Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Eternal Son

On a mailing list someone asserted that Jesus only became the Son when he took on human nature. That was off-topic for the list, so I've posted my reply here:

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On Saturday 11 April 2009, Mr. X wrote:
> The Christ could hardly be a Son before He was brought into the world and became subject to His Father.

Hello X,

What you here say "could hardly" be is the overwhelming consensus of Christianity throughout its branches from the moment that such questions began being discussed, so I think this easy dismissal is a little on the trite side. You should perhaps consider that your argument is the same in basic form as that of the Mormons, who argue that the terminology of Father and Son makes no sense unless the Father actually physically sired the Son via Mary, because (they say) that's what it actually means to be a father and a son.

What your argument is assuming is that the ideas of "father" and "son" found amongst men are the original, and that then the persons of the Trinity took them on and used them - i.e. that they cannot have meaning as applied to the Trinity without the incarnation. Orthodox Christianity has argued the opposite: that the divine and eternal relationship within the Trinity between the first and second persons is the original, and that found amongst men was created by God to be a reflection. There exists a Father-Son relationship between the first two persons of the Trinity as members of the Trinity, independent and prior to the incarnation. The Nicean creed of 325 which defines orthodoxy Trinitarianism states that Christ was, in his divine nature, eternally begotten (not created) of the Father - i.e. an eternal relationship of sonship, and this was re-affirmed by the Chalcedonian confession of 451 which defined orthodoxy Christology.

It is the orthodox position that the Son of God has always, as the second person of the Trinity, been in submission to the Father, without any prejudice to their co-equal and essential deity. That is why he speaks, after becoming incarnatate, of being "sent", and having "come" in obedience to the Father's will. This implies an obedience and submission prior to that which he exercised in his human nature. The incarnation was in continuity with what had existed eternally.

The position you've taken implies that the work of the Trinity in salvation does not reveal data about the Trinity as it actually is - that the plan of salvation (the Father sends the Son, and the Father and Son together send the Spirit) does not actually reveal anything about the Godhead's inner life, but is a basically arbitrary
arrangement devised for the need of salvation: there is no first, second and third persons within the Trinity (with respect to order that
is - all agree that there is no rank). The denial of the eternal begetting and eternal sonship logically terminates in a form of tri-theism, where there are three independent persons in community rather than a single being. It's a very serious mistake which is why the ecumenical church councils of early Christendom made the position I've explained above a matter of confessional orthodoxy throughout the recognised church.

Ultimately this mistake undermines the heart of the gospel. The gospel is not just a plan to get us out of trouble. It is the means through which God determined to make himself known and glorify himself. His way of working is not arbitrary or just a response to a bad situation. Someone might take up a Saturday job as a paper boy to get out of a financial hole, yet it might say nothing at all about what they were like as a person. God, though, planned out the gospel as the way in which he would disclose his glorious being. The Trinity is in an important way the foundation of the gospel - the unity of the three persons working together, and the particular work of each person in relationship to each other, reveals who are great God is: one God in three persons, three persons in one God, Father, Son and Spirit. The unique personality of each person is not just a temporary set of overalls taken on for a Saturday job - it is part of the planned revelation of the essential glory. In a sense, the Trinity, the one true God, is the gospel. That's why the early church did not allow this to be a debatable or doubtful matter, but nailed it as a matter of non-negotiable orthodoxy: I believe they did that as the only faithful response to the New Testament revelation.

Love in Christ,


Ralph said...

Nice summary David, and I agree with you.
My take on this is quite simple. Isaiah refers to the Lord as an eternal Father. How can He be an *eternal* Father if there isn't an *eternal* Son? If Jesus only became the Son after He became incarnate, then prior to that point God was not the Father. Isaiah assures us that is not the case, but that both these members of the Trinity have been eternally in this relationship.
This prompts one to question the purpose of God's statement to Jesus after He was baptised ("This day have I begotten thee..."). I am no scholar of Greek, but as baptism signifies death and new birth then I assume this refers to the Father's legal recognition and acknowledgement of Jesus as His Son upon being "born".

David Anderson said...

Hello Ralph,

Thanks for responding. I'm not sure about Isaiah 9:6 being used as a proof; does that verse not refer to the Son rather than the Father? (So that, from a systematic point of view, calling him 'Father' is indicating his unity with the Father?)
Concerning Psalm 2:7 and the similar words of the voice of the Father at the baptism - there's a lot of complexity here. I'd never considered the angle you mention and will have to chew that over. My overall understanding (which is the common one) is that Jesus' three "bringing forths" in the world at his incarnation, into his public ministry at baptism, and from the dead at his resurrection, are all kinds of "begettings", but that the ultimate one they all are rooted in is his eternal relationship within the Trinity. Any of them may be called a begetting, but it would be wrong from that to make any of them the primary one. e.g. The text Psalm 2:7 is referred to the resurrection, but all would agree that Jesus was Son before that - the point of Romans 1:4 is not that Jesus became Son at the resurrection, but that he was now declared with power to be what he always was, etc. etc...

God bless,

John said...

Interesting argument in your post David. Good historical background but a wee bit sparce on sound biblically based argument. I am not a theologian by any definition! However I was taught the following. Church History is not an authoritative source for Christians. The Bible is. Doctrines are not based on one scripture. If you have to scratch around to find scriptures to support a doctrine and the scriptures used are not directly adressing the point in question maybe the doctrine you are arguing about is not worth fighting about. If the doctrine is a centre piece of ones theological world view perhaps the theological scaffolding supporting that viewpoint needs adjusting or re-assembling.

In Christ

David Anderson said...

Hello John,

Thanks for your comment. The point of my post wasn't to lay out the Biblical argument; this would have taken more time than I had available late on Saturday evening when preaching twice the following morning! The point was to point out some of the major issues, and encourage anyone with doubts to do the necessary homework (and you'll see in my next post I gave some pointers as to where someone could do that). Flagging up that being on the other side of the question places you outside of what the historical church has defined as Christological/Trinitarian orthodoxy ought to be enough for someone serious minded to go and look into the issue more deeply. It's a mistake to think that Church history is ipso facto authoritative; but it's also a mistake to think that church history can be casually set aside because of that fact.

God bless,