Perhaps the first question we should ask ourselves is what we actually understand by the word eternality or eternal in relationship to God? At its most basic level, we mean that God in His essential being has existed forever and has no beginning or end. This means, then, that He can act outside of any human dimension without restriction or constraint by anything so that in Paul’s words, He is, ‘over all, God blessed for ever. Amen’, Rom. 9. 5. If we wanted a more theological definition, then Berkhof states that ‘The infinity of God in relation to time is called His eternity. The form in which the Bible represents God’s eternity is simply that of duration through endless ages, Pss. 90. 2; 102. 12; Eph. 3. 21’.1 So the next question for us to answer is whether we can legitimately argue from the Bible that Jesus pre-existed as the Son of God prior to His incarnation? Does the Bible support the eternal Sonship of Christ, and has the Son existed eternally as God?
In our view, the Bible is unequivocal on this matter and Christ’s eternality, or eternal Sonship, can be established from texts such as – and there are many more – John chapter 3 verse 16, Galatians chapter 4 verse 4, Hebrews chapter 1 verses 2 to 4 and 8, and 1 John chapter 4 verse 14. If we take the verses in Hebrews chapter 1 as an example of this confirmation, we find that our Lord is referred to as the radiance of God’s effulgent glory and the exact representation of God. These statements underpin the eternal Sonship and deity of Christ, and as O‘Brien makes quite clear, ‘Further the passage describes the movement of the Son from his pre-existence [my emphasis] to his sharing in humanity and exaltation, a progress similar to that in other so-called hymnic passages’.2 The Apostle Paul makes a similar statement in Philippians chapter 2 verse 6 where he confirms the eternal pre-existence of the Son of God when he uses the expression, ‘who being [or existing] in the form of God’. Notice the context of this statement is in relationship to the preceding verse and the word ‘who’ in verse 6 points to Christ. As Loh and Nida state, ‘The word rendered “being” is not the common Greek word for “being," but it denotes one’s essential and unchangeable nature. The participle is either present or imperfect. In either case, it signifies a continuing state, so it is best rendered he always had, or “was his from the first” NEB’.3 No one, of course, could exist in the form of God who was not God.
But perhaps the one book in the New Testament that majors on the eternal pre-existence of the Son is the Gospel of John. Here there is an abundance of texts that support this claim. For example, the expression ‘the only-begotten (Greek = monogenes) of the Father’ found in the prologue to John’s Gospel, chapter 1 verse 14 KJV,4 has been variously translated as ‘the Father’s only Son’ NEB; ‘the One and Only who came from the Father’ NIV; ‘as of a father’s only son’ NRSV; ‘the only Son from the Father’ ESV.5 The Greek word monogenes is used in the Septuagint (LXX), inter alia, to describe the daughter of Jephthah (‘She was his only child’) in Judges chapter 11 verse 34. Similarly, in the New Testament, the word is used to refer to the only child of the widow of Nain, ‘the only son of his mother’, Luke 7. 12, and to Isaac being the ‘only begotten son’ of Abraham, Heb. 11. 17. Carson suggests that despite the efforts of some to restore the rendering of the underlying expression to ‘only-begotten’, in his view the meaning of the term monogenes is closer to that of the NIV translation, i.e., ‘the One and Only’.6 This being so, the expression should be interpreted as meaning that the beloved Son was uniquely Son of God eternally without any notion that His divine being was derived from the Father. Significantly, as another scholar has pointed out, ‘the term “Logos” and the term “only-begotten” are applied to the same person without any suggestion that there is a period of time in which one term would not be applicable’.7 Later in the same chapter John again refers to the only-begotten Son when he tells us that ‘No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father. He has declared Him’, 1. 18 NKJV. Observe how accurate John’s words are about Christ. He does not state that the Son was in the bosom of God but ‘in the bosom of the Father’. Hence the Son is fully qualified to declare or interpret the Father because of the unique and eternal relationship that has always existed between them as Father and Son.8
Moving further into John’s narrative we find in chapter 3 verse 17, chapter 5 verse 23 and chapter 10 verse 36, texts that declare that the Father sent the Son into the world; therefore, it must follow that the Son pre-existed before incarnation. In fact, what is of significance in John chapter 10 verse 36 is that in the dispute with the Jews over His claim to be the Son of God, they accused Him of blasphemy, and were preparing to stone Him. They insisted that He was merely a man, but the Lord, with absolute authority, responds by declaring that His claim to be recognized as the (eternal) Son of God was two-fold. He had been consecrated by the Father and sent by Him into the world.
In chapter 8, John again records a dispute between Jesus and the Jews over the question of what it meant to be children of Abraham. At the end of this discourse, in verse 58, Jesus makes an astonishing claim that He had existed before Abraham was born. This is undoubtedly a claim to Him being the pre-existent Son of God. Grudem comments in this immediate context, that ‘It is also indicated in Jesus’ bold use of a present tense verb that implies continuing present existence when he replied to his Jewish adversaries, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8. 58). This statement is itself an explicit claiming of the name of God, “I AM WHO I AM” from Exodus 3:14, a name that also suggests a continual present existence: God is the eternal “I AM”, the one who eternally exists’.9 Similarly in John chapter 12 verse 41, the text of Isaiah chapter 6 is applied by the writer to Jesus as the glory of God, i.e., to His eternal Sonship.10 In part of the Upper Room discourse in John chapter 17 verse 5, Jesus makes another clear reference to His eternal pre-existence as the Son of God. In His dialogue with His Father, He refers to ‘the glory which I had with thee before the world was’. So, the Son is asking the Father to enable Him to return to the glory which He as the eternal Son shared with the Father before creation.
In Revelation, Jesus states, ‘I am Alpha and Omega’ the beginning and the ending saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty’, Rev. 1. 8. Similar claims are made by Him in chapter 21 verse 6 and chapter 22 verse 13. These texts reflect statements made in the Old Testament relating to God Himself, e.g., Isa. 41. 4; 44. 6, and as Beale writes, ‘The God who transcends time guides the entire course of history because he stands as sovereign over its beginning and its end’.11 Thus, if Jesus pre-existed time, which is the conclusion one must draw from His assertions in Revelation, then it is a claim to His eternality.
The eternality or eternal Sonship of Christ has been the subject of a considerable amount of debate in church history. Novation of Rome (AD 200-258) is probably the first writer to argue that as fatherhood is integral and essential to God’s being, then if God was always God, then He was always a father, and so the Son pre-existed eternally. Origen (AD 185-254) had earlier made the timeless, thus eternal, generation of the Son a key factor in his system. Much has been made of this idea of the eternal generation of the Son, but the danger, of course, in holding to this idea is that one could impute to it the notion that the Son had a beginning prior to incarnation. Provided one accepts that the term ‘only-begotten’ does not relate to an event in time or past eternity, then it has some use in talking about the eternal Sonship of Christ but should be used with caution.
Whilst it is important to appreciate the historical development of Christology in the Patristic and later church periods, it is still no substitute for engaging with the biblical text.
Therefore, it is very important for Christians to maintain the eternal Sonship of Christ. The consequences of denying this dynamic truth is to ‘disparage the authority that attaches to the Person of the Son of God’.12 We therefore believe that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, very God of very God, begotten not created, being of one substance with the Father. We fully endorse Peter’s confession in Matthew chapter 16 verse 16 that Jesus is the Son of the living God.
L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1971, pg. 60.
Peter O‘Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, pg. 47. Many scholars suggest that Hebrews chapter 1 verse 3 is in fact a hymn in honour of Christ similar to other New Testament hymn structures such as Philippians chapter 2 verses 5-11; and Colossians 1 chapter 1 verses 15-20.
Loh and Nida, A Translators Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Helps for Translators series, United Bible Societies.
The RV of 1881 follows the KJV, but has the following marginal note, ‘Many very ancient authorities read God only begotten’.
Other references to Christ as the ‘only begotten Son/of the Father’ can be found in John 3. 16; 1 John 4. 9.
D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Apollos, pg. 128.
T. C. Hammond, In Understanding Be Men, IVP, pg. 101.
The Greek word for declare is exegeomai (English = exegesis). It was used in Greek writing of the interpretation of things sacred and divine, oracles, dreams, etc.
W. Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP, pg. 169.
Cp. Acts chapter 7 verse 55 where Stephen sees ‘the glory of God, and [better rendered “even"] Jesus standing at the right hand of God’.
G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, William B Eerdmans, pg. 199.
T. C. Hammond, op. cit., pg. 101.