The idea that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, literally pre-existed his miraculous conception in the virgin Mary goes back quite far- within the first hundred years after Christ’s ascension (for our purposes here, approximately 50-150 CE). It is of course important to remember that the writings we have from this era represent only a very small portion of what was written- many important and influential works we know of have not been preserved. But within the scraps we do have from this time period, there are actually a number of instances of belief in literal pre-existence in some form or another, quite early on.
At first this may sound promising for trinitarianism. The problem is that none of the early adherents to the doctrine of literal pre-existence believed in an ‘orthodox’ christology. That is, while the idea that the Son in some fashion or another literally pre-existed can be shown to go back very early, the idea that he is a dual-natured person, a spiritual being who became incarnate by taking on a full human nature with body and soul, is totally absent from this era- there is no precedent for orthodox christology during this era. Moreover, not only were literal pre-existence theories not in line with later orthodoxy in this era, they were also very diverse among themselves- there was no single or uniform idea of what it would mean or look like for Jesus to have pre-existed. Here, I want to briefly survey these different views of literal pre-existence we find early on.
‘Hotel christology’ is an amusing name one author gave to the christology of the Gnostic Cerinthus, which was also held by some Ebionites. The idea is, in short, that the man Jesus was indwelt or otherwise inhabited by the spiritual being ‘Christ’, who stayed within and worked through this man from the time of his baptism, until the passion, when this Christ departed from the man Jesus, leaving Jesus alone to suffer and die. Hippolytus sums up this view as follows:
Cerinthus, however, himself having been trained in Egypt, determined that the world was not made by the first God, but by a certain angelic power. And this power was far separated and distant from that sovereignty which is above the entire circle of existence, and it knows not the God (that is) above all things. And he says that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but that He sprang from Joseph and Mary as their son, similar to the rest of men; and that He excelled in justice, and prudence, and understanding above all the rest of mankind. And Cerinthus maintains that, after Jesus’ baptism, Christ came down in the form of a dove upon Him from the sovereignty that is above the whole circle of existence, and that then He proceeded to preach the unknown Father, and to work miracles. And he asserts that, at the conclusion of the passion, Christ flew away from Jesus, but that Jesus suffered, and that Christ remained incapable of suffering, being a spirit of the Lord.Refutation of All Heresies, 10.17
Of the Ebionites he notes “The Ebionaeans, however, acknowledge that the world was made by Him Who is in reality God, but they propound legends concerning the Christ similarly with Cerinthus and Carpocrates.” (7.22). While the Cerinthians and Ebionites of this christological stripe could affirm that Christ literally pre-existed, these views are obviously far from both trinitarian orthodoxy and from what the Bible teaches.
Holy Spirit Christology
In the early work The Shepherd of Hermas, which was written anywhere from the end of the first century to the middle of the second, we find little doctrinal discourse or detail on christology. But what we do find, is rather interesting. At first glance, we may think that the author held an orthodox christology:
The Son of God is older than all His creation, so that He became the Father’s adviser in His creation. Therefore also He is ancient.Parable 9
While this latter quote, taken on it’s own, may sound supportive of trinitarianism, we also read:
After I had written down the commandments and parables of the shepherd, the angel of repentance, he came to me and saith to me; “I wish to show thee all things that the Holy Spirit, which spake with thee in the form of the Church, showed unto thee. For that Spirit is the Son of God.Parable 9:1
Here we see that for the author of this work, the pre-existent Son of God and the Holy Spirit are one and the same person. Thus when we read a little later that the Son is ancient, and pre-existed, we know that what is meant by this is not orthodox christology. We find traces of this ‘Spirit christology’ later in Tertullian, and even into the fourth century. Here we have another example of belief in non-orthodox literal pre-existence early on.
Docetism is the term used to describe a brand of early gnostic christology which taught that Jesus Christ was not really a man, but only appeared to be a man. In this christology, a pre-existent spiritual being is identified with Jesus Christ, but at the total expense of Jesus’s humanity. This seems to have been the view of the famous Gnostic Marcion, and was likely at least partly motivated by the idea that the created world and matter are evil. Thus, the Docetists denied Christ’s humanity and real material body, in an endeavor to preserve him from such corruption.
Other Gnostic Views
Other Gnostic christologies frequently involved some form of belief in literal pre-existence, more than I wish to cover in detal here. Carpocrates held a view similar to that of Cerinthus described above; Valentinius taught that the Son was an emanation from the Father. While these provide us with more examples of belief in literal pre-existence within the first hundred years of Christianity, none provide us an example of anything that would be considered orthodox trinitarian christology, although later orthodoxy would in fact draw on the language and ideas of such gnostics in formulating its own doctrines of eternal generation and co-essentiality.
Logos Theorist Incarnation
The logos-theorists, like Justin Martyr, are frequently cited as early examples of Christian belief in literal pre-existence. This is understandable as it is their version of the doctrine which eventually won out over the others in the ante-nicene era, especially with the help of prominent apologists like Justin Martyr, and later, in a modified form, Origen. The christology of these early logos-theorists taught that God has begotten and created, as His first and greatest work, the Son, through whom God then created all else. As such, the Son was after the Father, not co-eternal, and was ontologically subordinate to Him. In this sense alone, the christology of the logos-theorists can be seen to bear no strong resemblance to orthodox christology, but rather to Arianism. But their view of the incarnation further separates them from orthodox views of pre-existence; for them, Jesus Christ was actually the Son of God incarnated- ‘incarnate’ literally meaning ‘enfleshed’ or ’embodied’. That is, in the view of the logos theorists, Jesus ‘became man’ not by taking on a full human nature in the sense later orthodox affirms, or by taking on a human body and soul, but only by taking on a human body: the idea being then, that a pre-existent spirit took on a human body through Mary, the spirit-being itself filling the place of the soul in Jesus. Thus these logos-theorists actually believed in a literal incarnation, or taking on of a body, by the pre-existent Son.
This view is problematic because arguably, by denying a human soul in Jesus, this view denies the real humanity of Jesus; this reasoning would result in later orthodoxy rejecting this literal incarnation christology as heretical.
This christology takes ‘the logos became flesh’ as ‘a spiritual being transformed into a human being’, much like modern JWs do. Rather than believing that a pre-existent spirit took on a body and filled the place of a soul, like the logos theorists, or that the spirit only appeared to be man, like the Docetists, the adherents of this christology affirmed the real and full humanity of Christ by holding that the pre-existent spirit became a man, by ceasing to be spirit; he went from being one thing, to being the other. We see what is quite possibly an early witness to this christology in the early pseudonymous 2 Clement, for instance:
If Christ the Lord who saved us, being first spirit, then became flesh, and so called us, in like manner also shall we in this flesh receive our reward.2 Clement 9:5
Note, the author says not ‘took on flesh’, but ‘became flesh’. Unlike orthodoxy dual-nature incarnation theory, this view did not involve the taking on a second nature alongside a first nature, but the transformation of a being from a fully-spirit being to a fully-human being. This too, then, provides no precedent for orthodox trinitarian christology.
In conclusion, while we find several early examples of belief in literal pre-existence of the Son, the forms this belief took in the first hundred years of Christianity varied widely from one another, and none of them match up with later ‘orthodox’ trinitarian christology. In surveying early theories of literal pre-existence, we find no one uniform view emerge within the first hundred years, but rather a plethora of competing and evolving theories which disagree with each other drastically, as speculation, both gnostic and philosophical, ran rampant in some quarters. No one theory out of these many options is able to stake a clear claim to having apostolic origin on the basis of the surviving historical record, or can claim on that basis to be the uniform and widespread tradition received by the whole church; not until Justin Martyr popularized his own logos-theorist christology do we find any one of these many competing theories emerge as the dominant theory.
Even then we find Justin’s theory presented by Justin himself not as a traditional view he has received from those before him, or as a view with which other ‘catholic’ Christians generally agree, but as his own reading of the scriptures, which disagrees with the majority of his fellow non-gnostic Christians, who reject literal pre-existence altogether:
“For there are some, my friends,” I said, “of our race, who admit that He is Christ, while holding Him to be man of men; with whom I do not agree, nor would I, even though most of those who have the same opinions as myself should say so; since we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself.”Dialogue With Trypho, 48
While speculation ran rampant among the educated elite and gnostics, we see the majority of believers held a simple faith in Jesus the Nazarene as a true man, miraculously begotten in Mary by God through the Holy Spirit, who is the Christ, or Messiah (anointed one), on account of being anointed by God with the Holy Spirit and with power. These early Christians must have understood that ‘Christ’ is a title of the man Jesus, not the name of a spiritual being who resided in Jesus; that Jesus is a man in reality, not merely in appearance; and that Jesus took his origin from God in Mary by the Holy Spirit, not as some pre-existent angel, spirit, or emanation of the Father.
“You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.”Acts 10:38 NASB