Walter Martin vs. D.A. Carson on the Eternal Sonship of Jesus

Shortly after I became a Christian I was doing door to door evangelism with Campus Crusade for Christ. One of my first visits introduced me to a Jehovah’s Witness. This encounter led me to read the classic work by Walter Martin The Kingdom of the Cults. I developed a respect for Martin and the work he was doing. In his chapter on Jehovah’s Witnesses he discusses the issue of the eternal Sonship of Christ. For the longest time I thought Martin had settled the debate for me. For some years now I have come to question his conclusions. D.A. Carson in his recent book, Jesus The Son of God, nicely summarizes the case for the eternal Sonship of Christ. I want to offer first Martin’s case against the proposal followed by a quote from Carson.

The case against eternal Sonship by Walter Martin:

(a)    “The doctrine of ‘eternal generation’ or the eternal Sonship of Christ which springs from the Roman Catholic doctrine first conceived by Origen in A.D. 230, is a theory which opened the door theologically to the Arian and Sabellian heresies which today still plague the Christian Church in the realms of Christology.

(b)   The Scripture nowhere calls Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, and He is never called Son at all prior to the incarnation, except in prophetic passages in the Old Testament.

(c)    The term ‘Son’ itself is a functional term, as is the term ‘Father’ and has no meaning apart from time. The term ‘Father’ incidentally never carries the descriptive adjective ‘eternal’ in Scripture; as a matter of fact, only the Spirit is called eternal (‘the eternal Spirit’—Hebrews 9:14), emphasizing the fact that the words Father and Son are purely functional as previously stated.

(d)   Many heresies have seized upon the confusion created by the illogical ‘eternal Sonship’ or ‘eternal generation’ theory of Roman Catholic theology, unfortunately carried over to some aspects of Protestant theology.

(e)    Finally, there cannot be any such thing as eternal Sonship, for there is a logical contradiction of terminology due to the fact that the word ‘Son’ predicates time and the involvement of creativity. Christ, the Scripture tells us as the Logos, is timeless, ‘. . . the Word was in the beginning’ not the Son!” (p. 103 My page reference is to the fifteenth printing, January 1974 edition. The same material can be found in the current edition (October 2003) on page 139.)

The case for eternal Sonship by D.A. Carson:

“It is not that this eternal Word became the Son by means of the incarnation, so that it is appropriate to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit only after the incarnation, whereas before the incarnation it would be more appropriate to speak of the Father, the Word, and the Sprit. No, for as we have seen in Hebrews, the Son is the one by whom God made the universe. In John 3:17, we are told, ‘God did not send his Son into the word to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ It is fanciful to suppose this means that God sent into the world someone who became the Son after he arrived. ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. . . . He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. . . . For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him’; indeed, ‘all things have been created through him and for him’ (Col. 1:15-19), making him not only God’s agent in creation but creation’s master and goal. In these and numerous other passages (e.g., Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22; John 14:9; 17:1-8; 1 John 5:20), Jesus is not the Son of God by virtue of being the ultimate Israel, nor is he the Son of God by virtue of being the Messiah, the ultimate Davidic king, nor is he the Son of God by virtue of being a perfect human being. Rather, he is the Son of God from eternity, simultaneously distinguishable from his heavenly Father yet one with him, the perfect Revealer of the living God.” (41)

No doubt both men could have said more. Here they are providing mere summaries of the larger case that can be made for both sides. Those looking for a more extensive treatment of this issue I would recommend Kevin Giles’ book The Eternal Generation of the Son.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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12 Responses to Walter Martin vs. D.A. Carson on the Eternal Sonship of Jesus

  1. Pingback: Wrong on Both Counts | Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

  2. Pardon me, but how is the eternal Son of God related to the eternal generation of the Son?

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    • Brian says:

      Generation is taken from “only begotten” and is always used figuratively on this point.

      Check out jn.3:16 in the NIV to see “only begotten” is translated “one and only”. Unique is another definition as seen in the ISV.

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  3. This is a great post, thank you. I’m wanting to get my hands on D.A. Carson’s book, and now you’ve given me all the more reason to!

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  4. Paul E. Schippnick says:

    The only-begotton was not begotten to become the only-begotten. The Son of God being God with the Father. God is not begotten.

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  5. bdubbb says:

    Let me being by saying that I believe in the Incarnational Sonship theory, as opposed to the Eternal Sonship theory, regarding the relation between the “first” and “second” persons of the Trinity. I also believe that the terms “Son” and “Father”, as applied to the aforementioned persons of the Trinity, are usually referencing subordination within the economy of salvation. However, I think that almost every point of this “case” has major flaws (or at least certain exploitable characteristics which could be revised to form a more powerful, more persuasive, case).

    Allow me to give my thoughts on each point that I find problematic and give me some feedback, if you can. I also will mention some things that I find semi-persuasive from the affirmative case for Eternal Sonship.

    (a) I don’t see that it matters, at all, to the case *for* Incarnational Sonship that there are misuses of any particular doctrine. As many, if not most, of those who would espouse Eternal Sonship as doctrine would condemn these views as heretical, in keeping with orthodoxy, this does not provide any grounds for denying the doctrine. Doctrine should be held or denied based on its merits, that is, doctrine should be held or denied because of its evidential support, theological importance, and accordance with revelation of God, not its abuse.

    (b) The Scripture nowhere calls God a Trinity either. A doctrine should not be, necessarily, held or denied simply based on the semantics employed within the Biblical text. Rather, doctrine should be held or denied based on what is *taught* within the Biblical text. The Trinity is taught within the text, though it is not mentioned explicitly. Likewise, the proponents of Eternal Sonship would assert that it is taught within the text, though it is not mentioned explicitly.

    I do agree that Eternal Sonship is not taught in the Biblical text, and that Incarnational Sonship is taught in the Biblical text; however, I do not think that the lack of explicit mention of a thing precludes its being sound doctrine. Furthermore, I think that those “prophetic passages in the Old Testament” are exactly what the proponents of the Eternal Sonship doctrine would point to as implicit teaching of the sonship of Christ being eternal in nature. Therefore, it is no criticism to assert that there are no texts which support the doctrine outside of the portions which they feel support the doctrine. They might agree that there are not other passages which support the doctrine, save those!

    (c) I feel that it is only half correct to say, “The term ‘Son’ itself is a functional term, as is the term ‘Father’ and has no meaning apart from time.” I guess that that would depend on your definition of a “functional term”. If, by this, you mean that the term relates only to Christ’s function, then that would necessarily limit it to referring to subordination for the plan of salvation. I wouldn’t agree with the term being a “functional term” in that sense, however. I think that the term “Son” obviously also refers to the nature of Christ, in that being the “Son” of God logically implies a shared nature with God. I think that this is why they wanted to stone Jesus for claiming to be the “Son” of God.

    As I stated in my reply to point (b), I think that we should base our doctrines on teachings rather than semantics, at least where the semantic issue is that of the lack of a term, or terms. Therefore, when you say, “The term ‘Father’ incidentally never carries the descriptive adjective ‘eternal’ in Scripture…”, I don’t think that this is of any significance when determining doctrine.

    (d) I don’t see how this isn’t just a restatement of point (a), or at least how my reply to point (a) would not equally apply to this point.

    (e) I think that this point is directly contradictory to John 5:17-18. Here it is *clear* that, when Jesus called God his father, Jesus was not talking about temporality, subordination, or function, and those who had thought to stone Jesus did not take his words as referring to those things. It was clear that Jesus, and those who heard him, understand this in terms of nature. A being which is a “Son” of another being *must* share that being’s nature. It was this claim of equality with God, not his claim of subordination or function in terms of the plan of salvation, for which they were going to stone Jesus.

    Finally, I would just like to say that those “prophetic passages in the Old Testament” are the very ones which give me pause regarding the Incarnational Sonship of Christ. However, I do find that the presence of support for Incarnational Sonship within the Scriptures outweighs the support for Eternal Sonship. Therefore, I, tentatively, hold to the doctrine of Incarnational Sonship.

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    • Christopher L Rowe says:

      Is there any good reading material out there for incarnational sonship? I find this doctrine very persuasive and wish to learn more. Thanks

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      • bdubbb says:

        Frankly, I sort of developed this idea of Incarnational Sonship independently of others who have espoused it. However, I have seen that John Macarthur has written about it, but I don’t know in what publications. I think that he has since changed his mind back to believing in Eternal Sonship; however, I don’t think that his reasons for believing in Eternal Sonship are very good. I think that they fail for the same sorts of reasons I gave above.

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  6. Greg Logan says:

    Both of these men deny the man Christ Jesus – by denying the human person of Christ – replacing the Him with a mere functionless human nature actuated by some kind of deity.

    Shame on both them for their blasphemy.

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  7. Phillip Mutchell says:

    In the same gospel of John the term son is defined by Jesus as being equivalent to acts when he says ‘ye are of your father the devil’ & co. Hence it is functional. Scripture asserts that God in the beginning created through his word and spirit. It would be refreshing if Christians would at least try to understand that what we call the New Testament is concerned with two principle matters. 1. The conclusion of God’s dealings with Israel – thus the Gospels and Acts with Revelation; where the fact of Christ earthly ministry being to the Jews, his depiction in John and elsewhere as the second Moses, ‘the law came by Moses, grace and truth by Jesus Christ’ the reality of God’s judgement upon on that ‘wicked and adulterous generation’ from whom only that ‘elect according to the foreknowledge of God’ would be saved. 2. The full establishment of the New Covenant which having redeemed those to be saved is pictured in Rev 22 as the new heavens & earth with eternally open gates for whosoever (the eternal gospel preached from heaven of Rev 14) will ‘wash their robes that they might have the right to enter in’, and outside the dogs & co. Hence is it not simpler to see that all those texts which appear to talk of Christ as creator refer to his reality as our eternal high priest and mediator of this New Covenant, which things he is distinctly said to be as a Man. It appears to me that most theories on the trinity have within them a contempt of Man, and thus its proponents are always unable to ‘glorify God who has given such power unto men.’

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    • Greg Logan says:

      Luke is clear – at least as to his perspective – Jesus sonship is the RESULT of the impregnation of Mary – and a future occurrence to the conception.

      Bottom-line – there is NO eternal sonship – silly concept from a Christian perspective.

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  8. Spaniardviii says:

    Good post. I believe like Walter Martin that nowhere in the Old Testament do you get the name of the 2nd Person of the Godhead as Son. I believe that Son, Yahweh…etc are titles that reflect the nature and character of God. Yahweh, for instance, means I Am which declares “always existed” meaning God never had a beginning. Jesus means Savior of the world. Regardless which side of the fence a believer decides to take remember that the salvific doctrine is not touched but we can disagree and still love each other.

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