means the Church.”15 Yet others try to gloss over the text by arguing that the occurrence of the word “God” on its own [“God may be all in all”, v.28] somehow refers to the “triune God”. But “as in Old Testament texts, Paul states here that the Son will reign over all else as God’s viceroy but remain subordinate in role to the Father (Ps 110:1; Is 9:6–7; Dan 7:14)…God’s being ‘all in all’… meant merely that God is creator and ruler of all (Ecclus 43:27).”16 The writer here identifies the ‘creator God’ as “the Father”.
In yet another detailed work, scholar M.J. Harris states that it becomes clear “that the NT writers have ho pater [the Father] in mind unless of course the context makes this sense of (ho) theos impossible…the differentiation made between GOD (o theos) as the one who speaks…and SON (uios) as His final means of speaking shows that in the author's mind it was not the Triune God of Christian theology who spoke to the forefathers by the prophets…for the author of Hebrews [1.1]—as for all NT writers—one may suggest ‘the God of our Fathers’, YAHWEH, was no other than 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ'. (cf. Acts 2:30; 2:33; 3:13, 18, 3:25, 26; 5:30). Such a conclusion is entirely consistent with the regular NT usage [1300 times] of o theos. It would be inappropriate for Elohim or YHVH ever to refer to the Trinity in the OT when in the NT theos regularly refers to the Father alone and apparently never to the Trinity.”17
Jesus, the only figure described as “the Son”, attests that he could “do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” [John 5.19]. The Son did not stop being subordinate even after his resurrection from the dead [Acts 1.7]! This is a difficult proposition for the Nicene-Chalcedonian theology which dictates that the "eternal Son" “returned” to his formerly heavenly glory as pre-incarnate Son. (Note: “John 13:3, 16:28 and 20:17 have been mistranslated in the NIV to give the impression that Jesus was "going back" to his Father [see KJV, RSV].”18 The original koine Greek simply says that he was “going” or “ascending” to his Father.)
While it may be easy to pick apart the doctrine of the Trinity as a whole [3=1?], it further deteriorates under the light of scrutiny when we expose its philosophical technicalities and permutations. And once confronted with the simple facts and figures of scripture its supporters try to slip their way out by hanging doctrine upon doctrine [“hypostatic union, kenosis” etc]. The simple fact is that Jesus’ human-only title of “the Son” [in connection with “the son of man/the Christ/Messiah”, Mar 14.61-62; Mat 26.63-64; Luke 22.67-70], disproves the fictitious nature of “the Son [who] existed before the incarnation”.
“Does it matter whether Jesus believed himself to be ‘the incarnate Son of God’?...Others might answer in the negative: it does not matter. For myself it does. It matters what Jesus thought about himself. For if we can uncover something at least of that self-understanding, and if it differs markedly from subsequent Christian doctrine of Christ, then we have discovered a serious self-contradiction at the heart of the Christian doctrine of incarnation itself.”19
1.Bernard L. Ramm, An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic and Historic, 1983, reprinted by Regent College Publishing, 1993, p. 47.
2. Angelology: JewishEncyclopedia.com.
3. Nicene-Athanasian creeds.
4. Origin De Principiis 1.4.
5. Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian, p 147. Ed. Emphasis added.
6. Keener, Craig S.: The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Intervarsity, 1993, S. Lk 1:31
7. Ibid. S. Lk 1:36.
8. Green, Joel B.; McKnight, Scot; Marshall, I. Howard: Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Intervarsity, 1992, S. 70.
9. See further One God & One Lord, Graeser, Lynn, Shoenheit, 2003.
10. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p 75-76, 1993.
11. Nicene Creed, 325AD.
12. NET Bible online, Mat 24.36, f. 53.
13. Ehrman, Orthodox Corruption, pgs. 91-92, 1993.
14. Athanasian Creed, 6th century AD.
15. Quoting Gordon Clark in Divine Truth or Human Tradition, p 187.
16. Keener, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. S. 1 Co 15:27
17. M.J. Harris, Jesus as God, The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus, pp. 42, 47.
19. J.D.G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, forward to 2nd edition, xiii, 1996.