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Literal and Notional Pre-existence:

Crossroads for the Incarnation Debate

by Sean Finnegan (




The prologue of John’s Gospel (John 1.1-18) is for millions the defining text on Christology.  Yet there are as many different interpretations of the passage as there are verses.  The three major interpretations are orthodox, Arian, and Socinian.  The traditional orthodox view (more than 90% of Christians) says that God the Son became a man, yet without giving up his Deity.  The Arian belief (subscribed to by Jehovah’s Witnesses) is that Michael the archangel became human.  The Socinian position (believed by the writer) is that the divine plan and action of God was expressed when Jesus was born and that before his birth he did not exist other than in the mind of God. 

Before moving on, it is important to define a few terms:

incarnation[1] :  the event in which the word became flesh
notional pre-existence:  the Son pre-existed in the mind of the Father as a notion
literal pre-existence:  the Son literally pre-existed as a conscious divine being

It is my intention to outline and critique the traditional view of literal pre-existence and then to present the Socinian idea of notional pre-existence.  But before I do either, one must understand the importance of this issue.  Historically there has been resistance to any discussion about the incarnation.  Thousands have been excommunicated,  persecuted, and in some cases even executed because they have dared to question the traditional view.  Even during the time of the Reformation when many were questioning the authority of the Catholic Church there was little tolerance for inquiry.

In 1521 Melanchthon expressed a view that was typical of his day in his first edition of the Loci Communes, “It were more fitting to adore the mysteries of the Godhead than to inquire into them; for this can not be attempted without great peril, as holy men have more than once found out…There is no reason why we should pay much attention to the profoundest subjects about God, his unity, his trinity.  What, pray, have scholastic theologians in all the centuries gained by dealing with these subjects alone?[2] ”  This sentiment is typical of the resistance that has historically challenged free thinkers.  Surprisingly, even today the Incarnation is not open for free conversation or analysis.  The paradox of the traditional understanding of the Incarnation has been well stated by the popular saying, “if I try to understand it, I’ll lose my mind; if I don’t believe it, I’ll lose my soul.”  It has been asserted by some that it is arrogant to assume that anyone could understand God and His nature.  He is infinite, all-powerful, and awesome while we are limited, impotent, and small.  I agree that it is impossible to understand God in His entire splendor yet it stands to reason that if He desires for us to believe in the Incarnation, then He would have equipped us with sufficient intellect to do so.  As Maurice Wiles elegantly put it, “I am not claiming that one ought to be able perfectly to fathom the mystery of Christ’s being before one is prepared to believe.  We do not after all fully understand the mystery of our own or one another’s beings.  But when one is asked to believe something which one cannot even spell out at all in intelligible terms, it is right to stop and push the questioning one stage further back.  Are we sure that the concept of an incarnate being, one who is both fully God and fully man, is after all an intelligible concept?[3] ”  Certainly an investigation into this subject is warranted.

The next question to ask is, “What profit can be gained by focusing on the issues surrounding the Incarnation?”  In order to answer this question it may be helpful to see the consequences of getting it wrong. According to Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, “It is simple truth to say that, if Jesus be not God, Christians are idolators, for they worship One who is not God.  There is no other alternative.[4] ” Furthermore, one’s view of the incarnation will necessarily affect the way other Scripture is interpreted.  For example, “The common belief that Philippians 2.6-11 starts by speaking of Christ’s pre-existent state and status and then of his incarnation is, in almost every case, a presupposition rather than a conclusion, a presupposition which again and again proves decisive in determining how disputed terms within the Philippian hymn should be understood.[5] ”  The interpretations of dozens of texts hang in the balance.  We must determine our position on the Incarnation or else we may end up with “another Jesus” (2 Corinthians 11.4).  I contend that the entire system of literal pre-existence should be examined in order to determine if it fits the data of Scripture.


“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14). The incarnation is the event in which the word became flesh.  The traditional view has been that belief in the Incarnation of the literally pre-existent Son is required for salvation.  St. Anselm of Canterbury argued in his Cur Deus Homo? that atonement cannot be made unless it was by a God-man.[6]   “The fact on which the whole of the Christian religion depends is therefore the fact that Jesus Christ is both God and man.[7] ”  Certainly this issue is one that carries with it weighty consequences. 



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[1]Throughout this paper I will distinguish between the two types of incarnation as follows: 
Incarnation = the pre-existent Son became flesh. 
incarnation = the creative influence and plan of God became flesh.
[2]Melanchthon, Loci, 102-105.
[3] Maurice Wiles, The Myth of God Incarnate: Christianity without Incarnation? ed. John Hick (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press), 5.
[4] James Hastings, ed. Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, Trinity by J. F. McCurdy (New York: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 950.
[5]James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1980), 114.
[6] St. Anselm, Cur Deus Homo? II.6.
[7]James Hastings, ed. Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, Incarnation by J. H. Maude (New York: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001), 379.

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