“Jesus is not God, he’s the Son of God.”
“God created Jesus, right? He wasn’t around until the New Testament.”
“I didn’t know that Jesus was the Creator. I thought that the Father created everything.”
These are actual statements from sincere but confused people in my Christian tradition. If the 2020 State of Theology survey is correct, this disastrous breakdown in discipleship is widespread, with 30% of American evangelicals agreeing that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” and 65% agreeing that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”
Most of the confusion comes down to a lack of understanding about what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. Even those who would affirm that Jesus is God often struggle to explain how this relates to Jesus being the Son of God.
“Son” Means “Son”
When you hear, “Jesus is the Son of God,” what do you think? Some would simply say, “It means that Jesus is God.” Perhaps you have even heard the word order reversed to say that Jesus is “God the Son.” The intention is to emphasize the truth that Jesus is fully God.
However, if we reduce the confession that “Jesus is the Son of God” to simply mean “Jesus is God,” then we empty the divine name “Son” of its meaning. We drop the words “Son of” as if they are meaningless. For example, if “Son of God” just means “God,” why not call Jesus the “Brother of God”? If the only thing we need to say about the first and second persons of the Trinity is that they are equally God, then why not call them Brother and Brother? Two brothers are distinct persons, but brotherhood seems to better indicate equality than fatherhood and sonship.
If we reduce the confession that “Jesus is the Son of God” to simply mean “Jesus is God,” then we empty the divine name “Son” of its meaning.
The point is this: The divine names “Father” and “Son” actually mean something. The Bible does not tell us that Christ is God the Son; it tells us that he is the Son of God. Likewise, as Hilary of Poitiers pointed out, “It was revealed to you not that the Father is God but that God is the Father” (The Trinity 3.22). By sending his only Son into the world (1 Jn. 4:9), God revealed that he has always been a Father because he has always had a Son. As Tertullian pointed out, “A Father makes a Son, and a Son makes a Father” (Against Praxeus 10). We are not talking about God being a father in relationship to creation or to Israel, or about Jesus being a son by virtue of his messiahship. Rather, we are talking about the eternal identity of the first and second persons of the Trinity.
Begotten of the Father
So, what does it mean for Jesus as the second person of the Trinity to be the Son of the Father? It means what it implies. “You hear the words ‘Father’ and ‘Son,’” says Hilary, “Do not doubt that they are what they are named” (The Trinity 3.22). “Son” means “Son”: one who is begotten or brought forth from the Father. “Father” means “Father”: one who begets or brings forth the Son. As the Nicene Creed teaches us to confess,
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Jesus revealed in John 5:26 that “as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” Both the Father and the Son have the life that belongs only to God, but the Father has granted for the Son to have this life. Don Carson asks, “How can both perspectives be simultaneously true?” and answers, “The best response remains that adopted by Augustine and other fathers of the church: this is an eternal grant,” which “establishes the nature of the Father-Son relationship.” (For a thorough biblical and theological defense of this creedal doctrine, see Retrieving Eternal Generation, edited by Fred Sanders and Scott Swain.)
The Father eternally generates or radiates a Son who is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). This generation is eternal, for as Athanasius asks, “When did anyone see light without the brightness of its radiance that one may say of the Son, ‘There was once when he was not,’ or ‘Before his generation he was not’?” Before “the beginning” of Genesis 1:1, God the Father eternally brought forth or generated a Son. Before the world was created, the Son existed as eternally begotten or generated by the Father. This did not happen in a moment of time; it was true “before all worlds” (i.e., eternally).
The Nicene fathers studied the words of Wisdom personified in Proverbs 8 and, in light of the New Testament, read them as the words of “Christ … the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24): “Before the beginning of the earth … I was brought forth” (Prov. 8:23–24), and “when he established the heavens, I was there” (Prov. 8:27). Compare this to John 1:1–3: “In the beginning was the Word.” As a word proceeds from the mouth of the speaker, the eternal Word or Wisdom of God eternally proceeds from the eternal Father.
The eternal begetting of the Son is not a human birth; it is a divine generation that is beyond our comprehension.
What exactly is this eternal generation? We don’t know. The eternal begetting of the Son is not a human birth; it is a divine generation that is beyond our comprehension. We simply worship. Gregory of Nazianzus insists, “God’s begetting ought to have the tribute of our reverent silence. The important point is for you to learn that he has been begotten.” Indeed—the important point for every Christian to learn is that when we say “Jesus is the Son of God,” we mean that he was eternally “begotten” or “generated” by the Father.
God by His Birth from God
The doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation was the nail in the coffin of Arius, a heretic who claimed that the Son was made/created by the Father and therefore only of a similar substance (homoi-ousious) with the Father. The Nicene fathers contended that Jesus was begotten (not created/made) and therefore must be of the same substance (homo-ousios) with the Father. As the eternal offspring of the Father, the Son is distinct from the Father but shares fully in the Father’s nature. This is why Matthew Emerson rightly calls the doctrine of eternal generation the “lynchpin of Nicene orthodoxy.”
It is as the eternally begotten Son of the Father that Jesus is “of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.” Hilary says it well: “He is God by His birth from God” (The Trinity 4.15). While most now avoid the word “birth” in favor of the Nicene and biblical language of “begetting,” since mothers give birth and fathers beget, the point is the same. The Chalcedonian Creed would later confess that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead” because he is “begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead.”
In our attempts to emphasize the divinity of Christ by calling him “God the Son” instead of “the Son of God,” we actually draw the attention away from the thing which grounds his equality with the Father.
So if you hear “Jesus is the Son of God” and think “Jesus is God,” that’s a good start. Augustine taught his new disciples, “When you hear of the Only Son of God, acknowledge Him God. For it could not be that God’s Only Son should not be God” (A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 3). But remember that Jesus is what he is (God—of the same nature with the Father) because of who he is (the Son of God—eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds). In our attempts to emphasize the divinity of Christ by calling him “God the Son” instead of “the Son of God,” we actually draw the attention away from the thing which grounds his equality with the Father.
In his “Sermon to the Catechumens on the Creed,” Augustine immediately continues, “What He [the Father] is, the same did He beget” (the Father brought forth a Son with the same nature), “though He is not that Person Whom He begot” (the Father and Son are distinct persons). Furthermore, “If He be truly Son, He is that which the Father is; if He be not that which the Father is, He is not truly Son.”
Clearing the Confusion
Now that we’ve clarified what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, let’s come back to the three confused statements from the beginning of the article.
“Jesus is not God, he’s the Son of God.” In fact, Jesus is God (of the same nature of the Father) because he is the Son of God (eternally begotten by the Father).
“God created Jesus, right? He wasn’t around until the New Testament.” In fact, the Son is begotten, not made/created. And he is begotten before all ages, that is, eternally. As very God of very God, the Son is eternal. There was never a time when the Son was not.
The Father who eternally brings forth the Son also creates and redeems all things through the Son.
“I didn’t know that Jesus was the Creator. I thought that the Father created everything.” In fact, God does all things as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father who eternally brings forth the Son also creates and redeems all things through the Son. After affirming the eternal generation of the Son, the Nicene Creed adds, “by whom all things were made” (cf. Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16). The Father is the source of all things, but he does all things through the Son and the Spirit, as depicted in Irenaeus’s helpful metaphor of the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of God (AH 4.20.1; 5.1.3; 5.6.1).
This is what we proclaim at Christmas in the hymn which was written by Prudentius just a few decades after the Nicene Creed of 325:
Of the Father’s love begotten
ere the worlds began to be,
he is Alpha and Omega,
he the source, the ending he,
of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see
evermore and evermore.
If we understand what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God, we will confess him as God of God, the eternal and uncreated Creator of all things.