MacArthur and the Trinity
A friend alerted me to the article Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ by John MacArthur, and I felt the need to comment. At this time I don’t see any date stamp on it so I don’t know when it was written [EDIT: apparently 1999; see near end of document]. But while I had hoped this would denote a change in today’s relentless drive to demote Jesus, the more I studied it the more disappointed I became. It’s commendable for him to re-examine his beliefs, but I think he makes several errors in his argument.
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.In order to make “You are my Son, this day have I begotten you” mean something other than “incarnational sonship”, it has to be allegorized and the meanings of ’today’ and ’begotten’ have to be changed to something entirely new. He knows the normal meanings as he used them in his former view:
“Begetting” normally speaks of a person’s origin. Moreover, sons are generally subordinate to their fathers. I therefore found it difficult to see how an eternal Father-Son relationship could be compatible with perfect equality and eternality among the Persons of the Trinity. “Sonship,” I concluded, bespeaks the place of voluntary submission to which Christ condescended at His incarnation (cf. Phil. 2:5-8; John 5:19).“Begetting” still speaks of a person’s origin; this has not changed. Its metaphorical use would only apply if we were to say something like “The new law begat a great increase in bureaucracy”, yet even then the begetting refers to causation, not some abstract philosophical concept. As for the subordination of sons to fathers, this is a temporary situation. Though the father/son relationship will always exist, the authority will not; when the son grows up he is no longer under his father’s authority, and he will then truly be his equal.
But his former view’s flaw was not in a clash between inequality and eternity, but in failing to recognize two vital points: that a father must precede his son in time, and that a son is only temporarily under his father’s authority. Further, he neglects to address the fact that Jesus at His incarnation became both God and Man, and it is His humanity that was subservient to the Father, never His divinity. So there is no conflict at all in the scriptures; Jesus took on humanity at a point in time, and this humanity was unequal to divinity. Therefore MacArthur has set out to solve a problem that doesn’t even exist.
1. I am now convinced that the title “Son of God” when applied to Christ in Scripture always speaks of His essential deity and absolute equality with God, not His voluntary subordination. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time understood this perfectly. John 5:18 says they sought the death penalty against Jesus, charging Him with blasphemy “because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God.” … If Jesus’ sonship signifies His deity and utter equality with the Father, it cannot be a title that pertains only to His incarnation. In fact, the main gist of what is meant by “sonship” (and certainly this would include Jesus’ divine essence) must pertain to the eternal attributes of Christ, not merely the humanity He assumed.The Jewish leaders were looking at a man, who they presumed was not also God; this is what they objected to. The reason the Son could be equal to the Father is because Jesus was also God. We should also note that the Hebrew expression “son of”, such as in “a son of Israel”, means “one in the group”, e.g. an Israelite. Thus Jesus’ titles “Son of God” and “Son of Man” identify Him as both divine and human, that is, One of the class “God” and One of the class “man”. So John 5:18 does not force us to replace one with the other at all, but instead shows the Jews’ lack of understanding and faith. Yes, Jesus was saying “I am God”, but He was not saying “I was always the Son”; MacArthur’s argument is a non-sequitur.
2. It is now my conviction that the begetting spoken of in Psalm 2 and Hebrews 1 is not an event that takes place in time. Even though at first glance Scripture seems to employ terminology with temporal overtones (“this day have I begotten thee”), the context of Psalm 2:7 seems clearly to be a reference to the eternal decree of God. It is reasonable to conclude that the begetting spoken of there is also something that pertains to eternity rather than a point in time. The temporal language should therefore be understood as figurative, not literal.Here is a case of redefinition of scripture that otherwise would not fit the theory being promoted; it is an example of eisegesis. That is, because he misunderstood the fact that one aspect of the nature of Jesus is eternal and divine while the other was begotten and human, he was forced to impose a novel interpretation on scriptures that clearly oppose this view, his assertion in the article that “most theologians recognize this” notwithstanding. What is apparent “at first glance” has to be reinterpreted to fit, and that means ignoring the meanings of the words in their context. Is everything else in that context subject to redefinition, such as “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill” and “you will rule them with an iron scepter”? Keep in mind that these metaphors point to realities: God WILL install His King on Zion, and Jesus WILL rule absolutely. Likewise, Jesus WAS incarnated at a point in time and BECAME the “Son” at that moment. The metaphor is intended to convey to us a change in relationship that applied to Jesus’ humanity. Where is this alleged “eternal decree”? How does any “begetting” happen in eternity past? The word means that someone or something was not, and then was. To attribute this to God is blasphemy! Yet in spite of understanding this, MacArthur continues to assert this new meaning:
To say that Christ is “begotten” is itself a difficult concept. Within the realm of creation, the term “begotten” speaks of the origin of one’s offspring. The begetting of a son denotes his conception--the point at which he comes into being. Some thus assume that “only begotten” refers to the conception of the human Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet Matthew 1:20 attributes the conception of the incarnate Christ to the Holy Spirit, not to God the Father. The begetting referred to in Psalm 2 and John 1:14 clearly seems to be something more than the conception of Christ’s humanity in Mary’s womb.It is not difficult at all to understand “begotten”, unless one is determined to make it mean something else and is having trouble finding a working substitute. The Spirit’s involvement in Jesus’ incarnation doesn’t change a thing; both He and “the power of the Most High” were involved, of course along with Mary. There is thus no warrant, logically or scripturally, to leap from here to a forced redefinition of Psalm 2 and John 1:14; this is another non sequitur.
Christ is not a created being (John 1:1-3). He had no beginning but is as timeless as God Himself. Therefore, the “begetting” mentioned in Psalm 2 and its cross-references has nothing to do with His origin.Again, this simply does not follow. The begetting clearly speaks of His incarnation at a point in time, while in His divinity He is eternal and equal to the Father. Very simple and clear as related in scripture, though there will always be particulars about this duality that our minds cannot grasp.
But it has everything to do with the fact that He is of the same essence as the Father.
My previous view was that Scripture employed Father-Son terminology anthropomorphically--accommodating unfathomable heavenly truths to our finite minds by casting them in human terms. Now I am inclined to think that the opposite is true: Human father-son relationships are merely earthly pictures of an infinitely greater heavenly reality. The one true, archetypical Father-Son relationship exists eternally within the Trinity. All others are merely earthly replicas, imperfect because they are bound up in our finiteness, yet illustrating a vital eternal reality.The previous view was correct, but the new one is not, as it is based upon the requirements of Eternal Sonship instead of scripture and sound reasoning. It would be just as reasonable to apply this principle to other aspects of Jesus, such as His relationship to the church as His Bride. Is this too a “picture” of some relationship that has existed in eternity past? Is everything people have done— including patriarchy and polygamy— to be read back into the eternal Trinity? Where does it stop?
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?This is the “elephant in the living room”; what about the Spirit? We are talking about THREE Persons, not just two. But this attempt to explain why the Spirit is not also a “son” actually exposes the error in MacArthur’s defense of Jesus’ sonship as eternal. That all three Persons are of the same essence should go without saying, such that marking one of them “Son” is superfluous. What’s the point, especially in eternity? Jesus as divinity was not created, but His humanity certainly was, and from “the seed of the woman”. This was His “sonship” at a point in time, as clearly illustrated in Phil. 2:5-11.
Of course He is. The full, undiluted, undivided essence of God belongs alike to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is but one essence; yet He exists in three Persons. The three Persons are co-equal, but they are still distinct Persons. And the chief characteristics that distinguish between the Persons are wrapped up in the properties suggested by the names Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… That such distinctions are vital to our understanding of the Trinity is clear from Scripture. How to explain them fully remains something of a mystery.
In the Trinity debate on which I did a series of articles, this same argument was used: that the only way to tell one Person from another is through hierarchy; that is, without a pecking order there would not be three Persons. But these titles, rather than denoting hierarchy, show that Jesus became human at a point in time. Again the interpretation seems to go backwards. And if, as MacArthur admits here, the Trinity is beyond our understanding, then one must ask why this is such an important question to answer, seeing that it has absolutely no bearing on the gospel. We all agree Jesus is fully God and fully Man, and that there is one God in Three Persons; why all this splitting hairs about the inner workings of God? MacArthur’s conclusion seems to acknowledge this question:
this basic understanding of the eternal relationships within the Trinity nonetheless represents the best consensus of Christian understanding over many centuries of Church history. I therefore affirm the doctrine of Christ’s eternal sonship while acknowledging it as a mystery into which we should not expect to pry too deeply.I must strongly object to the assertion that this new view “represents the best consensus of Christian understanding over many centuries of Church history”; it is unknown in church history except as heresy. MacArthur simply asserts his new view as not only correct in spite of it being a mystery, but claims that all the faithful scholars always held it as well. But again we must wonder what this is all about, what motivated it. And just as in politics we say “follow the money”, in theology we could say to look for what pet teaching depends upon it. And the prime candidate is patriarchy / male supremacy, as I’ve written about many times. If one wishes to make the logically impossible a reality (equal in essence, unequal in role), one needs a model. If one’s goal is to justify saying women are equal to men while forcing them to play a “role” that is neither temporary nor voluntary but based upon essence, then one must invent this in the Trinity, even while continually ignoring the fact that Three cannot map to Two.
Logically, there is simply no way to stretch Jesus’ “sonship” into eternity past without making Him a lesser God. Though the father/son relationship is of equal essence in humanity, it still denotes a progression, which cannot be true of Jesus’ divinity. There is simply no way to justify this whole exercise apart from a desire to support another untenable teaching. Jesus is God, Jesus is Man, and the same Spirit indwells every believer; that is what scripture teaches. I still await any coherent justification for dismembering the Trinity in this manner.