Eternal Sonship

 

            The above subject seems to keep cropping up and the well-known Bible teacher, John MacArthur, who not so long ago did not think Scripture supported the idea of eternal Sonship, now says he believes in it. See his article below. One does not get the impression that he is very sure of his ground on this subject; however we have to go by what he now avows.

 

            I disagree with John in his view that Christ was Son of God from eternity. To be a son involves an event, either birth or adoption. In the case of Christ He was born. We are adopted, or as at least one translation puts it, we receive sonship (Galatians 4:5). Scripture nowhere states that there is a sonship that does not have a beginning. Michael Servetus was burnt to death by the Calvinists because he would not accept the teaching as to Christ’s eternal sonship, that is, sonship from eternity. Of course Christ will always be God’s Son (1 Corinthians 15:28), but was not Son until He was born into this world. He is called the only-begotten Son of God (John 3:18). A human child is not a man until it is born (John 16:21). Isaac was not a son until he was begotten (Genesis 21:1-3; Hebrews 11:17-19). “Of God” implies a source and Christ is said to have come out of (ek in Greek) God (John 8:42). God and the Father are the same Person in Scripture, so it is also said that He came out of (ek again) the Father (John 16:28). This shows why He can be both the Son of God and Son of the Father (2 John 3).

 

            Christ’s being Son of God is not a role He took up but a relationship due to the fact that He came out of God, that is, He had his origin in God. Before He was born He subsisted in the form of God (Philippians 2:6). His existence then is not explained to us, probably because such an existence is beyond our ken. All we really know about his existence before He was born into this world is that He had a glory with his Father (John 17:5) and was loved by Him (John 17:24). The glory spoken of was his own glory and he asked for it to be restored to Him (John 17:5). This glory was not what we speak of as deity, for a person cannot be given deity. The confusion that Christendom is in is because attributes of the Father, such as omnipotence (supremacy), omnipresence (presence through all) and omniscience (all knowingness) are applied to Christ as a man here on earth. It can easily be demonstrated that to claim these things for Christ when here on earth throws Scripture into hopeless confusion. As to supremacy Christ says: “[My] Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) and “My Father... is greater than all” (John 10:29). Paul says: “Christ’s head (is) God” (1 Corinthians 11:3). Certainly all power has been given to Christ (Matthew 28:18). However, the fact that He has been given it demonstrates that He had not got it already. As to presence through all, it is evident He did not have it when He was here on earth. However, He ascended far above all the heavens so that He might fill all things (Ephesians 4:10). He is like the sun whose light rays and heat penetrate everywhere in this earth. Lastly, as to all knowingness it is clear from Scripture that there were things He did not know when He was here on earth (Mark 13:32). However, we know that the Father shows him all things that He Himself does (John 5:20; 8:28; 12:49/50). God does not show Him things that he already knows as there would be no point in it. Consider also Revelation 1:1. Being the Son of God He is heir of all things (Hebrews 1:2). However, as with the son of any human potentate, He did not possess all that his Father had until the time came when he inherited his Father’s dominions (Consider Galatians 4:1-7 which speaks of us). A son has his father’s nature at birth, but he does not have his father’s position, influence and knowledge from birth. Similarly, this is true of Christ.

 

            I am a man as Adam was a man. This is because I am a son of Adam, but clearly this does not mean that I am Adam personally. Similarly, I am a god because I am one of God’s children (Psalm 82:6), but this does not mean that I am God. If we think of Christ we know that He was the Son of man (Matthew 16:13), not the first man Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45). He was the man Christ Jesus (1Timothy 2:5). Further, He was the Son of God in a real way and having his nature He is also God, but this does not mean He is God the Father. Christ is therefore distinguished from God his Father and this is important because in order to make atonement He had to offer Himself spotless to God (Hebrews 9:14). Being the Son of God he did not have man’s fallen nature, but the holy nature of God (John 6:69).

 

            Now as to John MacArthur’s current thinking:-

 

1. He says that he has come to see that Son of God means that He is God’s equal (John 5:18). However, the question is: “What does that mean?” Does it mean that he is a person distinct from God but equal to Him? Rather, what theologians make it mean is that He is the second person in the Trinity and that He is equal with the Father in the Godhead. This is not what the Scripture teaches. Consider the following:- 

 

The relationship of Father and Son

 

            As to nature, parents are not inferior to their offspring, nor offspring to their parents. This is evident because the genetic make up of children is obtained from their parents. In the case of Christ He is not superior or inferior to God his Father, because, the relationship being real, He has the same nature as his Father, hence we have: "God was his own Father, making himself equal with God" (John 5:18). "Equal with" has the meaning "Same as" (see Young’s Concordance). Because of this God has decreed that all may honour the Son, even as they honour the Father (John 5:23).

 

            However, this is not the whole matter. Parents often have more power than their offspring. In the case of Christ He Himself said: "[My] Father is greater than I" (John 14:28), so that it is apparent that the Father has greater power than the Son (see also John 10:29). Further, a son should give his father precedence. A son should honour his father, so that we have in the law: "Honour thy father and thy mother" (Exodus 20:12; Matthew 15:4). We do not get the reverse: "Honour thy son or daughter". If we turn to the prophet Malachi we have God saying: "A son honoureth [his] father...  if then I be a father, where is mine honour?" (Malachi 1:6). In the case of Christ we know that He honoured his Father as He said: "I honour my Father" (John 8:49). Christ honoured his Father by doing his will as He said: "But not as I will, but as thou [wilt]" (Matthew 26:39) and no doubt in many other ways.

 

            The difference between nature and power which we have considered is apparent in other areas, for instance: "[It was] impossible that God should lie" (Hebrews 6:18). This does not mean He would be unable to lie if He wanted to, but what it does mean is that it is morally impossible - it is against his Holy nature to do so. If it were a question of power "nothing shall be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). Again, the same with Christ, "Who did no sin" (1 Peter 2:22).  However, He could not sin because: "In him sin is not" (1 John 3:5). This does not mean He didn't have the power to sin. A man on his deathbed could not rob a bank even if he wanted to, because he hasn't got the power to do so. The same with a man in prison; his power to commit a crime has been taken from him. However, this is not the case with either God or Christ, who both have the power to act as they please - they do not have to be held back from doing evil. God may withhold persons from doing wrong (see the case of Abimelech - Genesis 20:1-18, particularly verse 6), but this restraint only needs to be applied in the case of sinful men.

 

            The fact that persons have the same nature and are equal in this respect, should not be taken to mean that there are not differences in other respects, so that one may have more power or be entitled to precedence for other reasons.

 

            It is clear to me that the problem that John MacArthur is trying to resolve is how to reconcile the statements of Scripture with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, in other words the teaching in the creeds of the Church of Rome. The Reformers never rejected the creeds in their entirety, hence the continuing controversies over them. John mentions the complexity of the issue.

 

2. It is surprising that a teacher such as John MacArthur should so lightly dismiss a statement found in Scripture such as “this day have I begotten thee” as not meaning what it appears to mean. How can this be an eternal decree of God? It would be easy to find reasons for dismissing the statement that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God by referring to other Scriptures such as those that make it clear that Christ did not sin and then what is said about Zacharias and Elizabeth? (Luke 1:5/6) Yes, it can easily be shown that these Scriptures do not negate Romans 3:22/23. However, we do not want to be on the line of explaining away Scriptures that do not appear to be in accord with orthodox evangelicalism.

 

            What theologians say as to eternal generation is really meaningless nonsense. If you think about it the expression conveys no clear idea and sends one’s mind into a spin. Needless to say, the expression is not found in Scripture. Only-begotten = monogenes, and this Greek word simply conveys in English the meaning of single generation (Mono = single and Genes = generation). Think of words like monorail and monocle, also Genesis and genealogy.

 

            As to Christ’s conception in Mary’s womb, that was clearly the work of God’s Holy Spirit. However, the conception was of the vessel in which Christ moved about in here on earth (Hebrews 10:5), not Christ’s essential person. He was not a Son till He was brought forth (Matthew 1:20/21; 25). Of course, He had previously existed in God and that from eternity (Micah 5:2). He was not a person down here until He was born. Christ was conscious of his previous existence as is clear from many passages in Scripture, particularly John and Paul’s writings. Further, God has not left man without witness that a person can have had a previous existence before being born. If we think of the incarnation we think of something that is unique. No one but Christ has been made flesh that had an existence previously with God, so far as we know. Christ was fully aware of his previous existence as He spoke of Himself as having come down from heaven (e.g. John 6:62). Further, in speaking to his Father He spoke of the glory and the love that He enjoyed before the world was (John 17: 5 and 24). However, the thought that a person may have had a past life before his present one is not absent from Scripture. Certainly, we cannot all be reincarnations of Adam and no Scripture, needless to say, says we are. However, there are suggestions that a person may have had a past life in such a passage as John 9:1/2. There is also the fact that John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elias (Luke 1:17). We might say that something of Elias was in him. Herod thought that Christ was a resurrected John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1/2). Further, we know that many people thought that Christ was John the Baptist, Elias, Jeremias or one of the prophets (Matthew 16:14). Presumably, they thought that Christ was a sort of reincarnation of one of these persons. However, there have been persons of recent years who have studied reports of children who have recollections of a past life and have found that the persons had in fact existed and in some cases the children have had the physical marks of such persons. (The evidence can be found on the internet) There is a particle of truth in every error so that we should not dismiss out of hand all reports of reincarnation, nor accept all the theology that heathen nations have built on the evidence of which they are aware. I am aware that many evangelical Christians would probably throw up their hands in horror at the thought that there could be any truth in reincarnation, because they assume that anyone that dies always goes to a place called heaven or a place called hell - full stop. However, we have to learn from Scripture and nature and not sweep any passage or evidence under the carpet, so to speak, that does not clearly support our firmly held views.

 

            Begetting in Scripture means what it does for every child born into this world, that is, it means the bringing forth of a son or a daughter. It is the coming forth of another creature into the world. It is not conception which is the beginning of the forming of the physical vessel, that is, the body in which the spirit lives. “The body without a spirit is dead” (James 2:26). While in the mother’s womb the body is part of its mother and it does not have a separate existence, but lives by what it receives through the umbilical cord. Certainly, Christ’s conception was by the instrumentality of God’s Holy Spirit, but his birth involved that He was God’s Son. He was not that until He took his first breath. It is breathing that makes us God’s offspring. The spirit we have returns unto God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7) and Christ Himself delivered up his spirit at the end of his life (John 19:30).

 

            Paul says Christ “emptied himself...taking his place in [the] likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7). It wasn’t that He emptied Himself of anything, but it was Himself that was emptied. Consider other passages where emptying is spoken of – Jeremiah 48:11; Philippians 2:17 and 2 Timothy 4:6. Whether this happened in a moment when Christ took his first breath or whether it happened over a period when he was a babe Scripture does not tell us. Certainly the passages I have just referred to suppose something that does not take place instantaneously. John simply says that the Word became flesh (John 1:14). Similarly, he does not say when this was. Certainly Christ was in flesh when on earth, but whether this actually happened at a certain point in time or over a period I would hesitate to dogmatise.  

 

            Scripture says nothing about co-equal persons in the Godhead. We get it said of Christians that they are Christ’s joint heirs (Romans 8:17), but nothing about persons being either jointly or severally God. The Jews indeed said that Christ in saying that God was his own Father made Himself equal with God, but Christ’s in his reply said: “The Son can do nothing of himself” (John 5:19). Christ in saying this can hardly be said to be supporting their statement.

 

            As to Christ’s being called Son of God, this in Scripture is made to rest on the fact that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35). He is never said to be Son of the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is not separated from God, but is said to be the “power of [the] Highest” (Luke 1: 35). The relationship of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is complementary rather than identical. Christ cast out demons, but He did it by the Spirit of God which is the finger of God (Matthew 12:28; Luke 11:20). Claiming that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three identical persons, by reasoning that they have one name, is a major flaw in orthodoxy. If each person had everything the very existence of two of them would be superfluous, that is, they could be done without. Further, if Christ were very God and also very man He would be greater than his Father who would only be very God. This can’t be right. Then we must remember that Christ had to offer Himself spotless to God. In order to do this He had to be a person distinct from God (though having his nature). God offering Himself to God would be no offering. Orthodoxy undermines the atonement and Christ’s place as mediator. I expect most people would rely on Matthew 28:19 to support the idea that God is three persons with one name, but they would not do this with the Father, Son and holy angels in Luke 9:26, claiming they all have one glory.

 

April 2013

 

Grace To You

  

Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ

 

Psalm 2; Hebrews 1:5; Phil. 2:5-8; John 5:19 QA130

 

Is it true that John MacArthur has reversed his position on the eternal Sonship of Christ?

 

Yes.

Here's a statement from John about his views on that issue.

 

Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ

 

John MacArthur

 

Near the end of his life, Augustine of Hippo meticulously reviewed everything he had ever published. He wrote an entire catalogue of his own works, a painstakingly annotated bibliography with hundreds of revisions and amendments to correct flaws he saw in his own earlier material. The book, titled Retractationes, is powerful evidence of Augustine's humility and zeal for truth. Not one of his earlier publications escaped the more mature theologian's scrutiny. And Augustine was as bold in recanting the errors he perceived in his own work as he had been in refuting the heresies of his theological adversaries. Because he reviewed his works in chronological order, Retractationes is a wonderful memoir of Augustine's relentless, lifelong pursuit of spiritual maturity and theological precision. His forthrightness in addressing his own shortcomings is a good example of why Augustine is esteemed as a rare model of both godliness and scholarship.

 

I've often wished for the opportunity to review and amend all my own published material, but I doubt I'll ever have the time or the energy to undertake the task. In this day of electronic recordings, my "published" material includes not just the books I have written but also nearly every sermon I have ever preached--about 3,000 of them so far. It's far too much material to be able to critique exhaustively the way I wish I could.

 

Not that I would make sweeping or wholesale revisions. Throughout my ministry, my theological perspective has remained fundamentally unchanged. The basic doctrinal statement I subscribe to today is the same one I affirmed when I was ordained to the ministry almost 40 years ago. I am not someone whose convictions are easily malleable. I trust I am not a reed shaken in the wind, or the kind of person who is naively tossed about by various winds of doctrine.

 

But at the same time, I do not want to be resistant to growth and correction, especially when my comprehension of Scripture can be sharpened. If more precise understanding on an important point of doctrine demands a change in my thinking--even if it means amending or correcting already-published material--I want to be willing to make the necessary changes.

 

I have made many such revisions over the years, often taking measures to delete erroneous or confusing statements from my own tapes, and sometimes even preaching again through portions of Scripture with a better understanding of the text. Whenever I have changed my opinion on any significant doctrinal issue, I have sought to make my change of opinion, and the reasons for it, as clear as possible.

 

To that end, I want to state publicly that I have abandoned the doctrine of "incarnational sonship." Careful study and reflection have brought me to understand that Scripture does indeed present the relationship between God the Father and Christ the Son as an eternal Father-Son relationship. I no longer regard Christ's sonship as a role He assumed in His incarnation.

 

My earlier position arose out of my study of Hebrews 1:5, which appears to speak of the Father's begetting the Son as an event that takes place at a point in time: "This day have I begotten thee"; "I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son" (emphasis added).

 

That verse presents some very difficult concepts. "Begetting" normally speaks of a person's origin. Moreover, sons are generally subordinate to their fathers. I therefore found it difficult to see how an eternal Father-Son relationship could be compatible with perfect equality and eternality among the Persons of the Trinity. "Sonship," I concluded, bespeaks the place of voluntary submission to which Christ condescended at His incarnation (cf. Phil. 2:5-8; John 5:19).

 

My aim was to defend, not in any way to undermine, Christ's absolute deity and eternality. And I endeavored from the beginning to make that as clear as possible.

 

Nonetheless, when I first published my views on the subject (in my 1983 commentary on Hebrews), a few outspoken critics accused me of attacking the deity of Christ or questioning His eternality. In 1989 I responded to those charges in a plenary session of the annual convention of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America (the denomination that ordained me). Shortly after that session, to explain my views further, I wrote an article titled "The Sonship of Christ" (published in 1991 in booklet form).

 

In both instances I reemphasized my unqualified and unequivocal commitment to the biblical truth that Jesus is eternally God. The "incarnational sonship" view, while admittedly a minority opinion, is by no means rank heresy. The heart of my defense of the view consisted of statements that affirmed as clearly as possible my absolute commitment to the evangelical essentials of Christ's deity and eternality.

 

Still, controversy continued to swirl around my views on "incarnational sonship," prompting me to reexamine and rethink the pertinent biblical texts. Through that study I have gained a new appreciation for the significance and the complexity of this issue. More important, my views on the matter have changed. Here are two major reasons for my change of opinion:

 

1.  I am now convinced that the title "Son of God" when applied to Christ in Scripture always speaks of His essential deity and absolute equality with God, not His voluntary subordination. The Jewish leaders of Jesus' time understood this perfectly. John 5:18 says they sought the death penalty against Jesus, charging Him with blasphemy "because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God."

 

In that culture, a dignitary's adult son was deemed equal in stature and privilege with his father. The same deference demanded by a king was afforded to his adult son. The son was, after all, of the very same essence as his father, heir to all the father's rights and privileges--and therefore equal in every significant regard. So when Jesus was called "Son of God," it was understood categorically by all as a title of deity, making Him equal with God and (more significantly) of the same essence as the Father. That is precisely why the Jewish leaders regarded the title "Son of God" as high blasphemy.

 

If Jesus' sonship signifies His deity and utter equality with the Father, it cannot be a title that pertains only to His incarnation. In fact, the main gist of what is meant by "sonship" (and certainly this would include Jesus' divine essence) must pertain to the eternal attributes of Christ, not merely the humanity He assumed.

 

2.  It is now my conviction that the begetting spoken of in Psalm 2 and Hebrews 1 is not an event that takes place in time. Even though at first glance Scripture seems to employ terminology with temporal overtones ("this day have I begotten thee"), the context of Psalm 2:7 seems clearly to be a reference to the eternal decree of God. It is reasonable to conclude that the begetting spoken of there is also something that pertains to eternity rather than a point in time. The temporal language should therefore be understood as figurative, not literal.

 

Most theologians recognize this, and when dealing with the sonship of Christ, they employ the term "eternal generation." I'm not fond of the expression. In Spurgeon's words, it is "a term that does not convey to us any great meaning; it simply covers up our ignorance." And yet the concept itself, I am now convinced, is biblical. Scripture refers to Christ as "the only begotten of the Father" (John 1:14; cf. v. 18; 3:16, 18; Heb. 11:17). The Greek word translated "only begotten" is monogenes. The thrust of its meaning has to do with Christ's utter uniqueness. Literally, it may be rendered "one of a kind"--and yet it also clearly signifies that He is of the very same essence as the Father. This, I believe, is the very heart of what is meant by the expression "only begotten."

 

To say that Christ is "begotten" is itself a difficult concept. Within the realm of creation, the term "begotten" speaks of the origin of one's offspring. The begetting of a son denotes his conception--the point at which he comes into being. Some thus assume that "only begotten" refers to the conception of the human Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet Matthew 1:20 attributes the conception of the incarnate Christ to the Holy Spirit, not to God the Father. The begetting referred to in Psalm 2 and John 1:14 clearly seems to be something more than the conception of Christ's humanity in Mary's womb.

 

And indeed, there is another, more vital, significance to the idea of "begetting" than merely the origin of one's offspring. In the design of God, each creature begets offspring "after his kind" (Gen. 1:11-12; 21-25). The offspring bear the exact likeness of the parent. The fact that a son is generated by the father guarantees that the son shares the same essence as the father.

 

I believe this is the sense Scripture aims to convey when it speaks of the begetting of Christ by the Father. Christ is not a created being (John 1:1-3). He had no beginning but is as timeless as God Himself. Therefore, the "begetting" mentioned in Psalm 2 and its cross-references has nothing to do with His origin.

 

But it has everything to do with the fact that He is of the same essence as the Father. Expressions like "eternal generation," "only begotten Son," and others pertaining to the filiation of Christ must all be understood in this sense: Scripture employs them to underscore the absolute oneness of essence between Father and Son. In other words, such expressions aren't intended to evoke the idea of procreation; they are meant to convey the truth about the essential oneness shared by the Members of the Trinity.

 

My previous view was that Scripture employed Father-Son terminology anthropomorphically--accommodating unfathomable heavenly truths to our finite minds by casting them in human terms. Now I am inclined to think that the opposite is true: Human father-son relationships are merely earthly pictures of an infinitely greater heavenly reality. The one true, archetypical Father-Son relationship exists eternally within the Trinity. All others are merely earthly replicas, imperfect because they are bound up in our finiteness, yet illustrating a vital eternal reality.

 

If Christ's sonship is all about His deity, someone will wonder why this applies to the Second Member of the Trinity alone, and not to the Third. After all, we don't refer to the Holy Spirit as God's Son, do we? Yet isn't He also of the same essence as the Father?

 

Of course He is. The full, undiluted, undivided essence of God belongs alike to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is but one essence; yet He exists in three Persons. The three Persons are co-equal, but they are still distinct Persons. And the chief characteristics that distinguish between the Persons are wrapped up in the properties suggested by the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Theologians have labeled these properties paternity, filiation, and spiration. That such distinctions are vital to our understanding of the Trinity is clear from Scripture. How to explain them fully remains something of a mystery.

 

In fact, many aspects of these truths may remain forever inscrutable, but this basic understanding of the eternal relationships within the Trinity nonetheless represents the best consensus of Christian understanding over many centuries of Church history. I therefore affirm the doctrine of Christ's eternal sonship while acknowledging it as a mystery into which we should not expect to pry too deeply.

 

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