John MacArthur's Position on the Eternal Sonship of Christ

The MacArthur Bible Commentary (2005) and Eternal Sonship

In 1999 John MacArthur changed his position on the Sonship of Christ—professing to abandon his incarnation Sonship view in favor of the eternal Sonship position. One of my concerns at that time was as follows:

I was concerned about the many commentaries and booklets and tapes which set forth the incarnational Sonship position, sometimes in very strong terms: “The Bible nowhere speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ” (etc.). The incarnational Sonship position is also suggested in MacArthur’s Study Bible notes and in his school’s doctrinal statement. The problem comes when people read these published materials and they may not realize that MacArthur no longer holds to the incarnational Sonship view.

I expressed this concern and on September 3, 1999 I received an e-mail from Phillip R. Johnson, an associate and key member of Dr. John MacArthur’s staff. He assured me that this problem would be corrected. Here are his words:

"John has already asked me to oversee the process of making those changes. I will do so to the best of my ability. John MacArthur’s willingness to recant publicly on an issue with such a high public profile—even when it involves revising and retracting printed and taped material—speaks volumes about his humility and his integrity."

Six years later, in 2005, The MacArthur Bible Commentary was published by Nelson. It is based, for the most part, on the notes found in the Study Bible. I had assumed, based on Johnson’s assurances, that the commentary would clearly set forth the eternal Sonship of Christ. However, for the most part, I found the same troublesome notes which suggest that Christ’s Sonship is not eternal, but involved a role that He assumed at the time of the incarnation.

Before examining some of these notes, it should also be pointed out that in the Preface to The MacArthur Bible Commentary, John MacArthur states the following:

The core around which the one-volume commentary has been arranged is the original notes of The MacArthur Study Bible published in 1997. Since then, those notes have been thoroughly reviewed for accuracy and clarity, with appropriate revisions and corrections."

If MacArthur really changed his position on the eternal Sonship of Christ, and if he really has repudiated the incarnational Sonship view (which involves Christ taking on the role of a Son at the incarnation, a role which He had never previously assumed), then we would expect The MacArthur Bible Commentary to present a strong case for Christ’s eternal Sonship for two reasons: 1) Phillip Johnson assured me that MacArthur’s published works would be revised to reflect his new position on eternal Sonship; 2) MacArthur, in his Preface, stated that the notes in the Commentary had all been checked for accuracy and clarity and revised as needed.

What then do we find? Here are several examples taken from The MacArthur Bible Commentary:

“We teach that, in the Incarnation, the second person of the Trinity laid aside His right to the full prerogatives of coexistence with God, assumed the place of a Son, and took on an existence appropriate to a servant while never divesting Himself of His divine attributes (Phil. 2:5-8). Page xii, in the chapter entitled “Key Teachings of the Bible.” [This statement is also part of MacArthur’s church and school doctrinal statement]

The above quote suggests that Christ “assumed the place of a Son” at the incarnation, a place which He did not hold prior to the incarnation. It suggests that Sonship was a role that Christ assumed when He became a man. This is in contradiction to MacArthur’s own statement made in a document entitled, Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ (September 1999). At that time he said,
“I no longer regard Christ’s Sonship as a role He assumed at His incarnation.” Where does MacArthur really stand? Does he believe that Christ was eternally the Son or does he believe that He assumed the place of a Son at the incarnation?

Another problem with the above quote from his Commentary is that MacArthur equates Sonship with the idea of being a Servant, whereas the Scriptures place these two ideas in sharp contrast (Galatians 4:7, Hebrews 3:5-6, Matthew 21:33-39). MacArthur once taught that Sonship primarily signified submission, obedience and subservience and this faulty view is suggested by the above quote. In Jewish usage the term SON did not generally imply subjection and subordination, but rather equality and identity of nature.

If MacArthur has really changed His position on Sonship, then why wouldn’t he want to change his church and school doctrinal statement to reflect such a change? Instead MacArthur leaves the statement as it was, clearly implying that Christ assumed the place of a Son at the incarnation, implying that He did not have or hold that place prior to Bethlehem.

“God’s Son was born in a point of time. He was always God, but He fulfilled His role as Son in space and time at His incarnation” [see under Hebrews 1:5].

God’s Son eternally existed. His Sonship did not begin at the time of the incarnation. In 1999 MacArthur renounced his “incarnation Sonship view” and professed to believe in eternal Sonship. At that time he said, “I no longer regard Christ’s Sonship as a role He assumed at His incarnation.” Why then did MacArthur state, in his Commentary, that He “fulfilled His role as Son”? MacArthur is contradicting himself. What does he really believe? In his Preface he stated that all of these notes had all been checked for accuracy and clarity and revised as needed. Was a mistake made in this case? Was this an erroneous note that somehow failed to get corrected? Has MacArthur unknowingly allowed the serious error of incarnational Sonship to infect his Commentary?

“While He was eternally the Son in anticipation of His incarnation, it was when He entered the world in incarnation that He was declared to all the world as the Son of God and took on the role of submission to the Father” [ See under Romans 1:4].

MacArthur here suggests that Christ did not actually become the Son until the incarnation. Prior to Bethlehem He was only the Son “in anticipation.” Once again he teaches that Sonship is merely a “role” which Christ assumed and that it involves “submission” to the Father [the Bible teaches that Sonship involves not servitude, but equality with God (see John 5:18), and notice also how Sonship is contrasted with the idea of servitude in Galatians 4:7, Hebrews 3:5-6, Matthew 21:33-39].

CONCLUSION: In The MacArthur Bible Commentary I could find not a clear, unequivocal declaration of Christ’s eternal Sonship. Instead I found several statements which suggest that Christ’s Sonship was a role that He assumed at the incarnation. This mirrors the erroneous “incarnational Sonship” view that MacArthur once held. What does he really believe now?

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