Was Jesus the “Son of God” Eternally?
Errors regarding Christ’s nature have been around since the Savior was on earth. Some of the Jews contended he was demon possessed and thus mentally deranged (John 10:20). He was charged with “blasphemy” (Mark 2:7), and making himself “equal with God” (John 5:18). It even was hinted that he was “born of fornication” (John 8:41).
In the second century, the Docetists (from Grk,
dokeo, “I appear”) charged that Jesus was a mere spirit being, without a fleshly body; he only “appeared” to be human. Later a monk named Arius (c.
A.D. 250-336) argued that: “there was a time when the Son was not.” Supposedly the Father created him. Modern Jehovah’s Witnesses teach a similar notion.
The United Pentecostal sect alleges that Jesus and the Father are the same Person. Some today suggest that he did not exist at all, or if he did, he was nothing more than a good man or a wise philosopher. The catalog could be extended; the errors regarding Jesus are manifold.
The larger community of “Christendom” has rejected most of these errors. However, there is one theory regarding Christ that captured that evolving apostasy eventually manifested as Catholicism in its various forms. Later, a majority within the Protestant movement likewise embraced the idea. It is the notion that Jesus, in eternity past, always was the “Son of God,” “eternally begotten” or “generated” by the Father, and “proceeding from” him. One does not find many volumes today on systematic theology that do not advocate the dogma of the “eternal sonship” of Jesus.
Origin and Growth of the Dogma
Several of the “church fathers” occasionally used language that hinted of the “eternal generation” doctrine, but it appears to have had its most vocal introduction with Origen (c. 185-254), a scholar in Alexandria, whose mind, as someone has said, “shot off ideas like a Roman candle.” He wrote:
Jesus Christ Himself, who came (into the world), was born of the Father before all creatures; that, after He had been the servant of the Father in the creation of all things—“for by Him were all things made”—He in the last times, divesting Himself (of his glory), and became a man, and was incarnate although God (De Principiis Preface 4).
The theory obviously gained momentum because it was incorporated in the Nicene Creed in
A.D. 325. Christ is described as “Son, only begotten, Firstborn of all creation, begotten of the Father before all the ages” (Bettenson, 35).
Later, Augustine (354-430) provided the notion with considerable notoriety. Philip Schaff described Augustine as one who possessed a “speculative spirit” — a depiction that certainly holds true with reference to matters pertaining to the Godhead. The historian further notes that: “by his discriminating speculation he exerted more influence upon the scholastic theology and that of the Reformation, than all the Nicene divines.”
Not only did he repudiate the concept that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “three separately subsisting individuals,” he vigorously advocated the theory which contends the Son was “eternally begotten of the Father.” His view “gradually met universal acceptance in the West” (III.684-687). Augustine significantly impacted both Roman Catholicism and modern Protestantism.
It is utterly amazing how, on occasion, the influence of very few personalities have channeled almost the entire stream of history.
A Brief Analysis of the Doctrine
The notion of Jesus’ “eternal sonship” is found to be faulty from the following particulars.
Eternal Existence, Yes — Eternal Generation, No
There are numerous biblical passages that affirm the eternality of Christ (e.g., Isaiah 9:6; Micah 5:2; John 1:1; 8:58; 17:5, etc. — especially note the verbal tenses in the New Testament texts). In addition, many Old Testament passages that speak of “Jehovah” — a designation suggesting one “who is absolutely self-existent” (Stone, 15), i.e., one having no beginning or dependence upon another (Exodus 3:14) — are applied to Christ (see: Isaiah 40:3/Matthew 3:3; Isaiah 44:6/Revelation 1:17; Jeremiah 23:5-6, etc.).
Paul frequently referred to Jesus as “Lord” (
kurios) — a term used in the Greek Old Testament to replace the sacred name,
Yahweh (Jehovah). “Paul could not have used this word as his almost exclusive title for Jesus without in his mind identifying Jesus as Yahweh” (Cottrell, 1996, I.76).
On the other hand, there is no biblical text that speaks of an “eternal generation” or an “eternal procession” of the pre-incarnate Christ.
A Father Precedes A Son
If language is to have any discernible meaning at all, it is not possible to have both an eternal “son,” and an eternal “father,” for in the nature of the case, a “Father” is always perceived to be anterior (prior to) to his “son,” and a “son” subsequent to his “father.”
Thus, if God is the “father” of the pre-incarnate son, the son cannot be eternal; hence, must have been created — as the heretic Arius alleged, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses affirm.
The dogma of “eternal generation” paved the way for the Arian view — though it would be unfair to equate modern denominationalists with the total Arian theological package.
Begotten Is Not Eternal
If it is the case that the Second Person of the Godhead was “begotten,” he is not “eternal God,” for eternality is an intrinsic quality of deity; God is from “everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2).
If a doctrine, by necessary implication, negates the deity of Jesus Christ, can one be considered faithful who espouses it?
The dogma is discredited logically by self-contradiction. To contend that the Son was “eternally begotten” is a manifest contradiction of terms. It is the equivalent of saying, “Christ had an eternal beginning.” Can an object “begin,” and not have been begun?
Advocates of the “eternal Son” dogma are forced to resort to some of the most discombobulated jargon to explain their position. One writer says:
“If God is the perfect Mind, action of the same nature with this will enter into his self-consciousness also. He too will reproduce himself in thought, and recognize the reproduction as identical with the Mind that thought it forth” (W. Clarke, 173).
Another says: “there must be in God a producing not subject to time, and productions which have no beginning” (McClintock, IX.889).
When the language employed in an attempt to explain an issue becomes such a linguistic maze that not even the zealous advocate for the theory can convey it rationally, one may be assured that the idea behind it is suspect. Cottrell has observed that the terms “eternal generation,” “procession,” etc.:
“were never understood in their ordinary senses; in fact, they were never given any content whatsoever. They have served as empty code words which we do not need as a support for the concept of the ontological Trinity and the reality of Christ’s full deity” (2002, 256).
Eternal Sonship Not in Harmony With the Prophets
The concept of “eternal sonship” is inconsistent with the language of the prophets. Isaiah declared that the virgin would “conceive” and “bear a son,” whose name would be called Immanuel (7:14; Matthew 1:22-23).
The “son” status is said to follow Mary’s conception. If “conception” is the equivalent of “begotten,” and Christ was “eternally begotten,” would not this suggest that he was “eternally conceived”?
Later Isaiah prophetically declared, “a child is born, a son is given” (9:6). Does not this connect the role of being “son” with that of the birth of the child? If not, how can one ever have confidence in the meaningful interpretation of language? And if the “son” of this text is an “eternal son,” would this also imply that the “child” is an “eternal child”?
Psalm 2 Incompatible With Eternal Sonship
Psalm 2 is a prophecy of Christ, as evidenced by the citation of the text by New Testament writers (Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5). The passage frequently is used as a proof-text for the theory of “eternal generation.” Or at least there is the vigorous protest that this psalm does not negate that concept (Alexander, I.14-16).
It is not our purpose here to discuss the meaning of the passage in the overall context of the Bible, but merely to demonstrate that the language of the text itself is incompatible with the theory under review.
The expression “this day have I begotten” reveals that a “begettal”—whatever its nature—has a commencement point, a “day” when it takes place. The term “never can, by any figure, or allowable latitude of construction, be applied to express eternity” (A. Clarke, III.223). To speak of an “eternal begettal” is to employ nonsensical language.
Compare with this another Messianic prophecy (cf. Kirkpatrick, 538). “I will make him my firstborn” (Psalm 89:27; emphasis added). If Christ was the “firstborn” (Son) literally and eternally, how can this be portrayed as a future event?
Eternal Sonship Contradicts Explicit Scripture
The “eternal sonship” notion contradicts the explicit testimony of scripture. The angel Gabriel informed Mary that her miraculously conceived child “shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:32, 35) — not that he always has been such.
Some contend that the text indicates that he was to be called the “Son of God” because that is what he was, and forever had been. But this ignores the grammar of the text. Godet explained:
“By the word also (‘therefore also’) the angel alludes to his preceding words: He shall be called Son of the Highest [v. 32]. We might paraphrase it: ‘And it is precisely for this reason that I said to thee, that!’” (I.93).
In other words, it was because of the supernatural conception that he was to be called “Son of God.”
Second Person Never Called “Son of God” Prior To Physical Birth
The expression “son of God” is applied to Christ more than 40 times in the New Testament. In not a single case is it used of his existence before he was born of Mary (Barnes, 21).
The Logical Consequence
As observed earlier, the logical consequence of the concept of “eternal generation” is that there was a time when the Second Person of the Godhead did not exist — though most who advocate the doctrine repudiate the implication of the teaching. But, as a recent writer stated it, with no apology for the conclusion, Christ had “his origin … back in the ages of eternity, when he became the divine offspring (Son) of God before anything or anyone else ever came into existence” (Pribble, 82; emphasis added).
Even those who argue for “eternal sonship” seem to struggle with the concept, yielding finally to the pressures of church history, rather than sound interpretive procedure. John Walvoord conceded that the connection of Jesus’ “sonship,” with the incarnation, “has the advantage of being simple in concept.” On the other hand, he muses, if that is the case, there is no explanation for the “relationship” between God and Christ prior to the incarnation. This, he says, “requires some definition.”
Why must it? Is it not enough to know that both are deity, and in conjunction with the “eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:14), existed eternally? Why must one resort to a theory that contorts reasonable language beyond common sense recognition? The distinguished professor offered not a solitary biblical argument for the “eternal generation” position.
Walvoord concedes that the “eternal sonship” idea has “many problems,” but he thinks he must be so since “the consensus of the great theologians of the church and the great church councils” maintained this view for centuries. Particularly, he declares, this has been “the main doctrine of the church, since the Council of Nicaea in 325” (39). What church? The church of the New Testament had receded into the shadows already.
In the following segments of this article, we’ll examine the so-called prooftexts for this false doctrine.
One author asserts: “The scriptural proof of the doctrine [eternal generation] may be thus given. Our Lord, the Wisdom of God, is spoken of (Prov. 8:25, LXX) as begotten before the mountains and hills were made” (Blunt, 243).
This statement is without substance for the following reasons: (a) The context deals with the qualities of “wisdom,” and “wisdom” has been personified for emphasis sake. Wisdom is not a reference to Christ; note the feminine pronouns (8:1, 3). (b) The term “possessed” (ASV; footnote: “formed”) translates the Hebrew
qanah. Scholars point out, however, that certain poetic passages, “have long suggested that the verb means ‘create’” (Unger/White, 84-85), and Proverbs 8:22-23 is cited as an example. Thus, if this passage is to be employed as a proof-text, it proves more that the advocates of “eternal sonship” will endorse. It would “prove” there was a time when the Word (John 1:1, 14) did not exist; rather, at some point, he was “created.” Little wonder that the Jehovah’s Witnesses employ this text as one of their “proofs” that Christ was not eternal.
Another argument has been grounded in the prophecy of Psalm 110, the most frequently quoted text from the Old Testament — always with a Messianic interpretation. Christ appealed to the passage, and made application to his self (Matthew 22:44). Some have cited the LXX version 109 of verse 3, “I have begotten you from the womb before the morning,” making the application to the Lord’s alleged “eternal generation” (Blunt, 243).
Two things may be said in response: (a) If one were to grant the accuracy of the LXX rendition, and view the text literally, and argue that the Son was literally “begotten,” would the passage also indicate that the Father had a “womb”? (b) The LXX translation reflects a change in some of the original words, and is not endorsed by the best Old Testament scholarship.
Many see the meaning as: “As dew out of the early morning dawn, descending by a silent, mysterious birth from the star-lit heaven, so comes to Messiah his mighty host of followers” (Rawlinson, III.29). Others suggest the sense is: “In holy adornments, from the womb of the morning, you have the dew of your youth” (Kirkpatrick, 667; Kidner, 394). It is significant that Professor Kirkpatrick, even though he endorsed the doctrine of “eternal generation,” and noted how some of the “church fathers” had employed this text in their attempts to defend that case, did not believe that it was a passage that supported the argument. Similarly, J.A. Alexander, also an advocate of the “eternal sonship” theory, does not even acknowledge the argument based upon the LXX, in his work on the Psalms (III.104-106).
It has been argued that evidence for the theory is to be found in John’s use of “only begotten” in 1:14, 18. Walvoord asserted that
monogenes is “a confirmation of the idea of eternal generation” (44; cf. Hodge I.472-473). But many scholars, even those who subscribe to the eternal generation view, hesitate to use these texts in support for the notion, and for the following reasons: (a) The best scholarship now holds that
monogenes derives from
mono (one), and
ginomai (kind). As Morris observed: “Etymologically it is not connected with begetting” (93; cf. Danker, et al., 658). R.E. Brown observed that: “Although
genos is distantly related to
gennan, ‘to beget,’ there is little Greek justification for the translation of
monogenes as ‘only begotten.’” The word signifies his uniqueness, “not what is called in Trinitarian theology his ‘procession’” (13). Westcott pointed out that
monogenes focuses upon “the personal Being of the Son and not His generation” (12). Hoch contends that recent liberal scholars have retained the “only begotten” sense because of their conviction that Jesus derived “his being” or “origin” from the Father (III.606). (b) It is important to note that in the Prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1-14), the Second Person in the Godhead is referred to as the Word (
logos) in depicting his pre-incarnate state; it is only after the reference to the Word becoming “flesh” that the apostle begins to use the term “Son” (cf. Morris, 94).
Some have contended that Hebrews 7:3 implies that the “Son of God” existed before Melchizedek, since the ancient priest/king was “made like unto the Son of God.” The phrase “made like unto” is not intended to emphasize a chronological order of existence; rather, it merely stresses an analogy in terms of priesthood. Christ’s priesthood abides continually. So did Melchizedek’s, i.e., it did not have a genealogical commencement and termination. Predominately in this book, Christ is said to be a priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (5:6; 6:20; 7:17). It is clear that the order of mention is not germane. As Milligan cautioned:
Great care is therefore necessary in dealing with these relative terms and expressions, lest peradventure we give them an extension which is wholly beyond what was intended by the Holy Spirit (198).
It is alleged that John 5:26 supports the doctrine of eternal sonship. “For as the Father has life in himself, even so gave he to the Son also to have life in himself.” But Professor Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary, a militant advocate of this theory, conceded that this text in John’s Gospel pertained to the incarnate Son of God, not the pre-incarnate Logos (I.479). It has no bearing on the controversy.
No battle for truth ever stays won!
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About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.