The Opponents of the Doctrine
Answering Their Objections
|"Jesus answered and said unto
them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God"
Stones are being hurled at the impregnable fortress known as the doctrine of eternal Sonship. Objections are being raised against this cherished and precious truth which concerns the Second Person of the Triune God and His relationship to the Father. We should not be surprised that the true teaching regarding the Person of the Son is under attack. The essence of Christianity revolves around Jesus Christ and WHO HE REALLY IS. Believers need take heed and be extremely careful to remain and abide in the true doctrine of Christ (2 John 9).
No biblical doctrine is without its problems. Countless have been the objections raised against such doctrines as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the substitutionary atonement, eternal punishment, the second coming of Christ and other vital doctrines of the faith. Our frail and feeble minds have difficulty grasping the depths and wonders of God's revelation. Our thoughts are not His thoughts, and only humble submission to the written Word of God as taught by the blessed Spirit of God will enable us to correct our thinking and to bring it more and more into harmony with God's truth. Trusting God to be our infallible Teacher and looking to God's Word as our inerrant Guide, we will now deal with some of the objections and problems relating to eternal Sonship.
1. "LUKE 1:35 INDICATES THAT CHRIST'S SONSHIP BEGAN AT HIS BIRTH."
"And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35).
This verse is frequently used as a proof text by those who teach that our Lord's Sonship began at the incarnation. We should be careful to notice, however, that the passage does not say that He would become the Son of God, but that He should be called so. At His birth He would be called the Son of God because that is exactly WHO HE WAS. He became the Son of Man at birth. He became the Son of David at birth (Rom. 1:3-4). He did not become the Son of God at birth. His humanity had a beginning because He was not always a Man. His deity had no beginning for He was always God. His relationship with the Father cannot be dated. It is eternal.
The One who was born in Bethlehem was the Son who "came forth from the Father" (John 16:28) and who had been "sent forth" by the Father (Gal. 4:4). This Child who was born was called "the Son of God" (Luke 1:35), and according to Isaiah 9:6 He was also called "the Mighty God." It is obvious that He existed as the "Mighty God" long before He was called so at His birth, just as He existed as the Son of God long before the angel announced that He would be called this at His birth. His Sonship did not originate through conception in Nazareth or through birth in Bethlehem. At the baptism and at the transfiguration God clearly identified His Son. At His birth He was clearly identified as the Son of God as well.
2. "2 SAMUEL 7:14 INDICATES THAT HIS SONSHIP IS YET FUTURE"
"I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam. 7:14)
Opponents of eternal Sonship sometimes emphasize the future tense in this verse ("I will...He shall..."). Their argument says that when this promise was given Christ was not yet the Son of God but that He would become the Son at the incarnation. Likewise they would insist that the First Person of the Trinity did not become the Father until Christ was born. They deny the eternal Sonship of the Second Person and they also deny the eternal Fatherhood of the First Person.
The emphasis of the Davidic covenant is upon the humanity of Christ. He was the human Son and descendant of David, the rightful Heir of the throne (Luke 1:32-33). The main focus is not upon His Divine Sonship but rather upon His Davidic Sonship, and it is true that He did not become David's Son until the incarnation: "His Son, Jesus Christ...was made of the seed of David according to the flesh" (Rom. 1:3). According to His divine nature He was the Son of God from all eternity.
In the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:4-17 and 1 Chronicles 17:3-15) God the Father was identifying who the Messiah would be. "I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (1 Chron. 17:13). Who will the Messiah be? It was as if God were saying, "The Messiah, the Son of David, will be My Son and I will be His Father." Not only will the Messiah be David's Son, He will be God's Son as well. This is exactly what the New Testament teaches in Romans 1:3-4 (and compare Matthew 22:41-45). In the Davidic covenant, it is important to notice that God did not say, "I will become his father, and he shall become my son."
There is a problem for those who teach that the Son did not become the Son and the Father did not become the Father until the incarnation. In the opening chapter of the Bible we are told that "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2). The Third Person of the Trinity is clearly identified in this verse as the Spirit of God at the time of creation. Are we to believe that the Third Person of the Trinity assumed His "role" as Spirit at least thousands of years before the Father became the Father and before the Son became the Son? No, He was eternally the Spirit. Indeed, He is called "the eternal Spirit" (Heb. 9:14). Likewise the Son was eternally the Son, and at the time of creation the Father made all things by the Son (Col. 1:13,16). The Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all involved in the great work of creation. May the Name of the Triune God be forever praised!
3. "IN THE OLD TESTAMENT HE IS NEVER CALLED `SON' EXCEPT PROPHETICALLY."
It is said by some that the references to God's Son in Psalm 2 are prophetic. That is, when this Psalm was written he was not the Son of God, but the prophecy anticipates a future day when He would indeed be the Son of God, beginning with His incarnation. In Psalm 2:12 the kings of the earth are told to "kiss the Son, lest He be angry." A blessing is pronounced to all those who put their trust in Him. Did Christ exist as the Son of God in the Old Testament period? Could the kings of the earth living back then enter into the blessing of this verse?
The prophet Isaiah spoke of the time when God's Son would be given (Isaiah 9:6). Again we are told that this is a prophetic passage which anticipated His Sonship at the time of the incarnation. However, the fact that God gave His Son implies that He existed as the Son before He was given. The greatness of God's gift lay in the fact that He gave One who was eternally His beloved Son.
There is yet another Old Testament passage which mentions God's Son, and there is no reason to label this verse as prophetic. It poses a question concerning the Creator: "Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? who hath gathered the wind in his fists? who hath bound the waters in a garment? who hath established all the ends of the earth? what is his name, and what is his son's name, if thou canst tell?" (Proverbs 30:4).
Little is said of the Trinity in the Old Testament, but there are important hints (such as Genesis 1:26; Psalm 110:1; Isaiah 6:8; 48:16; 61:1; 63:9-10). Likewise, the Sonship of Christ finds its full revelation on the pages of the New Testament, and yet the Old Testament is not totally silent about God's Son. In the verse cited above (Proverbs 30:4) we are told that God the Creator has a Son! This verse is not prophetic. A normal and natural reading of this verse leads to the obvious conclusion that God has a Son, not that God would at some future time have a Son. Charles Bridges has written a masterful and classic commentary on the book of Proverbs. His comments on this passage are worthy of note: "There is a Son in the Eternal Godhead; a Son, not begotten in time, but from eternity (Prov.8:22-23); his name therefore, not as some would have it, a component part of his humiliation, but the manifestation of his Godhead: co-existent with his Father in the same ineffable nature, yet personally distinct." [Bridges, Charles, Proverbs (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968 reprint), pp. 591-592.]
4. "CHRIST HAS ETERNALLY EXISTED AS THE SON BUT ONLY IN THE MIND OF GOD."
Some who are opposed to eternal Sonship teach that while Christ did not actually become the Son until the incarnation, He was eternally the Son in the mind of God. That is, God always knew and purposed that the Second Person of the Trinity would someday become the Son of God. In God's mind it was settled and certain, although it did not come to pass historically until the incarnation.
A comparison is sometimes made with respect to the expression, "the Lamb of God." When was Christ the Lamb of God? He was not actually and historically the Lamb of God until His sacrificial and substitutionary death on Calvary's cross. There is another sense, however, in which He was "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). Before the world ever existed it was settled and certain that the Second Person of the Trinity would die for sinful men! In the mind and purpose of God, He was the Lamb that was slain from the time of creation and even before, although He did not actually become God's Lamb until His death on the cross. In a similar way, could we not also speak of the "Son of God" as pre-existing in the mind and counsels of God and yet not actually becoming the Son until the incarnation?
On the surface this argument seems plausible, but there is an important distinction that must not be missed. The expression "Lamb of God" points us to our Lord's sacrificial work accomplished on the cross when He died as our sinless Substitute. This took place historically when Jesus died. The expression "Son of God" is very different, in that it speaks of our Lord's relationship to His Father which is an eternal relationship. "Lamb of God" points to His work, but "Son of God" describes His Person. Who is He? He is the Second Person of the Trinity, eternally related to His Father as Son. The Lamb who was slain was none other than the Eternal Son who had become a Man so that He might taste death for every man (Heb. 2:9).
1:4-5 TEACHES THAT CHRIST OBTAINED THE NAME OF SON AT THE INCARNATION."
"Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?" (Heb.1:4-5)
It is assumed, by those who teach this view, that the expression "this day have I begotten thee" refers to the incarnation, and that this is when Christ obtained the more excellent name of "Son" (a name which was not His prior to His birth in Bethlehem).
We do far more justice to the context of this passage when we understand it as a reference not to Christ's incarnation but to Christ's resurrection and exaltation: "when He had by Himself purged our sins, (He) sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high, being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they" (Heb. 1:3-4).
We must recognize that as God, our Lord has always been superior to the angels. Indeed, He is their Creator (Col. 1:16). By becoming a man at the incarnation Christ assumed a position inferior to that of angels, as Hebrews chapter 2 reveals. He was not made higher than the angels, but lower: "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death" (Heb. 2:9). It was at His exaltation that He obtained a higher position and a more excellent name than the angels as Paul tells us in Ephesians: "Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come" (Eph. 1:20-21). Believers share with Christ in His exalted position because we are seated in heavenly places with Him (Eph. 2:6).
It is wrong to say that Hebrews 1:4-5 refers to the incarnation because the context is speaking of His exaltation (v.3). It is also wrong to say that His exaltation was the time when He became the Son of God. He was clearly identified as God's Son prior to His exaltation--at His transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), at His baptism (Matt. 3:17) and at His birth (Luke 1:32,35). Indeed, the author of Hebrews declares in this same chapter that it was by the Son that the worlds were made (Heb. 1:2), thus making it certain that He existed as God's Son even at the time of Creation.
6. "THE TERM 'SON' PRIMARILY SIGNIFIES SUBMISSION, OBEDIENCE, SUBSERVIENCE AND EVEN INFERIORITY."
In Jewish usage the term "son" did not generally imply subjection and subordination, but rather equality and identity of nature. When the Lord Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, the Jews did not say, "You are making Yourself to be inferior and subservient to God." They clearly understood the Lord as claiming for Himself equality with God (see John 5:17-18). Even on the human plane, "son" does not always convey the idea of subjection: "The term `Son' only `denotes subjection' in childhood and in the adolescent stage, before maturity is reached. When full-grown or fully developed, the son is competent to represent the father, because he corresponds in nature and qualities with the father. The son, therefore, in normal conditions, is considered not inferior but equal to the father, and able to maintain the prestige of the family." [Hocking, The Son of His Love, p. 148]
A very helpful passage in Hebrews contains the two ideas of Sonship and subjection. Notice how they are contrasted: "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). This verse teaches that He existed as a Son: "Though he were a Son." It does not say, "When He became a Son He learned obedience." The term "though" presents us with a contrast between His Sonship and His obedience. Hocking has explained this passage well:
The truth is that the new theory which claims that "sonship" denotes subjection confuses the scriptural distinction between "son" and "servant." Subjection is a feature which is essential to the character of a servant but exceptional and voluntary in the case of a son. A son may consent to become a servant, but a servant cannot elevate himself to become a son...Subjection was foreign to the nature of the Eternal Son, yet He learned obedience when incarnate. The absurdity of the assertion that subjection is denoted by the word, Son, is seen at once when applied to this passage, substituting those words for the word "Son." The statement of the Messianic glory is converted into a mere platitude by this change: "Though He were in subjection, yet learned He obedience from the things which He suffered." How commonplace! The one who is subject must obey. The emphatic force of "though," which means "notwithstanding the fact that," is lost. The glory of the obedient Son has departed from the passage when the eternity of the Sonship is denied! [Hocking, The Son of His Love, p. 146-147].
Another important contrast between "son" and "servant" is the contrast between Christ and Moses in Hebrews 3:5-6: "And Moses verily was faithful in all his house, as a servant...But Christ as a Son over His own house."
Praise be to the Son! He who was equal with God was willing to empty Himself and humble Himself, being obedient to the Father's will even to the point of submitting to the shameful death of the cross (Phil. 2:6-8). Though He was God's eternal Son, yet He became our Servant and our Saviour and our Substitute!
7. "SONSHIP INVOLVES THE SECOND PERSON OF THE TRINITY TAKING ON A NEW FUNCTION, ASSUMING A NEW ROLE AND RECEIVING A NEW NAME AND TITLE WHICH HE DID NOT PREVIOUSLY POSSESS."
A careful and clear distinction must be made between who a person is and a title he may receive or a function he may assume or a role he may play. This is obvious on the human level. For the sake of illustration, let us say that Mr. Samuel Jones is the son of Mr. Thomas Jones. This is the person that he is, and this will never change. There are many things about Mr. Samuel Jones which could change. He could get a new job or be promoted to a new position. He could receive a new title, such as "Vice President of the Bank." None of these things will change his basic identity as the son of Mr. Thomas Jones. This is the person that he is.
How can it be said that Sonship was just a role that Christ played and a function that He assumed? How can it be taught that "Son" was His incarnate title and a new name which He never before possessed? What does the Scripture say? Is He not called "God's own Son" (Rom. 8:3)? Is He not the Father's proper and peculiar Son, His own in a sense different and distinct from any other? Is He not spoken of as the Father's "beloved Son" and "well-beloved" and "only begotten"? If such expressions do not express an actual relationship, that He is indeed the true and real and proper and unique Son of the Father, then what could these words possibly mean? [See the helpful discussion by Philpot, The True, Proper and Eternal Sonship, p.35.] As to His very Person, He is God's Son, the One who is distinct from the Father yet equal in nature. Ouweneel notes the following important distinction:
"Son (of God)" is a name, and not a title (such as King). The distinction between these two things is this: a name belongs to a person, but a title belongs to an office. A name gives expression of who a person is; a title expresses what he is. Thus in Psalm 2 Christ is called King (this tells us what He is) and He is called Son (which tells us who He is). The first thing is an "official" matter and the second a personal one...Sonship is not an office. It is definitely objectionable to refer to the expression "Son" as a title. [Ouweneel, W.J., What Is The Eternal Sonship of Christ? (Sunbury, Pennsylvania: Believers Bookshelf Inc., 1976), pp. 16-17.]
If being the "Son of God" involves His real and true and proper relationship with the Father, as a distinct Person in the Godhead and yet sharing the same divine nature, then it is certain that His Sonship must be as eternal as His relationship to the Father. To say that "He became the Son at the incarnation" is to say that prior to this there did not exist a Father/Son relationship in the Godhead. There could never be a time when He was not the Son because there could never be a time when He was other than the Person that He is, the Father's beloved and only begotten Son. He is the same, yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8). [Many opponents of eternal Sonship object to the idea of "eternal generation." Some of their objections are well founded. Eternal generation is a theological term which is not found in the Bible. It is very difficult for finite and frail men to understand the doctrine of eternal Sonship. It is well beyond the range of our own experience because we do not know of any son who did not have a beginning and who did not have a birth. The concept of eternal generation has been an attempt to describe the doctrine of eternal Sonship, but some of the arguments in support of eternal generation are weak and lack Biblical support (such as questionable exegesis of Psalm 2:7 and a misunderstanding of the term "only-begotten" in John 3:16). Those who reject eternal Sonship must also reject eternal generation. Those who firmly hold to eternal Sonship do not necessarily accept the entire concept of eternal generation. For a helpful discussion of this, see J. Oliver Buswell's Systematic Theology, Part 1, p. 112 and also the discussion by the editor, Robert Frew, in Barnes' Notes in the footnotes which accompany the commentary of Romans chapter 1 (p.16).]