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The glory which I had in your presence
One of the texts commonly brought in support of the idea that Jesus personally preexisted his human life is found at John 17:5. There Jesus prays to the Father: “So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” But I am not sure that this text is really such a help to catholic theology as it is commonly assumed. Here is my argument.
Suppose we read this text as implying that Jesus personally enjoyed a certain glory in the presence of the Father prior to his becoming human. Call this the “preexistence reading.” The fact that Jesus is asking to be glorified now with that glory from back then implies that he had lost it in the meantime. After all, there is no sense in asking for something which you already have. You can always ask for more of what you presently have, as one might have water in one’s cup but ask for more of it, but that is not the way Jesus speaks in this passage. He asks to be glorified, not to be further glorified. What is more, John the evangelist even says explicitly that Jesus had not been glorified prior to his crucifixion (John 7:39; cf. 17:4, 19:30). Thus, there is no avoiding the conclusion that Jesus is asking for glory when he does not have any. If we read this text in such a way as to imply that Jesus personally preexisted his human life, we must therefore also draw the conclusion that in becoming incarnate he had lost the glory which he personally enjoyed with the Father prior to the creation of the world.
Anyone who knows catholic theology can appreciate that this reading produces theologically unacceptable consequences. For the Son to lose his glory upon becoming incarnate would imply that the Son is mutable, i.e. can undergo change, an idea which was anathematized at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The catholic idea, to the contrary, is that Christ does not cease to be immutably God in becoming human. As Hilary of Poitiers writes, “He does not cease to be God because He becomes man, nor fail to be man because He remains for ever God” (On the Trinity 9.3). If that is the case, then whatever glory may have belonged to Christ prior to his human life in virtue of his consubstantiality with the Father could not have been lost upon his becoming incarnate. He would still have it. And yet there would be no sense in Christ’s asking for that glory at John 17:5 if he still had it and indeed could not in principle lose it. This text therefore cannot be reconciled with catholic orthodoxy.
In my opinion, Jesus speaks about having glory with God prior to the existence of the world in the same way that God tells Abraham that he has been made an ancestor of many nations before any of his children were born (Gen. 17:5), or just as the elect are said to have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and thus before they themselves existed (Eph. 1:4), or just as Jesus is described as the lamb slain from the foundation of the world even though he only died much later than that (Rev. 13:8). Call this the “predestination reading.” This is the language of predestination. Whatever is predestined by God can be spoken of as actual even before it happens in reality, just as one might say that one football team has won the game even before time runs out because it is impossible for the other team to prevent their victory. It is spoken of as actual because it is as good as actual, being guaranteed by God’s providence. Thus, when Jesus speaks of “having” glory with God before the world existed, he means to refer to God’s predestined plan to glorify him. Jesus “had” that glory with God in the sense that God has always had in mind to glorify Jesus in the way he is asking for.
This reading is arguably supported in context. Just before these words in v. 5, Jesus prays: “I glorified you on earth by finishing (τελειώσας) the work that you gave me to do” (17:4). And yet Jesus has not yet died on the cross to take away the sins of the world. From the cross, as he is dying, he says: “It is finished” (Τετέλεσται; 19:30). He thus speaks about something that strictly speaking hasn’t happened yet as though it has already happened because it is sure to happen. There is consequently nothing out of place with suggesting that the same thing is happening in v. 5. There Jesus speaks of having glory with the Father before the existence of the world, not because he was personally preexistent, but rather because his glorification was predestined by God from the absolute beginning. He can speak about his possessing this glory as a fact even prior to its obtaining because it was predestined and thus guaranteed to happen.
Suppose one is not convinced by this reading. That is fine; people can disagree about these things. But it seems to me clear that the text at John 17:5 lends no support at all to the orthodox catholic doctrine of Christ’s preexistence, according to which the Son does not cease to be God in becoming human. To the contrary, if it is read with an eye to Christ’s preexistence, this text would rather teach that the Son had lost the glory which he had with the Father prior to becoming human, which would imply that the Son is mutable and lesser than the Father, contrary to the Council of Nicaea. Thus, even if one does not accept the predestinarian reading, it is clear that the preexistence reading is unacceptable for the person committed to catholic orthodoxy.