The doctrine of literal pre-existence teaches that Jesus Christ existed prior to his miraculous conception in Mary, and subsequent virgin birth (which the apostle Matthew tells us is the origin of Jesus Christ). But both the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as well as all the evangelistic sermons preached by the apostles recorded in the book of Acts, are silent on the matter, never mentioning or teaching that Jesus existed before his conception by the Holy Spirit in Mary. Is the silence of the synoptic gospels on the matter of literal-pre-existence a problem for trinitarians?
The standard trinitarian response is a resounding ‘no’. This would be an invalid argument from silence, they say. Its possible that the apostles Matthew, Peter, and Paul all believed Jesus literally pre-existed, and just didn’t include this detail in their preaching and in their accounts of the gospel (Mark is generally regarded as a summary of what Peter preached, and Luke is based on Paul, among other sources). Thus the silence on this matter does not prove anything about whether or not these authors believed in literal pre-existence, it is argued.
I offer the following argument in response to that answer:
Trinitarians insist that the doctrine of the trinity, including a belief in the literal pre-existence of Jesus, is essential to Christian faith, and required for salvation. If that is true, then it follows necessarily that any presentation of the gospel which would be sufficient to be a basis for saving faith, must include the doctrine of the trinity, and specifically, that Jesus literally pre-existed. Yet the doctrine of literal pre-existence seems to be totally absent from Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s presentation of the gospel, as well as from every single evangelistic sermon in the book of Acts. These presentations of the gospel are clearly sufficient to impart saving faith; therefore, it follows that belief in literal pre-existence must not be essential to salvation. Yet, according to the logic of traditional trinitarianism, then, the doctrine of literal pre-existence must then be false. That’s because they teach that if it is true, it must be required for salvation; they inextricably link the questions of whether or not it is true, and whether or not it is essential to Christianity. Thus, if one of these claims can be shown false (that it is essential to Christianity), then by their logic the other claim must also be false (that literal pre-existence is a true doctrine). The absence of literal pre-existence from the synoptics shows us it is not required for salvation; therefore, it must be false.
I make a lot of claims here, that act as premises in my argument. If someone disagrees with my conclusion, they should be able to identify either one or more false premises, or else an error in my reasoning. I invite trinitarians to do so. For sake of clarity, I will reiterate my argument as follows:
Premise 1: If the doctrine of literal pre-existence is true, it is essential to Christian faith, and required for salvation.
Premise 2: If any doctrine must be known and believed by a person in order to be a Christian and be saved, it is part of the gospel.
Premise 3: Thus, following from P1 and P2, if the doctrine of literal pre-existence is true, then it is an essential part of the gospel.
Premise 4: No account of the gospel which is sufficient to provide a basis for saving faith can leave out any essential element of the gospel.
Premise 5: Thus, following from P3 and P4, if literal pre-existence is true then it must be present in every sufficient presentation of the gospel.
Premise 6: The doctrine of literal pre-existence is absent from many sufficient presentations of the gospel in the New Testament.
Conclusion: The doctrine of literal pre-existence is false.
Now, my conclusion follows logically from my premises; my argument is sound. So, if someone wishes to show my conclusion wrong, they will need to identify which premise or premises are false.
Premise 1, that if the doctrine of literal pre-existence is true, it is essential to Christian faith, and required for salvation, is simply the teaching of historical creedal trinitarianism. The Nicene and pseudo-athanasian creeds both define belief in the trinity, particularly including belief that Jesus literally pre-existed, as something that is essential to Christianity, that a person must believe to be saved. Those who don’t believe literal pre-existence are repeatedly damned to hell by these creeds.
Not only is premise 1 something that anyone who believes creedal trinitarianism is committed to by the creeds themselves, but its also something which seems to be somewhat obvious. If Jesus Christ isn’t a man (the greatest of all men) who took his origin from the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, but rather is a spiritual being who has existed eternally with God the Father, co-equal and co-eternal with Him, through whom all things in the universe were made, this is a hugely important aspect of Jesus’s identity. The Bible warns us against the perils of believing in a false Jesus (2 Cor 11:4), so getting Jesus’s baseline identity right seems to be pretty important for a person’s salvation. Thus it’s difficult to see how something like the doctrine of Jesus’s literal pre-existence could be true, and yet not be required for salvation, if for no other reason than for sake of actually identifying the real Jesus Christ preached by the apostles, rather than a false Jesus.
Premise 2, that if any doctrine must be known and believed by a person in order to be a Christian and be saved, it is part of the gospel, seems obvious. I’m understanding the ‘gospel’ here as a message of good news which necessarily encompasses all that a person must believe in order to be saved. I understand the basic means by which a person is saved, reconciled to God, and becomes a genuine Christian to be faith and repentance; the faith aspect of that is what we’re dealing with here. If there are certain things a person must believe to be saved, then the gospel message must encompass all these. Or else, a person could believe the entire gospel, and still not be saved, which defeats the whole purpose. A gospel that can’t save isn’t a gospel at all.
Premise 3 (following from P1 and P2, if the doctrine of literal pre-existence is true, then it is an essential part of the gospel) simply follows necessarily from P1 and P2; if P1 and P2 are true, then P3 must also be true.
Premise 4, that no account of the gospel which is sufficient to provide a basis for saving faith can leave out any essential element of the gospel, also seems fairly obvious. If an account of the gospel left out an essential element of what must be believed to be saved, then it would not provide a sufficient basis for saving faith. A person could believe the entire message and still not be able to be saved, due to lacking some essential doctrine.
Premise 5 follows necessarily from P3 and P4: if literal pre-existence is true then it must be present in every sufficient presentation of the gospel. That’s because if the doctrine is true, it is essential to the gospel, and no essential element of the gospel can be absent from any sufficient presentation of the gospel. If P3 and P4 are true, P5 necessarily follows.
Premise 6, that the doctrine of literal pre-existence is absent from many sufficient presentations of the gospel in the New Testament, is easy to see just by reading the synoptic gospels and the evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts. Its quite obviously absent from these accounts. We can see that these accounts are sufficient presentations of the gospel by the fact that this was the intended purpose of the accounts being given; Matthew, Mark, and Luke weren’t trying to get their readers part way to saving faith, but provide them with a full account of the message of the gospel, such that anyone who believed what they wrote could be saved. But we have even fuller evidence that these accounts are sufficient from the preaching in the book of Acts. We see that thousands upon thousands of people who heard the sermons of Peter and Paul recorded in the book of Acts were saved upon believing the message they heard; this makes it obvious that the message they heard was a sufficient presentation of the gospel. We see this especially clearly in the case of Cornelius, his household, and friends, in Acts chapter 10. Upon hearing a very simply summation of the gospel from Peter, the whole group was saved, God unmistakably showing his acceptance of these new converts by pouring out the Holy Spirit upon them. After this, they were accepted by the church and baptized as Christians. Yet the message they heard and believed, which was sufficient for them to be saved, and to be accepted as genuine Christians by both God and the apostolic church, did not include any mention of literal pre-existence. We have then, in both the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, many examples of sufficient presentations of the gospel that do not include the doctrine of literal pre-existence.
The conclusion, as noted above, that the doctrine of literal pre-existence is false, follows necessarily from these six premises. At the end, we have the situation of ‘if proposition y is true, condition x will be met’, ‘x’ here being that the doctrine will be present in every sufficient presentation of the gospel. Yet premise 6 shows us that condition x is not met, therefore falsifying proposition y, the doctrine of literal pre-existence.
To return then to our original question, the answer is undoubtedly ‘yes’- the absence of the doctrine of literal pre-existence from the synoptic gospels is an enormous problem for trinitarians. This isn’t something that can be explained away as the inclusion or exclusion of an extra detail, like the virgin birth, or various miracles Jesus performed, because unlike those, the doctrine of literal pre-existence is such that if it is true, then according to traditional trinitarian thinking it must also be necessary for salvation to believe for salvation, unlike such other details. That makes all the difference, as the above argument demonstrates.