A Few Scriptural Issues with Socinianism
By David Barron
Socinianism is a belief system traced back to the 14th century, wherein a key principle included the denial of Jesus Christ’s preexistence. Similar ideas are present today in various movements, such as, with some variation, the “Biblical Unitarians.” While a historical study with Socinianism would prove interesting and valuable, along with the history of denial associated with Jesus’ preexistence, such does little to address question of doctrinal validity. This must be considered in light of scripture.
When considering texts accepted by most as referencing Christ’s preexistence, Socinians will argue these refer only to Jesus in God’s plan. So P.R. Lackey: “The so-called ‘pre-human existence’ of Christ in the Bible refers to the prior existence of Jesus in God’s plan and vision.”1 Jesus did not exist in reality until his conception within Mary. Prior to this only the idea of him that found existence in God’s mind.
For various reasons a number of passage might be argued to reference only ideal preexistence. These texts, while generally considered to reflect Jesus’ personal existence prior to his humanity, are not necessarily impossible to understand with reference to him in the mind of God. Yet, other passages are much more explicit and it is these which demand our attention.
Nowhere did Jesus speak more clearly with reference to his preexistence than when he uttered the words (translated) Prin Abraam genesthai ego eimi (“I have been in existence since before Abraham was born”). Here eimi is rightly translated have been, though when isolated “am,” meaning “to be” or “to exist.”2 Jesus, here addressing the Jews, remarks how Abraham had rejoiced to see his day (Jo. 8:56). The Jews, puzzled as to how Jesus might know what Abraham thought and felt, inquire of this and his age (v. 57). Viewing him as ‘not yet 50 years old,’ they wonder how he could have seen Abraham to know this. The words in question were his response.
No more explicit could Jesus have expressed his preexistence than with the words ego eimi. The language even finds close parallel with the language found at Psalm 89:2 LXX (90:2) in reference to God’s own existence, su ei (“you are”). Not only did Jesus’ use language with reference to his own preexistence similar to the psalmist’s language for God’s own existence, Jesus was specifically addressing the matter of his age and how he had seen Abraham. To argue for this to refer only to existence in idea is to divorce his words from all context.
The Socinian view of Colossians 1:15-17 argues for reference to the “new creation” (2Co. 5:17), wherein Christ is the firstborn and the one through whom these exist. This interpretation appeals to some in light of vs. 20, wherein “all things” where reconciled to God through Christ. Yet difficulty is found with the notion of Satan, the demons and unredeemed mankind finding reconciliation with God, and such a limited view of “all things” does alleviate this.
The historical context Paul’s epistle to the Colossians finds him addressing what is commonly referred to as simply the Colossian Heresey.3 This, thought by many scholars to be some form of Gnosticism, would have found Paul confronting a false view of original creation, wherein God created a series of aeons, each more distant from him until matter, viewed as evil, could be created through the demiurge. For Paul to address Jesus in relation to the “new creation” would have been inconsequential, irrelevant to Gnosticism.
Jesus’ relation to the “new creation” is expounded upon in vs. 18-23. Here Jesus is the firstborn, but this time of “the dead.” He is “head of the body, the church,” with certain reference to the “new creation.” For Paul to refer to the “new creation” in 15-17 would find much of 18-23 superfluous, for him as “the firstborn of all (new) creation” would mean little, if anything different than “firstborn from the dead.” The immediate context of 18-23 thus may well reference “all things” in 20 as the “new creation,” for he is speaking within the context of Jesus’ resurrection and his relationship to the church. Paul’s exposition of “all things” in v. 16 does not allow for this limited view, including all “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities,” including that which is “invisible.” This language extends beyond the “new creation” and into all things absolutely.
1 Corinthians 10:4
Jewish tradition held that God’s Wisdom had been with the Israelites as they went through the wilderness, providing for them (Wis. 10:21-11:4). According to Paul this Wisdom was Jesus Christ, for “they drank of the rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ.” No more clearly could Paul have spoken of Christ as having existed and been involved with a specific event than this. He here attributes to Jesus the personal actions of personified Wisdom, not as if Wisdom had done something only figurative of Christ or to express something of him ideally, but as if Jesus were the very Wisdom who provided water from the rock. As Paul states, this one “was Christ.”
One commentary puts the dispute to rest:
“Of much more importance is the unquestionable evidence of the Apostle’s belief in the pre-existence of Christ. He does not say, ‘And the rock is Christ,’ which might mean no more than, ‘And the rock is a type of Christ,’ but, ‘And the rock was Christ.’ In Gal. 4:24, 25 he uses the present tense, Hagar and Sarah ‘are two covenants,’ i.e. represent them, are typical of them. Similarly, in the interpretation of parables (Matt. 13:19–23, 37–38) we have ‘is’ throughout. The (en) implies that Christ was the source of the water which saved the Israelites from perishing of thirst; there was a real Presence of Christ in the element which revived their bodies and strengthened their faith.”4
1 P.R. Lackey, The Tyranny of the Trinity: The Orthodox Cover-up, 298
2 See David Barron, God and Christ: Examining the Evidence for a Biblical Doctrine, 69-73.
3 See, ibid., 69-73.
4 Archibald Robertson, Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, S. 201