Gathercole’s The Preexistent Son: Excellent Exegesis, Transcendent Theology, and a Methodological Model

Gathercole, Simon. The Pre-Existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

In The Pre-Existent Son, British New Testament scholar, Simon Gathercole, makes a convincing exegetical argument for Christ’s pre-existence as the eternal Son of God in the synoptic gospels. As he puts it, “The really controversial point to be made in this book is that the preexistence of Christ—which he defines as ‘the life of the Son prior to his birth’—can be found in the Synoptic Gospels” (1, emphasis his). The significance of his research is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have been regarded by scholars as possessing a lower Christology than John, Hebrews, or Revelation. His aim is to argue against this notion and prove exegetically that the Synoptics possess a high Christology. His method is four-fold: 1) historically, he argues that Paul’s influence promoted pre-existence; 2) textually, the “I have come” + purpose statements indicate a heavenly preexistence; 3) theologically, he surveys the terrain of wisdom Christology; and 4) lexically, he examines four Christological titles (messiah, Lord, Son of man, Son of God) searching for evidence for pre-existence.

In Chapter 1, Gathercole aims to prove that preexistence was commonplace in early Christianity and should be “expected” in the writings of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. He appeals to Paul, the letter to the Hebrews, and Jude to make a simple background argument that the notion of preexistence was already extant. Continuing his background work in chapter 2, Gathercole “[offers] evidence that the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus as a transcendent, heavenly divine figure” (46). Appealing to the heaven-earth and Creator-creation distinctions found in these three books (47), Gathercole overwhelms the reader with evidence for Jesus transcendence and primes the pump for his next section.

Chapters 3-7 unfold the centerpiece of Gathercole’s argument. Chapter 3 introduces his thesis that the “I have come” + purpose statements are the primary evidence for pre-existence in the synoptic gospels. In chapters 4-6, Gathercole defends his thesis against potential defeaters. He summarizes on page 87:

  • None of the other scholarly options [i.e. the idiom of a prophet; merely an aramaic idiom, locative reference to Nazareth; simply the words of a leader] can be considered plausible (chapter 4).
  • The ‘I have come’ + purpose formula of the Gospels is most clearly, and most abundantly, paralleled in the announcement of angels of their comings from heaven (chapter 5)
  • The preexistence interpretation is confirmed by the content and literary context—in particular, the heavenly and dynamic features (chapter 6)

Gathercole denotes the similarities and differences between angelic visitations and Christ’s coming to earth in chapter 5.[1] Then in chapter 6, he posits a “new reading” of the “I have come” + purpose formula, basically asserting that the ‘cosmic scope’ (i.e. heaven to earth) and the ‘dynamic movement’ (i.e. the salvific intention to save, to ransom, to preach, etc) find their best understanding in the pre-existence of the Son (149ff). Gathercole adds support to his findings in Chapter 7 as he surveys those references which speak of Divine ‘sending.’ On their own, Gathercole does not think they constitute a belief in pre-existence, but taken together with the “I have come” + purpose statements, they add weight to the claim.

In section three (chapters 8-9), Gathercole critiques the prevalent notion today of wisdom Christology and argues from Matthew 23:37, a text with allusions to wisdom literature, that the Son of God is preexistent. Against wisdom Christology, he explains that the feminine, created, and anti-personal attributions of wisdom do not comport with the eternal, person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, wisdom cannot advocate pre-existence on its own, while doing justice to the New Testament vision of Jesus. Instead, Gathercole quotes Jesus words in Matthew, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how long I have desired to gather your children” (23:37), and shows how this quotation with its wisdom parallels attests to Jesus as “a trans-historical figure” (211-14).

Finally, in chapters 10-13, Gathercole considers whether the four titles—Messiah, Lord, Son of Man, Son of God—connote preexistence. Drawing particular attention to Luke 1:78, he asserts that “Messiah” in the Synoptics is more than simply royal, Davidic language; rather, like Melchizedek, the anointed one does not find his origin on earth—Jesus comes from heaven. Similarly, like YHWH in the OT, Jesus comes down to visit the earth.

Concerning the language of “Lordship,” he shows convincingly that OT references to YHWH are applied to Jesus and that instances of Father-Son conversation are heavenly court conversation. He concludes by asking if these evidences do not point to preexistence. From each gospel, Gathercole shows how the “Son of Man” is linked into the eternal purposes of redemption (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28; Luke 19:10). Moreover, in Matthew the predominate kingdom motif shows the son of man as an eternal king in conjunction with an eternal kingdom (6:10; 25:34). Finally, concerning “Son of God,” Gathercole shows how the age-old spiritual beings, Satan and his demons, and God himself address Jesus with knowledge that extends to the heavenly places. The former do this at the temptation and in direct confrontation; the latter does this at Jesus’ baptism and the transfiguration.

Overall, The Pre-existent Son presents the historic Christian position that Jesus of Nazareth existed eternally before he was born of the flesh. In this, it will find a sympathetic reading from Bible-believing Christians and will hopefully give academic skeptics something to chew on. The lasting value Gathercole’s work is not in anything novel or innovative, but in its painstaking and precise exegetical detail. It bolsters confidence in God’s word and shows attention to nuanced details of Scripture result in powerful presentations of doctrine. Likewise, his attention to the early Synoptics helps convince readers that the Christological doctrine of preexistence did not materialize later; it was always a part of the faith. In this way, Gathercole destroys any notion that preexistence is reserved for John and his gospel, while at the same time, he illustrates how high Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Christology really is. Moreover, Gathercole’s method of argumentation is exemplary. In his thorough treatment of the subject, our trans-Atlantic brother has shown us how to craft an argument and how exegetical-theological research ought to be done.

Selah.

After writing the book review, it hit me that as important as it is to consider arguments about pre-existence, it is more edifying and soul-enriching to consider the Pre-Existent One Himself. 

Dwelling on the One in whom the fullness of God dwelled bodily (Col. 2:9) enlarges the mind and quickens the heart.  It is far more spiritually salubrious that simply assessing theological polemics and regurgitating the thoughts of others.  For Christ’s Pre-existence means is truly unfathomable.  It is a truth that we can believe, but one we will never fully grasp.  He had no beginning.  God the Son is autotheos.  Thus, his incarnation is all the more majestic. 

So, as much as I am thankful for Gathercole’s treatment of the subject of Pre-Existence of the Incarnate Word, I am even more thankful for the almighty, omnipotent, indomitable truth that Jesus Christ (God in the flesh) existed from all eternity and coming into time, he has promised to be our eternal mediator to approach God the Father.  We can trust that because, he is eternally God, full of grace and truth, eternally powerful and able to save.

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


[1] For the record, Gathercole does not promote an angel-Christology. Rather, he cites their origin and their sender to demonstrate that like angels, Jesus Christ the Pre-existent Son of God is coming from heaven at the sending of the Father.

8 thoughts on “Gathercole’s The Preexistent Son: Excellent Exegesis, Transcendent Theology, and a Methodological Model

  1. I love how this title makes me slow down and read it and think hard about what it means. No quick title readers for Dave Schrock, he’ll get ya!…plus i liked the entry too

  2. Pingback: Review of Important Book Relevant for Two Powers in Heaven Study | Two Powers in Heaven

  3. Pingback: The Link 3.13.09: New Calvinism and Facebook Flaming « owen strachan

  4. I cannot imagine how the explicit words about Jesus from the angel Gabriel could possibly be understood to mean that Son existed before he began to exist (Luke 1:35). Begetting is a bringing into existence and it is amazing to contradict this simple idea. Gathercole’s Jesus is hardly the lineal descendant of David, since he is much older than David! Much better to believe the words of Matt 1:18, the genesis of the Son, and 1:20 that the Son was fathered in Mary. All this is quite easy and noncontroversial until the crippling power of the Nicean tradition interferes. James Dunn is so much better as an exegete of Luke and Matthew and their view of the Son of God as really human, with a beginning. Luke 1:35 refutes Gathercole nicely.

  5. Every now and then you will find a scholar who argues such things. That’s how NT scholarship works. In a field dominated by committed Christians some (a very few) will try and defend Jesus’ pre-existence in the synoptics. However we might await the critical reviews by other scholars. Interestingly, Gathercloe did his PhD under Jimmy Dunn who would certainly reject his former students theses (as would most scholars).

    Pre-existence does not indicate divinity. We are told in Hebrews that Melchizedek was “without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever” (7: 3).

  6. Anthony Buzzard: How does Lk. 1:35 or Mt. 1:18, 1:20 refute Gathercole? Jesus was born as a human but existed eternally as the Second Person of the Trinity.

    nazam: Gathercole is defendeing preexistence and you may not think that indicates Divinity but you aren’t dealing with His argumetns for preexistence. Melchizedek is used as a type of Christ Paul doesn’t really think that Melchizedek is preexistent. The discussion of Melchizedek is to indicate Christ’s eternal priesthood which exceeds the Aronic priesthood. And Hebrews clearly indicates Jesus as Divine.

  7. Neither Matthew and Luke have pre-existing language for Christ but Christi comes into existence when he is conceived.

    If one of Gathercole point is Jesus is God because Jesus pre-existed then it’s not an adequate point, which was the point I was making.

  8. Pingback: Preexistence in Luke? | Arianism Today

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s