Simon J. Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006. 344 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-8028-2901-5. $32.00.
This too is an important book. And it is a splendid success. Gathercole defends the concept of the preexistence of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels (the fourth gospel indisputably declares the eternality of the Son of God) in a meticulous exegesis which will cheer the hearts of all orthodox lovers of classic Christian Christology. And he does so with panache in the face of a scholarly consensus which long ago surrendered the doctrine of Christ's preexistence as the benighted notion of hopeless naifs. In stepladder fashion, Gathercole joins what he calls the "High Christology Club" of Richard Bauckham and Larry Hurtado which places Jesus "on God's side" of the eternal/temporal divide. The latter two have done so based on "early Christian" Christology (i.e., pre-70 A.D.), not the specific Christology of the Synoptic writers. Thus, Gathercole zeroes in on the Christology of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Gathercole is not discussing "nature" in this tour de force, only "existence" (1). In other words, he is not pursuing whether or not Christ shares in the divine nature (ousia) a la Nicene Christology (both pre- and post-), only whether the NT documents present a Jesus conscious of his own pre-adventual existence. One could, of course, argue that Jesus himself knew nothing of preexistence and was only 're-imaged' in this manner by the early Christian church. Here he summons NPP (New Perspective on Paul) guru, James D. G. Dunn, who in his book Christology in the Making denied any notion of Christ's preexistence to Paul and the Synoptic writers (cf. also pages 23-31 in the present study on Dunn's hostility to preexistence Christology in all but the Johannine literature). All Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment critical fundamentalism has rejected the doctrine: from Deism's rejection of supernaturalism per se; to rationalistic Kantianism's eschewing of the possibility of noumenal/phenomenal incarnation; to 19th century German Idealism and its romanticization of the 'God-likeness' of Jesus; to the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule ("History of Religion School") which affirms preexistence, but only as borrowed from Iranian or Hellenistic mystery religions (Richard Reitzenstein and William Bossuet) or Gnostic 'Redeemer myths' (Rudolf Bultmann). Gathercole boldly intends to prove "that the preexistent, heavenly Son (seen in his radiant glory in the transfiguration) is the very person who is sent by the Father into the world to be crucified by humankind and to give his life as a ransom for many" (20).
Gathercole bases his demonstration on a detailed exegesis of the "I have come sayings" in Matthew (5:17; 8:29; 9:13; 10:34-35; 20:28), Mark (1:24, 38; 2:17; 10:45) and Luke (4:34, 43; 5:32; 12:49-51; 19:10). As it is self-evident to any unbiased reader, such statements presuppose "preexistence Christology" (Part II of his study, 83-189). He then dismisses the theory that Christian preexistence Christology is derived from Jewish Wisdom Christology (193-227), an origin popular with 20th century existentialists such as Bultmann and his disciples. Finally (Part IV of his stepladder, 231-83), he reviews insights relative to this matter derived from the Christological titles: Messiah (231-42), Lord (243-52), Son of Man (253-71), Son of God (272-83).
In conclusions reminiscent of the earlier work of Geerhardus Vos in his monumental The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (1926)of which Gathercole appears to be sadly unawareour author details the titles of the pre-temporal origins of the person owning/possessing those titles. As such, the Christological titles augur a "High-Christology-Club" Jesus! This is an altogether refreshing endorsement that the pre-critical (i.e., pre-Enlightenment) church did not invent the high Christology endemic to Apostolic, Patristic, Medieval and Reformation Christianity. As an old saw observed, the further back you go to the self-consciousness of the chief actor in the drama (namely, Jesus himself), the more evident it is that the high Christology is coincident with the Nazarene himself. True, any of Gathercole's conclusions about the meaning of the titles descriptive of Jesus' preexistent self-consciousness could have arisen from a classic book on Christian dogmatics (systematic theology). But as systematics is dependent on careful exegesis of the Biblical text, Gathercole has vindicated historic Christian orthodoxy at this point with an up-to-date and exacting exegesis of the Synoptic texts. Hence, for readers of this journal, he supplements the work of Vos noted above by bringing us up to speed with Bultmann, Macquarrie, Pannenberg, Dunn, Murphy O'Connor and a host of other modern and postmodern figures.
In a brief concluding zinger, he argues that "the ditch often assumed between the Synoptic Gospels and the Fourth Gospel is not as ugly as many think" (295). Perhaps, Gathercole can help the higher critical (fundamentalist) world to just 'get over it!', i.e., G. E. Lessing's notorious ugly ditch. Wouldn't that be a relief to all lovers of objective truth! Select postmodernists are already ridiculing the chasm Lessing dredged between 'reality' and 'unreality' (i.e., 'imagination', 'faith', 'belief', 'superstition'whatever!!). Regardless of the larger philosophical implications of this remark, Gathercole has served the orthodox and believing church heroically. Now, if he will just expand this book to consider the relation between preexistent existence and preexistent nature, we may yet have an up-to-date tour de force supportive of classic, orthodox two-nature (i.e., Nicene and Chalcedonian) Christology.
James T. Dennison, Jr.