Eternal Generation and the EFS debate

In what way is Christ “God’s Son”?  We are talking specifically about his divine nature here because he is also “son of God” by virtue of his human nature just as Luke describes Adam as God’s Son.  John 3:16 describes Jesus as God’s “only begotten son.” It seems that Arians who did not regard Jesus as fully God saw this as evidence that he was a created being because there must have been a time when he was born.

Unity and Equality

There have been a number of attempts to respond to this. So, just as historically, theologians have argued that those passages that suggest The Son submits to the father belong only to the incarnation, so too do those passages that speak of generation from the Father.  As we saw in an earlier article, Bruce Ware says that:

The Western church adapted the Nicene Creed to say, in its third article, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father “and the son” (filioque) and not merely that he proceeds from the Father (alone). While I agree fully with this additional language, I believe that this biblical way of speaking, as found in John 15:26, (But when that Comforter shall come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth of the Father, he shall testify of me.), refers to the historical sending of the Spirit at Pentecost anddoes not refer to any supposed “eternal procession” of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. The conceptions of both the “eternal begetting of the Son” and “eternal procession of the Spirit” seem to me highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching. Both the Son as only-begotten and the Spirit as proceeding from the Father (and the Son) refer, in my judgment, to the historical realities of the incarnation and Pentecost respectfully.[1]

Similarly, John MacArthur previously advocated for a form of “adoptionism” arguing that with regards to his divine nature Christ was eternally God and from what I have seen of his statements that he was a distinct person within the Trinity. However, MacArthur was of the view that sonship was something that was conferred on Christ as part of the incarnation.

This was not the approach that the Church Fathers took instead, they looked at the language of “eternal generation” and argued that this demonstrated that The Son was eternal and fully God.  This was stated in the early creeds as follows:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

One of the early church Fathers, Hilary comments:

“That true and absolute and perfect doctrine, which forms our faith, is the confession of God from God and God in God, by no bodily process but by Divine power, by no transfusion from nature into nature but through the secret and mighty working of the One nature; God from God, not by division or extension or emanation, but by the operation of a nature, which brings into existence, by means of birth, a nature One with itself.”[2]

You will see here, that Hilary distinguishes divine generation from human generation. There is no physical process involved and whereas with creaturely birth, the offspring are separated out from their parents, this cannot happen with God because God is simple and therefore there cannot be a partition of his nature. Augustine shared this view, writing that

“And if He was not made, then He is not a creature; but if He is not a creature, then He is of the same substance with the Father. For all substance that is not God is creature; and all that is not creature is God.”[3]

Hilary went on to argue that it was exactly because The Son was begotten from the Father that we could say he was fully divine.

“The nature with which God is born is necessarily the same as that of His Source. He cannot come into existence as other than God, since His origin is none other than God, His nature is the same, not in the sense that the Begetter also was begotten – for then the begotten, having been begotten, would not be Himself – but that the substance of the Begotten consists in all those elements which are summed up in the substance of the Begetter, who is His only Origin.”[4]

Think about what it means to be your own parents’ child. You inherit their genes and therefore share a certain likeness and characteristics. Of course you receive those genetic characteristics from both parents. The Son however is begotten only from the Father and so receives his father’s nature. He is therefore, eternal, all powerful, omnipresent, all knowing, love, A-Se, unchanging etc.  He is God.

Reformed theology has generally recognised that Eternal Generation, properly understood is an important defence against Arian heresy. Here is Bavinck:

“Divine generation implies that the Father begets the Son out of the being of the Father, ‘God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father,’ as the Nicene symbol has it. The Arians, by contrast, contended that the Son had been brought forth by the will of the Father from nothing. This , however, is not generation but creation.”[5]

This is important because as we alluded to at the start, there have been some question marks in recent times about the benefits of the Doctrine of Eternal Generation.  Wayne Grudem seems to have been concerned that talking about the Son being begotten could encourage modern day Arianism, commenting here:

“But just what is meant by “eternal generation”? In what [Goligher and Trueman] have written, I cannot discover what they mean. To substitute the words “paternity” and “filiation” provides some Latinized terminology but those terms simply mean “existing as a father” and “existing as a son,” which tells us nothing more. Quite honestly, I find it impossible to say whether or not I agree with “eternal generation” until someone explains, in ordinary English, what he means by it (not just what it does not mean). (If “eternal generation” simply means “an eternal Father-Son relationship,” then I am happy to affirm it.)”[6]

Note that in that quote, Grudem is not disagreeing with the belief that Christ is the eternal son. However, he seems to have some issues with the way that this is defined and explained.  His aim is to affirm not to deny that eternal relationship. It does seem though that he has accepted in recent times that the doctrine can be explained in a way which does not compromise The Son’s deity.

“My conclusion on eternal generation: I am now willing to affirm the “eternal generation of the Son,” based on John 1:14, 18, etc., as something mysterious, not implying creation of the Son (“begotten not made”), and somehow analogous to a human father-son relationship.”[7]

Eternal Generation is therefore a helpful means to demonstrating the unity and equality of the Trinity.

Distinction

In a footnote to his discussion of the Trinity, Wayne Grudem comments:

“The heresy of subordinationism which holds that the Son is inferior in being to the Father, should clearly be distinguished from the orthodox doctrine that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in role or function: without this truth, we would lose the doctrine of the Trinity, for we would not have any eternal personal distinctions between the Father and the Son, and they would not be eternally Father and Son.”[8]

This statement takes us to the heart of the debate about eternal functional subordination. Whilst this has been presented (and used) in the debate on gender roles, it is primarily a question about how we understand the Trinity in a way that does due diligence to the oneness and the Threeness. Grudem’s concern is to preserve a clear distinction between Father and Son in order to avoid modalism without leaning into subordinationism by treating the Son as less than the Father in nature.

But is this the only way of preserving distinction? Well arguably not because Eternal Generation is intended to give us both a sense of the oneness of nature and the distinction of persons in the Trinity. Here is Charles Hodge on subordination.

“The first person is characterized as Father, in his relation to the second person; the second is characterized as Son, in relation to the first person; and the third as Spirit, in relation to the first and second persons. Paternity, therefore, is the distinguishing property of the Father; filiation of the Son; and procession of the Spirit. It will be observed that no attempt at explanation of these relations is given in these ecumenical creeds, namely, the Nicene, that of Constantinople, and the Athanasian.”[9]

I want you to notice first of all that Hodge does see eternal generation as providing for distinction. That is exactly the point. The persons have unique distinctives. The Father is uniquely unbegotten, the Son is uniquely begotten.  They are not interchangeable.[10]

In a similar manner, Bavinck comments on eternal generation:

“The Father, the Son and the Spirit, accordingly, are distinct subjects within the one divine essence. As such they bear different names, have distinct personal properties and always appear in a certain order, but in their ‘inward’ and ‘outward natures.”[11]

Now, one challenge within that is that a distinction whereby the Father begets the son and “spirates” the Spirit does imply order within the Trinity.  So, in his survey of the church fathers’ views on Eternal Generation, Letham observes that:

“Basil opposes any numeration in God, in terms of first, second, and third, that would imply rank. Instead, we confess the distinction of persons but hold to the monarchy of the father.”[12]

Meanwhile Basil’s brother and fellow Cappadocian father

“Gregory agrees with his brother that generation is according to hypostasis not essence. There is an order between the three; the Son is from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are inseparable and both are from the Father.”[13]

Hodge even uses the language of subordination saying:

“On this subject the Nicene doctrine includes,— 1. The principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority. For as the same divine essence with all its infinite perfections is common to the Father, Son, and Spirit, there can be no inferiority of one person to the other in the Trinity. Neither does it imply posteriority; for the divine essence common to the several persons is self-existent and eternal. The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation, implied in the Scriptural facts that the Son is of the Father, and the Spirit is of the Father and the Son, and that the Father operates through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit.”[14]

This highlights the importance of taking care both in how we use language and how we hear it. Hodge is very careful to insist that the use of the word here does not indicate inferiority. The persons are equal in nature.  He therefore does not agree with Arianism or other forms of ancient subordinationism. However, it would also be unwise to suggest that he is in agreement with EFS based on these words alone. He is careful to limit his statement here to reality of a Father – Son relationship without spelling out what that entails.

The way that both the Church Fathers and Reformed theologians protect against subordination is to insist that the distinction is purely concerning the persons and their relations, not their nature. This was a similar concern that Calvin had and the reformers after him.  Hodge explains it this way:

“it was the person not the essence of the Son that was generated. The essence is self-existent and eternal, but the person of the Son is generated (i. e., He becomes a person) by the communication to Him of the divine essence.”[15]

So, God is one in nature but distinct with regards to the three persons.  This implies an order in the Trinity. However, historically, the church has stayed clear from speculating further on this.  However, recent theologians have sought to go further in spelling out what the nature of the rerlationship is and that is why we have the Eternal Functional Subordination position.

Returning to the Grudem quote, we would want to say that if Grudem sees EFS as omething distinct from Eternal Generation, then he is wrong to insist that EFS offers the only way of distinguishing the persons and safeguarding the Trinity.

However, I am not completely convinced that this is what Grudem is doing. It seems to me that he is first of all trying to find language to describe the way in which the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and is uncreated. Grudem is categorical that Christ is the eternal son which must implicitly point to Eternal Generation.[16] However Grudem is reluctant to use that language because he fears it being misinterpreted to encourage Arianism. 

The other thing that Grudem and indeed all those associated with EFS, perhaps with the sole exception of Letham do is to attempt to spell out in more detail how that relationship function. This is something that the church fathers were extremely loath to do. However, by attempting to do so, it does not necessarily follow that EFS proponents are contradicting the position of the church fathers.

Conclusion

Eternal Generation is central to our ability to speak of God without denying the unity, distinction and equality of the persons. I do not believe that EFS goes against this, rather it attempts to use different language and to spell out in more detail what is meant by Eternal Generation. Whether it achieves this is up for debate. It is my settled conviction that whilst not wrong to seek to investigate and not outside of Nicene theology, those proposing EFS have at times fallen into language and concepts that are unhelpful to the discussion.


[1] https://www.theaquilareport.com/which-is-it/

[2] Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, 5.37.

[3] Augustine, On the Trinity, I.6.9

[4] Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, 5.37.

[5] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 309.

[6] https://wyattgraham.com/how-wayne-grudem-and-bruce-ware-argue-for-eternal-relations-of-submission-and-authority-in-their-own-words/

[7] http://www.waynegrudem.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ETS-Presentation-on-Trinity-11-15-16.pdf

[8] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 245 n27.

[9] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 8698-8701). GLH Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[10] Which would be a risk with the form of adoptionism associated with MacArthur’s previous views.

[11] Bavinck, Doctrine of God, 305.

[12] Letham, “Eternal Generation in the Church Fathers”, 114.

[13] Letham, “Eternal Generation in the Church Fathers”,115.

[14] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 8691-8697). GLH Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[15] Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology: The Complete Three Volumes (Kindle Locations 8835-8837). GLH Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[16] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 547.

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