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From time to time I make new entries into this continuing series called “Theological Primer.” The idea is to present big theological concepts in under 500 words (or pretty close–what’s a couple hundred words among friends?). Today we look at the eternality of the Son of God.

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There never was when he was not.

That was the bone of contention with Arianism, the fourth century heresy which rejected the full deity of the Son of God. The issue was not whether the Son was divine in some sense, but whether he shared the same essence (homoousia) as the Father. In particular, Arius held that sonship necessarily implied having a beginning. While Arius affirmed that Christ was preexistent and that all things were created through him, he also believed that the Father created the Son. According to Arius, “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten has a beginning of existence; hence it is clear that there was when he was not.” Arius was careful not to use the word “time,” because he believed the Son existed before the ages began, but for Arius eternality and sonship could not go together. The Son was a divine being, but a created being with a derivative deity

How should we respond to this claim? It’s not enough to point to passages where Christ is worshiped or where the deity of the Son is broadly affirmed. Arius did not reject these conclusions and neither do modern day Arians. Where do we turn to defend the belief that there never was when the Son of God was not?

Four passages come to mind:

1) In John 8:58 Jesus says to his opponents, “before Abraham was, I am.” Not only does Jesus link himself to Yahweh’s great “I AM” statement of Exodus 3:14, he also makes allusion to the “I am” declarations  in Isaiah 40-55 (e.g., “I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” [Isa. 41:4]). Jesus considered himself as eternal as the God of the Old Testament was eternal. Little wonder some unbelieving Jews thought him a blasphemer and tried to kill him (John 8:59).

2) Likewise, Philippians 2:5-11 places Christ Jesus right in the middle of the most exalted language of Isaiah 45-46. The prediction that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (v. 10-11), comes from Isaiah 45:23. Jesus is identified with the God who says “I am” and “there is no other” (Isa. 45:22), with the God who declares the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:9-10).

3) Hebrews 7:3 describes Melchizedek–the mysterious king of Salem from Genesis 14–as “having neither beginning of days nor end of life.” Whatever this means about Melchizedek himself (a pre-incarnate Christ or simply a type of Christ), for the analogy to hold (“resembling the Son of God”) Christ must also have neither beginning of days nor end of life.

4) Most convincingly, in Revelation 22:13 Jesus announces, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Earlier in the book, God says the same thing, making specific reference to his eternality as the one who is and who was and who is to come (Rev. 1:8; 21:6). In whatever sense the Father is the beginning and the end, so is the Son. One cannot be more or less eternal than the other.

No matter our experience of sonship (i.e., having a beginning), the divine must be the lens through which we understand the human, not the other way around. Without the eternality of the Son, we do not have a Christ who can fully save because we do not have a Christ who shares in all the attributes of deity. Without eternal Sonship, we cannot affirm that the Father has always been the Father. And if the Father has not always been in communion with the Son, then love cannot be eternal, for the Father would have had to create another being in order to give and receive love. Likewise, it is only with eternal Sonship that the economic Trinity (that which we see about God in the unfolding of redemptive history) corresponds to any real ultimate truth about God. The God who is must be the God who always was.

 


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17 thoughts on “Theological Primer: Eternal Sonship”

  1. Kenton says:

    The points about the eternal deity of Christ line up with Scripture (particularly Hebrews and Revelation), but there are a few things that don’t:

    1) In some sense Arius was right: sonship implies derivation. Even the confessions acknowledge it by the use of “begotten”. The construction “eternally begotten” cannot be supported by Scripture because begotten as used in the New Testament refers to the Incarnation. Likewise, “eternal sonship” doesn’t seem to be as robustly supported. Jesus’ sonship is more often than not connected to his Messianic identity. According to the angel in Luke, Jesus was to be called the Son of God because a) he was David’s heir, and b) he was conceived by the power of God (see John 1’s description of the children of God). Notably, John 1 doesn’t identify Jesus as the Son until he mentions the Incarnation – perhaps why the earliest direct statements about the Trinity instead referred to him as the Word/Logos.

    2) I’ve repeatedly seen the argument that if the Son wasn’t eternal, then the love between the Father and Son wouldn’t be eternal, and the Father would have needed to create in order to love. I’ve also heard an alternative argument that God didn’t create the world out of need because the Father, Son, and Spirit were perfectly satisfied in the love shared between them.

    These arguments, though well meaning, have always been problemmatic. The first argument carries the implication that the Father is not sufficient in himself, nor the Son sufficient in himself, but both are only sufficient in each other. This would mean that the Father isn’t fully God, nor the Son fully God, but each is only a part of deity. But, if we did not need to exist for God to love us (Eph. 1:4), why do we try to make that argument re: Jesus?

  2. Jerry Goodwin says:

    Is your “Theological Primer” available at one particular website? Is it in printed form?

  3. lwesterlund says:

    Thank you, Kevin, for a succinct summary of a theological truth. And thank you, Kenton, for a thoughtful comment.
    All food for thought!

  4. anaquaduck says:

    As a teacher, God uses the earthly human relationship of family & authority to convey part of His being. These good things in a way although earthly are also eternal as they come from the character of God but are also limited in understanding because of the fall, the essence of marriage will remain in heaven but not as we realise it here on earth…

    This is a bit transfigurational for me, Jesus talking with Moses & Elijah & then the discussion with the disciples about Elijah with reference to John the Baptist. Matt 17:1-13.

  5. Kevin DeYoung says:

    I’ve only done four or five posts in the Theological Primer series. I should get around to it more often. If you put “Theological Primer” in the search window on this blog, you’ll get all that I’ve written so far.

  6. Stephen Houghton says:

    The 2 greatest most magnificent and yet deeply mysterious concepts in our created universe that blows our feeble finite fallen minds are the Trinity and the Incarnation.
    What a wonder to think that the Eternal Son left the transcendent to condescend into His created realm and to forever more be clothed in humanity (now glorified) to provide salvation for humanity and the whole of creation.
    GLORIA IN EXCELSIS!

  7. Andrew says:

    Hi Kenton,
    I think there’s pretty good evidence that Jesus is son in Heb 1 – the reason why Jesus is a better revelation than the other prophets is because he is a son – if “son” were merely functional here then the argument would fall flat.
    But even without the language of sonship, the structural elements are there in other symbols – see John 1; Heb 1; Col 1: “word” “stamp” “reflection” “image”. All these are in tune with the idea of one person coming from another and fully expressing that original person – which is what a son is.
    If this sounds Arian to you, can I recommend Athanasius’s excellent “On the Incarnation”? The church Fathers were well aware of the issues you raise.

  8. Chris says:

    Thanks for this posting. The verse that came to mind for me, though it’s short is John 10:30

  9. JR says:

    Kenton, if we say that Jesus is not the eternal Son, then that also means that God is not the eternal Father, one is ontologically tied to the other.
    RC Sproul makes a great point that the first Adam was created and not born, whereas the second Adam was born, not created. The incarnation of Christ in no way necessitates a beginning of His essence. As we know, In the Beginning Was the Word..who came to dwell among us. If Christ existed from before the beginning, then it is impossible for Him to not have eternally existed as second person of the Trinity.

  10. Kenton says:

    JR, I’m not saying anything about whether or not Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. My question, I suppose, could be worded as what does it mean for him to be the eternal second person of the eternal Trinity. As I see it in Athanasius and most of the theologians prior to him, it means that he is the eternal Word of the eternal God, fully divine, equally eternal, yet coming from Him. Sonship doesn’t, and cannot, convey the same thing.

    Sonship necessarily implies derivation of existence and subordination in authority (or glory). If you take one of these away, it isn’t sonship. Derivation without subordination in authority is mere duplication. Subordination without derivation of being is mere servitude. To say that Jesus is the Son of God, but as Son neither derives existence from God nor is subordinate to God as a son, is to say that Jesus is Son in name only. Even a figurative use of ‘son’ implies at least derivation of behavior and conduct. The bottom line is that ‘sonship’ does not connote equality.

    My point, however, is that Jesus is ‘Son’ specifically in his Incarnation (which endures forever). Luke and John seem to support this.

    In Luke, the angel first states that Jesus will be *called* the Son of the Most High and “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:32-3). The implication is that Jesus is called the Son of the Most High because he reigns as the God-appointed king over the saints of the Most High. Then angel then says that Jesus will be called “holy – the Son of God” because Jesus will be born by the power of the Holy Spirit of the Most High. In both cases, Jesus’ identity as Son is not tied to his eternal existence, but to the fact that his life and rule come directly from God.

    John does even more. First, John calls Jesus the Word only until he mentions the Incarnation, at which point he says, “glory as of the only Son from the Father.” And this after he says that the offspring of God are born of God. Then, in almost every passage wherein Jesus claims divine authority, he appeals to derivation:

    John 5 – “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (v.19); “as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to whom he will” (v.21); “as the Father has life in himself, so he has *granted* the Son also to have life in himself” (v.26).

    John 6 – “as the living Father sent me, and *I live because of the Father*, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me” (v.57).

    John 7 – “my teaching is not my own, but his who sent me” (v.16).

    John 8 – “you will know that I am he, and *that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (v.28); “I came not of my own accord, but he sent me” (v.42); “I do not seek my own glory; there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge” (v.50).

    John 13 – “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, *but the Father who dwells in me does his works*” (v.10).

    John 15 – “all that I have *heard from my Father* I have made known to you” (v.15).

    John 20 – “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (v.17).

    Keep all this in mind when John says, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is *the Christ, the Son of God*, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (v.31).

    There are also all of the places (outside of John) where it is stated that *God the Father* raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus’ declaration that he has been *given* all authority in heaven and on earth, or Peter’s statement that God *made* Jesus Lord and Christ, or Paul’s statement that the *Father* subjected all things under Christ’s feet, or the fact that ‘image of God’ implies a visible (i.e., embodied) representation of someone/thing not visibly present.

    In no way do I mean to deny Christ’s divinity by pointing these out, but I do mean to show that it is not as an abstract Man that Jesus *was* subordinate and *derived* authority and life from God, but that it is as the Son of God that he *is* subordinate and *presently* derives authority to speak, rule, redeem, judge, resurrect, and recreate. If all his words and actions were meant to show that he is the Son of God the Father, and yet all of his words and actions were derived from God by teaching or commandment, then “Son of God” must refer to Jesus as the Incarnate Word.

    Andrew, see most of what’s above. I’m not arguing that Jesus isn’t son, nor that he isn’t eternal; I’m saying that sonship is necessarily derivative and subordinate. Hebrews 1 certainly calls Jesus God’s Son and implies that he is eternal, but it doesn’t necessarily imply that he was Son eternally. On the use of “word”, “stamp”, “reflection”, “image”: yes, they do refer to something that comes from another and expresses that original thing. Yes, that is what a son is, and that is my point. Derivation captures that point. But, all of these terms imply that the thing that derives from the original doesn’t have meaning in itself, but only in that which it reflects. So, the face imprinted on the coin doesn’t have intrinsic meaning, but only meaning in the person whose face it reflects, the stamp only has meaning in the authority that it represents, the word in the person whose idea it conveys.

  11. Andrew says:

    Hi Kenton,
    I think I want to nuance your statement that “‘sonship’ does not connote equality.”
    That’s both true and untrue isn’t it? Jesus is not equal relative to the Father because he “can do nothing of himself, but only what he sees his father doing (etc).” But because the Father does *everything* through the Son, the Son is absolutely equal from the external perspective – we all have “honour the Son as we honour the Father who sent him.”
    But I think I’m a bit in the dark about how you see the second person of the Trinity in eternity. Does he have his own centre of will and power which is separate from the Father’s? To sharpen the question, whose idea was it to make the world?

  12. Kenton says:

    Andrew, In the sense that Jesus is a decision-making and acting person, of course the Word has his own center of will and power. But I don’t think you will find any place in Scripture that says that Jesus initiated anything, nor predestined anything according to his will, nor worked all things according to the counsel of his own will. Nor, I think, will you find it said that Jesus volunteered himself to take on the redemption of Man, as Flavel imagined (see reference below**).

    Instead, you will find, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us… chose us… predestined us… according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved… making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ… having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (‭Eph.‬ ‭1‬:‭3-6, 9, 11‬ ESV). It is the Father’s will, the Father’s plan, the Father’s purpose, the Father’s electing and predestining. This doesn’t, by itself, preclude Jesus initiating anything, but John’s gospel prevents that conclusion, for Jesus says, “Those whom you gave me”, and “All that the Father gives me.” And the other examples I listed in the comment above.

    Paul: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, *from* whom are *all things* and *for whom we exist*, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, *through* whom are all things and *through whom we exist*” (‭1 Cor.‬ ‭8‬:‭6‬ ESV). Paul is careful to distinguish between the Father and Jesus our Lord, both in the construction “one God [the Father]… and one Lord [the Son]”, as well as in the delineation of roles “from whom… and for whom” and “through whom”.

    Also: “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering” (‭Heb. 2‬:‭10‬ ESV). It is evident here that “he” refers to the Father, and “founder” refers to the Son. So the Father, in bringing many sons to glory, thought it fitting to make the Son perfect through suffering. Remember that it is the Father whose sons we are.

    Finally, “Therefore God has highly exalted him… [that] every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (‭Phil. 2‬:‭9, 11‬ ESV). Jesus is glorified, but the one who ultimately gets the glory is the Father who exalted the Son. Just as Jesus says in John, “If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once” (‭Jn‬. ‭13‬:‭32‬ ESV). If the Father is glorified in His Son[‘s death], then the Father will glorify the Son in Himself [via resurrection/exaltation].

    The point being that Scripture presents the Father as the One whose will is being done, whereas Jesus is presented as the One who delights in and knows fully and fulfills completely the Father’s will. The implications of 1 Cor. 15:23-28 suggest this as well, wherein Christ reigns *until* he has put all his enemies under his feet, at which point Jesus surrenders the kingdom to God the Father and is also “subjected to him”, with Paul oddly pointing out that the Father subjected all things to Christ, excluding the Father himself.

    On the point about sonship and equality, is it evident that the Father does everything through the Son? Hebrews 1 implies that one thing he did NOT do through the Son was speak to the prophets (the emphasis is on the uniqueness of Christ’s appearing “at the end of the age”). And certainly at the baptism and transfiguration, the Father spoke directly. Scripture tells us that He created the world through Christ.

    As to the nature of the Second Person of the Trinity prior to the Incarnation, I cannot say much because Scripture doesn’t say much. The meaning of the term “Word/Logos”, and John and Ephesians 1’s emphasis on the Father as the initiator of the incarnation/redemption suggest to me that, far from there being a co-equal council of intra-Trinitarian decision-making, the Father is the originator and initiator of what Christ did as the Word and does as the Son. I suppose that might sound heretical, but John certainly make it a point to recount every time Jesus claims NOT to be the initiator of his actions, not even of his incarnation.

    I can say that according to Paul’s words in Romans, Corinthians, and Ephesians, the Father is yet superior to Christ as his God (“the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ”, “the head of Christ is God”), for Jesus will forever be incarnate. And in Revelation, the exalted Jesus himself says, “I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God.”

    **http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/flavel_covenant.html

  13. Andrew says:

    “…far from there being a co-equal council of intra-Trinitarian decision-making, the Father is the originator and initiator of what Christ did as the Word and does as the Son. I suppose that might sound heretical.”

    Actually it sounds like a false antithesis. The theologians who make the most of the idea of the Covenant of Redemption see it as following the same pattern as the orders of subsistence: the Father is the initiator; the Son and Spirit act responsively, but also wholeheartedly – since they already share in everything that the Father is.
    But it sounds like you’ve plumped for Arianism because you can’t accept the idea of derived equality.
    Again, the fourth century Fathers do deal with this.

  14. Kenton says:

    Andrew, I was of the understanding that Arianism held that Christ was the first created being, not that “Son” in Scripture refers to the eternal Word in his humanity (my original point). The Father-Son relationship, entailing more than just love (if it is to be a genuine father-son relationship), must also pertain to the Incarnation, and not to eternity past. Even Jesus’ wilderness temptations connect “Son of God” not with divine prerogatives, but with the God-human relationship (obedience, worship, trust). I think the problem is that we’ve pushed the post-Incarnation relationship back into the past, because Scripture refers to Jesus as Christ and Son when it speaks of the past (so “begotten” has to refer to eternity, not to the birth of Jesus; “Son” must be an essential, not acquired identity). But John 3:13 demonstrates that you can speak of a person’s past activity while using a present title (no one would argue that Jesus was human before descending from heaven). So I fail to see how this constitutes Arianism.

    On my later point about the Trinity, I only said that the way Scripture speaks about the plan of salvation and the creation of the world suggests that the ‘Father’, even prior to the Incarnation, remains the initiator and fountainhead of divine action (Eph. 1, and the repeated clause “God made all things through him” identifies God as the doer/initiator, the one who ultimately gets the credit, while Christ is the agent or medium through which the Father acts). I say suggests, not proves, because Scripture speaks very little about the pre-Incarnation relationship between the first and second persons.

    So I was not denying an essential equality (that is, an equality of essence) between God, His Word, and His Spirit, nor denying an equality of essential glory. But, what the Bible does and doesn’t say about them suggests a functional inequality between the Father and His Son (just as that between the one who wills and the one who carries out that will). But, again, I say Scripture only really speaks to the relationship between the Father and the incarnate Word-as-Son.

    Regarding the Covenant of Redemption, it is largely speculation, both in its idea and in the details. In fact I’d argue that it contradicts much of Scripture. It was the Father’s will and purpose, the Father who sent His Son (“I came not of my own accord, but he sent me”), the Father who raised His Son from the dead, the Father who establishes His Son as Lord and Christ and appoints him the Judge of the living and dead.

    The promises were made to the Messiah, that is, to a man. They are littered throughout the OT. These are the promises to which Jesus refers (e.g., “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death…” ‭Isaiah‬ ‭53‬:‭12‬ ESV).

    If it was a covenant, therefore, then it was a unilateral covenant, where God the Father determined his plan, and the Word consented, and at the right time was born into the world. It certainly was not a pact wherein each member pledged to uphold their end of the bargain. Unless we are supposing that the persons of the Trinity deal with each other the way that God deals with men (i.e., giving each other rewards as though they did not possess them already). But, again, mostly conjecture, though even the language monergism.com* uses demonstrates that Scripture really only shows us the Father/God-Son/Servant relationship between God and the incarnate Word (the relationship that is characterized by command-obedience, obedience-reward).

    *http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/qna/covredemp.html

  15. Andrew says:

    Hi Kenton,

    My apologies for misapplying the Arian label to you!
    But now looking back over your posts I really don’t understand the point you are making.

    Earlier, you seemed to be saying that Jesus can’t be the eternal Son because sonship connotes “subordination in authority or glory.” But in your second last post you seem to be at pains to show that the preincarnate works of the Trinity all begin with the Father. You finished your catenary with:
    “Scripture presents the Father as the One whose will is being done, whereas Jesus is presented as the One who delights in and knows fully and fulfills completely the Father’s will.”
    Quite so!
    But doesn’t this fit quite nicely with the functional subordination you attribute to the word “son”?

    I’ll leave it there because I think we’re kind of talking at cross purposes, but can I suggest a possibility that you might or might not have considered. “Son” can actually have different but related meanings, and that we see different associations even in the human life of Jesus.

    All the best,
    Andrew

  16. John Thomson says:

    I think Kevin’s argument proves eternal being but not necessarily eternal sonship (though the Hebs 7 passage may do so).

    However, if there is no Eternal Son then there is no eternal relations of Father, Son and Spirit. Since we know God as Father, Son and Spirit, if these relationships are not eternal then they do not truly reflect God as he is; he remains unknown. Such a thought is unthinkable.

  17. Kenton says:

    Yeah, sorry, Andrew. That’s probably because I got sidetracked. All I was saying was that sonship cannot be eternal because, unless sonship is figurative, inherent in the meaning is derived origin (“begotten”), inequality of status, and subordination of will. There is more to it that distinguishes it from mere servitude, but it is not less than these. Even figurative uses of sonship contain these elements. Both Luke and John demonstrate Jesus’ sonship in this way. So, I was not saying that Jesus can’t be eternal, but only that he can’t be eternally God’s Son. These elements cannot be central to the Trinity itself because a fundamental inequality of status and necessary subordination of will undermine deity. Yet, at the same time, Scripture does seem to present the Father as the initiator of Trinitarian works (but, this alone cannot be a sufficient case for sonship, because true servants delight in and fulfill their master’s will). This latter point I mentioned because I don’t think the Scriptures actually tell us much about the inner workings of the Trinity, whether before (OT) or after (NT) the Incarnation. The NT presents us with external workings, as the relationship between the Father, incarnate Christ, and sent Spirit is not necessarily the same as what should constitute relations among intra-Trinitarian persons.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    John, eternal being is certainly well attested. Eternal Word has the most attestation. Eternal Son is the issue. My statements on that are above. Regarding whether or not we require knowledge of the inner workings of the Trinity prior to the Incarnation to truly know God, I don’t think so, else we’d have more than just implicit references. When Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, to know you [Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”, he appeals to knowledge of God in His interaction with man. Just as Paul desires to know Christ in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings. Our salvation is not premised on Christ’s pre-Incarnate state, but his state as the resurrected and exalted Christ. And we worship the Father as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”, or, God as He relates to the incarnate Christ.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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