In Walter Martin’s classic, The Kingdom of the Cults, which has a lot of gold within it, I noticed something that I hadn’t realized prior because, while I own the volume, it is one of the instances where I have not read the book in full. Instead, it has been utilized as a reference work. For those who do not know, this book is a heavy hitter in dealing with various cults and ideologies that twist Christian theology, especially Christology (the doctrine of Christ). It is highly recommended despite the critique I’m about to issue.
Within this volume, he correctly says that Christology cannot be altered and to do such is to have an incorrect Jesus. I, and many others, wholeheartedly agree. A strange irony occurs within this volume, however. In Martin’s assessment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he deviates from orthodox ecumenical Christology! As one can tell, I presuppose the weight and validity of ecumenical consensus before the split of 1054 and before the Reformation that followed in the West. I speak to that a bit in my article on Orthodox Christology.
My discussion here is specifically and directly related to Martin’s work in Kingdom of the Cults, which means that while he may have changed his mind, I’m not aware that he did before he passed. I’m merely dealing with this published work, which is “The Kingdom of the Cults” sixth edition that came out in 2019, although Martin has no longer been with us for quite some time now.
Getting into it, on page 155, when addressing Jehovah’s Witnesses, Martin states,
“Let us fix these things in our minds, then
(a) The doctrine of “eternal generation” or the eternal Sonship of Christ, which springs from the Roman Catholic doctrine first conceived by Origen in AD 230, is a theory that opened the door theologically to the Arian and Sabellian heresies, which today still plague the Christian church in the realms of Christology.
(b) Scripture nowhere calls Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, and he is never called Son at all prior to the incarnation, except in prophetic passages in the Old Testament.
(c) The term Son itself is a functional term, as is the term Father and has no meaning apart from time. The term Father, incidentally, never carries the descriptive adjective “eternal” in Scripture; as a matter of fact, only the Spirit is called eternal (“The eternal Spirit” Hebrews 9:14), emphasizing the fact that the words Father and Son are purely functional, as previously stated.
(d) Many heresies have seized upon the confusion created by the illogical “eternal Sonship” or “eternal generation” theory of Roman Catholicism, unfortunately, carried over to some aspects of Protestant theology.
(e) Finally, there cannot be any such thing as eternal Sonship. This would be a logical contradiction of terminology due to the fact that the word Son predicates time and the involvement of creativity. Christ, the Scripture tells us, as the Logos, is timeless the Word was in the beginning, not the Son!”
We’ll go through each point Martin makes. Still, I want to substantiate my claim firstly that Martin, ironically, deviates from orthodox ecumenical Christology in his denial of Eternal Sonship and Eternal Generation. While it is debatable whether or not the two can be separated from one another, we find that both are affirmed in historic orthodox Christology. Martin, however, claims that Sonship is functional and that Jesus is now and for all eternity the eternal Son in the sense that he was incarnate, but he is not the Son before the incarnation. Important to note is that Martin fully affirms the full deity of Christ.
Regarding Sonship and Generation, he almost seems to draw these assertions to make his apologetic against Jehovah’s Witnesses easier, but this would be a strange motivator for the historically informed as those who drafted the ecumenical confessions were amid peak Arianism. He also bases a section of his discussion on arguing that because monogenēs means only unique or unique, the “begottenness” of the Son has no biblical warrant. I’ve addressed monogenēs elsewhere, but the bottom line is that for the Early Church, the Eternal Generation of the Son didn’t stand or fall on the single term monogenēs.
Moving on, what we find is that the doctrines are affirmed in the ecumenical Nicene Creed (325), Creed of Constantinople (381), and the Chalcedonian Definition (451). Further, they are present in the so called-Athanasian Creed (5th Century) and many post-reformation confessions. This is all to say that there should be great caution in throwing out 2,000 years of what was considered essential, ecumenical, Christian doctrine, especially when that doctrine was affirmed during the first Arian movement.
Looking at these creeds, the creed of 381 states that Jesus is the
“begotten (or unique) Son of God, born 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.”
This entire section speaks to the Sonship of Christ before the incarnation, which is addressed after the fact. For the early Christians, Jesus was God of God, light of light, and one substance with the Father because he was the unique Son. They argued extensively that Father and Son are revelatory names, and we know that Christ is of the same nature as his Father as a human is of the same nature as their father. Additionally, they closely linked Sonship to Eternal Generation, but we could also isolate that particular claim in “Begotten, not made,” which was anti-Arian through and through.
The Chalcedonian Definition of 451 also affirms,
“We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures; inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.”
All of the claims in the definition align with the creed of 381. Jesus is begotten and Son before the incarnation. According to the Godhead, he is begotten before all ages and consubstantial with the Father. The Father and Son relationship is according to the Godhead, and Jesus’ shared substance with the Father is found in that dynamic – the Father is the begetter, and the Son is begotten.
The so-called Athanasian Creed, which begins and ends with a claim that whoever does not believe its contents are not saved, states that the Godhead consists of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit coeternally. Additionally, “The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created, but begotten.” And, “He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time.”
Like Martin, John MacArthur once held to Incarnational Sonship with the aim of defending Christ’s deity and eternality. Still, MacArthur has since recognized that “this basic understanding of the eternal relationships within the Trinity nonetheless represents the best consensus of Christian understanding over many centuries of Church history. I therefore affirm the doctrine of Christ’s eternal sonship while acknowledging it as a mystery into which we should not expect to pry too deeply.”
With this all said, it again is curious that Martin, who writes against Neo-Arians, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, abandoned the doctrines held by the original opposition to the original Arians! Here we can look at why he rejects these doctrines and address them in brief, but we will focus more on Eternal Sonship rather than Generation. For a treatment on Generation, check out Through Nicaea’s 13, 14, and 15 (this last installment comes out next week).
Surveying the Points
In his first point, he states,
“The doctrine of “eternal generation” or the eternal Sonship of Christ, which springs from the Roman Catholic doctrine first conceived by Origen in AD 230, is a theory that opened the door theologically to the Arian and Sabellian heresies, which today still plague the Christian church in the realms of Christology.”
There are a number of strange claims made by Martin here. First, his understanding of “Roman Catholic” in this context is worthy of scrutiny as he claims Eternal Generation and Sonship comes from Roman Catholic doctrine and was born via Origen. If Martin is saying the doctrines are leftovers from the Reformation he would be correct in the sense that the Reformers held to these doctrines. However, if he is saying that it was strictly the Roman church that held and propagated these teachings, and on the basis of Origen alone, then he is mistaken. As we already surveyed, these doctrines were held ecumenically, even before the great schism between the Eastern and Western churches. Out of the five patriarchal seats, all of these agreed with these fundamental doctrines. Rome was included, but it was the only Western seat in these ecumenical councils, held in the East.
While Origen has a lot of doctrines that are outlandish, the notion that he is the cause of “eternal generation” is doubtful. That he influenced it, we can concede. To be fair to Martin, whose concern is the Neo-Arianism of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the notion that Origen is the father of Arianism, is weightier. This is not because he held to Generation or Eternal Sonship, however, but how he conceived the doctrines within his own framework. His platonic tendencies led to the notion of subordinationism because of how he viewed a cause as superior to its result – the Father to the Son. Yet, we still find others such as Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian, laying the groundwork for Generation early on as well as there being evidence in pre-NT ideologies of such a conception. When we come to the great champions against the Arians, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians, they all held to Eternal Sonship and Generation, and they come from the Eastern church – Alexandria and Cappadocia.
What is just as bizarre is Martin’s claim that Eternal Generation or Sonship opens the door for Sabellianism (that is Modalism see my trinitarian article). Eternal Generation and Sonship, however, are key aspects to defending against Modalism! It removes any allowance for blending the persons of the Trinity. I’m not aware of any conceivable way that Eternal Sonship or Generation could ever open the door to Modalism. In fact, in Neo-Modalism Sonship doesn’t exist until the incarnation – the Son is the human nature of Jesus making it closer to Martin than classical trinitarianism. Further, while one could argue that Sonship and Generation opens the door to Arianism, ecumenical articulations of these doctrines have always been used as a means of arguing Against Arianism. It is because Jesus is Son and Generated that he is not, as the Arians say, the first created creature. He is begotten, not made. He is a true Son of the true Father and consubstantial.
“Scripture nowhere calls Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, and he is never called Son at all prior to the incarnation, except in prophetic passages in the Old Testament.”
Martin’s second point is that there is no mention of Jesus being the Eternal Son. The problem is that many texts presuppose the Sonship of Christ before the incarnation. The famous verse of John 3:16 states that God loved the world and sent his Son into the world. Jesus didn’t become a Son via the incarnation, but was the Son before the incarnation. John 1:14 clearly speaks of Jesus as the unique Son from the Father who became flesh and dwelt among us. Hebrews 1:2 tells us that God has spoken to us by his Son and it states that it is through the Son that he created the world. Jesus was the Son when the world was created, but Martin states that Jesus is only known as the Logos before the incarnation. These writers could have easily called Jesus the logos. The title Son of God is used in a functional sense, of course, but also in an ontological sense – it is important to recognize that Jesus is the Son of God ontologically, not only functionally, for “whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwells in him and he in God” (1 John 4:15). And so, we must testify “that the Father sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14). And “God sent his only begotten Son into the world” (1 John 4:9-10). And Galatians 4:4 which places Sonship before incarnation, the fullness of time came, and God sent forth his Son, made of a woman. See more on Sonship here.
Martin’s last few claims are quite easy to address as well,
“The term Son itself is a functional term, as is the term Father and has no meaning apart from time. The term Father, incidentally, never carries the descriptive adjective “eternal” in Scripture; as a matter of fact, only the Spirit is called eternal (“The eternal Spirit” Hebrews 9:14), emphasizing the fact that the words Father and Son are purely functional, as previously stated.”
Martin begs the question here and then moves into saying that there is not an explicit adjective of “Eternal” attributed to “Son” in the Bible. Of course, as I’m sure he would have admitted, there are many doctrinal terms not explicitly in scripture that we affirm because they are clearly revealed in scripture.
“Many heresies have seized upon the confusion created by the illogical “eternal Sonship” or “eternal generation” theory of Roman Catholicism, unfortunately, carried over to some aspects of Protestant theology.”
Ultimately this states that if one abuses it, or if it is difficult to comprehend, it ought to be rejected, but I think this is faulty – and surely Martin wouldn’t reject Trinitarianism itself which is a difficult concept in its own right. He further states that this is a theory of Roman Catholicism, which we discussed already, that was carried over to some aspects of Protestant Theology, yet, as far as I can understand or recall, it was really those who went into Unitarianism who denied Sonship and Generation. Further, Unitarianism is closer to the doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses than orthodox Christianity.
Lastly, he states,
“Finally, there cannot be any such thing as eternal Sonship. This would be a logical contradiction of terminology due to the fact that the word Son predicates time and the involvement of creativity. Christ, the Scripture tells us, as the Logos, is timeless the Word was in the beginning, not the Son!”
Martin would have done well to read through Athanasius and the Cappadocians on this point, who spoke extensively to the uniqueness of the Sonship and Generation compared to human conceptions. In regards to the doctrine’s difficulty, a response has already been stated.
Mistake of Irony
While Martin seems to have made an ironic mistake in his analysis, there is no question that his work “The Kingdom of the Cults” is extremely rich and helpful. It is unfortunate that his apologetic seemed to affect his theology, but this is more common than many realize. Additionally, our current theological climate seems to have neglected Nicene and Chalcedonian Christology causing many to have to discover it apart from their formal theological training. It would be dishonest of me to throw a stone at Martin on this point when I recall being the product of said contemporary training on the subject of Eternal Generation, which left me thinking “it’s all speculation” and hinged on the single term monogenēs. With that said, while Eternal Generation is particularly difficult, Eternal Sonship, I believe is very straightforward in the text. Jesus is God the Son incarnate, and we should hang our hats on this confession.
Nick resides in Texas with his wife, daughter, and son. After meeting Christ in 2012, Nick began a blog in order to teach things that he found interesting. Eventually, this blog would become a podcast in 2017 and Christ is the Cure would grow significantly in its scope and mission. The vision was to teach the scriptures and theology while facilitating a love for God, his word, and critical analysis of hard issues.