THE meaning of the terms, "Son of God," and "only begotten Son of God," must needs be of importance, inasmuch as the belief of the idea signified by them was made a leading article in the primitive professions of faith, John vi. 69; iii. 18; xx. 31; Acts xviii. 37; 1 John iv. 15. Whatever disputes have arisen of late among Christians, there seems to have been none on this subject in the times of the apostles. Both Jews and Christians appear to have agreed in this: the only question that divided them was, whether Christ was the Son of God or not? If there had been any ambiguity in the term, it would have been very unfit to express the first article of the Christian faith.
It has been frequently suggested that the ground of Christ's sonship is given us in Luke i. 35, and is no other than his miraculous conception: "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."
It is true that our Lord was miraculously conceived of the Holy Spirit, and that such a conception was peculiar to him; but it does not follow that by this he became the "Son" or "only begotten Son of God." Nor does the passage in question prove any such thing. It has been thought that the phrase "Son of God," in this place, is used in a peculiar sense, or that it respects the origin of Christ's human nature, as not being by ordinary generation of man, but by the extraordinary influence of God; and that he is here called the Son of God in the same sense as Adam is so called, (Luke iii. 38,) as being produced by his immediate power. If this be the meaning of the term, in the passage in question, I should think it will be allowed to be peculiar, and therefore that no general conclusion can be drawn from it as to the meaning of the term in other passages. But, granting that the sonship of Christ in this place is to be understood in the same sense as it is commonly to he taken in the New Testament, still it does not follow that the miraculous conception is the origin of it. It may be a reason given why Christ is called the Son of God; but not why he is so. Christ is called the Son of God as raised from the dead, and as exalted at the right hand of God, Acts xiii. 33; Heb. i. 4, 5. Did he then become the Son of God by these events? This is impossible; for sonship is not a progressive matter. If it arose from his miraculous conception, it, could not, for that reason, arise from his resurrection or exaltation; and so, on the other hand, if it arose from his resurrection or exaltation, it could not proceed from his miraculous conception. But if each be understood of his being hereby proved, acknowledged, or, as the Scriptures express it, "declared to be the Son of God with power," all is easy and consistent.
Whether the terms, "Son of God," and "only begotten Son of God," be not expressive of his Divine personality, antecedent to all consideration of his being conceived of the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the virgin, let the following things determine: –
First, The glory of "the only begotten of the Father," and the glory of the "Word," are used as convertible terms, as being the same; but the latter is allowed to denote the Divine person of Christ, antecedent to his being made flesh; the same, therefore, must be true of the former. "The Word was made flesh, and we beheld his glory," - that is, the glory of the Word, "the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." It is true, it was by the Word being "made flesh, and dwelling among us," that his glory became apparent; but the glory itself was that of the eternal Word, and this is the same as "the glory of the only begotten of the Father."
Secondly, The Son of God is said to "dwell in the bosom of the Father;" that is, he is intimately acquainted with his character and designs, and therefore fit to be employed in making them known to men. "The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." If this be applied to his Divine person, or "that eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested to us," it is natural and proper; it assigns his omniscience as qualifying him for making known the mind of God; but if he became the only begotten of the Father by his miraculous conception, or by any other means, the beauty of the passage vanishes.
Thirdly, God is frequently said to have sent his Son into the world; but this implies that he was his Son antecedently to his being sent. To suppose otherwise is no less absurd than supposing that when Christ sent forth his twelve disciples they were not disciples, but that they became such in consequence of his sending them, or of some preparation pertaining to their mission.
Fourthly, Christ is called the Son of God antecedently to his miraculous conception, and consequently he did not become such by it. - "In the fulness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law; that he might redeem them that were under the law." - "God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh." The terms, "made of a woman, made under the law," are a parenthesis. The position affirmed is, that God sent forth his Son to redeem the transgressors of the law. His being made of a woman, and made under the law, or covenant of works, which man had broken, expresses the necessary means for the accomplishment of this great end; which means, though preceding our redemption, yet follow the sonship of the Redeemer. There is equal proof that Christ was "the Son of God" before he was "made of a woman," as that he was "the Word" before he was "made flesh." The phraseology is the same in the one case as in the other. If it be alleged that Christ is here called the Son of God on account of his being made of a woman, I answer, if so, it is also on account of his being "made under the law," which is too absurd to admit of a question. Moreover, to say that "God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh," is equal to saying that the Son of God assumed human nature: he must therefore have been the Son of God before his incarnation.
Fifthly, Christ is called the Son of God antecedent to his being "manifested to destroy the works of the devil:" but he was manifested to destroy the works of the devil by taking upon him human nature; consequently he was the Son of God antecedent to the human nature being assumed. There is equal proof from the phraseology of 1 John iii. 8 that he was the "Son of God" antecedent to his being "manifested to destroy the works of the devil," as there is from that of 1 Tim. iii. 16 that he was "God" antecedent to his being "manifested in the flesh;" or from 1 John i. 2 that "that eternal Life which was with the Father" was such antecedent to his being "manifested to us."
Sixthly, The ordinance of baptism is commanded to be administered "in
the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The terms "Father" and "Holy Spirit" will be allowed to denote Divine persons; and what good reasons can be given for another idea being fixed to the term "Son?"
Seventhly, The proper Deity of Christ precedes his office of Mediator, or High Priest of our profession, and renders it an exercise of condescension. But the same is true of his sonship: "He maketh the Son a High Priest." - "Though he was a Son, yet learned he obedience." His being the Son of God, therefore, amounts to the same thing as his being a Divine person.
Eighthly, It is the proper Deity of Christ which gives dignity to his office as Mediator; but this dignity is ascribed to his being the "Son of God." "We have a great High Priest, Jesus, the Son of God." His being the Son of God, therefore, amounts to the same thing as his being a Divine person.
Lastly, It is the proper Deity of Christ which gives efficacy to his sufferings: "by himself he purges our sins." But this efficacy is ascribed to his being the "Son of God:" "The blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin." His being the Son of God, therefore, amounts to the same thing as his being a Divine person.
Those who attribute Christ's sonship to his miraculous conception (those at least to whom I refer) are nevertheless constrained to allow that the term implies proper Divinity. Indeed, this is evident from John v. 18, where his saying that "God was his own Father" is supposed to he "making himself equal with God." But if the miraculous conception be the proper foundation of his sonship, why should it contain such an implication? A holy creature might be produced by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, which yet should be merely a creature; that is, he might, on this hypothesis, profess to be the Son of God, and yet be so far from making himself equal with God as to pretend to be nothing more than a man.
It has been objected that Christ, when called the Son of God, is commonly spoken of as engaged in the work of mediation, and not simply as a Divine person antecedent to it. - I answer, In a history of the rebellion, in the year 1745, the name of his Royal Highness, the commander-in-chief, would often be mentioned in connexion with his equipage and exploits; but none would infer from hence that he thereby became the king's son.
It is further objected that sonship implies inferiority, and therefore cannot be attributed to the Divine person of Christ. - But whatever inferiority may be attached to the idea of sonship, it is not an inferiority of nature, which is the point in question; and if any regard be paid to the Scriptures, the very contrary is true. Christ's claiming to be the Son of God was "making himself," not inferior, but as God, or "equal with God."
Once more, Sonship, it is said, implies posteriority, or that Christ as a Son could not have existed till after the Father: to attribute no other Divinity to him, therefore, than what is denoted by sonship, is attributing none to him; as nothing can be Divine which is not eternal. - But if this reasoning be just, it will prove that the Divine purposes are not eternal, or that there was once a point in duration in which God was without thought, purpose, or design. For it is as true, and may as well be said, that God must exist before he could purpose, as that the Father must exist before he had a Son; but if God must exist before he could purpose, there must have been a point in duration in which he existed without purpose, thought, or design; that is, in which he was not God! The truth is, the whole of this apparent difficulty arises from the want of distinguishing between the order of nature and the order of time. In the order of nature, the sun must have existed before it could shine; but in the order of time, the sun and its rays are coeval; it never existed a single instant without them. In the order of nature, God
must have existed before he could purpose; but in the order of time, or duration, he never existed without his purpose; for a God without thought or purpose were no God. And thus in the order of nature the Father must have existed before the Son; but, in that of duration, he never existed without the Son. The Father and the Son, therefore, are properly eternal.
[From Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Volume III, 1845; rpt. 1988, pp. 704-707. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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