Incarnational sonship is the belief that the Son has not eternally existed as the Son, but instead eternally existed as the Logos and only became the Son after the incarnation. His sonship is tied to his incarnation rather than being an eternally existing reality. The main argument for this point of view is that Jesus is referred to as the Logos or Word in John 1:1 before the incarnation, but then only referred to as the Son after his incarnation. But this argument is problematic, not only because it is an argument from silence, but also because Jesus is referred to as the Logos after his incarnation in Revelation 19:13: “And the name by which he is called is The Word of God.”
Moses Stuart defended this position in his letters on the eternal generation of the Son in reply to William Miller. While I am in general agreement with Stuart’s historical analysis of eternal generation and Logos Christology, together with that of William Goode, his handling of Scripture when it comes to the eternal sonship of Christ is extremely poor. I will begin first by defending the doctrine of the eternal sonship of Christ from Scripture and then interact with his exegesis or lack thereof.
That the Son existed as the Son before the incarnation is proved by the Father sending his Son into the world:
John 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
1 John 4:9: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
Romans 8:3: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.”
Galatians 4:4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.”
God sent his Son into the world. That means he existed as the Son before he was sent. He did not become the Son because of the sending or after the sending. The sending of the Son takes place before and results in being born of a woman. This is further illustrated in the parable of Luke 20:13: “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’” As the son of the vineyard owner did not become his son by the sending, so likewise, the Son did not become the Son by his sending.
The book of Hebrews teaches that all things were created by the Son: “But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb 1:2). The Father created all things through his Son. But how could God create all things through his Son if the Son did not exist as the Son before the incarnation? Melchizedek has no beginning of days in the book of Genesis analogous to how the Son of God has no beginning of days: “He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever” (Heb 7:3). But if the Son began to exist as the Son of God, would he not then have a beginning of days?
It was Jesus, not merely the Logos, who was pre-existent and delivered Israel out of Egypt: “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe” (Jude 1:5). It was Christ who was put to the test in Numbers 21 (1 Cor 10:9). The Logos did not become Jesus Christ at his birth, but has eternally existed as Jesus which literally means “God saves.” Proverbs 30:4 teaches that God had a Son before the incarnation: “Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!” Before the foundation of the world, God chose us in Christ (Eph 1:3-4; 2 Tim 1:9). The Father chose the Messiah before the foundation of the world (1 Pet 1:19-20). Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15).
If the Son has not eternally existed as the Son, then the Father has not eternally existed as the Father. As Tertullian explains:
“A father must needs have a son, in order to be a father; so likewise a son, to be a son, must have a father. It is, however, one thing to have, and another thing to be. For instance, in order to be a husband, I must have a wife; I can never myself be my own wife. In like manner, in order to be a father, I have a son, for I never can be a son to myself; and in order to be a son, I have a father, it being impossible for me ever to be my own father” (Against Praxeas 10).
This is the doctrine of co-relatedness in the Trinity. The three persons of the Trinity are distinguished by their relationship to one another. The Father is the Father precisely because he exists in relationship to the Son and the Son is the Son because he exists in relationship to the Father. One could not exist without the other. That means if it can be proven that the Father existed as the Father before the incarnation, then the Son existed as the Son before the incarnation as well.
The Father gave to his Son a people before the foundation of the world since the giving precedes the coming and many came to Christ before the incarnation (John 6:37-39). The Father has been working from the beginning of creation (John 5:17). The Father consecrated the Son before the incarnation (John 10:36). The Father has determined the future (Acts 1:7). The Father loved the Son before the foundation of the world (John 17:5, 24). The Father created all things (1 Cor 8:6). The Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:3-4). The Son was with the Father in the beginning (compare 1 John 1:2 with John 1:1). The Father sent the Son into the world (John 5:36-37; 6:44, 57; 8:16, 18, 42; 12:49; 14:24; 16:28; 17:21, 25; 20:21; 1 John 4:14).
Now let us evaluate the argumentation of Stuart. Concerning Psalm 2:7, Stuart says:
“But if he had been Son from eternity, could it be prophesied that he was yet to be a Son, and to be begotten at a future period?” (122).
But this argument proves too much. If this verse is speaking of the beginning of his sonship, then his sonship did not begin until the time of his resurrection and exaltation since that is how the authors of the New Testament interpret the fulfillment of this prophecy (Acts 13:33; Heb 1:4-5; 5:4-5). But Stuart does not believe that the sonship of Christ began at his resurrection or exaltation, but at his birth. The fulfillment of Psalm 2:7 in the exaltation of Christ is the declaration and proof of his sonship, not the beginning of it. That is why Paul says that he “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). But he did not become the Son of God by his resurrection, but his resurrection proved him to be who he claimed to be. The gospels are filled with references to Jesus as the Son of God before his resurrection.
Stuart draws a sharp distinction between the Messiah and the Logos when he asks:
“Who then made expiation by suffering for our sins? Surely the Messiah, not the eternal Logos” (134).
But this position is actually the old error of Nestorianism. The answer to the question is both-and, not either-or. The one who made expiation for our sins is both the Messiah and the eternal Logos in one person. If it was not the eternal Logos who suffered for us, then we could not be saved since only a sacrifice of infinite worth could save us from God’s infinite wrath for our sins. His blood is the blood of God (Acts 20:28).
When it comes to Hebrews 1:2 which speaks of the creation of all things through the Son, Stuart argues that the verse should instead be translated as “for whom” rather than “through whom” (135). It is true that the preposition dia can sometimes be translated as “for.” But the problem with this argument is that dia is being used in a genitive construction rather than an accusative one. This is because the relative pronoun hou “whom” which comes after dia is in the genitive case. When dia is used genitivally, it means “through” or “by” rather than “on account of” or “for.” If dia hou means “for whom” rather than “through whom,” then Hebrews 2:10 makes no sense because it uses both the accusative construction dia hon and the genitive dia hou: “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist.” If dia hou in Hebrews mean “for whom,” then we would need to translate the verse as, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and for whom all things exist” which would be a tautology. Because dia hou in Hebrews 2:10 means “by whom,” it should be translated the same way in Hebrews 1:2. The construction dia hou in the New Testament always carries with it the idea of instrumentality.
But what about all those verses which speak of the sending of the Son into the world? Stuart responds to this argument by saying:
“The Son’s coming into the world, and being sent into the world, relates to his public and prophetic office, and not to his birth” (144).
He argues that John 3:17 is not referring to the incarnation of Christ, but to his “entering upon the duties of” his office as prophet of God as John the Baptist was sent by God in John 1:6: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (143). His argument is that if John 3:17 teaches that the Son is pre-existent, then it would have to follow that John the Baptist was likewise pre-existent because he was sent by God as well. The first thing that should be noted about this line of reasoning is that it is an incredibly dangerous argument to make. This is the exact same argument that is used by adoptionists to argue against the pre-existence of Christ. While Stuart affirms the deity and pre-existence of the Logos, unitarians use the exact same kind of arguments in a more consistent fashion. But there is a key difference between John 1:6 and 3:17 that Stuart does not take into account: the sending of the Son is “into the world” whereas the sending of John is never spoken of in these terms. The same language is used elsewhere in John to describe the incarnation of Christ which is contrasted with him leaving the world: “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28). Jesus came from God and would return to God (John 13:3). His coming into the world is parallel to his being born into it: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world” (John 18:37). Entering into the world is often used to describe birth (John 1:9; 16:21; 1 Tim 6:7). His interpretation of the sending of the Son into the world in John is a novel and forced reading of the text that is not followed by any Johannine scholar that I know of.
Stuart argues that the language of Jesus as God’s Son is only with respect to his human nature as a man because he believes that sonship implies subordination. Therefore, the language of sonship can only be applied to the man Jesus Christ and not to his existence as God. He argues that if Jesus has existed eternally as God’s Son, then he would be eternally subordinate to the Father. But John 5:18 affirms that Jesus as the Son of the Father is equal to him, not subordinate: “But he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” But Stuart interprets this verse as the Jews’ misunderstanding of Jesus rather than an affirmation of equality with the Father (145-146).
But if Jesus as God’s Son only applies to his human nature, then the response Jesus gives in verses 19-23 would not answer the accusation raised against him that he was setting himself up as a rival god to the Father. Jesus does not invoke his humanity as the reason why he is God’s Son, nor does he deny that he is equal with the Father. Rather, he clarifies what it means for him to be God’s Son and explains how his equality with the Father does not create a multiplicity of gods because his will is the same as that of the Father. If John 5:18 is not an affirmation of Jesus’ equality with God, then neither is John 10:33 since these verses are directly parallel to each other: “Because you, being a man, make yourself God.” If these verses represent the Jews’ misinterpretation of Jesus, then they prove too much since John affirms that Jesus is God (John 1:1-3, 18; 5:23; 8:58; 10:30; 12:37-42; 17:5; 20:28). If Jesus is God, how could he not be equal with the Father in nature since there are no gradations in deity?
In attempting to correct the speculative tendencies of some in the early church, Stuart fell off the other side of the horse. It does not logically follow that because Christ is the eternal Son of God that Origen’s concept of eternal generation is true. It was Stuart’s inability to distinguish between eternal generation and eternal sonship that led him to mishandle those verses which affirm the eternal sonship of Christ.