In a previous article, I wrote that John MacArthur had in the past denied the eternal sonship of Jesus arguing for incarnational sonship -that Jesus became “Son” at his birth. I thought it might be helpful to trace back exactly what the issue was. MacArthur has since amended his views but here is his original position.
“Son is an incarnational title of Christ. Though His sonship was anticipated in the Old Testament (Prov. 30:4), He did not become a Son until He was begotten into time…The Bible nowhere speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ…He was always God, but He became Son. He had not always had the title of Son. That is His incarnation title. Eternally He is God, but only from His incarnation has He been Son…Christ was not Son until His incarnation. Before that He was eternal God. It is therefore incorrect to say that Jesus Christ is eternally inferior to God because He goes under the title of Son. He is no “eternal son” always subservient to God, always less than God, always under God….His Sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity. His life as Son began in this world…He was not a son until He was born into this world through the virgin birth…The sonship of Christ is inextricably connected with His incarnation…Only after Christ’s incarnation did God say, `This is My Son.'”(The MacArthur New Testament Commentary HEBREWS, 1983, pp.27-28)
In this article here, he explains why he has revised his position.
To that end, 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.
You will note that he insists that his initial position was not heretical because he never sought to deny the deity of Christ.
My aim was to defend, not in any way to undermine, Christ’s absolute deity and eternality. And I endeavoured from the beginning to make that as clear as possible.
MacArthur is insisting here that he was not falling into the Arian trap of treating Jesus as in any way eternally subordinate to his Father. However, I would suggest that he had at least partially entertained the Arian viewpoint by accepting the sonship does entail subordination by way of nature. He writes:
That verse presents some very difficult concepts. “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).
Arians resolved the issue of sonship indicating subordination and servitude by concluding that Jesus, The Son could not be eternally divine, rather he was an exalted but created being. MacArthur resolved it by concluding that Christ could not always have been The Son but rather, this was a position he took on at the incarnation.
It is important to note at this stage that both positions fall well outside of how Christians have historically resolved any potential issue here. Historically, the church Fathers argued that there was a distinction between divine sonship and human sonship because the latter indicated a process in time. Further, they argued that the way that a son relates to his father is different to how a slave relates to their master even if there is obedience involved. This is important because a relationship may at a distance look similar to another but close up we can see that they are very different. Some Christians today have taken the view that the son does submit from eternity but remain clear that this is not as a result of a subordinate nature. Others prefer to exclude all submission language from our understanding of the eternal relationship between the three persons of the Trinity.
The crucial point being that when we think of the Father-Son relationship, we are not meant to attempt to impose our understanding of fallen and finite human relationships onto God. The Trinity isn’t a bit like a human family. Rather, we see that human father-son relationships are in an imperfect way a reflection of the divine relationship. As MacArthur himself has come to accept.
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.
How significant is the error?
The tone of MacArthur’s article suggests that he sees this in terms of a minor correction. He uses the example of Augustine to show that it is normal for pastor-theologians to be learning and revising. This is of course true, each of us will recognise that there are issues and interpretations which we have changed our minds on over the years.
But is this only a minor error? MacArthur seems to suggest that it is because at no point did he fall into Arianism. However, Arianism is not the only significant error we can fall into when talking about God and the Trinity.
You will notice that in his original position MacArthur not only affirmed the eternal divinity of Christ but also insisted that he was a distinct person, that God eternally is three persons. This would suggest that he also was seeking to avoid modalism – the belief that God reveals himself in three different modes at different times, Father, Son and Spirit.
However, whilst Incarnational Sonship does not immediately result in modalism, it does leave us confused about the nature of the Trinity. In what way are the persons distinct from one another? Orthodox Christianity has insisted that the distinction is in the relationships otherwise we end up placing it elsewhere such as by identifying three different wills within the Trinity. So at best, MacArthur’s original position left us with a muddled and confused understanding of God’s triune nature.
I think the problem goes a little deeper though because in effect, it implies change within God and that is a serious issue (see e.g. Malachi 3:6). In what way does Incarnational Sonship result in change within God? Well, not within Christ because its proponents would argue that Sonship is an aspect of his acquiring a human nature, not a change to his divine identity. However, it does result in change within the first person of the Trinity. Here is Athanasius responding to the Arians:
“Therefore it is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate. For the latter title, as I have said, does nothing more than signify all the works, individually and collectively, which have come to be at the will of God through the Word; but the title Father has its significance and its bearing only from the Son. And, whereas the Word surpasses things originated, by so much and more doth calling God Father surpass the calling Him Unoriginate. For the latter is unscriptural and suspicious, because it has various senses; so that, when a man is asked concerning it, his mind is carried about to many ideas; but the word Father is simple and scriptural, and more accurate, and only implies the Son.”
Athanasius’ point is that we know God as Father. We recognise in the name something of his eternal character. The problem with Incarnational Sonship is that it leaves us with a God who at one point was not Father and at a later point becomes Father.
We cannot underestimate how serious the matter is. Whilst it is commendable that MacArthur changed his position, the original error was serious and brought into question his competency to teach and to lead.
This is important for two reasons. First, I’m concerned that MacArthur and indeed the wider evangelical community were far too glib in their treatment of the error and its correction. This was not just a little mistake to be corrected, it was something to be repented of. Consider how seriously we treat the error of people like Steve Chalke and Rob Bell.
Secondly, it seems to me that MacArthur has bene shown much grace, patience and mercy by others. Yet I do not see that in his treatment of Christians he disagrees with or considers to be in error. This was my concern about his response to different positions within the church on how to respond to COVID regulations.
How does such an error happen and what might be some of the other implications?
I want to suggest that the problem here was an interpretation of Scripture that ended up wooden and out of context. It was out of context from the rest of Scripture and out of the context of hearing the witness of God’s people faithfully studying Scripture together. What we see here is an example of fundamentalist hermeneutic as distinct from evangelical hermeneutic.
Hebrews 1:5 does put the focus on a distinct day when Christ’s sonship is revealed. FF Bruce writes:
“The eternity of Christ’s Sonship is not brought into question by this view: the suggestion rather is that he who was the Son of God from everlasting entered into the full exercise of all the prerogatives implied by his Sonship when, after his suffering has proved the completeness of gis obedience, he was raised to the Father’s right hand.”
This matters because the wooden interpretation creates problems elsewhere. The quote from Psalm 2:7 used by the writer of Hebrews is also understood to be in view when the Father addresses the Son in Luke 3:22 at his baptism. Indeed, this has led to another variant of the denial of Christ’s eternal sonship “adoptionism” which considers Christ to have become the Son by adoption at his baptism.
In contrast, Scripture makes it clear that it was the eternal son who was sent into the world (John 3:16). He is the one who comes from the Father, truly knows the Father and returns to the Father (John 16:28).
The problem with the fundamentalist hermeneutic is that wooden interpretation of specific proof texts leads to other texts being downplayed, ignored or butchered.
I raise this because I want to tentatively suggest that we might get a better understanding of how other problems have arisen within the John MacArthur fold. In my article on the abuse and discipline case I suggested that one potential issue was a discounting of common grace and a suspicion of secular authorities. The result of this has been seen in the two examples mentioned.
First, with regards to COVID regulations, there was resistance against the authority of the State to bring in regulations. This was primarily because it was seen as overstepping state authority for rules to affect what happened in church buildings during church services. However, in a lot of discussion about COVID, one detected from certain quarters a general suspicion of the State’s competency to assess truthfully and act rightly.
Second, in the case of David and Eileen Gray, the impression stands out as you read various responses that the church elders had adjudicated on the matter, they had found Eileen to be in sin and David to be of good character, there may have been failings, but these were minor and repented of. From that perspective, even the conclusion of a criminal trial and subsequent appeal seems open to doubt.
I suspect that this arises out of similar problematic hermeneutical approaches to texts. Those which point to the evil and deceit of the world are picked up in isolation from those that speak of God’s ongoing providential care. Scriptures which talk about our duty to obey God rather than man are also emphasised out of context and passages like Romans 13 which talk about the competence of and our duty to governments are downplayed or reinterpreted.
The result is that Christians within a church become isolated from the wider church which is seen as compromised and develop a siege mentality of distrust. This is quite a risky position to be in.
It has been suggested that in effect what John MacArthur and his church say and do is none of our business outside of his local church. However, I want to argue that he and they have made it our business as he has sought to exercise a wider ministry beyond his own local church on an international stage. He made it our business when he sought to comment on the actions and words of others in the wider church. Moreover, local church autonomy does not mean local church isolation. We are accountable to one another.
We may prefer just to leave an issue like this in the past. Does it matter that MacArthur had some erroneous views? He has now changed his mind. I don’t think we can just say that. The views were expressed extensively, not as throw away comments from a young preacher but in writing in commentaries and as part of teaching by someone already seeking to present themselves as mature and established as a teacher and writer with a reach beyond his local church. I find the original retraction concerning in its failure to recognise the seriousness of the error. Further, if my hypothesis is right and the error here arose out of a root problem with wider implications then the root issue needs to be addressed.
 Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians 1.34.
 Bruce, Hebrews, 54.
 Cf. Bruce, Hebrews, 54.