A More Subduing Gospel: H.R. Mackintosh on the Evangelical Significance of Christ’s Pre-existence

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[The following is excerpted from H.R. Mackingtosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 460-462.]

It will not be seriously questioned that the chief glory of the Christian religion is its characteristic conception of the Divine love. God’s love in Christ is triumphantly set forth as something infinite and measureless. But is it really so, apart from Christ’s eternity? Is it the fact, His eternity once denied, that we cannot imagine a vaster exhibition of Divine mercy to the world? If in Christ we have something less than “God’s presence and His very self,” because He grows on the soil of human nature, as simply human, it is surely clear that the scale on which the love of the Eternal has been made manifest is now gravely altered. We have somehow to abridge our once glorious vision of self-sacrifice as the inmost core and focus of the Divine life.

It is not that God cannot be known as Love apart from His incarnation in Christ. To say so would be false. But it is not false to say that apart from the gift of Christ out of an eternal being, God’s love would not be displayed so amazingly, in a form and magnitude which inspire, awe, and overwhelm the soul. A Christ who is eternal, and a Christ of whom we cannot tell whether He is eternal or not, are positively and profoundly different, and the types of faith they respectively call forth will differ correspondingly both in spiritual horizon and in moral inspiration.

Our sense of Christ’s self-abnegation, His lowliness, His grace, His utter passion of sacrifice—is perceptibly expanded or reduced according as we do or do not hold that He who bore these things had entered by Divine volition into the situation of which they form a part. Something which is irreplaceable drops away when His eternity has been cancelled. The Gospel can never be the same again, and the loss is borne not by speculative dogmatic but by personal religion. Especially the preacher has parted with a certain leverage of moral appeal no more to be regained. It is harder now to persuade men that God loves us better than He loves Himself….

We cannot know the pre-temporal as we do the earthly life of Christ, or even as we do (in a real sense) His life of exalted glory. The stage in His career at which we meet with Him is after Bethlehem, not before it; we meet with Him supremely in His recorded words and actions; and he who has not found God in the record of these three sinless years can have no stake of a vital or intelligible kind in the question whether they stand out against an infinite and eternal background. But indeed the Church has clung to faith in Christ’s pre-existence … as the only means open to human thought of affirming the priceless truth that He is not the perfect Saint merely, offered by humanity to God, but the beloved Son sent forth by the Father, cast in grace upon “this bank and shoal of time,” that in love He might give Himself for us all. It scarcely admits of doubt which of the two views will inspire the more subduing Gospel.

Men say that the conception of eternity mingling thus with time is too vast for truth; with the apostles we may answer that its vastness is its evidence, since the God made known in Jesus gives only gifts so great that none greater can be conceived. To part with the glory and wonder of this faith is in a grave measure to part with the native joy of the Christian religion, and to remove the scene of sacrifice from heaven to earth will inevitably stimulate the less worthy impulse felt at some time by all to preach about man instead of God.

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