The Importance of the Doctrine
Why does it matter?
|"But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name...Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?" (John 20:31; 1 John 5:5).|
God's commandment is that we should believe on the name of His Son (1 John 3:23). The Father's gift of love to this world is His only begotten Son (John 3:16). If a person is condemned, it is because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God (John 3:18). "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36). The great confession that must flow from the lips of believers is this: "We believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God" (John 6:69). The person who has the Son is the person who has eternal life (1 John 5:11-12). It is with ceaseless thanksgiving that we can praise the Father for delivering us from the power of darkness and translating us into the kingdom of the Son of His love (Col. 1:13). Certainly the concept of SONSHIP is central to our faith, and it is essential that our concept of Christ's SONSHIP be in full harmony with God's revelation.
What should our attitude be toward a person who denies the doctrine of eternal Sonship? How critical is this issue? How important is this doctrine? How dangerous is the view which supposes that our Lord became the Son of God at some point in history? Should we be tolerant of those who hold such a view? Should we consider them to be sound in the faith and orthodox?
There are those today who do not consider this to be an important issue. We are told that if a person strongly believes in the deity of Christ and in the eternality of Christ and in the Triune Godhead, then whether or not he believes in eternal Sonship is a very minor matter. It is said that those who deny eternal Sonship and those who affirm eternal Sonship are both within the orthodox camp and should be considered sound in the faith. Indeed, why does it really matter since we would all agree that Jesus Christ is in fact the Son of God, both now and forevermore? Our only disagreement involves the question of when He became the Son.
There are others who have embraced the doctrine of eternal Sonship and see it as a vital doctrine which must not be compromised. During the past century many in the Plymouth Brethren assemblies have valiantly defended this doctrine and have broken fellowship over this issue as necessary. [For an insightful look at the controversy in the Brethren assemblies, see R.A.Huebner, F.E.Raven's Evil Doctrines on the Person of Christ (Morganville, New Jersey: Present Truth Publishers, 1980).] Many doctrinal statements of churches, Bible schools and mission agencies declare that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, and the inclusion of such indicates that this doctrine is considered important and an integral part of "those things which are most surely believed among us."
Of historical interest is the case of Calvin and the intolerant Swiss Reformers in the days when Servetus was burned at the stake for his heresies on the Trinity. The controversy centered on his denial of the doctrine of eternal Sonship:
When Servetus heard of the unexpected sentence of death, he was horror-struck...The venerable old Farel visited him in the prison at seven in the morning, and remained with him till the hour of his death. He tried to convince him of his error. Servetus asked him to quote a single Scripture passage where Christ was called "Son of God" before his incarnation. Farel could not satisfy him. [Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910), p. 783.]
Servetus was taken to the stake to be burned. The account continues:
The flames soon reach him and consume his mortal frame in the forty-fourth year of his fitful life. In the last moment he is heard to pray, in smoke and agony, with a loud voice: "Jesus Christ, thou Son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me!" This was at once a confession of his faith and of his error. He could not be induced, says Farel, to confess that Christ was the eternal Son of God. [Ibid., p. 785.]
It is one thing to condemn error but quite another thing to put to death the offender. Obviously we do not recommend the execution of those who deny the doctrine of eternal Sonship. Some of these men we hold in high esteem and we appreciate their Bible-centered teaching in other areas and the contributions which they have made by way of pulpit and pen. At the same time, we dare not minimize the importance of sound doctrine as it relates to the matter of eternal Sonship. We must give our hearty "Amen" to what the Spirit of God teaches us in the Word of God about the Son of God.
Does it really matter? Does it really make a difference? These who deny eternal Sonship believe in the deity of Christ. They believe in the pre-existence or eternality of Christ. They believe in the three Persons of the Trinity who have eternally existed. Should we be alarmed just because they understand the term "Son of God" differently then we do? Is it really that serious of a problem? Is it flagrant error which, if left unchecked, would do damage to the body of Christ?
To answer these questions the reader is asked to consider thoughtfully the following discussion. Those who deny eternal Sonship are immediately faced with at least ten serious problems. These will now be discussed one by one:
1) Those who deny eternal Sonship are proposing a view which is contrary to the plain teaching of the Bible.
For Biblical proof that the Second Person of the Triune God has eternally existed as the Son, see The Doctrine of the Eternal Sonship of Christ--A Defense of this Vital Doctrine.
They deny what the Scriptures assert: that Christ is the eternal Son. They also assert what the Scriptures deny: that He became the Son at the incarnation or at some other point in history. Unbiblical teaching of any kind is serious enough, but how much more so when dealing with a subject as important as the Person of Christ and His relationship with the Father. It is crucially important that we give a clear and correct answer to our Lord's question, "But whom say ye that I am?" (Matt. 16:15-16).
Every believer must acknowledge or confess the Son (1 John 2:23). This means that we must acknowledge that Jesus Christ is exactly Who God says He is. We must agree with God by saying the same thing about the Son as He says. God the Father has testified concerning His Son (1 John 5:9) and we need to be in full agreement with this testimony. In His Word the Father has given clear and ample testimony regarding His eternal Son and it is neither wise nor safe to deny what God has said or to disagree with this testimony.
2) Those who deny eternal Sonship must change the normal and natural meaning of many key passages of Scripture, often robbing the text of its force or true significance.
The following are but a few examples of how certain verses would need to be paraphrased and re-interpreted according to one's view of Sonship by means of incarnation:
COLOSSIANS 1:13,16--All things were created by the Son
who was not truly the Son until thousands of years after the time of
JOHN 3:16--God so loved the world that He gave the One
who became His only begotten Son at the time of the incarnation.
JOHN 3:17--God sent His Son into the world to be the
Saviour, although the One who was sent did not actually become the Son until
He came into the world by way of incarnation.
JOHN 16:28--The Lord Jesus came forth from the Father who
was not actually His Father until He had come forth.
JOHN 17:24--The Father loved the Son before the
foundation of the world, though at that time there did not yet exist a
1 JOHN 1:1-2--In the beginning the One who is Eternal
Life was with the Father, although in the beginning He was not yet the Son
and the Father was not yet the Father.
JOHN 1:18--Before the foundation of the world the One we now know as the Son was in the bosom of the One we now know as Father, delighting in the love of the One who would someday become His Father at the incarnation.
3) Those who deny eternal Sonship divorce Christ's Sonship from the Person that He truly is.
When speaking of the Son they place the emphasis upon who He became rather than upon who He is. They would say that He became the Son. They insist that before the incarnation He was not the Son. Before the incarnation Jesus Christ existed as the Second Person of the Trinity in all of the inherent fullness and glory of His blessed Person. He was everything that the eternal God should be. If He were not the Son prior to His coming into this world, then it must be concluded that Sonship bears no real and intrinsic relationship to His eternal Person, because He could be exactly Who He is and yet not be the Son. According to this view, Sonship must be something that is external and extrinsic and extraneous to the real, true, proper and essential essence of who Jesus Christ really is.
In contrast to this view, the Bible teaches that the Sonship of Jesus Christ involves the very Person and Nature of our Lord, the essence of WHO HE IS as the Second Person of the Trinity. Since He can never become other than WHO HE IS, then He can never exist apart from being the Son. We cannot and we must not divorce His Sonship from His Person. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8) and He is the Son yesterday, today and forever. To say that He once existed without being the Son of God, is to say that He once was other than Who He really is. The Gospel of John was written so that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God (John 20:31). It was not written so that we might believe that He became the Son of God.
4) Those who deny eternal Sonship misrepresent the entire concept of Sonship by making it merely a role or title or name or office or function.
They refuse to recognize Sonship as part of His real and actual and intrinsic Nature. They insist that "Son of God" was merely a title He acquired, a role He played, a name He took on and a function that He assumed at the time of the incarnation. They deny that He was really and truly and actually and properly and intrinsically and eternally the beloved Son of the Father. According to their view, He is Son, not because of who He is essentially and ontologically, but because of what He became and what He did. Their teaching with respect to the Father would be the same. They would say that the First Person of the Trinity received the title and took on the role of "Father" at the incarnation.
5) Those who deny eternal Sonship misunderstand the basic significance of the expression "Son of God."
They teach that the primary significance of Sonship is that of submission, subservience, obedience, and even inferiority. They confuse Sonship with servitude, whereas the Bible contrasts these two concepts (Heb. 5:8; and see also Heb. 3:5-6). They understand the expression "Son of God" as an incarnate title, referring to a name He assumed and a role He played when He became a Man.
The New Testament makes it abundantly evident that "Son of God" denotes not inferiority but equality (John 5:17-18). To claim to be the Son of God was to claim to be of the same nature as God, to be one with God. Whereas the term "Son of Man" refers to His humanity, the term "Son of God" emphasizes His full deity. The Lord Jesus did not become the "Son of God" at His incarnation; He became the "Son of Man." To describe and define His incarnate Humanity by the term "Son of God" is a grave mistake. [My thanks to Miles Stanford, author of The Complete Green Letters, for his unpublished study on eternal Sonship which has provided helpful insight into these matters.]
6) Those who deny eternal Sonship also deny eternal Fatherhood.
If Christ was not always the Son, then the First Person of the Trinity was not always the Father. He cannot exist as Father apart from the Son. As Dr. John Walvoord has correctly stated, "If Christ became a Son by means of the incarnation and was not a Son before that event, then the Father was not a Father of the Lord Jesus before the incarnation." [John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ our Lord (Chicago: Moody Press, 1969), p. 39.] We are told that the Son was not the Son, and the Father was not the Father, until the incarnation. This is strange doctrine when we consider that the Third Person of the Trinity was clearly identified as "the Spirit of God" thousands of years before the incarnation (Gen. 1:2)!
7) Those who deny eternal Sonship are forced to admit that in the eternal ages prior to the incarnation we have a NAMELESS TRINITY.
That is, there are no Bible names by which we can identify the Persons of the Trinity in eternity past. How do we identify and speak of God prior to the creation of the universe? What Names do we use to identify the Persons of the Trinity? If the Second Person were not the Son at this time, who was He? The same could be asked concerning the Father. According to this view, not only would we have a nameless Trinity, but we would also be forced to say that God has not chosen to reveal Himself as He really is, but only as He was pleased to become. [See the helpful discussion of this in F.W.Grant's, The Crowned Christ (Sunbury, PA: Believers Bookshelf, 1984 reprint), p. 21.] The Triune God, according to this view, has revealed only the "titles" He would assume and the "roles" He would take on, but He has not revealed Himself as He really is.
8) Those who deny eternal Sonship fail to explain the nature of the relationship which existed in past ages between the First and Second Persons of the Godhead.
Dr. Walvoord says that the view which begins Christ's Sonship
at the incarnation leaves "unexplained the mystery of the relation of the first
Person to the second Person--indeed why the titles and order are justified."
[Walvoord, p.39.] Prior to the creation of
the universe, what relationship existed between the Persons of the Trinity?
Those who reject the idea of eternal Sonship often refer to the First Person and
the Second Person. These, however, are theological terms not found in the Bible.
Furthermore, the terms "First Person" and "Second Person" are really derived
from the doctrine of eternal Sonship, and apart from this doctrine these terms
lose their meaning. It is because there existed an eternal relationship between
the Father and Son that we can thus refer to the First Person (Father) and
Second Person (Son). Our being able to rank them "first" and "second" and
"third" is possible only because God has revealed Himself as the One true God,
eternally existing in three Persons--Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
[The doctrinal statement of the Independent Fundamental
Churches of America says it this way, "We believe in one Triune God, eternally
existing in three Persons--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."] "God in Three
Persons, blessed Trinity!"]
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
False teaching can be dangerous, not only because it misrepresents God's facts upon which one's faith is to be fixed, but also because of where this wrong doctrine can lead and how it can influence others. One person who holds to a false view of Christ could open the door for another person to hold an even more dangerous view. One error can lead to a far worse error. If a person forsakes the doctrine of eternal Sonship, where might this lead others? A wrong concept concerning Christ's Sonship can pave the way for an even more serious error. In our final two points, let us consider what might happen when the safe and sound doctrine of Christ's eternal Sonship is abandoned:
9) Those who deny eternal Sonship are paving the way for the teaching that the Persons of the Trinity could have been interchangeable.
This is the teaching which says that the Father could have been the Son, the Spirit could have been the Father, the Son could have been the Spirit, etc. Actually, if "Son" and "Father" are merely roles and titles, then why could not these roles and titles have been interchanged? Philpot explains it this way:
If Father, Son and Holy Ghost are mere names and titles, distinct from and independent of their very mode of subsistence, the Holy Ghost might have been the Father and sent the Son, or the Son might have been the Father...for if the three Persons of the Trinity are three distinct subsistences, independent of each other, and have no such mutual and eternal relationship as these very names imply, there seems to be no reason why these titles might not have been interchanged...for certainly if they are three equal, independent Persons, at liberty to choose Their several titles, there appears to be no reason why They should not have chosen otherwise than They did...the Father might have been the Son, and the Son might have been the Father, etc....We see therefore, into what confusion men get when they forsake the simple statements of Scripture. [J.C.Philpot, The True, Proper, and Eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ, pp. 31,39-40.]
God is not the Author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33)!
10) Those who deny eternal Sonship are paving the way for the teaching that says there was a time when Jesus Christ was less than God.
Thankfully many who teach that Christ became the Son by means of incarnation would recoil in horror from the thought that He was ever less than God, and yet this is what their teaching actually implies. The New Testament makes it very clear that the expression "Son of God" was a declaration of deity. At the trial of Christ, the key issue was whether or not He was the Son of God. When Jesus affirmed His divine Sonship He was condemned to die for blasphemy (Matt. 26:63; Luke 22:70; John 19:7). He was claiming to be EQUAL WITH GOD (compare John 5:18)! He was claiming to share God's divine Nature. To say, "I am the Son of God" was the same as saying, "I am God. I am of the same Nature as the Father. I and my Father are One!"
The implications of this need to be carefully weighed. Suppose a person correctly understands "Son of God" as an expression which clearly indicates the full deity of Christ. He knows that as God's Son He is distinct from the Father yet shares the same divine Nature as the Father. What happens when we tell this person that Jesus Christ became God's Son and that there was a time when Jesus Christ was not the Son of God? There is only one conclusion he can come to: There must have been a time when Jesus Christ was less than God and when He did not share or fully possess the divine Nature. The implication is that He became full deity and of the same nature as God at the time of His incarnation. Prior to His becoming the Son He must have been less than full deity. Denial of Christ's eternal Sonship could lead to a denial of the full and eternal deity of Christ.
WHAT OTHER BIBLE TEACHERS HAVE SAID REGARDING ETERNAL SONSHIP
We fully recognize that the testimony of God is infinitely greater than the testimony of men (1 John 5:9). God's Word is our infallible and final authority in determining the nature of Christ's Sonship. It is of interest, however, to consider what respected Bible teachers have written on the subject of eternal Sonship. Here are some examples:
John N. Darby, Chief Founder of the Plymouth Brethren and the Father of Revived Dispensationalism:
The eternal Sonship is a vital truth, or else we lose the Father sending the Son, and the Son creating, and we have no Father if we have no Son, so that it [the doctrine of eternal Sonship] lies at the basis of all truth...I hold it vital to hold the Sonship before the worlds. It is the truth. [John N. Darby, "The Son of Man," in Notes and Comments, Vol. II., p. 423 and also in a tract by the same author on eternal Sonship published by Present Truth Publishers, 411 Route 79, Morganville, NJ 07751.]
C.H.Mackintosh, Plymouth Brethren Author and Preacher:
I would, at this point, solemnly admonish my reader, that he cannot be too jealous in reference to the vital truth of the Person and the relations of the Lord Jesus Christ. If there be error as to this, there is no security as to any thing. God cannot give the sanction of His presence to aught that has not this truth for its foundation. The Person of Christ is the living--the divine centre round which the Holy Ghost carries on all His operations. Let slip the truth as to Him, and you are like a vessel broken from its moorings, and carried, without rudder or compass, over the wild watery waste, and in imminent danger of being dashed to fragments upon the rocks of Arianism, Infidelity, or Atheism. Question the eternal Sonship of Christ, question His deity, question His unspotted humanity, and you have opened the floodgate for a desolating tide of deadly error to rush in. Let no one imagine, for a moment, that this is a mere matter to be discussed by learned theologians--a curious question--a recondite mystery--a point about which we may lawfully differ. No; it is a vital, fundamental truth, to be held in the power of the Holy Ghost, and maintained at the expense of all beside--yea, to be confessed under all circumstances, whatever may be the consequences. [C.H.Mackintosh, Notes on the Book of Leviticus (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1965), pp. 41-42.]
T. Ernest Wilson, Author and Missionary to Angola for nearly half a century:
The eternal Sonship of Christ is one of the most vital, basic doctrines of the Word of God. It is denied by many heretical cults, but held and valued by all those who know and love our Lord Jesus Christ...we must be on guard against those who say that He only became the Son of God at His incarnation and who deny His eternal Sonship. [T. Ernest Wilson, The Messianic Psalms (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1978), pp. 16-17.]
Charles Hodge, American Presbyterian Theologian:
The [Nicene] Council declared that our Lord is the Eternal Son of God, i.e., that He is from eternity the Son of God. This of course involves the denial that He became the Son of God in time; and consequently, that the primary and essential reason for his being called Son is not his miraculous birth, nor his incarnation, nor his resurrection, nor his exaltation to the right hand of God. The Council decided that the word Son as applied to Christ, is not a term of office but of nature; that it expresses the relation which the Second Person in the Trinity from eternity bears to the First Person, and that the relation thus indicated is sameness of nature, so that Sonship, in the case of Christ, includes equality with God. [Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979 reprint), p. 471.]
Augustus H. Strong, Baptist Minister and Theologian:
The Sonship of Christ is eternal...neither the incarnation, the baptism, the transfiguration, nor the resurrection marks the beginning of Christ's Sonship, or constitutes him the Son of God. These are but recognitions or manifestations of a preexisting Sonship, inseparable from his Godhood...Not a commencement of existence, but an eternal relation to the Father--there never having been a time when the Son began to be, or when the Son did not exist as God with the Father. [Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1907), p. 340.]
C.I. Scofield, Dispensational Author and Bible Teacher, Founder of the Central American Mission:
God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This relation, in some sense not clearly explained, is fundamental in the divine Being and always existed. Although in His incarnation our Lord became a true human being, at the same time He continued to be "the Son of God." [C.I. Scofield, The Scofield Correspondence Course, Vol. VI (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1959), p. 1482.]
Lewis Sperry Chafer, Dispensational Theologian and Founder of Dallas Theological Seminary:
He was the Son of God from all eternity, but He became Son of man by incarnation...various theories which contend that Christ was: (a) Son of God by virtue of incarnation; (b) that He was Son of God by virtue of His resurrection; or (c) that He was Son of God by mere title or official position, break down before the volume of Biblical testimony which asserts that He was Son of God from all eternity. [Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology (Dallas: Dallas Seminary Press, 1948). See Volume VII, p. 290 and Vol. III, p. 30.]
John F. Walvoord, Author, Theologian and for many years President of Dallas Theological Seminary:
The consensus of the great theologians of the church and the great church councils is to the effect that Christ has been a Son from eternity; and the theory that He became a Son by incarnation is inadequate to account for the usage of the term...The Scriptures represent Christ as eternally the Son of God by eternal generation. While it must be admitted that the nature of the generation is unique, being eternal, sonship has been used in the Bible to represent the relationship between the first Person and the second Person...The scriptural view of the sonship of Christ, as recognized in many of the great creeds of the church, is that Christ was always the Son of God. [Walvoord, pp. 39,41,42.]
The Lord Jesus Christ is God's unique and beloved Son from all eternity. Long before the universe ever was, the Son of God was basking in the sunlight of His Father's love, resting in the joy of His Father's bosom and delighting in the blessedness of His Father's fellowship. The Son was distinct in Personality from the Father yet was one in nature, sharing all of the attributes of deity. In the fullness of time the Father sent forth His Son into this world on a saving mission (Gal. 4:4; John 3:17). "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). Blessed by His Name! May all those who love the Saviour join in ascribing honor and glory to the eternal Son, who is worthy of such both now, in the ages past and forever!