Pre-existence of Christ

Not to be confused with the doctrine of pre-existence of the soul.

A series of articles on

The doctrine of the pre-existence (or preexistence) of Christ asserts the ontological or personal existence of Christ before his incarnation. One of the relevant Bible passages is John 1:1–18 where, in the Trinitarian interpretation, Christ is identified with a pre-existent divine hypostasis called the Logos or Word. There are other non-Trinitarian views that question the aspect of personal pre-existence or the aspect of divinity or both.

This doctrine is reiterated in John 17:5 when Jesus refers to the glory which he had with the Father "before the world was" during the Farewell Discourse.[1] John 17:24 also refers to the Father loving Jesus "before the foundation of the world".[1]

Trinitarian belief in the doctrine

God resting after creation - Christ depicted as the creator of the world, Byzantine mosaic in Monreale, Sicily. Depictions of God the Father became prevalent only by the 15th century, and Jesus was often shown as a substitute before then.[2]

The concept of the pre-existence of Christ is a central tenet of the doctrine of the Trinity. Trinitarian Christology explores the nature of Christ's pre-existence as the Divine hypostasis called the Logos or Word, described in the passage John 1:1–18, which begins:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
John 1:1–3, New International Version

This "Word" is also called God the Son or the Second Person of the Trinity. Theologian Bernard Ramm noted that "It has been standard teaching in historic Christology that the Logos, the Son, existed before the incarnation. That the Son so existed before the incarnation has been called the pre-existence of Christ."[3]

Other aspects of Christology explore the incarnation of this Divine being as the man Jesus. In the words of the Nicene Creed, Christ "came down from heaven, and was incarnate." Some Protestant theologians believe that God the Son emptied himself[4] of divine attributes in order to become human, in a process called kenosis, while others reject this.[5]

Douglas McCready, in his analysis and defence of the pre-existence of Christ,[6] notes that whereas the preexistence of Christ "is taken for granted by most orthodox Christians, and has been since New Testament times",[7] during the past century the doctrine has been increasingly questioned by less orthodox theologians and scholars.[7]

James Dunn, in his book Christology in the Making,[8] examines the development of this doctrine in early Christianity, noting that it is "beyond dispute"[9] that in John 1:1–18, "the Word is pre-existent, and Christ is the pre-existent Word incarnate,"[9] but going on to explore possible sources for the concepts expressed there, such as the writings of Philo.

In principio erat verbum, Latin for In the beginning was the Word, from the Clementine Vulgate, Gospel of John, 1:1–18.

When the Trinity is depicted in art, the Logos is normally shown with the distinctive appearance, and cruciform halo that identifies Christ; in depictions of the Garden of Eden this looks forward to an Incarnation yet to occur. In some Early Christian sarcophagi, the Logos is distinguished with a beard, "which allows him to appear ancient, even preexistent."[10]

Apart from John 1:1–18 and other New Testament passages, some Trinitarian groups also consider a number of Old Testament texts as supporting or consistent with the doctrine, including Gen. 3:13–15, Gen. 49:10, Job 19:25–29, Num. 24:5–7, Jos. 5:13–15, Ps. 2:7–12, Ps. 22, Ps. 110:1, Pro. 30:1, Isa. 9:6–7, Isa. 53, Dan. 3:24–25, and Dan. 9:24–27. For example, Tertullian in Against Marcion Ch.21 sees a pre-existent appearance of Christ in the fiery furnace of one who is "like the son of man (for he was not yet really son of man)."[11] The identification of specific appearances of Christ is increasingly common in evangelical literature from the 1990s onwards. For example, W. Terry Whalin states that the fourth person in the fiery furnace is Christ, and that "These appearances of Christ in the Old Testament are known as Theophanies or 'appearances of God' ".[12]

Other non-Trinitarian Christians with belief in pre-existence (see Section 2 below) may have different or similar interpretations of such verses.

Personal pre-existence

Orthodox Christian faith believes that Jesus of Nazareth was personally identical with the eternally pre-existent Son of God or Logos. Here Christians hold the pre-existence of a divine person—something distinct from other notions such as the pre-existence of the Jewish Torah or Plato's scheme of pre-existing ideas that provided the pattern for the demiurge in fashioning the world.[13]

In medieval art God was usually depicted in the Garden of Eden and other pre-Incarnation subjects as God the Son, already with the appearance of Jesus,[14] as here in The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch.

The Christological doctrine of pre-existence maintains that Christ's personal existence is that of an external Subject within the oneness of God, and hence cannot be derived from the history of human beings and their world. His personal being did not originate when his visible human history began. He did not come into existence as a new person around 5 BC. He exists personally as the eternal Son of God. To adopt tensed language from Nicaea I ("there never was [a time] when he was not" DzH 126)[15] and state that Christ "always existed" could easily be misleading. Through sharing in the divine attribute of eternity he exists timelessly, given that eternity is in itself timeless. Even the classical definition of eternity left by Boethius, "interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio" (the all-at-once, complete, and perfect possession of endless life) (Consolatio Philosophiae, 5. 6), could misrepresent matters. "All-at-once" (simul) positively and "endless" (interminabilis) negatively recall time and temporal duration. Eternity and eternal life, however, are not to be reduced to any such temporal duration. The eternal "now" of the divine existence means perfect union and simplicity in unchangeable fullness of life, with no parts and with no relations of before and after, no having-been and no going-to-be.[13]

These considerations also show up some dangers in the very term "pre-existence". To speak of the Son of God as pre-existing his incarnation and even the very creation of the world (when time began) could be (wrongly) taken to imply a "before" and "after" for his personal, divine existence. An addition that Constantinople I made to the Nicene Creed, "begotten from the father before all ages" (DzH 150; ND 12; addition italicized) might mislead one into thinking here of temporal succession as if the Son merely anteceded or "antedated" everything that later began (in/with time). Hence, one strains language (in an anthropomorphic fashion) when one speaks of the Logos personally existing and being active "before" the incarnation. It is another question with the humanity assumed at the virginal conception. This did not antedate the historical event of the incarnation. In the case of the human nature assumed by the Logos, "there was [a time] when this nature was not"—to apply controversial language to the humanity and not (as Arius did) to the person of the Son of God. From this point of view, it would have made perfect sense to have said, at the time of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews or of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, that "the incarnation has not yet taken place" and "the human nature of the Son of God is not yet operating". His historical humanity began its existence within the temporal order; the person of the Son of God exists eternally and timelessly. As Thomas Aquinas put it, "the humane nature" of Christ was created and began in time, where "the subsistent subject" is both uncreated and eternal.[16]

Pre-existence means rather that Christ personally belongs to an order of being other than the created, temporal one. His personal, divine existence transcends temporal (and spatial) categories; it might be better expressed as trans-existence, meta-existence, or, quite simply, eternal existence. None of this is intended to deny that eternity must have something of time about it and vice versa. After all, Plato could define time as "the eternal image of eternity, moving according to number" (Timaeus, 37d). Eternity transcends time but without being apart from it; eternity and time should be considered together. Through the attribute of eternity God is present immediately and powerfully to all times.[17] Book of Enoch an ancient pre Christian manuscript extant mentions a Christ like person being seen by Enoch standing next to God whom God told Enoch this Divine being would come to the earth.

Non-Trinitarian belief in the doctrine

Some accept the pre-existence of Christ without accepting his full divinity in the Trinitarian sense. For example, it is likely that Arius and most early advocates of Arianism accepted the pre-existence of Christ.[18] However, St. Thomas Aquinas says that Arius "pretended that the Person of the Son of God is a creature, and less than the Father, so he maintained that He began to be, saying 'there was a time when He was not.'"[19]

John Locke,[20] William Ellery Channing and Isaac Newton[21] appear to have maintained belief in the pre-existence of Christ despite their rejection of the Trinity.

Today, several nontrinitarian denominations also share belief in some form of the pre-existence of Christ, including the Church of God (7th Day) and the Jehovah's Witnesses, the latter group identifying Jesus as the archangel Michael,[22] interpreting John 1:1 by translating with the phrase "a god," rather than "God".[23] Mormonism teaches Christ's pre-existence as the first and greatest of the spirit children of God the Father.[24]

Among the many churches which separated from the Worldwide Church of God, also referred to as the "Sabbatarian Churches of God" or, more pejoratively, Armstrongites, there is a shared belief in binitarianism, and that Jesus was the God of the Old Testament through whom God the Father created the world (based on Ephesians 3:9 and John 1:1–3), and that it was Jesus Christ who personally interacted with Adam and Eve, Noah, the patriarchs, ancient Israel, and the kings and prophets of the Old Testament. It is held that in his carnation, Jesus was sent to reveal the Father who was previously unknown. This is based on an interpretation of John 5:37, Luke 10:22, and by the large number of references Jesus made about the Father in the New Testament compared to the very few, almost figural references to God as Father in the Old Testament. This belief is also based on an interpretation of verses where Christ is believed to be discussing his personal presence in the Old Testament and interaction with ancient Israel, and on a Christological interpretation of Melchizedek.[25]

Oneness Pentecostals

Oneness Pentecostals are non-Trinitarian Pentecostal Christians who do not accept the pre-existence of Christ as distinguished from God the Father, believing that, prior to the Incarnation, only "the timeless Spirit of God (the Father)"[26] existed. Afterwards God "simultaneously dwelt in heaven as a timeless Spirit, and inside of the Son of Man on this earth."[26] However, the UPCI, a large Oneness denomination, says in their statement of faith that "The one God existed as Father, Word, and Spirit" prior to the incarnation.[27]

Although Oneness Pentecostals accept that "Christ is the same person as God,"[26] they also believe that "The 'Son' was 'born,' which means that he had a beginning."[26] In other words, "Oneness adherents understand the term [Son] to be applicable to God only after the incarnation."[28] They have consequently been described as holding an essentially unitarian position on the doctrine,[29][30] and of denying the pre-existence of Christ.[31][32] However, some members of the movement deny this interpretation of their beliefs.[33]

Denial of the doctrine

Throughout history there have been various groups and individuals believing that Jesus' existence began when he was conceived.[34] Those who consider themselves Christians while denying the pre-existence of Christ can be broadly divided into two streams.

First, there are those who nevertheless accept the virgin birth. This includes Socinians,[35] and early Unitarians such as John Biddle,[36] and Nathaniel Lardner.[37] Today the view is primarily held by Christadelphians.[38] These groups typically consider that Christ is prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, but did not exist prior to his birth.[39]

Second, there are those who also deny the virgin birth. This includes Ebionites and later Unitarians, such as Joseph Priestley,[40][41][42] and Thomas Jefferson.[43][44] This view is often described as adoptionism, and in the 19th century was also called psilanthropism. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described himself as having once been a psilanthropist, believing Jesus to be the "real son of Joseph."[45] Friedrich Schleiermacher, sometimes called "the father of liberal theology",[46] was one of many German theologians who departed from the idea of personal ontological pre-existence of Christ, teaching that "Christ was not God but was created as the ideal and perfect man whose sinlessness constituted his divinity."[46] Similarly, Albrecht Ritschl rejected the pre-existence of Christ, asserting that Christ was the "Son of God" only in the sense that "God had revealed himself in Christ"[46] and Christ "accomplished a religious and ethical work in us which only God could have done."[46] Later, Rudolf Bultmann described the pre-existence of Christ as "not only irrational but utterly meaningless."[47]

See also


  1. 1 2 Creation and Christology by Masanobu Endo 2002 ISBN 3-16-147789-8 page 233
  2. George Ferguson, 1996 Signs & symbols in Christian art ISBN 0-19-501432-4 page 92
  3. Bernard L. Ramm, An Evangelical Christology: Ecumenic and Historic, 1983, reprinted by Regent College Publishing, 1993, ISBN 1-57383-008-9, p. 47.
  4. Philippians 2:7, as translated in the New Revised Standard Version or Holman Christian Standard Bible.
  5. Pope Pius XII condemned this in 1951 in Sempiternus Rex Christus, and Protestant theologian Wayne Grudem likewise denies it in his Systematic Theology (Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, ISBN 0-85110-652-8, pp. 549–552).
  6. Douglas McCready. He Came Down From Heaven: The Preexistence of Christ and the Christian Faith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005.
  7. 1 2 McCready, p. 11.
  8. James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament inquiry into the origins of the doctrine of the Incarnation, 2nd ed, Eerdmans, 1996, ISBN 0-8028-4257-7.
  9. 1 2 Dunn, p. 239.
  10. Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal Carl Parsons, Interpreting Christian Art: Reflections on Christian art, Mercer University Press, 2003, ISBN 0-86554-850-1, pp. 32–35.
  11. Robert, Rev. A. The Ante-nicene Fathers: the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 p381
  12. W. Terry Whalin Alpha Teach Yourself the Bible in 24 Hours Page 119
  13. 1 2 For this section and its specific themes, compare esp. Gerald O'Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2009), pp. 238-261. Cf. also John Macquarrie. Jesus Christ in Modern Thought. London: SCM Press (1990), pp. 121ff.; Roger Haight, "The Case of Spirit Christology", Theological Studies, 53 (1992), pp. 276ff.; id., Jesus Symbol of God, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books (1999), pp. 125, 459ff.; C. S. Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1996), pp. 125ff.
  14. Hall, James. A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art, p. 86, 1983, John Murray, London, ISBN 0-7195-3971-4
  15. Cf. also J. Neuner & J. Dupuis (eds), The Christian Faith, 7th edn, Bangalore: Theological Publications in India (2001), p. 8 – this publication hereinafter referred to under the authors' initials, as ND, followed by spec. page number.
  16. Summa Theologica, 3a. 16. 10
  17. However, here, if anywhere in Christology, one needs to "watch one's language", and be sensitive to the points which have emerged in the renewed debate about eternity that has followed a 1981 article of Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann. For details of this debate and his own contribution, see B. Leftow, Time and Eternity, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1991).
  18. Hastings, J. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 2, Part 2 p.785 2003 -"Arius and all his disciples acknowledged the pre-existence of our Lord"
  19. "SUMMA THEOLOGICA: Things which are applicable to Christ in his being and becoming (Tertia Pars, Q. 16)". Retrieved 2012-07-18.
  20. John Marshall, Locke, Socinianism, "Socinianism", and Unitarianism, from p. 111 in M. A. Stewart (editor), English Philosophy in the Age of Locke (2000),
  21. Maurice F. Wiles, Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the centuries, Oxford University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-19-826927-7, p. 83.
  22. Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes, Conviction Without Compromise: Standing Strong in the Core Beliefs of the Christian Faith, Harvest House Publishers, 2008, ISBN 0-7369-2220-2, p. 55.
  23. New World Translation.
  24. McConkie, Bruce R. (1982), The Millennial Messiah, Bookcraft, p. 165
  25. Whatever Happened To The Father?, sermon by Gary Antion, United Church of God, an International Association, November 17, 2009.
  26. 1 2 3 4 The Incarnation at (Oneness Pentecostal theological website), accessed 27 May 2010.
  27. "Our Doctrinal Foundation". United Pentecostal Church International. May 24, 2011. Retrieved February 2, 2015.
  28. "Jason Dulle, ''The Oneness/Trinity Debate-Areas of Agreement and Disagreement''". Retrieved 2012-07-18.
  29. W. David Buschart, Exploring Protestant Traditions: An invitation to theological hospitality, InterVarsity Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8308-2832-X, p. 239: "Oneness Pentecostals affirm a christologically unitarian understanding of God."
  30. Douglas Gordon Jacobsen, A Reader in Pentecostal Theology: Voices from the first generation, Indiana University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-253-21862-4, p. 14: "many Jesus-only pentecostals began to champion a decidedly unitarian, or oneness, view of the Godhead."
  31. Richard G. Kyle, The Religious Fringe: A history of alternative religions in America, InterVarsity Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8308-1766-2, p. 164: "They deny the preexistence of Christ."
  32. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions: Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormonism, Mind Sciences, Baha'i, Zen, Unitarianism, Harvest House Publishers, 1999, ISBN 0-7369-0074-8, pp. 366–387: "their denial of the pre-existence of Christ"
  33. Mark. W. Bassett, Answering Gregory Boyd's "Sharing Your Faith with a Oneness Pentecostal", accessed 27 May 2010: "We do not deny the pre-existence of Jesus Christ. We do believe that the sonship commenced at Bethlehem when flesh was made from the nature of a woman, to be a vessel for the Eternal God to dwell in."
  34. Eckhard J. Schnabel Early Christian Mission: Paul & the early church 2004 Page 1041 "A Christian community is documented for Bostra for a.d. 250 at the latest: Eusebius mentions Beryllos, the "bishop [episkopos] of the Arabs in Bostra," who denied the preexistence of Christ and who was the subject of discussion at a synod in ..."
  35. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Trinity > Unitarianism: "This Racovian Catechism identifies the God of Israel with the Father of Christ... Both the Trinity and the doctrine of two natures (divine and human) in Christ are argued to be both contradictory and unsupported by the Bible. It is argued that Christ is a man who did not pre-exist his miraculous conception in Mary, though he's denied to be 'merely' a man, but affirmed to be the unique Son of God, the Messiah, worthy of worship and a proper recipient of prayer."
  36. J. Biddle A Twofold Catechism, chap. 4: "How was Jesus Christ born?" as well as "How many Lords of Christians are there, by way of distinction from the one God?" and "Doth the Scripture avouch Christ to be the Son of God because he was eternally begotten out of the Divine essence; or for other reasons agreeing to him only as a man?"
  37. Lardner N. Letter on the Logos (1759) in The works of Nathaniel Lardner in five volumes, Volume 5, p. 380–3. Online: "All these texts seem to me sufficient to satisfy us, that by 'the Word,' which St. John says, 'was in the beginning, and was with God, and was God,' he does not mean a being separate from God, and inferior to him, but God himself, or the wisdom and power of God, which is the same as God, even the Father, who alone is God, nor is there any other." as well as "Jesus is the Son of God, upon account of his miraculous conception and birth. Luke i. 31–35." (pp. 82–3)
  38. Alan Hayward, Did Jesus Really Come Down from Heaven?, pamphlet from the Christadelphian Auxiliary Lecturing Society, 1975: "The third view is held by Christadelphians and some others. According to this view Jesus did not live personally in heaven before he was born on earth; and the verses which refer to his heavenly origin must be understood figuratively.... The birth of the Lord Jesus Christ was the result of a mighty miracle. His mother was a young unmarried woman of excellent character. She was a virgin."
  39. Tennant, H. Christ in the Old Testament, CMPA, Birmingham 1996
  40. Joseph Priestley An history of early opinions concerning Jesus Christ 1786 Vol3 Chapter 3 "Of the Conduct of our Saviour himself, with respect to his own supposed Pre-existence and Divinity." p64: "He never told his disciples that he had pre-existed, or that he had had any thing to do before he came into the world ; much less that he had made the world" The Corruptions of Christianity
  41. Sanford, Charles B. The religious life of Thomas Jefferson 1984 p112 "The question of the virgin birth occupied a good part of Priestley's book The Corruptions of Christianity [1782]. .. The account of the miraculous birth of Christ is only found in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. Priestley suggested that the earliest copies of Matthew and Luke did not have these introductions, writings of Marcion of the second century as evidence"
  42. Priestley, J., 1791c [1783], A General View of the Arguments for the Unity of God; and against the Divinity and Pre-Existence of Christ; from Reason, from the Scriptures, and from History, in Tracts. Printed and Published by the Unitarian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Practice of Virtue. Vol. 1, London: The Unitarian Society, pp. 179–214. [Reprint: in Three Tracts by Joseph Priestley, Morrisville, North Carolina:, 2007.]
  43. Smith, Gary Scott Faith and the presidency: from George Washington to George W. Bush 2006 p463 "In his letter to Priestley, Jefferson identified four possible views of Christ's person: "a member of the God-head," "a being of eternal pre-existence," "a man divinely inspired," "the Herald of truths reformatory of the religions of mankind.". He argued that all views of Jesus should be tolerated but clearly preferred the latter." (Smith truncates the original final sentence: "the religions of mankind [in general, but more immediately of that of his countrymen]")
  44. Steven Waldman Founding faith: providence, politics, and the birth of religious freedom in America 2008 p72 "In 1819, he started over and created a new version called 'The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,' often referred to now as the Jefferson Bible. In Jefferson's version, Jesus was not divine. The virgin birth — gone."
  45. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Vol. I (1817), chapter 10: "For I was at that time and long after... yet a zealous Unitarian in religion; more accurately, I was a Psilanthropist, one of those who believe our Lord to have been the real son of Joseph" Later, however, Coleridge changed his mind (chapter 24): "But this I have said, and shall continue to say: that if the doctrines, the sum of which I believe to constitute the truth in Christ, be Christianity, then Unitarianism is not, and vice versa"
  46. 1 2 3 4 Robert Paul Lightner, Handbook of Evangelical Theology: A historical, Biblical, and contemporary survey and review, Kregel Publications, 1995, ISBN 0-8254-3145-X, pp. 74–75.
  47. Rudolf Bultmann, "New Testament and Mythology," in Craig A. Evans (ed), The Historical Jesus: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, Volume 1, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-32751-2, p. 328.


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Pre-existence of Christ
Preceded by
New Testament
Succeeded by
Genealogy of Jesus
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