QUESTION. What does the Bible teach about the eternality of Jesus, and especially his eternal sonship?
ANSWER. In answering this question it is necessary to remember that Jesus had (has) TWO natures; he is fully human and fully divine. His divine nature is the Logos, the second person of the Trinity (as we think of him). His human nature is the man Jesus of Nazareth. These two natures are combined into one person with one center of consciousness and one will.
Here I will make three points, taking material mostly from chapter 13 (“The Person of Christ”) in my book, The Faith Once for All.
I. THE HUMAN NATURE OF JESUS IS NOT ETERNAL. The human being, Jesus of Nazareth, had a beginning when in her body one of Mary’s ova was supernaturally stimulated by the Holy Spirit to begin growing as a male child (Luke 1:35). This human person simply did not exist before this moment. Thus, for example, when the New Testament speaks of the worlds being created through the Son (Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2), or through the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6), such statements are referring only to the divine nature of Jesus (John 1:1-3).
II. THE DIVINE NATURE OF JESUS HAS PRE-EXISTED FROM ETERNITY PAST. Though the human nature of Jesus had a beginning, his divine nature did not. As the Logos or second person of the Trinity, he has existed forever. This is usually called the pre-existence of Jesus Christ, but this quality of pre-existence applies only to the divine being who became Jesus Christ. It is important to remember this, in view of the following Biblical data.
How does the Bible teach the eternality of Christ? On many occasions Jesus declared or implied that he existed before he came into this world. He said that he “came down out of heaven” (John 6:41; see 3:31; 6:38) or “descended from heaven” (John 3:13), and he spoke of being sent by the Father (John 8:16; see Matt. 15:24; John 3:34). “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world” (John 16:28). John the Baptist, who in fact was conceived about six months prior to Jesus’ miraculous conception (Luke 1:24-36), declared that Jesus existed before him (John 1:15, 30).
Not only did Jesus exist prior to his birth; he existed prior to the creation of the world. Jesus speaks of existing in glory with the Father “before the world was” (John 17:5; see v. 24). Jesus is described as having existed “from the beginning” (1 John 1:1; Heb. 1:10). Indeed, as we have seen, the Logos side of Jesus’ nature was active in the very creation of the world (John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2, 10).
Thus we speak of the divine nature of Jesus as being “pre-existent.” But to be more precise, we must actually speak of his ETERNAL pre-existence. The Bible specifically affirms this of the Logos side of his nature. In John 1:1-2 the Logos who became Jesus Christ is described as having been “in the beginning with God.” In whatever sense God was “in the beginning,” so also was the Logos. Then John 1:3 says, “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” Here the Logos not only is named as the Creator of all things, but is carefully distinguished from the category of things that have themselves been created or have “come into being” (see also Rev. 5:13). The Logos himself is uncreated, beginningless, eternal. Similarly Colossians 1:17 says that God the Son “is before all things,” i.e., he exists (present tense) prior to all created things.
In a remarkable testimony to his eternal pre-existence Jesus said, “Before Abraham was born [genesthai], I am” (John 8:58). Jesus is obviously claiming that he existed before Abraham was born, but the language he uses implies more. The word used for Abraham (ginomai) refers to his coming into existence as a past event; but the word Jesus used for himself was the simple word “to be” in an emphatic present tense, ego eimi, “I am.” Such a use of the present tense implies that even prior to Abraham he was existing in an eternal, continuing existence. In other words, Abraham had a beginning, but Jesus (in his divine nature) did not. Also, the use of the present tense where we would have expected the past tense seems to be a deliberate echo of the divine name in Exodus 3:14.
Other texts affirm the eternality of Jesus. Micah 5:2 prophesies of the Messiah, “His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” He is “Eternal Father” (Isa. 9:6). Hebrews 1:10-12 applies Psalm 102:25-27 to Jesus, and thus attributes eternal immutability to him: “You are the same” (Heb. 1:12). “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Jesus declares, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13).
The eternal pre-existence of Jesus Christ in the person of the divine Logos is also consistent with the NT’s application of OT statements about Yahweh to Jesus (e.g., Isa. 40:3 to Matt. 3:3; Mal. 3:1 to Matt. 11:10; Psalm 102:25-27 to Heb. 1:10-12; Joel 2:32 to Acts 2:21, 36 and Rom. 10:9, 13).
III. JESUS’ SONSHIP IS NOT ETERNAL, BUT BEGAN WITH THE INCARNATION. We speak of the Trinity as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. This is appropriate as far as our relationship to Jesus is concerned, but this question has arisen: is Jesus’ sonship to the Father an eternal relationship, or did it begin with the incarnation? Is the Father-Son relationship ontological and eternal, or did it have a beginning?
The eternal sonship of Jesus has long been a traditional Christian doctrine, and some are convinced that it is essential to orthodoxy. This is not really the case, however. Not everyone otherwise orthodox in his theism has accepted it. Alexander Campbell, for example, taught that Christ was pre-existent as the Logos, but his sonship began with the incarnation (Christian System, 9-10).
I support this view; and I do not see any issue of orthodoxy at stake here, since nothing seems to be lost by limiting the Father-Son relationship to Christ’s incarnate state nor gained by extending it into eternity past. Especially I would argue that Christ’s deity and equality with God do not depend upon an eternal sonship relation. Extracting deity from eternal sonship is an inference anyway, and there are surely enough explicit references to Christ’s deity in the Bible to make this truth independent of this doubtful doctrine.
This issue is relevant to the question of the subordination of the Son to the Father, though. Without doubt the Bible speaks of such subordinationism. “The Father is greater than I,” says Jesus (John 14:28). Christ is the Father’s servant (Isa. 52:13; 53:11; Matt. 20:28; Phil. 2:7); he came to do the Father’s will: “Yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39; see 26:42). “I do not seek my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 5:30; see 4:34; 6:38). “Behold, I have come . . . to do Your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7). “God is the head of Christ,” says Paul (1 Cor. 11:3). “Christ belongs to God,” says 1 Cor. 3:23. How shall we explain such passages? The question is whether they imply an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, or whether they apply only to the relation between the incarnate Logos and the Father.
Many Christians from the earliest times have applied this relationship of subordination to the persons of the Trinity in their eternal nature. I.e., even before the Logos became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, he was subordinate to God the Father even though the two were equal in essence. Thus, they say, a relationship of authority and submission, a chain of command, is present within the Trinity by nature. This conclusion is drawn not only from the passages just listed, but also from the concept of eternal sonship as discussed above. If the Son is eternally begotten by the Father, then his very existence in some way depends on the Father. The concept of subordination seems to be a natural corollary.
In my judgment, though, this is not correct, especially since the idea of eternal sonship is seen as false. But what of the many passages just cited that actually affirm the subordination of Christ to the Father? These are best understood as referring to the role of servant which the Logos voluntarily assumed as a result of the incarnation. There was no relationship of subordination among the three persons of the Trinity before this. The subordination of the Son to the Father is functional, not ontological. It has to do with the Son’s office and work, not his person. Jesus Christ the God-man is the Father’s servant, and he does the will of the Father; but this is an aspect of the humiliation that he freely chose to endure for the sake of our salvation.