“Preexistence” is an awkward word. It looks like it needs a hyphen (pre-existence) or a diaeresis (preÃ«xistence). Plus, the “pre” in preexistence begs to be clarified:
Insurance Agent: Do you have any pre-existing conditions?
Patient: Yes. Wait. I have a condition, and it exists.
Insurance Agent: So does it preexist?
Patient: Well, if it preexists, wouldn’t that mean it doesn’t exist yet? That it’s in a state previous to existence? Like “pre”-mature is before maturity?
Insurance Agent: (pause) Do you have a preexisting condition?
Patient: No, my condition is already in existence.
Insurance Agent: What I mean is, does your condition exist prior to your buying this insurance policy?
Patient: Oh, I see. Yes, my condition already exists previous to buying the policy.
Insurance Agent: Okay, we can deal with that. Will this be prepaid?
Patient: Yes. Wait. Aren’t we already previous to payment? If I pay now, won’t that make me postpaid?
In Christian theology, the “pre” in the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ is a reference to his incarnation, which is what he exists pre. Previous to the Word becoming flesh (John 1:14) by taking on human nature, the person Jesus Christ already was. Admittedly, it’s odd to call this person “Jesus Christ” before his birth in Bethlehem and his receiving a human name (Jesus) and title (Messiah, Christ), but we have to call him something, and “unincarnate Logos” is just not warm enough. When Paul calls him this (“have the same mind as was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God…” Phil. 2:5-6), he’s using the kind of shorthand we use when we say, “The sixteenth president of the United States was born in this cabin.” At the time he was born, of course, he wasn’t the sixteenth president of the USA, he was a mewling infant. And before Abe Lincoln was a mewling infant, he was nothing, unless you want to count as preexistence such things as a twinkle in his father’s eye, or the plan for Lincoln in the foreknowing mind of God.
Unlike Abe Lincoln, Jesus Christ was somebody before he was the mewling infant of the first Christmas.
That Christ preexisted Christmas is easy to see and easy to say. It’s also relatively easy to find in scripture (see Simon Gathercole’s forthcoming book The Pre-Existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) ; and it’s easy to see that failing to affirm preexistence leaves you ill-equipped to think about other biblical doctrines like the incarnation, the Trinity, and the atonement (see Douglas McCready’s recent book, He Came Down From Heaven: The Preexistence of Christ and the Christian Faith). Arguments can be made for this doctrine, arguments I find compellingly persuasive.
But this is a doctrine which is not properly handled if it becomes the object of mere argumentation. Preexistence may be easy to say, but that one little syllable, “pre,” is a quantum leap from Here to There, from time to eternity. Before you have finished saying that syllable you have left behind everything measurable and manageable. Culling Bible verses and framing arguments about them is all well and good, but once you’ve followed their trail to the place where you confess, with the Christian church of all ages, the preexistence of Christ, you have framed a thought which is too large to keep on the shelf with your other thoughts.
This doctrine, more than most, calls for poetic treatment. It is rarely discussed, even by its defenders, with the sheer awe which it merits. There are a few Christmas hymns which rise to the occasion, but only a few to add the needed depth to the season which invites meditation on the incarnation. What this doctrine needs is not demonstration so much as imagination. It needs to be imagined.
There is one writer who had the poetic gift to take up the doctrine of preexistence and subject it to a thorough imagining. Frederick W. Faber (1814-1863) was a great writer with keen insight into spiritual things. He stuffed his head with rigorous systematic theology (Roman Catholic stuff in Latin) and then set himself to dream and sing. Late in his life he undertook a series of books on the most significant events of Christ’s life, and in the volume on Christ’s early life, entitled Bethlehem,
he devotes a chapter to the eternal life that preceded the birth of Jesus Christ. The chapter is called “The Bosom of the Father,” and I think that for all its flaws it is the single most stunning evocation of the meaning of preexistence that I have ever read. Maybe Karl Barth gets close to this in terms of stateliness and gravity, but Faber’s poetic sensibility lets him go places a Barth would never go.
I mentioned flaws, and two may be worth being alert to in advance. This is from 1860, and Faber was a bit of an aesthete with a taste for overmuch decoration. His style is, as he might say, redolent of sesame and lily, and if you can’t handle that sort of thing even for such a great doctrinal and devotional payoff, you’d probably better steer clear. But if you stick with him through the too-precious purple passages that don’t quite work, you’ll see that his high-wire style delivers enough surprising and irreplaceable phrases to justify the risk. Second, Faber is Catholic, Roman Catholic, very very Roman Catholic, probably more Roman Catholic than the Pope. He converted with JH Newman in the great Tractarian debacle of 1845. Most of what he writes is Mere Christian, but sometimes his Roman accent gets pretty thick, and he doesn’t flinch from putting his sectarian Roman commitments right on the front burner. Again, if you’re the kind of reader who can’t get over that even to increase the odds on imagining preexistence, please save yourself the ulcer and move along.
Without further ado, then, here is this blog’s longest quotation ever: several pages of Frederick W. Faber’s “The Bosom of the Father,” from the book Bethlehem. Bookmark it and read it next Christmas if you can’t read it now. And imagine preexistence.
St. Joseph is kneeling by the Child in the Cave of Bethlehem. Let us draw near, and kneel there with him, and follow his thoughts afar off. It is but an hour since that Babe was born into the world, and gladdened Mary’s eyes with the divine consolations of his Face. It is but nine months since he was incarnate in the inner room at Nazareth. Yet neither Nazareth nor Bethlehem were his beginnings. He was eternal years old the moment he was born. Time, which had already lived through such long cycles, and had perhaps endured through huge secular epochs before the creation of man, was younger by infinite ages than the Babe of Bethlehem. The creation of the angels, with the beauty and exultation of their first graces, the orderly worship of their hierarchies, their mysterious trial, the dreadful fall of one-third of their number, and Michael’s battle with the rebels, lie dim and remote beyond the furthest mists of human history. Yet the Babe of Bethlehem is older far than that. Indeed, it was around him that all angelic history was grouped. He was at once their Creator and the pattern after which they were created, the fall of those who fell, and the perseverance of those who stood. Hereafter he will spend a three years’ Ministry in Galilee and among the towns of Judah and Benjamin; yet, in truth, all the history of man’s world, from the times of paradise to the hour of the Immaculate Conception, had been his Ministry. He preached before the flood. He gave his benediction to the tents of the patriarchs. He imparted grace, and saved souls, and wrought miracles in Jewry and in heathendom, for some thousands of years. But now by the sand-glasses of men he is one hour old.
This one of the heavenly bodies, which we tenant, was created to be as it were the garden, the Eden, of his Incarnation; and he adorned it in his love before Adam, the first copy of him, lived among its Asiatic shades. Perhaps it lay for ages in the glad sunshine, solitary, silent, in beautiful desolation, and he took complacence in the adorning of it. He loved perchance to see its beauty ripen, rather than to rise up at once complete. Continents sank slowly at his will, and new oceans rolled above their mountain-tops or elevated steppes. New lands rose out of the bosom of the deep. Floras of marvellous foliage waved in the sun, and the wisdom and the joy of the Babe of Bethlehem was in them. Faunas, strange, gigantic, terrible, possessed the waters and the land, of his fashioning, and for the delight of his glory. The central fires wrought beautifully and delicately the metals and the gems which were for the altars of the Babe of Bethlehem, for the tiara of his Vicar, or the chasubles of his priests. The rocks and marbles ripened on the planet, as the fruits ripen on a tree; and the Babe, the Wisdom of the Father, disported himself in the vast operation, the pacific uniformity, and the magnificent slowness of his own laws. The grandeur of those huge-leaved trees, the unwieldy lives of those extinct monsters, the loveliness of now sunken lands, were all for him who has just now been born in Bethlehem, and were not only for him, but were also his own doing.
Bethlehem then was not his first home. We must seek him in an eternal home, if indeed he be older than the angels, the eldest-born of creatures. The dark cave within and the moonlit slope without are not like the scenery of his everlasting home. He is the Eternal Word. He is the first Word ever spoken, and he was spoken by God, and he is in all things equal to him by whom he was spoken. He was uttered from eternity, uttered without place to utter him in, without sound accompanying the utterance, and the Father who uttered him, or rather who is forever uttering him, is not prior to the Word he utters. His home has no scenery, no walls, no shape, no form, no color, no spot which can be loved with a local love. It is not in space, nor in imaginary space, nor within the world, nor at the world’s edge, nor beyond it. It is the Bosom of the Father. It is amid the unlocalized fires of the Godhead. There, in the white light, inaccessible through the brilliance of its whiteness, we confusedly discern the magnificence of a Divine Person. He is unbegotten. He is not a word whom any one could utter; for there is no one to utter him, and he is besides adorably unutterable. He is not a Breath breathed forth of divine love; for there were none whose mutual love could breathe him forth, and he is besides adorably unproceeding. The Word expresses him, not because he utters him, but because he is uttered by him. The Holy Spirit is his fiery Breath, the Breath of the Father and the Son, coequal with them both, but with no procession from his blessed Self. This Divine Person, whom we confusedly discern, is like a Fountain, a fountain of golden light flowing with uncreated waters. Yet the Fountain is not a fountain without its waters, and the waters are coeval with the Fountain. Out of him flows the Son; from him and from his Word proceeds the Holy Ghost, all coequal, coeternal, consubstantial. Yet he is the First Person, and gloriously without superiority or precedence. He is the sole Fountain of Godhead, yet it is the very glory of the Fountain that its double streams are coequal with itself. He in his adorable sublimity is the unsent inseparable Companion of the Two Divine Persons who are sent and who send themselves. Him, without figure, we picture to ourselves amid those unlocalizable fires. Him, without images, we discern in the breathlessness of our far-seeing faith. Him, without light, we behold in the darkness of his blinding majesty. Him, in his outstretched immensity, we compass in the fondness of our adoring love. Him, in his nameless incomprehensibility, we sweetly understand in the knowledge that we are his sons. His Bosom, an abyss of unfathomable beauty, the shrine of unruffled peace, the furnace of the divine beatitude, is the home of the Babe of Bethlehem, his only native place.
Unbeginning is the life in that paternal Bosom. Yet what do we mean by unbeginning? It is a thought we cannot think, too real a reality to be other than a mere word to finite creatures like ourselves. It is good to try to stretch ourselves to its height and breadth; for there is no rest equal to the weariness that comes of striving to embrace the thought of God. In that Bosom the Divine Person, who is the Babe of Bethlehem, was born, who yet never began to be born, and has never done being born. Never was the Unbegotten Father with the unborn son. Unbegotten and eternally begotten! what but faith shall distinguish between the two? –faith, or the vision which is faith’s crown hereafter. As there never was a time when the Son was yet unborn, so can there never be a time when he will cease being born. It is in eternity, and not in time, that his inexplicable Generation finds room. He proceeds from the Father by way of generation. He proceeds from the understanding of the Father. He is the Father’s understanding of himself, or rather he is produced by it. He is the expression of all the Father’s perfections. He is not merely the similitude of the Father, because he is something more. He is consubstantial with him. Yet he is not identical with the Father, because he is a distinct Person from him. The Father knows himself, and by his knowledge of himself the Son is born amid the splendors of uncreated holiness, amid the inconceivable jubiliations of the divine perfections. Thus the Generation of the Son is not a mystery done and over. It was not an event at some remote point before ever time was. That which is eternal must always be going on. That which can end must have begun. We must be careful therefore always to bear in mind that the coequal, coeternal Son is ever being begotten in the Bosom of the Father, at this moment as well as from forever. There was no moment when he was not begotten, no moment when he is not being begotten, no place through all the amplitudes of omnipresence in which his eternal Generation is not forever going on, close to us, or far away from us, outside us in outward space, inside us in the noiseless centre of our souls. Yet nowhere is the silence broken by that stupendous utterance of the Father. The omnipresent Word does not so much as vibrate on the air, when he rushes forth with the irresistible might of the Godhead. The clangor of his omnipotence is unheard. His all-embracing light coruscates through the quiet night, and the darkness remains calm and still, like the plumage of a sleeping bird. Oh, how can we ever find a home where we are out of sight and hearing of that Utterance of the Father? See how the spirits of angels and the blessed souls of men throng in, all day and night, to witness that eternal utterance, to bathe in its beatific light, and to be enchanted with its spiritual sound! This is the true birth of that Babe of Bethlehem, forever older than the hill on which Bethlehem is built, forever younger than the blossom of the wild thyme which opened its pink eye this morning on the greensward where the sheep were lying when the angels sang in heaven.
Unutterably blessed is the life within that Bosom of the Father. For while the Father is forever uttering his eternal Word, he and the Word are forever breathing forth the Holy Ghost, the uncreated fire of their mutual love and boundless jubilee, a Person distinct from themselves, yet as it were the bond of the Two, coequal, coeternal with them, the Term of God, the Limit of the Illimitable, so that God, penetrating his whole creation, is not commingled nor confused with things. Such are the immutable necessities of the Divine Life, the inevitable uncreated productions of its understanding and its will, the twofold pulse of Generation and Procession, the beating Heart of that exhaustless sea of Being, with Persons more distinct than any distinctions among creatures, and yet with a Unity which transcends all the identities of earth. Who can think of such a sanctuary, and yet not tremble with excess of love? Who can fix his eye of prayer upon it, and yet not tremble with excess of fear, lest haply he should miss of its unending vision? It was in that deep recess of an incalculable eternity that the Babe of Bethlehem dwelt, before he vouchsafed to take visible possession of the Cave of Bethlehem. It is there that we must seek his beginnings, which began not: it is thence we must date the pedigree of the Eternal, who has no ancestry: it is in the light of that darkness that we must search Bethlehem and Nazareth, Egypt and the Wilderness, to learn the mysteries of that mortal Childhood of the Eternal Word. Deep in our souls can we not see the Bosom of the Father? Yet it is beautiful beyond thought, adorable beyond the stretch of created spirit. Created things give us no parallels: they furnish us with no images: the poetry of earth is but a distraction: the definitions of the faith only catch us as we fall. Yet somehow we see that Bosom of the Father deep within ourselves, and it is familiar to us as a household sanctuary. We know that with all its immeasurable capacity of the divine life it is actually within ourselves, and we hold our breath, and seem to faint away upon it in sweetest trance of helpless love.
What manner of life was it which the Word led in the Bosom of the Father? It was a creatureless life. There were no creatures, except in the purposes and decrees of the divine mind, and in the inexhaustible storehouses of the divine wisdom. God had always determined to create, because he was always love, and love craved more room, if we may dare so to speak of him who is infinitely self-sufficient, for the exuberant generosity of his justice as well as for the incredible fertility of his wisdom. It is the justice of creation which makes it so loving a mystery. Time is an old creation, the most ancient of all creations. We look upon the myriads of many-circled ages, as on a vast ocean, which stretches out of sight, and is lost in the haze on the horizon when the angels came into being, together with the elements of the material creation. Yet the furthest age spends its billows on the shore of time, infinitely short of the creatureless life of the Word in the Bosom of the Father. The Ages seemed like a help to the comprehension of the Unbeginning; but they play us false, and only puzzle us the more. How can life be otherwise than indescribable to us creatures who live on matter and know by images, when it was a life without world, without time, without place, without motion, without fixedness, without parallels, without comparisons, without similitudes, almost without shadows? Only in each vast department of creation, in each huge epoch of time, part of the shadow of that divine life lies for our tracing; yet, like a village at the mountain-foot, all creation lies in the shadow, but the shadow of the peak overshoots it, and is cast far beyond. Its bliss was inits unity; but, unlike created unities, it was free from the imperfection of solitude. It was the simplicity of one boundless life in the pacific jubilant companionship of Three distinct Persons. There was no hierarchy among the Persons; so that the imperfection of superiority did not attach to the Father any more than the infirmity of subordination to the Holy Ghost or to the Son. The distinctness of the Persons only enhanced the unity of the Godhead, because the Persons were unspeakably coequal.
It was a life of infinite complacency. God rested in himself. In himself his infinity was satisfied. The immensity of his own perfections lay before him, and he traversed them, so to speak, with his blessed understanding. To know himself infinite by his infinite knowledge was to be infinitely blissful. The imperfection of our human words is such that we cannot speak of God without seeming to divide him. We must therefore bear the adorable simplicity of God in mind, while we thus discourse of the abysses of his divine life. It cannot be too often repeated that God has not several attributes, nor even one: but he is simply God. He is not different from his perfections, nor are his perfections, strictly speaking, different from each other. He is himself infinite perfection in manifold simplicity. He is what he is, a simple act, God. But we may conceive of him as thus reposing in unutterable tranquility upon his knowledge of himself. We may imagine all his perfections to which theology has given cognizable names. Each one of them would give out to us multiplied, or rather immeasurable, wisdom, many sciences, many divine theologies, many rapturous contemplations. There were oceans of his own being in whose deeps he could become divinely entranced. The very comprehension of himself, which no possible creature could share, was in itself unutterable bliss. There are also doubtless many perfections in him for which our created natures furnish no analogies, and for which therefore we have no name; and each of these was a fresh infinity for the embrace of his jubilant self-comprehension. The simplicity of act, which characterized this illimitable self-comprehension, was most of all a delight beyond our imaginations. Here we must worship, for we must cease to reason or portray. Even thought here is silent and formless. The confused thought of God must fill our vacant minds. There is more light in the indistinctness of that thought than in the clearest demonstrations of human science.
The life in the Bosom of the Father was also a life of love, but of such love as passes our limited comprehension. Even created love is a very world of delights, and in one or other of its many departments it is the sunshine of life. It can bear the pressure of time, and not give way. It can outlive wrong. It is mightier than death. It can change darkness to light. But, if love has all these prerogatives among men, where it is so debased by its alliances with matter, how grand must be its empire among the pure and intellectual angels! With what spotless fires must it not burn in their magnificent intelligences! How many nameless species of transcending love must not t hose various species of glorious spirits know! We can hardly picture to ourselves angelic love, except as something fabulously bright and inexpressibly wonderful. We can think of the love of a Seraph as all fire, the love of a Cherub as resplendent light, or the love of a Throne as deepest living peace, stability and force combined; for it is to the choir of Thrones that God has given the most special communication of his attribute of eternity. But what can we think of the angelic life of a thousand loves, so various because of their numbers and their kinds, so simple because of the uncomplicated excellence of their keen intelligence? Yet all this is nothing to the love in the life of God. It is an emanation from it, but infinitely diluted, a shadow of it, yet not only faint and faithless, but fragmentary and partial also.
Who can ever dream of the love of the Father and the Son? Who can see in the depth of his mind, even far down among the thoughts which lie too deep for words, how that Love proceeds from them both for evermore? It is a procession of Uncreated Fire, the outrolling of an Uncreated Ocean, our-rolled beyond Themselves, yet within the Bosom of the Godhead. It is a jubilee with none to hear, the soundless thunder of eternal bliss beating on an immaterial shore. It is, or rather he is, a Divine Person, coequal with the Father and the Son, a persoon of unimaginable beauty, of incomprehensible sanctity, and of incomparable congizable distinctness from the Other Two, who cease not, and by necessity cannot cease, from actively breathing him forth for evermore. What companionship also is there in that love! What exultation in the completion of the Godhead, which never was incomplete, never without its complement in that Third Person, never unlimited, but always illimitably what it is! Then, while the Holy Ghost is produced by the love of the Father and the Son, there are the loves of all the Three Divine Persons for each other, those twice three loves which are the six pulses of the unity of God. Each Person has two loves, in his love for the other Two; and each of the two loves of each of the Three Persons is simply a boundless world of life, of wisdom, and of jubilation. What then must the one love be, the single simple divine love, which is the union of all these? Could any thing less adorably profound, less unimaginably capacious than an illimitable Trinity of Persons contain the vast waters of such an uncreated sea of love, or any thing less omnipotently simple than the Divine Unity hold without breaking the everlasting pacific tempests of such tremendous and impetuous love?
What words we have heaped together! Yet we may hope it has not been altogether without ideas. It is one of the thoughts beneath whose broad shadow all the nations of the earth may gather and sit musing, that, while the sun is shining, or the moon silvering the woods, or the noontide being lulled to sleep by its own fragrances, or the river lapsing down to the sea through tuneful groves and over cattle-spotted plains, this wonderful divine life is going on everywhere, close to us and far off, in our own country and in other lands, far above the empyrean heaven and down in our own souls. It is a thought to make us very grave, that this life of God holds us like a hand, penetrates us like a sword, and knows nothing of the space which gives us room or of the time which is flowing above our heads. As it has been from all eternity, so it is now. It has found no new place. Creation has not in any way displaced it. It has undergone no modification. It has acquired nothing, experienced nothing. Its ungrowing magnificence is ever fresh as the dawn, ever new as the first creation. It is always the same, yet never monotonous. Illimitably outspread beyond all imaginary space, it is full, complete, intense, in every point of space, at every point of time. A paradise of intellectual delights, a boundless fire of uncreated loves, an ocean of glad, wise, resistless being, it is glorious in its liberty, and glorious in the grandeur of its necessities. It is a silence of amazing colloquies, a sanctuary of restful joys, a life of omnipotent and omnipresent simplicity, a unity of Three distinct adorable Persons. Surely all creation is not as a feather in comparison of this. How little, by the side of this awful majestic life, are all he schemes of men, how paltry their interests! How tame and tiresome seem the political revolutions of earth, the greatest discoveries of science, the most golden epochs of literature, when we think of this omnipresent life of God! All human joys appear but like the bursting of the foambells on the crest of the wave, and all human sorrows but as the sighing of the night-wind in the distant wood; and yet this vast life of God compasses both the sorrows and the joys with tranquillest, watchfullest, minutest love. But to us they should seem even smaller than they seem to God, because the thought of the Infinite dwarfs all things in our sight, and ourselves also in our own estimation.
What a wonderful permission to us is the permission to love God! What then shall we say, when we consider that we ourselves are to be admitted to the sight and enjoyment of this life of God? It is the very end for which we were created. Nay, more: we ourselves have been in some sense, as we shall see presently, part of that divine life. We have been known and loved, up in those regions of eternity, in those boundless tracts of uncreated being, before the birth of time; and it is our very destination to enter into the joy of that exulting life, to see God as he is, and to live in endless companionship with him. It is our incredible bliss to be allowed to add one spark more to that glory, the outward glory, of that blessed majesty. We can be one flash of lightning more round the immensity of his throne, one additional coruscation in the intolerable radiance of the merciful crown which he vouchsafes to wear. Infinitely little as we are, we are –and it is our joy of joys to be so– a fresh exercise to him of his irresponsible sovereignty. We are large enough to catch the light of his justice, and be another place for it to shine upon. His mercy can beautifully reflect itself even in the shallows of our tiny souls. We can lie upon the shore of that exulting life, and shine and glow and murmur while its bright waters wash over us forever. Oh, beautiful destiny of men! how happy is our present, our future how much happier! How happy is our worship! how happy even the very fear with which we work out a salvation so magnificent and so divine!