The Difference Between Eternal Sonship and Incarnational Sonship
(A Helpful Chart)
"And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true, and we are in Him that is true, even in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life" (1 John 5:20).
The Bible is the written Word of God, inerrant and absolutely infallible. God’s Word is the only valid source of information concerning the existence and character of God and the origin and destiny of man. In humbleness of heart and with childlike faith we should submit to God’s revelation of Himself:
“All things are delivered unto Me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27).
The Bible reveals among other things that God has graciously made full provision
for man’s salvation in and through His only begotten unique Son, our Lord Jesus
Christ. God desires that redeemed man should worship, honor, love,
and serve Him. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to
glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.”
A correct understanding of God’s revelation of Himself is vital if we are to respond properly to God in worship, love, and praise. One of the most remarkable truths revealed in the Bible is the triune nature of the Godhead: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
These three Persons of the Godhead are one in the essential being of God, and yet each Person is carefully distinguished in the Scriptures. Each person of the triune Godhead has unique glories, that rightly apprehended, increase our love and admiration for our great God.
The Bible reveals that in the godhead exists a very special relationship that is implicit in the names Father and Son. The Scriptures clearly teach that this relationship is of an eternal nature and that it displays one of the most beautiful and appealing glories of the Lord Jesus Christ, one that should delight our hearts and inspire our worship.
Over the years many have denied the eternal Sonship of Christ. Their reasons are basically twofold: (1) they feel that the term "Son" denotes inferiority and subjection, characteristics which are inconsistent with a correct understanding of the essential and eternal nature of Christ; (2) they speculate that the relationships between the Persons of the godhead revealed in the New Testament were not actually personalized until the time of Christ’s incarnation or even later. The position of those who deny the eternal Sonship of Christ is here referred to as the incarnational Sonship view.
The differences between the two positions are significant. These differences are not simply matters of semantics or mere theological technicalities; they are fundamental. The following chart helps to summarize and contrast the two positions:
|Eternal Sonship||Incarnational Sonship|
|He was always the Son of God.
He is the eternal Son.
|Before the incarnation He was not the Son of God.|
|"Son of God" is Who He is.||"Son of God" is What He Became.|
|His Sonship is essential to His true identify and cannot be divorced from the Person that He is.||His Sonship is not essential to His inherent identity.|
|"Son of God" is who He is in His being of beings.||"Son of God" is merely a title and role that He assumed.|
|His Sonship directly relates to His deity.||His Sonship directly relates to His incarnation.|
|"Son of God" means equal with God, indicating likeness or sameness of being.||"Son of God" means subservient to God, less than God.|
|God the Father has always been God the Father.||God the Father did not assume the title and role of Father until the incarnation.|
|Before the incarnation the Son was ever in the Father's bosom.||Before the incarnation God had no Son, nor was He the Father.|
|The Father/Son relationship has eternally existed in the Godhead.||Before the incarnation there was no Father/Son relationship in the Godhead.|
|The Father sent His own Son into this world (see John 3:16-17; Galatians 4:4; etc.).||The One who would become the Father sent the One who would become the Son into this world.|
|The triune God has eternally existed in three Persons─Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.||The triune God has eternally existed in three Persons, but not as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These were roles that were assumed in time.|
This author is concerned because many believers, when confronted with these two positions, do not see the importance of the issue. Years ago one of this century’s great preachers, Dr. H. A. Ironside, wrote a history of the Plymouth Brethren movement. In this volume he mentioned an American Bible teacher, a follower of F. E. Raven, who denied eternal Sonship:
More recently the so-called Raven meetings have been divided over the teaching of an American leader who denied the truth of the Eternal Sonship of Christ. This most serious error caused many to take a definite stand against it and led to another separation. But sadly enough by far the greater majority saw nothing wrong in such views and have gone on with the promulgator of them. This puts these meetings entirely off the ground of the early Brethren who considered a true confession of Christ the very first consideration. [H. A. Ironside, A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux, 1985) 131.]
Several observations should be made: (1) Dr. Ironside, recognized as a man of keen doctrinal discernment, considered the denial of eternal Sonship a “most serious error”; (2) some took a definite stand against this error and a separation resulted; (3) Dr. Ironside was grieved not because of the necessary separation, but because “the greater majority saw nothing wrong” with such teaching and they continued to follow this Bible teacher; (4) Dr. Ironside as well as the early Brethren considered the denial of eternal Sonship to be incompatible with “a true confession of Christ.”
History often repeats itself. Today there is a similar situation that is of grave concern to this author. When confronted with the denial of eternal Sonship, too many believers, including pastors and other Christian leaders, do not understand the importance of the issue. They do not consider the denial of the eternal Sonship of Christ to be serious error. They see nothing wrong with it. To them it does not significantly affect the true doctrine of Christ, and they do not consider the issue to be worth fighting over. They are grieved, not because of the error that is allowed and propagated, but because of those voices who seek to proclaim and preserve the doctrine of eternal Sonship. Those who speak out are criticized for their lack of love and tolerance and for causing discord among brethren.
In writing this article, it is not our desire to divide brethren, but rather to unite believers on the basis of a common understanding of the blessed person of the Son of God: “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
The doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ cannot be set aside or minimized for the following reasons: (1) it is a doctrine plainly taught in the Word of God; (2) the teaching that denies the eternal Sonship of Christ robs the body of Christ, the true church, of a vital and precious belief essential to a proper understanding and appreciation of His Person and work; (3) the truth of the gospel message and its presentation are affected because if we are not proclaiming Christ as the eternal Son of God, then we are preaching a Savior other than the Person who has been revealed in the Scriptures; (4) failure to understand the Persons of the Godhead as revealed by His Word limits one’s practical relationship to His triune Being; (5) the denial of eternal Sonship deprives us of the enjoyment of one of the most beautiful glories of the Lord Jesus Christ.
See other articles on the doctrine of eternal Sonship under Doctrinal Studies.
For a Biblical defense of the doctrine of Eternal Sonship see The Doctrine of the Eternal Sonship of Christ.