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The “Preexistence of the Son”
and the Old Testament
Trinitarian theology declares that the Son has existed before all time
with the Father. But 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
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
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
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.
Bible in the Church