Opinions on faith and life

MacArthur and the Trinity

2010-05-08

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.

But it has everything to do with the fact that He is of the same essence as the Father.

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.
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?

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.

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.

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.

(EDIT: This really is another example of “vaporware”, per yesterday’s post.)

19 Comments

Lydia

"Where is this alleged “eternal decree”? How does any “begetting” happen in eternity past?"

And there you have it. The questions that are very uncomfortable and the explainations so torutured as to make no sense at all. The Lord of Hosts was at Creation and we see NO pecking order in the OT outside the prophecy of the coming Son.

INclude the Holy Spirit in the equation and one can easily see this is simply an attempt to map a pecking order in the Trinity to elevate mere men on earth.

As to this being the doctrine of church history, Giles refutes that very well in his books. (And he shows how the ESS folks edit many quote to make folks believe it)

Lin

I believe that McArthur’s extreme views on the roles of women along with his patriarchal beliefs about the Body are leading him to these wrong conclusions because they prop up these man centered doctrines he likes.

Paula Fether

Lydia, thanks for the reminder about Giles’ work, which of course gets the brushoff because it so seriously kicks assertions. :-D And ’tortured’ is a great description for this piece by MacArthur.

And Lin, you’re absolutely right that it’s nothing but a transparent attempt to get around the fact that we have them refuted for their mapping of Father/Son to male/female. This one tries to throw in the Holy Spirit at the last minute, practically as an afterthought. It’s just pathetic logic and even still more patheticer theology.

Greg Anderson

Is it any wonder I lost my religion?

BIG diff between the beautiful Rabbi from Nazareth and what the Christian religion has evolved into over the centuries - (In this case, natural selection may have had a lot to do with it!)

Paula Fether

Nope. The real wonder is why it took me so long to leave it, even after I was convinced it bore no resemblance to truly following Jesus.

Actually, instead of natural selection, I think of it more as dross rising to the surface. :-P

Lin

Actually, instead of natural selection, I think of it more as dross rising to the surface.

Actually, one of my descriptions for the seeker movement (and includes other christian movements such as the Calvinistas) is:

Christian Darwinianism.

How can that be? Well, trust me...most of Christendom is a microcosm of "survival of the fittst" in terms of social stuctures.

Paula Fether

Good point, Lin. It sure is "dog eat dog" now.

Paula Fether

Take a look at this for some more stomach-turning teachings from the Big Names. The comments there are long but very interesting as well.

Paula Fether

Here is another one, with a handy chart. The linked article there may have scripture references (likely the same ones MacA used, so already answered), but the chart does not, and includes a few very curious statements:

"He is the eternal Son." -- logically impossible

"’Son of God’ is who He is in His being of beings." -- What?

"Before the incarnation the Son was ever in the Father’s bosom." -- What?

"The Father/Son relationship has eternally existed in the Godhead." -- And the Spirit...?

I guess Psalm 2:7 and 1 Chron. 17:13 aren’t in their Bible.

Deb Hurn

Just to introduce myself, Paula. I came to your blog from one of your comments on Shirley Taylor’s blog http://bwebaptistwomenforequality.wordpress.com/ and have read the last several of your posts here. This one impressed me...actually quite astounded me...for I was not quite aware that big-name church theologians are prepared to revise their views on the GODHEAD in order to keep women in their place.

I don’t know which denomination you are trying to move along...I can see Shirley is a Southern Baptist. I am a life-long Christadelphian and www.onevoice.info is the website that I and another woman put up in Oct 2007 to address the issue of women’s roles. I am now thinking of attaching a blog to it, as I observe the interest and success of these.

Christadelphians are actually non-Trinitarian Christians -- strictly you could say Unitarian, though this has other definitions that don’t really correlate. But I fully support your objections here. I am gobsmacked to see how believers in the strong headship of men over women have been led to revise the relationship between God and Christ (as if they can :-). A doctrine that has been rigorously defended and enforced by the entire church for centuries suddenly needs radical surgery to keep women in their place!

I think it is good that we women reformers can network across denominations. I very much enjoy seeing the same musings spontaneously generating elsewhere, and often better expressed :-)

I am also very impressed with the level of engagement in this post. You have the confidence, ability and familiarity with the issues to sail right in and engage with no less than MacArthur.

All blessings to you. Deb.

Paula Fether

Welcome, Deb, and thank you! :-D

I think the reason the Big Names are so easy to refute now is because they’ve gotten so desperate that they say these ridiculous things. People just love power above all else, and once they get it they can’t seem to give it up, revising history and abandoning logic if they must. We see this same death grip in government, sports, business, and every religious hierarchy.

Yes, the internet has allowed such tyrannies to be quickly exposed, and for that reason all the Powers That Be (in all of the aforementioned arenas) will move to control it. Communication is the enemy of micromanagement, because people can educate themselves without an officiating body deciding what facts are available. We have to make good use of this window of opportunity.

caraboska

Paula,

Glad to have found you - through your presence, if brief, on that Parchment and Pen discussion. I want to point something out to you: nearly all of the Christian churches on the planet in principle adhere to the Nicene Creed. Which states that, among other things:

We believe in... one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, *eternally begotten of the Father*, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, of one Being with the Father, through Whom all things were made.

On the other hand, your point about Psalm 2 is well-taken and it is one I have mentioned in witnessing to... Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But then again, in response to your question about the relationship between Christ and the Church, whether it has always existed, I think a case for that can be made from Ephesians 1, in particular v. 4 - the idea that the elect were chosen before the world began.

Bottom line: I don’t think it’s quite so simple. Fortunately, even all the while while completely sidestepping this question, it is possible to explain the Trinity in a perfectly reasonable and logical manner...

Paula Fether

Hi Caraboska, and welcome to my blog. :-)

I’ve gone many rounds on the Calvinism/predestination debate, so if you’d like to see my responses to that issue please search on "calvin" or click on the pertinent tags.

As for the creeds, they are not scripture and hold no authoritative weight. I consider them of great historical value and usefulness for trying to concisely state the beliefs of a group, but nothing more. And it should be noted that the phrase about eternally begotten or proceeding is debated as to whether it means "eternal sonship" or simply a description of the dual nature of Jesus.

But I cannot escape the fact that if Jesus and the Spirit owe their existence (and allegiance) to the Father, then they are, by definition, lesser gods. This is one of the reasons some (ironic that this is right after a comment by one who does not believe God is a trinity) reject the trinitarian nature of God; they see the conclusion a hierarchy in the Godhead leads to. But for me, the solution is not to discard the Trinity, but to discard the hierarchy.

For anyone interested, I added my thoughts on the Trinity as an appendix to my Nicolaitan book, and there is also my series on The Trinity Debate.

caraboska

I know perfectly well that the creeds are not Scripture. The point is that they show what churches that adhere to them believe or teach as their ’official teaching’. That is the only reason I mentioned them. The church with which I personally feel most closely aligned (not having, however, any formal church membership whatsoever) is actually one which explicitly rejects the use of creeds: the Religious Society of Friends, i.e. Quakers.

I personally cannot see how the phrase ’eternally begotten of the Father’ (or even ’begotten of the Father before all worlds’), is just an expression of Jesus’ dual nature. I mean, that is taken up in the next clause of that sentence, so that here - in retrospect, as it were - the emphasis would fall on the eternity. But that having been said, I can see how there would be some ambiguity, given the grammar of the Greek original (gennEthenta), which if I’m not mistaken indicates a past tense, as it were, without aspect (i.e. perfective or imperfective).

At any rate... I also had not intended to open the can of worms of predestination vs. free will. It is one that cannot be solved intellectually. I was commenting from a viewpoint assuming that the Bible teaches both predestination and free will, which only works if you assume a ’two sides of one coin’ type of unity between the divine will and ours. What I am still not clear on is whether this only exists if the person in question is a believer, or whether it exists regardless of whether someone is or isn’t a believer - but in the former case, this unity works out to their salvation, while in the case of an unbeliever, it works out to their destruction. Lately I have been leaning towards the latter. Maybe I will hop on over to your calvinism pages and continue the discussion there if I feel I have anything to add.

caraboska

PS I agree about the egalitarian concept of the Trinity. Hierarchy has never been part of my personal method of explaining this concept.

Paula Fether

I agree about the "begotten" phrase, but just wanted to note that some take it to mean what the ESS teachers mean, while others believe it does not. I’ll have to see if I can find where the second view is stated, since I’m a little fuzzy on how exactly they argued.

Paula Fether

This article isn’t the one I remember, but it’s pretty interesting. It emphasizes the communication problems and notes that the focus of the creed was not so much in defining the Trinity as establishing the deity of Christ.

Lin

"This article isn’t the one I remember, but it’s pretty interesting. It emphasizes the communication problems and notes that the focus of the creed was not so much in defining the Trinity as establishing the deity of Christ."

I have not read the link but your last sentence is right on when discussing the creeds. The question is why they felt the need for a creed in the first place? The answer is what was going on at that time.

Fast forward to the future and now we are using the creeds to intepret scripture! This just will not do. Because the questions are different.

Paula, you said it earlier but it must be repeated: If there is hierarchy in the Trinity outside the Incarnation, then Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are ’lessor gods’ and there is no united will. The lessor gods must take orders! There is NO WAY around that no matter how many words they use.

They can claim equality in "essence" all they want but they are teaching unequal in the end. And that is blasphemy. I ask them to look at John 5:18. Why were the Pharisees so angry with Jesus Christ? Because He was claiming "equality" with God by calling God His Father! How can that be? Why would Father/Son communicate equal to the Pharisees?

caraboska

Lin, I think the problem with the creeds is that the churches view them as the official ’executive summary’ of Scriptural teaching - not necessarily as interpretative tools, but certainly as screening tools to determine someone’s doctrinal purity before permitting them to interpret Scripture in public.