The Sonship of Jesus in Monarchian Trinitarianism

Monarchian Trinitarianism states that if Jesus is really, truly, or properly God’s Son, this must entail the Son sharing a generic nature, genus, or species with God the Father, since this is the case in all generation that takes place within creation; men beget men, horses beget horses, and thus God must beget God. But while insisting that Jesus’ sonship to the Father must entail a shared nature because of the parallel with begetting in creation, they deny almost all other elements of generation of offspring that we see in creation, including all notions of corporeality, sexuality, and temporality.

Monarchian Trinitarians present their christology as being very simple and natural- just the plain, obvious meaning of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son. Yet, this isn’t actually the case; really, they want to use only one aspect of human procreation, namely, that a son shares a nature/species with his father, and reject most other significant parallels, like the temporal implications that a father is prior to his offspring, or the corporeal and sexual connotations that accompany taking such language literally. This decision to say that some parallels with generation in creation must also be true in the case of God and His only-begotten Son, while freely disregarding others, seems totally arbitrary.

If the generation of the Son is literally the same as that of humans, then it must be bodily, sexual, and temporal, as well as communicate a species. But if we can say that three of those things cannot apply to God, because of how different God is from men (being incorporeal and eternal), then why not say the same for the fourth category, communication of a nature/species, as well? Monarchian Trinitarian views on the Son’s generation seem to arbitrarily pick one aspect of generation to apply to God and Jesus, while arbitrarily rejecting all others, with no scriptural or rational justification for these decisions.

One significant hidden assumption of Monarchian Trinitarianism that plays into this is the assumption that the one God has a kind, or species, like creatures do, which may be passed on to an offspring. But this assumption appears to have no greater warrant than assuming that God is corporeal, which Monarchian Trinitarians rightly reject. This hidden assumption that God has a nature He passes on to others should not be taken for granted, as it runs directly contrary to the scriptural revelation that God is incomparably greater than all; His greatness is not merely that he is, like Adam to mankind, the first of a given species, but He is rather said to have none like Him, none with whom He can be compared. This must certainly prove false if God has a Son which is essentiality identical to Him, the way Seth was to Adam.

But this notion that God has a species to be passed on by procreation is, at the end of the day, simply assuming that God is like men. Why would the one God, who has neither beginning nor end, and is unlike His creation, Who has no need for procreation, have a species or a nature to pass on to offspring? Certainly, a lot of philosophers and theologians have speculated that this is not the case. For instance, an important element of ‘classical’ Greco-Roman theism is that God is simple, meaning, He is uncompounded of parts and there exists no real distinction within Him between any one part of Him and another (because there are no such parts). If such a theory holds true, then it follows that God could not be divided into ‘person’ and ‘essence’, such that a distinction could exist within Him between that which constitutes His individual identity and that which constitutes His generic and sharable nature or species. Without such an internal distinction in God, eternal generation will be impossible; for without a distinction between God’s personal identity and God’s nature, it would not be possible for God to share the latter with His offspring while retaining the former exclusively to Himself. Either both would be shared, making the Son the same individual identity as the Father and thus no son at all, or else neither could be shared, since they are indistinguishable and inseparable, actually being one and the same thing within a truly simple being.

Of course, the idea that God is simple is more philosophical than biblical, and many have challenged it on rigorous philosophical and exegetical grounds. But even if the doctrine of divine simplicity is not correct, even the fact that it may exist as a possibility serves to illustrate the point that we aren’t justified in simply assuming that God has a nature or species or essence distinguishable from His person. While it certainly true that it is universal among creatures for a father to pass on a species to a son in procreation, there is no reason that the same must be so for God (just as we would say in respect to the corporeal, sexual, or temporal nature of creaturely generation). We must recall that God created various beings, men, and animals, to reproduce each after their kind, just as He made them male and female with the ability for sexual reproduction, and gave them bodies. All of these things are part of the way they are designed, and the reproductive aspects exist for the continuation of these species upon the death of their parents. But an immortal, eternal, uncreated, and incorporeal God has no need for any of these features, including a communicable species.

When we further consider how differences between God and His creatures might impact the possibility of God having and passing on a communicable species to a literal offspring of some sort, we find the idea appears quite improbable. Firstly, we must consider that if it is indeed necessary and proper to the Father to generate the Son, as Monarchian Trinitarians claim, then it would seem that this necessity to generate another would be quite essential to Him. If that is so, then when His essence is communicated to another, it would appear that it must include this necessity of begetting another; which should lead to the offspring likewise eternally generating another offspring, and so on and so on infinitely. This infinite chain of gods will result in far more than a trinity of persons. If the Father’s generation of the Son were merely a voluntary act of will (as such generation is with creatures), then we might well be able to imagine the process stopping, due to God’s willing it to, at only one Father and one Son. But since Monarchian Trinitarians deny that the Father’s generation is an act of will, and instead make it a necessary and eternal function of the Father, this solution will not be available to them.

Secondly, we must consider that there is no obvious sense in which all the “essential” attributes of God are communicable. Many a theologian and philosopher have argued convincingly that it is an impossibility for there to be more than one infinite entity, for example, making the property of infinitude incommunicable; but of course, the Father generating a Son that is equally infinite, makes two infinites. ‘Classical theism’ argues this is impossible according to the very nature of infinitude, but Monarchian Trinitarianism proposes exactly this anyway. Because humans were designed by God to have a communicable kind or species to pass on to their offspring, of course all essential human properties are communicable; but we have no reason to think this is the case with God, Who has properties (like infinitude) that are far different than those found in creatures.

In sum, then, we find that the “plain and simple” christology of Monarchian Trinitarianism is anything but that. There is nothing straightforward about insisting that God must father a son in exactly the same fashion as a man begets a son, and then turning around and denying almost all similarities between the two. There’s nothing ‘so simple a child can understand’ about the one God having a communicable species like men do that He passes on in the generation of the Son, while this generation is totally unlike that of men in so many other respects, that really, if anyone extends the analogy the slightest bit further, such as proposing that God is corporeal or that the generation is temporal, they are cast straight into the realm of heresy. A child would not make such distinctions so as to arbitrarily pick out co-essentiality from sonship while leaving aside all the other connotations sonship carries. We can’t say it’s a simple matter of looking at what a father-son relationship is in creation, and then go and say it isn’t really anything like the father-son relationships we see in creation. Yet this is precisely what many Monarchian Trinitarians appear to do.

We would do well to recall that the inspired writings of the Old Testament, which should provide our background for understanding the New, never present divine sonship as ontological; men like Solomon and David were called ‘the son of God’ as well as the future Messiah (who was always foretold to be a man, a descendant of David). Yet obviously David and Solomon are not eternally begotten by God, even though they’re each able to be plainly spoken of as God’s son. That’s because ‘son of God’ was a kingly title, indicating the position of Israel’s king as God’s ‘right hand’ ruler, himself subject to the God of Israel, but after Him exalted by God over the whole earth. Thus the coming Messiah was foretold to be, like David, God’s Son; not as being eternally begotten by God as some sort of identical clone of God, but as God’s specially appointed human king over the earth. When we look at what the scriptures mean by the title ‘son of God’, it becomes clear that there is in fact no implications of a shared nature or ontological generation from God at all.

General

Asking Questions That Have Already Been Answered: Why We Don’t Need Literal Pre-existence

In the fourth century, debates raged between leading bishops of the Roman Empire about the precise nature of Jesus Christ; questions concerning his origin, his nature, his sonship, and the precise nature of his relation to the Father stood as the central questions of these fierce controversies. Today, Arians, semi-Arians, Trinitarians, and others, still clash over these questions. We may observe that what was historically at the heart of the disagreement between Trinitarians and Arians was the question of the precise nature of Jesus’s origin; in what manner was he caused by the Father? Trinitarians, holding that the Son is eternally generated from the Father, answered that the Son is timelessly and eternally caused by the Father; others objected that there was a difference in time between the Father and Son, and that the Son was created by God out of nothing. Was the Son generated or created? Of the same nature as the Father, or another? Was he begotten ex nihilo (out of nothing) or from the essence of the Father? These are the questions that occupied some of the greatest minds of the time, and the way one answered could mark one as either a champion of orthodoxy or a vile heretic, depending on which emperor was in power at the time.

Today, trinitarians still value these questions, and suggest that their answers alone satisfactorily fit with the biblical data, informing us that only through the doctrine of eternal generation can we rightly understand the nature of Jesus, His origin, His relation to the Father, and the true nature of His sonship. But is this true?

We must admit that these are all understandable questions being asked. The Bible presents Jesus Christ as being at the center of God’s plan to save humanity, establish His kingdom on earth, and restore the fallen world. And so it is no wonder that the Bible’s teachings about Jesus have always made those who would be his disciples wonder about these things; after all, they have great bearing on how we view the Lord Jesus at even the most fundamental level, and what sort of being we believe him to be. And so it’s no wonder that theologians have tried to piece together answers to these questions; although never spelled out, trinitarians believe that we can follow a veritable trail of bread-crumbs throughout the Bible which eventually lead to their conclusions. Although no one single passage ever defines the relation of the Son to the Father in the terms they do, they are convinced (often in large part by extra-biblical tradition) that clues from many obscure passages around the Bible can be pieced together into a collage that reveals eternal generation as the answer to these questions. Equipped with the right set of philosophical presuppositions about God, metaphysics, and the nature of time, combined with the traditional patristic readings of various passages, anyone can find eternal generation hidden deep within the white spaces of their Bibles.

But is that really the best that we have? Has God left us to figure out the answers to these important questions in such a difficult way? Why does the Bible not tell us such important things in a straightforward fashion? I suggest that, contra both Trinitarian and Arian speculation, it actually does just that.

Here are the questions that these theories seek to answer, and the answers the Bible gives:

1.) Was Jesus Christ caused to live by the Father, or is he uncaused?

Jesus said, “I live because of the Father” (John 6:57). Jesus expressly affirms that the Father is the cause of His life. Historically trinitarianism has agreed with this and said that Jesus is atemporally caused in eternal generation; today’s trinitarians, forgetting their creeds, frequently deny the clear teaching of this passage that Jesus is caused by another. But the truth here is unavoidable.

2.) What is the origin of Jesus Christ?

Matthew 1:18 tells us, “Now the origin of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” What follows is a brief account of the miraculous conception and subsequent virgin birth of Christ. Although it is often translated falsely, as either ‘generation’ or ‘birth’, the word used here in verse 18 is the Greek word ‘genesis’, meaning, as in English, ‘origin’. The author of Matthew was familiar with both the Greek word for birth (‘tikto’) and generation (‘gennao’), using both of these terms in the description of Jesus’s miraculous conception and subsequent virgin birth in the passage that follows, but used neither term here; instead, the word for ‘origin’ was specifically chosen by the author. The Bible straightforwardly tells us what the origin of Jesus Christ is then: his miraculous generation by God in Mary, via the agency of the Holy Spirit, and subsequent virgin birth.

3.) Why is Jesus called the Son of God?

Luke answers: “The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35 NASB)

Here we are very clearly told the basis upon which Mary’s child, Jesus Christ, will be called the Son of God; it is because he was miraculously begotten by God in Mary’s womb through the Holy Spirit. Of course, we may rightly see ‘Son of God’ as a Messianic title as well; and we may rightly note that this title is connected by the Bible not only with this miraculous birth from Mary, but also later with Jesus’s new identity as “the Firstborn of the dead” upon having been resurrected by God. It’s a title full of significance for multiple reasons. But before Jesus had been anointed as Christ at his baptism, and before he had been raised from the dead, he was already the Son of God in a special way- even “the only-begotten Son of God” (Jn 3:16). Why? When was he begotten by God? The Bible couldn’t be clearer in telling us: it’s because of his miraculous generation by God in the womb of the virgin Mary.

4.) What kind of being is Jesus; what is his nature?

John records the words of Christ: “But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.” (John 8:40 NASB). Paul also clearly declares: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5 NASB). Note well, the answer is not shrouded in mystery: according to Jesus and the apostles, Jesus Christ was and is a human being. That’s what kind of being Jesus is: a human. What’s his nature? Human. That’s just what the Bible says; and we may note well that the Bible doesn’t qualify it, add to it, take away from it, or otherwise alter it. There’s no mention of dual natures, no mention of an incarnate divinity; just a simple teaching that Jesus is human.

5.) What was the relation of the Son to the Father before the foundation of the world?

Peter writes: “For He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:20-21 NASB).

So much blood has been shed, and so many men labeled and punished as heretics, over the finest details of the Son’s relationship to the Father before the creation of the world; yet here we are told clearly and simply by the Bible the answer to these great questions: before creation, Jesus Christ was foreknown by God. That’s it; while Peter was on the topic of the relation of the Son to the Father before the ages, he didn’t think to mention anything else. Nothing on if the Son was begotten or created, whether the Son was of the Father’s essence or ex nihilo, or if his generation was temporal or eternal, or if the Son is homoi, homoiousias, or homoousias with the Father; how could Peter miss the chance? He gives us none of this, but rather brushes all these theories aside by telling us that before creation, God foreknew His Son.

We must carefully consider the nature of foreknowledge; nothing which is foreknown is present while it is foreknown; an event foreknown is known when it has not yet occurred, and a person foreknown is known when they do not yet exist. If then God is said to have foreknown, not merely known, Christ, then Christ was not yet present with the Father; Christ did not yet exist. For if Christ were not still future, but had been present with the Father, he would have simply been ‘known’, not ‘foreknown’; and if Christ was co-eternal with the Father, then it would have been impossible for the Father to have foreknown him, seeing as there never would have been a ‘before Christ’ in which to have foreknown him. Peter does here provide the an answer for some of the fourth century’s toughest questions- if only we are willing to listen.

Of course, it’s noteworthy that semi-arians in the fourth century did make exactly these same observations about this passage, when they sought to disprove the nicene notion of co-eternality. But for them this passage proves a challenge as well; for there is no mention of Christ first having been foreknown before coming into existence, and then being created by God before the ages, but simply that he was foreknown before creation, full stop, with no indication that this state of affairs changed at some point before creation. There is no mention here or anywhere of God having begotten or created Jesus before the foundation of the world, to in turn subsequently use him as an instrument in creating the universe. The Arian position, like trinitarianism, must supply a great deal that the Bible does not give us.

Here we see then, perhaps to the surprise of some, that the Bible itself does give us answers to all these questions. In a straightforward manner, we are told the origin of Jesus, the reason he is the Son of God, his nature, and even what his relation was to God before the foundation of the world.

Now of course, in addition to these very clear passages, there are a relatively small number of other passages, the meaning of which has been hotly disputed since the very early church, which are purported to answer these questions differently. Although none do so directly or approach the clarity of the passages listed above, some have argued that we ought to be reading the above passages through a lens of human doctrine inferred from these difficult passages. My question to trinitarians is simple: we have two sets of passages, one which clearly and easily answers these questions, of which those quoted above belong, and another set of passages which have been and continue to be difficult for even the greatest minds to understand the meaning of; why not interpret the unclear through the clear? Why not interpret the difficult passages in a way consistent with the clear picture given throughout the Bible, that Jesus is a man, a human being, the Son of God who took his origin from being miraculously begotten in Mary via the Holy Spirit. The difficult passages, those alleged in favor of eternal generation, can all be interpreted in a way consistent with the Biblical Unitarianism here described; so why interpret them such a way to make them conflict with these clear teachings?

Eternal generation sets out to answer anew a set of questions that the Bible has already answered; what need is there for it? As a theory, it lacks any value in explanatory scope for all these important questions, because, as we have seen, these questions have already been answered, in a much simpler and clearer way. Rather, all eternal generation does is introduce myriad complexities and mysteries to answer otherwise simple questions; it creates more questions than it answers, and causes more problems than it solves. It turns the old axiom of ‘interpret the unclear by the clear’ on its head, insisting that we should either ignore or give extremely strained alternative interpretations to the clear passages given above, so that we may read them through the lens of unclear and difficult to interpret passages being read through a very particular set of traditions and philosophical assumptions.

The point of all this being this: we don’t need to answer again questions we already have the answer to. For instance there’s no reason to look for something more to explain Jesus’s sonship beyond Luke 1:35; there’s no reason to scour Old and New Testament for some hint that Jesus is actually God’s Son on the basis of something mysterious in eternity past, never clearly described anywhere in the Bible, and so obscure and difficult that even it’s defenders often fail to grasp what precisely they are saying, when we have a very clear answer given to us plainly in the New Testament. There’s no reason to keep looking, no unaccounted-for data, and no mystery of why the authors of scripture didn’t bother leaving us with a clear account of the answers to these questions- because they did. They gave us an account of Jesus’s origin, and an explanation of his sonship, but neither have anything to do with a generation in eternity past. If we are willing to accept these clear answers the Bible gives us, we’ll quickly find there is simply no room for either eternal generation, or literal pre-existence of any flavor.

Arguments For Unitarianism

One Individual Essence?

In the following, Dr. Samuel Clarke confutes the Reverend Dr. Wells, who writes that the true scripture doctrine of the Trinity is that the three persons; the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, are one individual essence, i.e. one numeric being.

However, in your interpretation of this text, you declare explicitly what your notion of the Trinity is. And still more distinctly, p. 21; “The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity,” you say, “is truly this, that in the Godhead there are three persons of the same divine INDIVIDUAL essence.” Now this, I say, is an express contradiction in the very terms. For INDIVIDUAL essence, in all propriety of speech, and if the word has any signifigation at all, is (when spoken of an intelligent being) the very same as PERSONAL essence; that is to say, that by which a person is that individual person which he is is, and no other. Besides, it is a phrase not only not used in Scripture, nor in the three first centuries, nor in the fourth, (unless it be the true rendering of the word μονοουσιος [monoousios] or ταυτοουσιος [tautoousios], which was then universally condemned as heretical;) but seems to be the invention of the schools, in latter ages. Hear the very learned Dr. Cudworth upon this point. “It is evident,” saith he, p. 604, “that these reputed Orthodox Fathers, [viz. St. Cyril, St. Gregory Nyssen, and others,] who were not a few, were far from thinking the three hypostases of the Trinity to have the same SINGULAR existent essence: – that Trinity of persons numerically the same, or having all one and the same SINGULAR existent essence, is a doctrine which seemeth not to have been owned by any public authority in the Christian Church, save that of the Lateran Council only: that no such thing was ever entertained by the Nicene Fathers, &c.” Again: “The truth of this,” saith he, “will appear, first, because these Orthodox Anti-Arian Fathers did all of them zealously condemn Sabellianism; the doctrine whereof is no other than this, that there was but one hypostasis, or singular INDIVIDUAL ESSENCE, of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: In the next place, because the word ὁμουσιος [homoousios], was never used by Greek writers otherwise, than to signify the agreement of things NUMERICALLY DIFFERENT from one another, &c. – Lastly, that the ancient orthodox fathers, who used the word homoousios against Arius, intended not therein to assert the Son to have one and the same singular or INDIVIDUAL essence with the Father, appeareth plainly from their dsclaiming and disowning those two words, ταυτοουσιον and μονοουσιον.” Again: “It is plain,” saith he, “that the ancient orthodox fathers asserted no such thing, as one and the same SINGULAR or numerical essence of the several persons of the Trinity.” And this he proves by numerous most express quotations. Where now is your vain confidence in the concurrent testimonies of the fathers; when not only in the three first centuries your notion, in the manner you express it, was never heard of, but even in the fourth and following centuries it was universally condemned? But still I am willing to allow all this to besides the main question; for Scripture only is our rule.

Source: A Letter to the Reverend Dr. Wells, &c.

Note: Updated archaic spelling, italics, etc.

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