Has John MacArthur Really Changed His Position on the Sonship of Christ?
MacArthur's Study Bible (revised edition) and Bible Commentary and Doctrinal Statement as They Relate to the Issue of the Sonship of Christ
The MacArthur Study Bible was released in October 1997, published by Word Bibles. The version used was The New King James Version, though later editions come with the NASB text. It contains over 20,000 study notes. The notes are voluminous and extensive. The Study Bible was revised and updated in 2006.
The MacArthur Bible Commentary was published in 2005 by Nelson. The Study Bible and the Commentary are essentially one and the same. The study notes are basically identical in both volumes. The only difference is the format. The former is in a study Bible format with the Bible text and cross references above and the study notes on the bottom of each page. The latter is in a commentary format with no Bible text. In the Commentary the study notes are more readable, being in a larger font. The notes in the study Bible are in very small print. If you compare the notes of the Study Bible to the notes of the Commentary, you will find them to be the same.
Over the course of more than 28 years, MacArthur has preached primarily from the New Testament, and these messages form the basis of the New Testament study notes. The Old Testament notes were done by the faculty of The Master’s Seminary. MacArthur personally checked and reviewed, worked and re-worked all of the study notes and he claims full responsibility for them: "I personally bear full responsibility for all the notes in The MacArthur Study Bible because they all have come from me and through me." [Personal Notes (Introductory Section), page xi.]
For a full critique of The MacArthur Study Bible and The MacArthur Bible Commentary, click here.
MacArthur’s Denial of the Eternal Sonship of Christ
MacArthur, for a period of at least 25 years, taught that Christ did not become the Son of God until He was born in Bethlehem, at the time of the incarnation. MacArthur’s incarnational Sonship view was first set forth publicly in a taped message given in 1972 (Tape GC-1602) dealing with Hebrews 1:4-6. On this tape he said, "Don’t you let anyone tell you that He is the eternal Son....His Sonship began in a point of time, not in eternity."
This "incarnational Sonship" view is in sharp contrast to the "eternal Sonship" position which says that Christ has always been the Son of God and that His Sonship is essential to His true identity and cannot be divorced from the Person He is.
In his published and public writings MacArthur strongly denied the eternal Sonship of Christ as the following quotes indicate:
"The Bible nowhere speaks of the eternal Sonship of Christ...He was always God, but He became Son. Eternally He is God, but only from His incarnation has He been Son...Christ was not Son until His incarnation" (Hebrews, 1983, pp. 27-28).
"Don’t let anyone tell you that Christ is the eternal Son...Christ’s Sonship began at a point in time, not in eternity...Christ was not a Son until He came into this world through the virgin birth" (The Superiority of Christ–Hebrews 1-2, 1986, pp. 52-54).
"Nowhere in Scripture does it say that Jesus has eternally been the Son...He assumed the role of a Son in His incarnation" (Acting on the Good News—Romans 1, 1987, pp. 35-41).
MacArthur’s strong denial of Christ’s eternal Sonship can also be found in his major commentaries on Galatians and Romans. [We have documented and analyzed John MacArthur’s teachings in an extensive paper entitled, The Teachings of John MacArthur, Jr. ($6.00, over 120 pages).]
In light of this strong denial of eternal Sonship, how could MacArthur sign the IFCA doctrinal statement which says, "We believe in one Triune God, eternally existing in three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit....We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man"?
MacArthur’s Incarnational Sonship view has been answered in the book, The Eternal Sonship of Christ (Loizeaux Brothers), by George Zeller and Renald Showers (available from us for $5.00 plus postage). The book explains why the doctrine of the Eternal Sonship of Christ is so important and why its denial is serious error.
MacArthur’s denial of eternal Sonship, which is forcefully stated in his earlier writings, is more cautiously stated in his Study Bible. Note the following:
"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" [Hebrews 1:5].
"God’s Son was born in a point of time. He was always God, but He demonstrated His role as Son in space and time at His incarnation" [Hebrews 1:5, revised edition].
MacArthur held the belief that Christ was always God, but that He was not always the Son of God. He became the Son when He was born in Bethlehem. His Sonship, according to MacArthur, was merely a "role" that He assumed in time.
"It (Psalm 2:7) is the only OT reference to the Father/Son relationship in the Trinity, a relationship planned in eternity past and realized in the incarnation" [Psalm 2:7].
Christ’s Sonship was planned in eternity past but was not actually realized until the incarnation. Prior to the incarnation, according to MacArthur, He was not the Son of God. In the revised edition this was modified slightly:
"It is also the only OT reference to the Father/Son relationship in the Trinity, a relationship decreed in eternity past and demonstrated in the incarnation" [Psalm 2:7, Revised Edition].
Here is his comment under Romans 1:4:
"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" [Rom. 1:4].
MacArthur implies here that Christ did not actually become the Son until the incarnation. Prior to Bethlehem He was only the Son "in anticipation." He also 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].
"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" [this quote is taken from the section called "Overview of Theology" in The MacArthur Study Bible and the section called "Key Teachings of the Bible" in The MacArthur Bible Commentary].
This last quotation finds its origin in the doctrinal statement of The Master’s College and Seminary. The most troubling part of this paragraph is the following phrase, "In the incarnation the second person of the Trinity...assumed the place of a Son." This statement implies that prior to the incarnation Christ had not assumed the place of a Son. Also it implies that Christ did not assume the role of a Son until the incarnation. However, the Bible teaches that Sonship is not a role that Christ played, nor is it a place that He assumed. Sonship relates to Christ’s essential identity. He has always existed as the Son; He has forever been in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18). Sonship is not something that He ever assumed.
Did MacArthur Change His Position?
After the MacArthur Study Bible was first published, John MacArthur seemed to reverse his view on Christ’s Sonship. He seemed to repudiate the "incarnational Sonship" view which he taught for over 25 years. In a document entitled, Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ(September 1999), MacArthur said the following:
"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 at His incarnation."
If you want to see MacArthur's complete statement, click here.
I am thankful for Dr. MacArthur’s clear affirmation of Christ’s eternal Sonship as stated in the above mentioned document and in the quotation just cited. I sincerely thank God for his willingness to humbly admit and acknowledge that his earlier teaching on Christ’s Sonship was erroneous and not in line with Scripture.
In spite of MacArthur’s apparent reversal on this issue, I still have some lingering concerns.
MacArthur said, "I no longer regard Christ’s Sonship as a role He assumed at His incarnation." If this is true, then why hasn’t he changed his school’s doctrinal statement? Why does it still say that in the incarnation He "assumed the place of a Son"? Why does MacArthur still publish this doctrinal statement in both his Study Bible and his Commentary without changing this phrase which strongly implies that Christ did not assume the place of a Son until His incarnation (thus denying His eternal Sonship)? And if MacArthur no longer regards Christ’s Sonship as a role He assumed at His incarnation, then why does he still speak of Sonship as a "role" in his note under Hebrews 1:5? Also his note under Romans 1:4 is confusing. Was Christ actually the Son of God prior to the incarnation, or was He only the Son in an anticipatory sense? The note seems to imply the latter.
It has now been over a decade since MacArthur supposedly repudiated His incarnational Sonship view. I have not yet found, in any of MacArthur’s published writings since 1999, any clear, unequivocal statement defending Christ’s eternal Sonship. There may be such a statement, but I have not found it. At the very least MacArthur could have changed His doctrinal statement in favor of a clear statement affirming Christ’s eternal Sonship. To my knowledge He has not done this.
MacArthur’s former denial of the eternal Sonship of Christ triggered a great amount of controversy in the IFCA which lasted for years and which resulted in scores of men (including this author) and a number of churches leaving the IFCA. These men who left were merely defending the doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ, based on the IFCA doctrinal statement. In 1989 MacArthur appeared at the IFCA National Convention in Limerick defending the incarnational Sonship view, and in 1991 he wrote a booklet "The Sonship of Christ" defending this same erroneous doctrine. This booklet was sent to all IFCA members.
The damage all of this did to our fellowship of Churches was inestimable. We are not blaming John MacArthur for what happened. The burden of responsibility rested on the IFCA leadership. But the fact remains that it was his teaching that triggered the controversy. In MacArthur’s 1999 statement, we wish that there could have been some indication of remorse or regret over the damage that took place in the IFCA I know that I personally would be deeply grieved if something I taught had triggered a tremendous controversy in a fellowship of churches resulting in great damage and division. Especially so if I later concluded that my teaching had been in error. "Be not many teachers knowing that we shall receive the greater judgment" (James 3:1).
I could only wish that MacArthur would speak to the issue of Christ’s Sonship as clearly as does the IFCA doctrinal statement:
"We believe in one Triune God, eternally existing in three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit....We believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man" (Sections 2 and 3a).
There is no need here for an uncertain trumpet.