Dear Guests of IDOTG:
Questions occasionally resurface on the eternal sonship of Christ controversy. This teaching was highly controversial and caused a huge rift in the IFCA when John MacArthur took the position that, “Christ did not become the Son of God until He was born at Bethlehem.” In September 1999 Dr. MacArthur seemed to have repudiated incarnational sonship, but has he forsaken it entirely? I am welcoming back JanH who is a frequent commentator and contributor for this compelling discussion and we will turn to it without delay.
This blog typically discusses divergences from the gospel in the form of either Lordship Salvation or the Crossless Gospel. However, as sometimes happens in the course of conversation, a topic which gets little attention came to light in the comment section of Does “Final Salvation” Serve as Cover for Works-Salvation
The topic came to light because of this response Lou Martuneac gave to a question I asked:
Jan, you asked, Why does Piper (JMac) “get away with” these things [saying works are a requirement for final salvation]? Two thoughts: 1) Because of their popularity they go *almost entirely unchallenged by their peer group and followers. There are some Calvinistic men in my IFB circles who are troubled by statements like these [pertaining to the requirements for final salvation], will confide they find these troubling, but will not say so in any public venue....Here Lou noted an exception to the unwritten don’t openly challenge MacArthur rule, which involved the doctrine of the Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ. For 25 years Dr. John MacArthur had openly denied that Jesus Christ is eternally the Son of God. Instead, he aggressively promoted the Incarnational Sonship position, which says that Jesus was not always/eternally the Son of God but was the second person of the Trinity who became the Son of God at the incarnation, i.e. His birth in Bethlehem.
*An exception being when MacArthur was challenged over and he subsequently retracted and disavowed his earlier teaching on the eternal sonship of Christ. His former teaching on that caused a major rift in the IFCA.
Pastor George Zeller (Middletown Bible Church, Middletown, CT) challenged MacArthur on this teaching (as well as several others). In 1999 Pastor Zeller was rewarded for his efforts by Dr. MacArthur’s public disavowal of Incarnational Sonship in the form of a published paper titled “Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ.” In this paper Dr. MacArthur states plainly that he no longer holds to the view that Jesus became the Son of God at His incarnation. He also states plainly that Jesus is eternally the Son of God and says why he now believes this is so. Good news! Or...maybe not as good as we would hope.
Unfortunately, Dr. MacArthur has left some loose ends. We will look at two of them here and compare them with Dr. MacArthur’s Reexamination… declaration.
Loose End #1
It is common knowledge that Dr. MacArthur is the President of The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, California and senior pastor of Grace Community Church. Under the section “Statement of faith- GOD,” the doctrinal statement for The Master’s Seminary proclaims this orthodox confession on the Trinity:
We teach that there is but one living and true God (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 45:5-7; 1 Corinthians 8:4), an infinite, all knowing Spirit (John 4:24), perfect in all His attributes, one in essence, eternally existing in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14)—each equally deserving worship and obedience.1 (Bold added.)We applaud and wholly agree with this statement on the Trinity. However, a little further along, in the sixth paragraph under the section “God the Son,” we read this:
We teach that, in the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity laid aside His right to the full prerogatives of coexistence with God, assumed the place of a Son, and took on an existence appropriate to a servant while never divesting Himself of His divine attributes (Philippians 2:5-8).2 (Bold added.)This statement affirms the doctrine of Incarnational Sonship, which we have been given to understand that Dr. MacArthur had disavowed in 1999. This presents a point of confusion. First we are told that God eternally exists in three Persons- Father, SON, and Holy Spirit. Then we are told that “in the incarnation, the SECOND PERSON OF THE TRINITY...assumed the PLACE of a Son.”
The first statement is just what we would expect from an orthodox teacher. But the second statement is troubling. It says that Sonship is a “place” that “the second person of the Trinity...assumed” in the incarnation. This is just what Dr. MacArthur used to teach before he declared his repentance on this issue. There are two problems here.
- One, He is going in two directions doctrinally in this statement of faith.
- Two, in 1999 Dr. MacArthur had made it truly plain that he had abandoned the Incarnational Sonship view, which would say that Jesus assumed the place of a Son at the incarnation, in favor of the Eternal Sonship view that Jesus was not merely and vaguely the “second person of the Trinity,” but the Son of God always/eternally.
Now it is true and must be noted that Dr. MacArthur said in his reexamination paper that, “I’ve often wished for the opportunity to review and amend all my own published material, but I doubt I’ll ever have the time or the energy to undertake the task.”3
And indeed that would be daunting for him since he is a prolific speaker/writer. It is easy to understand how some comments in a series of his radio sermons may go unaltered due to obfuscation. We are, however, looking at a published doctrinal statements. This doctrinal statement is much more visible than a sermon given once or twice. I would think something so salient would have undergone some revision, especially when he says this:
“If more precise understanding on an important point of doctrine demands a change in my thinking--even if it means amending or correcting already-published material--I want to be willing to make the necessary changes.While it is truly encouraging hear that Dr. MacArthur is a humble man who has the integrity to make changes when necessary and has indeed done so in the past (not everyone would), I wonder how it is, then, that his doctrinal statement could still confess Incarnational Sonship? One or the other statement is erroneous and both statements affirmed in the same document is confusing. Why, then, have measures not been taken to edit or eliminate one statement or the other? Could it be that a publication as visible as the doctrinal statement for The Master’s Seminary had somehow fallen through the cracks and thus escaped the necessary revision? But surely the official doctrinal statement of a seminary where future church leaders are taught doctrine in a careful and systematic manner is more important than a tape or a sermon? Yet it still has this confession of a doctrine which Dr. MacArthur has stated publicly he had abandoned.
I have made many such revisions over the years, often taking measures to delete erroneous or confusing statements from my own tapes, and sometimes even preaching again through portions of Scripture with a better understanding of the text. Whenever I have changed my opinion on any significant doctrinal issue, I have sought to make my change of opinion, and the reasons for it, as clear as possible.4 (Bold added.)
To that end, I want to state publicly that I have abandoned the doctrine of “incarnational sonship.” Careful study and reflection have brought me to understand that Scripture does indeed present the relationship between God the Father and Christ the Son as an eternal Father-Son relationship. I no longer regard Christ’s Sonship as a role He assumed in His incarnation.5 (Bold added.)How could this be? Surely after 25 years of preaching aggressively on Jesus’ Sonship, albeit from the Incarnational Sonship perspective, Dr. MacArthur has not come to the conclusion that this is not an important doctrine after all? No. It is not reasonable to conclude that Dr. MacArthur feels it to be an unimportant doctrine. There must be another reason for its continued presence in his doctrinal statement. But what could that reason be?
Perhaps the answer lies in this response Dr. MacArthur gave in 2006 when asked for an explanation of his view on Christ’s Sonship:
Let me make it real simple. He is eternally God. Jesus Christ is and always will be the eternal God—a member of the Trinity. He is eternally One of Three. And I don’t have any problem with calling Him the eternal Son therefore. But I do understand that there is a uniqueness to His incarnation in that the Scripture says, “This day have I begotten Thee.” And that’s related to His incarnation.6 (Bold added.)I am afraid this is not real simple, though. In fact, this leads us to-
Loose End #2
If Jesus being eternally One of Three is what qualifies Him to be regarded as the eternal Son, then why could we not regard any of the Trinity members as the Son? They are all eternally One of Three. Jesus is the only member of the Trinity that has experienced incarnation, that is true. But He was not incarnated eternally. He was incarnated in time. So the incarnation would not make Him the eternal Son. But being eternally One of Three does not make Him the Son either. It makes Him One of Three. Indeed Dr. MacArthur recognizes this too, as he notes in his Reexamination:
If Christ’s sonship is all about His deity, someone will wonder why this applies to the Second Member of the Trinity alone, and not to the Third. After all, we don’t refer to the Holy Spirit as God’s Son, do we? Yet isn’t He also of the same essence as the Father? 7This being the case, why, then, does he frame it the way he does in this answer given 7 years after his public statement that he has abandoned the doctrine of Incarnational Sonship? Instead of answers there are more questions. Instead of simplicity and clarity, confusion and perplexity.
I think Dr. MacArthur made it real simple in 1999 when he stated:
Expressions like “eternal generation,” “only begotten Son,” and others pertaining to the filiation of Christ must all be understood in this sense: Scripture employs them to underscore the absolute oneness of essence between Father and Son. In other words, such expressions aren’t intended to evoke the idea of procreation; they are meant to convey the truth about the essential oneness shared by the Members of the Trinity.However, since then we have the not-so-simple explanation that Jesus is the Son because He is eternally One of Three and His Sonship pertains to His incarnation after all. And in 2010 his seminary doctrinal statement still implies that Jesus assumed the place of a Son in the incarnation.
Careful study and reflection have brought me to understand that Scripture does indeed present the relationship between God the Father and Christ the Son as an eternal Father-Son relationship. I no longer regard Christ’s Sonship as a role He assumed in His incarnation. 8
What then do we make of Dr. MacArthur’s Reexamination of the Eternal Sonship of Christ? What do we do with these loose ends? Where does Dr. MacArthur really stand on this issue? Has he indeed changed his view? Or must we reexamine his reexamination?
1. The Master’s Seminary Statement of Faith, http://www.tms.edu/AboutSOFGod.aspx, (accessed Feb. 3, 2010). Also see the Grace Community Church Doctrinal Statement, p. 3, http://www.gracechurch.org/ministries/Resources.aspx?MinistryID=1&topic=Doctrinal%20Statement, (accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
2. The Master’s Seminary Statement of Faith, http://www.tms.edu/AboutSOFGod.aspx, (accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
3. John MacArthur, Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ, Sept. 1999, http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/sonship/sonjm08.htm, accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
6. John MacArthur, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary radio interview, Oct. 2006, http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/sonship/sonjm12.htm, (accessed Feb. 3, 2010).
7. John MacArthur, Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ, Sept. 1999, http://www.middletownbiblechurch.org/sonship/sonjm08.htm, accessed Feb. 3, 2010).