Donald Macleod asks, “Granting, however, that there is a real personal distinction between the Father and the Son, is the sonship eternal?” (Macleod 127)
The answer to the question is “Yes”. Those who are new to doctrinal discussions concerning the Trinity and Jesus Christ may sometimes find it difficult at first to understand how Jesus, the Son of God, has always been the Son. The issue is by no means a new one.
It was the rise of Arianism that forced the issue into prominence, because it called in question not so much the sonship of Christ as his eternal pre-existence, arguing that the very fact that he was Son meant that he came into being after the Father; and arguing further that he was a creature made in time, and made out of nothing: ‘There was when he was not.’ Over against this the Nicene Creed insisted that the Son was begotten, not made; that he was begotten of the very essence of the Father; that he was the only begotten; and that he was begotten before all ages. The Nicene fathers also anathematized the distinctive Arian formulas. In particular they anathematized the statement that the Son was begotten of another hypostasis or ousia; and the statement that ‘he was not before he was begotten.’ After Nicea the idea of the eternal sonship became the received doctrine of the church, and it pervades the writings of Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine. (127)
Believe it or not there were people who lived before you and thought through most of the issues that you find difficult and think nobody else has ever encountered! We see again the importance of studying history. Church history is one of the most important areas of study for the apologetic endeavor. Macleod writes that “the idea of the generation of the Son was used by the fathers in three different ways: of the procession of the Logos from the Father to undertake the work of creation; of his birth from the Virgin Mary; and of his eternal generation.” (128)
While Macleod mentions that Arianism brought about debate concerning the eternal sonship of Christ he also explains that there have been some who , “while believing firmly in the eternal deity of the Logos, have questioned whether he was eternal as Son.“ (127) Macleod lists Moses Stuart, some English Baptists, and John MacArthur as examples. Please note that MacArthur has since changed his position (Macleod’s book is copyright 1998 and apparently MacArthur changed his view the following year). MacArthur expressed his erroneous view as quoted in Macleod.
Eternally he is God, but only from his incarnation has he been Son…[He] is no eternal Son always subservient to God, always less than God, always under God. Sonship is an analogy to help us understand Christ’s essential relationship and willing submission to the Father for the sake of our redemption…[H]is sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity. His life as Son began in this world. (John MacArthur as quoted in Macleod 127-128)
MacArthur’s position was what is called incarnational sonship as opposed to eternal sonship. He denied that Jesus was “always subservient to God, always less than God, always under God.” He believed that sonship is only an “analogy”. Sonship is similarly described by Ergun Caner (President of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary) as “metaphor”. Caner also holds that “sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity” as MacArthur once did. Incarnational sonship entails that Jesus was not the Son until “His life as Son began in this world.” (MacArthur explains his change in position here.)
Thus Ergun Caner:
His sonship comes in incarnation. When Jesus is incarnate – God the Father sending the Son – it is that moment that the term carries with it more than just a metaphor. Now He is the Son of the Father… When Jesus refers to Himself as the Son that’s a messianic term. Both ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’ were messianic terms – the fulfillment of prophecy in the OT – and to be fulfilled the incarnation had to take place. God had to put on flesh…Either God becomes schizophrenic again to take the metaphor or we have a superman or what we call Modalism…The sonship has been eternal but the metaphor itself becomes flesh. The incarnation didn’t take place until Bethlehem. He didn’t put on flesh until He put on flesh…He didn’t internally exist in flesh.
Macleod argues that there are serious issues raised by the discussion of eternal sonship. A passage like John 3.16 carries the weight that it does because of the Son’s relationship with the Father. Macleod writes, “He did not become God’s Son by being given: he was given as God’s Son.” (128) Macleod continues, “He was sent out from God’s presence as his Son (Gal. 4:4)…He became an atoning sacrifice as God’s Son (1 Jn. 2:2).” (128) Additionally Macleod highlights the corollary nature of eternal sonship with homoousion in the mind of the Nicene fathers explaining that, “Christ shared the Father’s nature because he was the Father’s Son and he was the Father’s Son because he shared his nature.” (128-129) Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianzen are quoted to this effect. Further, Jesus is not a creature if He is the Son of God. Finally, “we lose the distinctive property by which we distinguish one person from another.” (129) If the Son is differentiated in terms of His being begotten then it is difficult to explain how the Trinity can be understood in any meaningful fashion. There are other even more serious concerns which are related to the denial of eternal sonship. My intent is not to assume that such problems are a necessary part of incarnational sonship and I do not mean to attribute the problems to anyone in particular as an accepted logical outcome of the position in question. Additionally I do not mean to imply that either MacArthur was or Caner is unfamiliar with Church History. Rather I wish to highlight the dangers of abandoning a traditional orthodox position on such a matter. The view is in error and deserves correction.
Scripture is our final authority. History is a help!
Donald Macleod. The Person of Christ (Contours of Christian Theology). Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1998.