Writers on theological themes frequently refer to Jesus as the eternal Son. Kevin Giles has even written a book entitled The Eternal Generation of the Son. It is a scholarly and powerfully argued example of the theologians’ craft, but is it convincing? Even its author admits that the eternal sonship, though ecclesiastically orthodox, is not clearly taught in Scripture (see e.g. pp.66,88), but it figures in the Nicene Creed which is almost universally accepted in the church. It is regularly recited in the communion service of Anglicans following their (Australian) Prayer Book (p.117) which refers to Jesus as “the only Son of God eternally begotten of the Father … begotten not made.” As a great admirer of Athanasius who strongly defended the Nicene Creed’s emphasis on the true deity of the Son of God in his opposition to Arianism, Giles is clearly biased in his favour. But the question that confronts one whose final authority is Scripture is: Is it scriptural? I have no hesitation in replying in the negative. There are serious problems with it as I shall now seek to demonstrate.
The Word of God
First, as I have already noted the idea of the eternal Son does not come from Scripture which refers by contrast to Jesus as the (eternal) Word of God through whom all things were made. John’s gospel begins in this way and goes so far as to equate the Word with God. It then proceeds to say in terms that can hardly be mistaken that the Word became flesh (John 1:14). What is striking about this is that it does not say that the eternal Son became flesh which, on its hypothesis, it ought to. Then in Philippians 2 the apostle Paul clearly adopts the same stance though he uses different terminology. He maintains that Jesus was in the form (NRSV, ESV, etc.) or had the nature of God (NIV) and was thus equal with him. Like John he goes on to refer to his humiliation, first, in taking the nature of a servant, that is, a man of flesh and blood (cf. Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14), and, second, as such, being obedient even to the point of death. Now it is obvious that it is only as a man that the Word could die and make atonement for the sins of the people. If he had retained the nature of God he would have been incapable of this, for by definition God lives for ever. This is the point made by the author of Hebrews who stresses the necessity of the incarnation for the purposes of atonement (e.g. Heb. 2:10-18).
Despite this, theologians and commentators in general refer frequently to the fact that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Few Christians would wish to dissent from this depending on what is meant. Since the Chalcedonian Creed, which stresses the hypostatic union or the idea that in becoming man the Word retained his divine nature, is almost universally accepted by the orthodox, questions are raised. The famous words used to support dyophysitism or the dual nature of the Son are that they are united “unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably”. Apart from noting that many theologians are not unnaturally unhappy with this terminology not least because it appears contradictory, they seem to be willing to accept it as orthodox because they cannot think of anything better and there is much at stake. (1* It might be helpfully added at this point that ecclesiastical orthodoxy, though rightfully exercising powerful influence, may nonetheless be biblical heresy.).
However, the very idea that the two natures, the divine which is spirit (John 4:24) and the human which is flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14) can be united is open to question for the simple reason that it erodes their natural and fundamental difference highlighted throughout the Bible (e.g. Is. 31:3; Jer. 17:5; John 3:6; 6:63) and destroys their distinctive attributes. It is far worse than trying to mix oil and water or, to use a more biblical analogy, to mix clay and iron (Dan. 2:33). But we can go further and note that it applies to man himself whose constituent parts are flesh and spirit (John 3:6). These can be united in one person but they remain permanently distinct as natures. And this distinction is vital for our understanding of salvation, for Paul tells us that flesh and blood cannot by nature (emphatically not because of sin which is frequently read into it) inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). If this were not so, all the animals which are flesh would be candidates for salvation. After his spiritual regeneration (John 1:13; 3:1-8), a change or transformation in the body of man, presently flesh, is therefore indispensable. And while whatever Paul means when he refers to our spiritual body in 1 Corinthians 15:44 may be somewhat opaque, it certainly does not refer to a body of flesh wholly directed by the spirit as some would have us believe. If it did, then Jesus himself does not have a glorified body in heaven but is still flesh and blood. (2* See my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.) But there is more to say.
Retaining the Divine Nature
If the Word did not lay aside his divine nature and glory at his incarnation contrary to what the apostolic authors appear to claim, he never truly became man. At best he was a freak or a third alternative and certainly not the second Adam, a genuine son of the first (Luke 3:38). At this point we can begin to appreciate the devastating consequences of traditional thinking. First, it results in Docetism: Jesus appeared to be man but was not really so. This heresy has plagued the church for centuries and continues to manifest itself in Jehovah’s Witnesses and in Islam. Second, it implies that he was not our kinsman redeemer (Heb. 2:14,17) and as such never made atonement for the sins of his brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:10-13). This being so, they are consequently still in their sins. Of course, it may be urged that God being the omnipotent God can forgive whomever he pleases, but to say this is to deny his moral nature as we understand it. For the Bible makes it indisputably plain that the only way in which man can be saved is by keeping the law. This we are taught somewhat cryptically, it must be conceded, as early as Genesis 2:17, but clearly in Leviticus 18:5 which text is cited frequently throughout the rest of the Bible (e.g. Ezek. 18:9; 20:11,13,21; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12, etc.).
Next, if the Word retained his divine nature during his incarnation, why did he rely so heavily on his heavenly Father? Why did not he flex his own divine muscles (cf. Jud. 6:31)? And the popular idea that was, first (I think), propounded by Archbishop Temple and widely disseminated by Donald Baillie in his book God Was In Christ, is hardly relevant given the doctrine of the Trinity? The assumption that while he was in the cradle, even the womb, Jesus, or his alter ego, was upholding the universe is not only nonsense but an implicit denial of his true humanity. According to Scripture, Jesus himself as human flesh and blood had to be sustained, guarded and protected by his heavenly Father as, for example, his flight to Egypt as a child to evade the clutches of the murderous Herod plainly implies. So how could he possibly sustain the universe so long as he was himself lower than the angels in mortal, corruptible flesh (cf. Heb. 2:7,9) which itself derives from the corruptible earth and which by definition as creation is non-self-sustaining? (3* Colossians 1:17 and Hebrews 1:3 both refer to Christ sustaining the universe, but this is after his triumph, transformation and session at the right hand of power, cf. Mt.26:64; 28:18; Rom. 1:4. We ignore the reality of the incarnation and the subsequent delegation of powers at our peril.) If the principle enshrined in the old theological dictum that the works of the Trinity in the world are not divided is true, and this is accepted by the likes of Baillie and Richardson, the equality of the persons of the Trinity is upheld and the Word was, to use Calvin’s word, autotheos, himself God. (4* J.I.Packer refers rightly if somewhat inconsistently, it would seem to me, to the “Triune aseity” as being central to the disclosure of who and what God is, Vol. 2, p.217.) This being the case, we are bound to infer that neither God the Father nor God the Spirit ceased to operate but continued to maintain the universe as hitherto. Does this mean that the Trinity was divided after all? Not at all. The three persons despite their evident distinctiveness retained their solidarity in accordance with the plan of salvation (traditionally the so-called covenant of redemption), though there was so far as the economic Trinity is concerned a division of specific labour. As Jesus himself pointed out, during his incarnation his Father continued to work thereby enabling him to work too (John 5:17).
This prompts yet another question. Did Jesus as man perform miracles? (5* See my Did Jesus Perform Miracles?.) Was he in other words a magician, a human wonder worker? The answer to this, it would seem to me, must be a categorical no. First, he himself stressed the fact that he did nothing apart from his Father (John 5:19, 30, etc.) to whom, as a weak man of flesh (2 Cor. 13:4; Heb. 2:17), tempted at all points as we are (Heb. 4:15), he constantly prayed for help (e.g. Heb. 5:7). Since, however, his relationship with his Father was not broken by sin (Isa. 59:2), his prayers as he said were always answered (John 9:31; 11:22,42, cf. Mark 11:24). Second, he taught that his works or signs pointed to the fact that God was at work in him and that on that basis he should be believed (John 10:37f.). Third, his contemporaries saw him as a real man among men like themselves in whom the power of God was manifest and accordingly they praised God (Luke 18:43; 19:37; John 3:2; 9:16,33, etc.). Fourth, apart from Jesus’ own assertion in John 14:9, Doubting Thomas, after subjecting him to meticulous physical examination concluded that he was God (John 20:28) but obviously not God in nature, for how can mere men physically examine the nature of the invisible God who after all is a consuming fire (Isa. 33:14; Heb. 12:29)? At this point even modern science with all its undeniable capability is impotent.
But there are other problems with the notion of eternal Sonship. First, Alan Richardson among others points out that “the very word ‘Son’ implies derivation, subordination and dependence” (p.123) in effect denying the Triune aseity referred to by Packer in note 2 above. If it does, then it clearly applies to the incarnate Son but certainly not to the eternal Word who was God (John 1:1) and therefore equal with God (Phil. 2:6). If it did, the Son was eternally subordinate and hardly a party on an equal footing to the so-called covenant or Trinitarian plan of redemption. He was arguably dragooned into incarnation by an imperious Father who was prepared to have his way come what may. (6* This apparently was the widely rejected thesis of one Steve Chalke in a book I haven’t read.) This is far from the picture painted in the NT where Jesus claims to be always one with his Father both ontologically and morally (John 10:30, cf. 5:19,30; 8:28f.; 14:9; 17:11,22).
On the assumption that the reasoning of the preceding paragraph is valid, eternal Sonship destroys the nature and aseity of the Trinity as I understand it. In effect, the eternal generation of the Son represents the evisceration of both the incarnation and the humiliation. Just how the second person of the immanent or essential Trinity can be regarded as subordinate is difficult to fathom. It surely derogates from both his glory and his humiliation. But even more to the point, how could God be a father and the Son a son in eternity? The OT is unaware of any such animals, as we shall see. (This is not to deny that the Creator God is sometimes regarded as the Father of man and especially of Israel in a physical or metaphorical sense, Isa. 63:16; Acts 17:28f., etc.)
Many commentators cite Scriptures like John 3:16f., Galatians 4:4, Hebrews 1:2 and 1 John 4:9f. as clear indications that Jesus was the Son of God by nature, that is, in his eternal pre-existence. Regarding Galatians 4:4, it can be plausibly argued that what Paul is saying is that God the Father sent his born-of-woman or incarnate and therefore subordinate Son to secure the redemption of those who were under the law. Indeed, in light of the comment made above regarding the author of Hebrews’ insistence on the necessity of the incarnation for this very purpose (cf. 1 John 4:9f.), it is difficult to arrive at any other conclusion. So far as Hebrews 1:2 is concerned, F.F.Bruce , for example, refers to the eternal Son (p.5) then comments that the plain implication is that as (eternal) Son he inherits the title “Son” as he inherits all things (p.8). This is demonstrably confusion of thought. (7* Cf. Lane who claims that the eternal Son entered into a new experience of sonship during his incarnation, p.121. On the other hand, Lane is apparently less than certain about the issue and suggests that the reference to the Son in 1:2a is proleptic, p.25.) Surely, the whole of Hebrews 1 is designed to show its Hebrew readers that even the OT foreshadowed that it was the human, not the eternal Son who would inherit all things. And we, as his sanctified brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:11-15), would with him enjoy the spoils (Rom. 8:16f.,32). After all, in eternity the Word who was God and Creator by definition already owned all (cf. Ps. 50:10-12, etc.). But he graciously impoverished himself (2 Cor. 8:9) and gave them up so that he might inherit all as man, though not from the devil (Mt. 4:7-10). The same must be said regarding his being granted life in himself (John 5:26, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45) when according to John 1:4 as the Word he already had it! At this point the distinction between the divine and human natures is stark. It is vital for us to understand that we ourselves do not become God as Jesus was but his perfect image in Christ (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). Though ever God in person, Jesus is now as man permanently the image of God in his perfected human nature (Heb. 1:3) and as such exercises the divine powers delegated to him by his Father as was obviously the intention from the start (Mt. 26:64; 28:18; Rom. 1:4). Alternatively expressed, the truth is that the Word who was God in nature and ever remained God in personal identity freely and lovingly assumed human nature with a view to bringing his brothers and sisters to glory (Heb. 2:10). The problem with much evangelical thinking, which is arguably Apollinarian according to Brown (p.170), is that it lacks an adequate appreciation of the humanity of Jesus and spends its energies on proving his divinity. But the humanity of the Son would have seemed obvious to Jesus’ contemporaries who were only too aware that he was a man along with them but clearly indwelt by God himself (John 1:32; 3:34; 6:27, cf. 1 John 1:1-3).
If this is so, we must conclude that the language used by the biblical writers is what is known as projectionist. An excellent example of this is provided by Wayne Grudem in his commentary on 1 Peter 3:20 (p.159). There, he says, in reference to the queen of England as born in 1926, that we all realize that at that time she was not only not queen but not even prospectively to be regarded as such. It is only in retrospect that she can be referred to as queen at birth, and all who know the history of the period are well aware of this. It is therefore vital for us when reading the NT to get our chronological perspective right. But more to the point, it can be proved conclusively that the author of Hebrews was thinking in this way. For, if we ask who Jesus the eternal Son’s father and mother were in eternity, he replies that he had neither, since his priesthood was of the order of Melchisedek whose parentage or genealogy was significantly lacking. In other words, Jesus was God the eternal Word who became Son by nature at his incarnation at which time he had both Father and mother. (8* In his summing up, it is sad to find Giles submitting to the very fallacy he frequently warns against, that is, confusing the immanent and economic Trinity. On page 258, he tells us that what is revealed in the economy reflects what is antecedently true in eternity. All I can say is that someone forgot to tell the evangelists. They are filled with awe at the eternal Word’s condescension in incarnation, John 1:14; Phil. 2:6-8; 1 John 1:1-3.) Clearly, in order to fulfil the plan of salvation or covenant of redemption the immanent Trinity voluntarily and purposely undertook a change in relationship (cf. e.g. Ps. 2:7; Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5). The OT Creator God became Father and the Word became his incarnate Son born of Mary. No wonder Paul stresses the Son’s humiliation. But we can also add that the Father who gave up his Son underwent far greater ‘trauma’ than Abraham ever did, for his relationship with the Word was intrinsic (cf. John 10:30) and the change that was freely experienced was driven by love (John 3:16f.). This proves once more that salvation was a fully Trinitarian affair. The three persons may have adopted different roles but far from being separate, they functioned in solidarity and mutual commitment. Ultimately, all was undertaken for the glory of God. What a God!
It is hardly necessary to add in conclusion that Jesus in laying aside his glory (John 17:5) also laid aside his divine nature in order to become man made lower than the angels (Heb. 2:7,9). Since in the power of God his earthly campaign (cf. John 3:13; 6:62;13:3; Eph.1:19-23; 4:9f.) proved successful (John 19:30; Acts 2:22; 17:31), he was able to regain his glory as man even if we concede that in doing so (cf. Mt. 28:18) he remained forever the exact image of God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3, cf. Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18) and in his permanent and perfected manhood subordinate to God (1 Cor. 15:24-28). The mere fact that Paul teaches the subordination of the Son at this point would seem to prove that his humanity was subordinate to his divinity in contrast with the equality he taught in Philippians 2:6. However, the incarnation never for one moment involved the obliteration of his personal divine identity. In his love and humility the Word who was ever God in person had freely surrendered his divine nature in order to assume fully and finally perfected human nature. And it is as the perfected image of God (Col. 1:15; 2 Cor. 4:4; Heb. 1:3) that the once incarnate God the Word will reveal his glory (John 17:24, cf. Phil. 3:21) to those who wait for him (Tit.2:13f.). Not without reason do we salute the Lamb of God seated alongside our Creator God (Rev. 3:21; 4 & 5; 7:14f.; 22:3) and give him glory.
See also my:
F.F.Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, London/Edinburgh, 1065.
Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, Downers Grove, 2012.
W.L.Lane, Hebrews 1-8, Dallas, 1991.
Wayne Grudem, 1 Peter, Leicester/Grand Rapids, 1988.
J.I.Packer, Collected Writings 2, Serving the People of God, Carlisle, 1998.