Did Christ Have a Beginning?
In my dialogues with anti-Trinitarian Seventh-day Adventists, I have regularly encountered the assertion that Psalm 2:7 shows that Christ was begotten by the Father prior to the incarnation, in eternity: “‘I will declare the decree: The Lord has said to Me, “You are My Son, today I have begotten You”’” (NKJV). Thus the Father precedes the Son in existence, and Christ had a beginning somewhere back in the eternal eons past. But is this what the psalm means?
Psalm 2 opens with questions asking why the nations plot and rebel against the Lord and His anointed (vss. 1-3). The term for “anointed” is used for kings or priests who were installed into office by anointing with oil, and provides the messianic flavor for this Psalm. But how does God respond to this scheming against both Him and His anointed one? God laughs at their pitiful plotting and addresses them in “fury,” stating that He has set his king on Zion, His holy hill.
In other words, God has installed His king—His anointed—into rulership, and all these underhanded efforts of the ungodly will not alter who is in charge.
Verse 6 is especially crucial to understanding verse 7. It clearly sets the context as a kingly coronation, stating explicitly God’s installing His king in office. This means we must understand verse 7 as parallel to the declaration stated by God in verse 6.
Verse 7 is God’s affirmation of this installation to the new king himself. Thus, the act of “begetting” spoken of here is clearly metaphoric. The new king was not biologically sired or born the day of the installation. The newly installed king pre-existed this begetting into kingship, living prior to that “today” of the coronation. To render this begetting as literal means the king could not exist prior to that day, and thus a newborn would be installed as king to act immediately in punishing and subduing the rebellious nations (verses 9 and onward). Such an idea seems absurd, since a newborn would be incapable of performing kingly functions.
By contrast, it was common practice in that era for a ruling nation to use the language of birthing and adoption when installing a vassal into office, so we should not be surprised to find the Psalmist using both of these contemporary ideas in this text. A capable adult was being installed, yet is told he is becoming the king’s son. Modern culture likewise makes metaphoric use of the language of birthing, such as saying a business or an idea was born, so it should not shock us that the ancients used the metaphor similarly.
Thus, the literary context of Psalm 2:7 does not support the understanding of the statement of begetting as literal. It is clearly a metaphor for installing a new king into office, and this new king existed prior to his being begotten into that position. There is no indication of bringing a new person into existence.
Psalm 2:7 is quoted three times in the New Testament: Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; and Hebrews 5:5. In Acts 13, Paul is preaching in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia in his first evangelistic encounter with the Jews there. He is seeking to establish Jesus as the promised Savior and Messiah. After establishing the role of the Jewish leaders in asking Pilate to execute Jesus, he then proclaims the Resurrection as God’s way of fulfilling the messianic promise to Israel. He then proves this point by quoting Psalm 2:7: “‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’” (NKJV).
Paul’s application of Psalm 2:7 is used in reference to the risen Christ, not to some prehistoric event in eternal eons. This parallels his statement in Romans 1:4 that Christ was “declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord” (NIV). It thus seems unarguable that Paul was applying Psalm 2:7 to an event he believed to be after the Resurrection. Thus, Paul seems to see Psalm 2:7 as pointing to the installation of Christ into His office of Savior and Forgiver after being raised. In so doing, Paul exactly mirrors the installation theology already seen in Psalm 2.
Hebrews 5:5 expresses this point even more clearly. Paul* is introducing the priesthood of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary. He argues that the earthly priests did not take the honor of priesthood for themselves, but they had to be called by God (vs. 4). Paul continues in verse 5 by arguing that in like manner, “Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You’” (NKJV). Here is an unequivocal testimony connecting the appointment of Christ to His high priestly office with the begetting of Psalm 2:7.
In the context of Hebrews, it is clear that this installation is after the Resurrection, for Christ could not perform His priestly ministry without first dying the sacrificial death, once for all. Paul uses Psalm 2:7 and its language of begetting in the sense of coronation or installation into priestly office, which is precisely parallel to the coronation motif in the psalm, an installation into office. Hebrews 5 thus agrees with Acts 13 in applying Psalm 2:7 to a point in history that is after the resurrection of Jesus in A.D. 31. This is a two-thirds majority witness favoring the coronation interpretation, but in case there is a one-third minority usage, let us go to the final text quoting Psalm 2:7.
The first thing to point out in Hebrews 1:5 is that we should expect the author of Hebrews to be consistent in his usage of this psalm. This suggests that Hebrews 1:5 is intended to be understood similarly to Hebrews 5:5. But does Hebrews 1 contain any evidence that supports this proposition?
First, Paul introduces Jesus as the incarnate Son through whom God spoke to humankind. This son is the express image of God’s nature and co-sustainer of the world (Heb. 1:1-3). Paul then sets up a temporal sequence: After making purification for our sins—an obvious reference to the death of Christ—Christ sat at the right hand of God, having become superior to angels (vss. 3, 4). Thus the literary context has set the Son’s superiority to angels in the theological setting of the ascended Christ being seated at God’s right hand after the Resurrection (vs. 4).
Paul’s first “proof” of Christ’s superiority is quoting Psalm 2:7. He asserts that God never told any angels they were sons and begotten. It seems obvious that Paul is again applying Psalm 2:7 to the seating of Christ at God’s right hand. Thus, his use of Psalm 2:7 is clearly one of the installation of Christ to regal power, after the Resurrection. This can be further reinforced by the following line of evidence:
In Hebrews 1, Paul gives three arguments as to why Christ is superior to angels: First, no angel is called son (verse 5—quoting Psalm 2:7). Second, the angels were called to worship Christ when He was brought as the “firstborn”—to borrow the most common English translation—into the world at the incarnation (vs. 6). Finally, God is said to declare and affirm the Son as Creator (vss. 8-12). The logic of the three-part order is crystal clear: It is in reverse chronological sequence. It begins with the most recent event—the installation of Christ into His Kingly-Priestly office after the Resurrection (Psalm 2:7)—and goes backward in time to the incarnation, and finally back to the creation. (The psalm used to describe the Son’s creative activity in Hebrews 1:10 attributes Creation to Yahweh. The author of Hebrews thus is equating the Son as being Yahweh of the Old Testament; that is, the God who pre-existed Creation and whose years never end.) The evidence is overwhelming that Hebrews 1:5 is applying Psalm 2:7 in the same way as the other two passages, namely to the post-Resurrection installation of Christ into His Kingly-Priestly office.
When Scripture is used to interpret Scripture, all the New Testament references to Psalm 2:7 apply the “begetting” to the installation of Christ into His Kingly-Priestly office after the Resurrection in 31 A.D. No New Testament reference applies the text to some kind of begetting of the Son back in eternity. The psalm itself likewise shows from the literary form and context that the begetting in verse 7 is metaphoric, referring to the inauguration of a king into His duties and office and was never intended to connote the origination of a new life. The anti-Trinitarian argument that Psalm 2:7 depicts the literal begetting of a Son by God the Father, back in eternity, is without scriptural support.
*Although much scholarship rejects the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, there is a growing minority reasserting Pauline authorship, as does Ellen White.