John MacArthur's Position on the Eternal Sonship of Christ
MacArthur's Original Denial of Eternal Sonship in his Published Books
Note: George Zeller's comments are in bold.
"Son is an incarnational title of Christ. Though His sonship was anticipated in the Old Testament (Prov. 30:4), He did not become a Son until He was begotten into time...The Bible nowhere speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ...He was always God, but He became Son. He had not always had the title of Son. That is His incarnation title. Eternally He is God, but only from His incarnation has He been Son...Christ was not Son until His incarnation. Before that He was eternal God. It is therefore incorrect to say that Jesus Christ is eternally inferior to God because He goes under the title of Son. He is no "eternal son" always subservient to God, always less than God, always under God....His Sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity. His life as Son began in this world...He was not a son until He was born into this world through the virgin birth...The sonship of Christ is inextricably connected with His incarnation...Only after Christ's incarnation did God say, `This is My Son.'" (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary HEBREWS, 1983, pp.27-28, though in some editions of this book the pages are numbered differently [see pages 22-23]. To find these quotes look for his discussion of Hebrews 1:4-5)
MacArthur in the above quote makes his position very clear. "The Bible nowhere speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ....Christ was not Son until His incarnation....His Sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity....He is no ‘eternal son.’" MacArthur's position, therefore, is diametrically opposed to the eternal Sonship position which says that Christ is the ETERNAL SON, and that His Sonship never had a beginning.
"Did you know that when 2 Samuel was written, Jesus Christ was not the Son of God? Why? The title Son refers to Jesus Christ in His incarnation. Christ did not become the Son until He was begotten into time. Prior to His incarnation, He was the eternal God. God as Father and Jesus as the Son is God's analogy to help us understand the relationship between the first and second Persons of the Trinity....Nothing in the Bible speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ....He was always God, but He became the Son, which is more excellent than servant. He did not always have the title Son. Eternally Christ is God, but He is Son in His incarnation. It [His Sonship] is not eternal....He never became a Son until His incarnation. Before that He was the eternal God. It is incorrect to say the Jesus Christ is inferior to God because He has the title of Son. He acquired that title when He came into the world in His incarnation. Don't let anyone tell you that Christ is the eternal Son—always subservient and less than God—because He is not. Christ's Sonship is only an analogy to allow the human mind to comprehend His willing submission to the Father for the sake of our redemption. The phrase "this day" in Hebrews 1:5 shows that Christ's Sonship began at a point in time, not in eternity....Was Christ a Son before He was born into the world? No....Christ was not a Son until He came into this world through the virgin birth....After Christ's incarnation, God said, `This is My Son!' Prior to that, God had never referred to Christ in that way....Christ's Sonship began with His virgin birth. Prior to that He was eternal God in the Godhead with the other members of the Trinity....Don't ever get trapped into the heresy of those who propagate that Jesus Christ is eternally subservient to God. He set aside what was rightfully His and humbled Himself to become a Son for our sake" (John MacArthur's Bible Studies--The Superiority of Christ--Hebrews 1-2, 1986, Word of Grace Communications, pp. 52-54).In the above quote we have a very forceful and forthright denial of the doctrine of eternal Sonship. MacArthur mixes no words. The quotes in this book are actually based on Tape GC 1602, a message which was preached in 1972. His statements are strong: "Nothing in the Bible speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ...Don't let anyone tell you that Christ is the eternal Son....He is not."
MacArthur's logic and argumentation here and on Tape GC 1602 is as follows: A) It is heresy to say that Jesus Christ is eternally subservient to God. This is what some cults say (thus denying Christ's full deity and equality with the Father). These cults are heretical. B) The expression "Son of God" means "subservient to God." Conclusion: To say that Christ is the "eternal Son of God" is to say the He is "eternally subservient to God" (see B). This then would be heresy (see A).
There is something wrong with MacArthur's logic. The problem, of course, is with his second point (B). "Son of God" does not mean "subservient to God" but rather it points to His equality with the Father and His oneness and sameness of nature with the Father (John 5:18; 19:7). See the excellent discussion by Dr. Renald Showers in Chapter 7 of The Eternal Sonship of Christ (co-authored by George Zeller), the chapter entitled, "The Significance of the term ‘Son of God.’"
"Son does not refer to Jesus' divine essence...in eternity past, though there were always three persons in the Trinity, there were not yet the roles of Father and Son. Those designations apparently came into being only at the incarnation...Son was a new name, never before applied to the second person of the Godhead except prophetically, as in Psalm 2:7, which is interpreted in Hebrews 1:5-6 as referring to the event of His incarnation...Only when `the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us' as `the only begotten God' (John 1:14,18) did He take on the role and function of Son." (The MacArthur New Testament Commentary GALATIANS, 1987, pp. 107-108)
In the above quote MacArthur sees Sonship as a "role" which Christ assumed at the incarnation, and not before. According to this view, Sonship is something that is external and extrinsic and extraneous (just a "role") to the real, true, proper and essential essence of who Jesus Christ really is. MacArthur insists that "Son of God" is 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. He denies that He is really and truly and actually and properly and intrinsically and eternally the beloved Son of the Father.
This is a clear denial of eternal Sonship because he says, "Nothing tells us that He has eternally been the Son...When He became fleshly in the family of David He became a Son." This is also a clear denial of eternal Fatherhood because he says, "It wasn't a Father/Son relationship in eternity." Also in the above statements MacArthur implies that at the incarnation the Lord Jesus laid aside His equality with God. That this is not true is evident from John 5:18 where in the days of His flesh He claimed to be equal with God. John 5:18 also indicates that Sonship implies not "subserviency" as MacArthur claims but equality with God (oneness and sameness of nature with the Father). In the above tape MacArthur makes his "incarnational Sonship" view very clear. He teaches that Christ became the Son of God at the time He was born of the virgin.
"Over the years, theologians have debated about whether Christ is the Son of God in eternity. Christ is and always has been the second member of the Trinity but only became a Son in His incarnation...Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Jesus has eternally been the Son...The term Son, then, refers only to Christ's incarnation (p.35)...He became a Son by His virgin birth and was affirmed a Son again at the resurrection (p.39)...From eternity He has been the second Person of the Trinity. He assumed the role of a Son in His incarnation (p.41)" (Acting on the Good News--Romans 1:1-16, Moody Press, 1987).
In the above quote MacArthur again clearly states his denial of eternal Sonship: "Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Jesus has eternally been the Son...(He) only became a Son in His incarnation." Thus according to MacArthur the Bible nowhere teaches that Christ is the eternal Son of God. We wonder then how he can sign with hearty agreement the IFCA doctrinal statement which says, "We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became Man."
Another denial of the doctrine of eternal Sonship comes from MacArthur's major commentary on Romans 1-8, published by Moody Press (1991). Commenting on Romans 1:3-4, MacArthur says the following:
"It was at the time that He became a human being, Paul says, that Jesus was declared the Son of God. Though the plan was eternal, the title Son is reserved as an incarnational term, applied to Jesus in its fullness only after He put on the robe of humanity. He was the Son of God in the sense of oneness of essence and in the role of dutiful, loving submission to the Father in His self-emptying incarnation. There is, of course, no question that He is eternally God and eternally the second Person of the Godhead, but Paul says He was declared God's Son when He was supernaturally conceived in Mary and was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh. We could then say, then, that Christ was the Son of God from eternity in expectation and was declared God's son in fulfillment at the incarnation and forever" (p.15).
In the above quote MacArthur says that Christ was declared the Son of God at the time of the incarnation. He repeats this statement three times. This is not what Romans 1:3-4 teaches. Romans 1:3-4 teaches that He was declared to be the Son of God at the time of the resurrection: "Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead." MacArthur says that He is eternally God and eternally the second Person of the Godhead, but MacArthur does not say that he is eternally the Son. According to MacArthur, He is the Son eternally only "in expectation" but not in actuality until the time of the incarnation.
On page 16 of this same book (Romans 1-8) MacArthur says that at the time of the incarnation Christ assumed "a title and role He had not had before." He is referring here to the title and role of "Son." Thus MacArthur is saying that prior to the incarnation Christ did not have the title and role of Son: "From God's viewpoint He was begotten as Son when He came into the world" (p. 16).
MacArthur in this commentary is again careful to use guarded language in his denial of eternal Sonship, and yet he makes it very clear that his position on this has not changed. On page 16 he refers the reader to his more detailed discussion on Sonship found in his Hebrews commentary: "(For a more detailed discussion, see the author's commentary on Hebrews, pp. 24-29)" It was in this commentary that he clearly denied the doctrine of eternal Sonship by saying, "The Bible nowhere speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ...He was always God, but He became Son....only from His incarnation has He been Son....Christ was not Son until His incarnation....His Sonship began in a point of time" (see the full quotation earlier in this paper).
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