Eternal Generation revisited

One of the key elements of the recent debate about the Trinity is the place of Eternal Generation in our understanding of who The Son is.  For many years some of those who held to the so called Eternal Functional Subordination position expressed scepticism about this, notably Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware.  Grudem has commented:

“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.)”

I’ve observed previously that his issue here does not appear to be with Christ’s eternal sonship. Rather, he seems to think that the term goes against it.  Grudem had also previously argued that “only begotten” was not the right interpretation of John 3:16 and that “one and only son” is better. His concern seems to be to avoid any language which might suggest an origin to The Son and he was of the view that the word “begotten” suggested this.  He has in recent years announced a change of mind here and is happy to use the language.

However, whether that means “eternal generation” is enough to do the job of explaining the relationship between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is perhaps still up for debate. In my more recent article interacting with Fred Sanders, I suggested that it wasn’t.  Sanders came back at me on twitter and suggested that “eternal generation” isn’t doing enough in my theology.

 I think that was based on a misunderstanding of my comment in a fairly short article.  You see, my issue there was not with the content of the doctrine but with a tendency to use a phrase without saying much more about it.  Like Grudem I find that there is a tendency to rely on the term without actually giving an effective description of what is meant by it.  I wrote about one example here.  My point is that we need to do better. 

Sanders goes on to point to where we might find out more about the content of “eternal generation” and I’m with him on this.  I would argue that we need to be explicitly clear that it’s

  • Not just generation, it’s eternal generation.
  • It’s not just eternal generation, it’s eternal generation of the Son.

Our doctrine of the Trinity is dependent upon the understanding that there must be generation from the Father, that this must be eternal and that it must be The Son that is generated.  In other words, it cannot be a servant, a lesser, created being, it cannot be the Spirit (who proceeds) and it cannot be The Daughter. It matters that it is The Son.

So what do we mean by “Eternal Generation of God The Son”? Well probably the best way to answer that is by turning to John’s Gospel.  In John 1:1-3 we are introduced to “The Word.” Verse 14 shows us that this is another title for Jesus.  The Word is with God in the beginning and is God.  He is the one through whom everything, excluding nothing is made.  This tells us three things about him.

  1. He is uncreated
  2. He is eternal
  3. He is God
  4. That there is a distinction of persons in the Godhead.

John has raised a question about Jesus’ identity right at the start of the Gospel. How can this person be both at the same time God and with God. One of the things that the Gospel does as we move on through it is answer that identity question by affirming and building on those statements.

We see the creator, creation distinction of 1:3 affirmed and developed as we work through the Gospel.  Jesus is the one who has authority over creation, able to make wine, multiply bread, control the wind and the waves and bring life where there is death.  He is the one who does the same work as the Father and carries that Father’s authority to judge his works.

Jesus is eternal. When in debate with the Jewish leaders, he insists that he saw Abraham’s day “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The Jewish leaders have no doubt about what Jesus is saying. They know he is claiming eternal deity. They recognise it as a declaration of divinity. At the end of the Gospel, faced with the risen Lord Jesus, Thomas declares “My Lord and my God.”

Then we come to that point about him being both God and with God, the distinction of persons and this is seen and demonstrated as John points to him as The Son of The Father.  In John 3:16 we are told:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

The phrase that a lot of modern  Bible translations render “one and only” translates τὸν μονογενῆ  this is important because whilst the word there does refer to something that is one of a kind, it also has the idea of begetting, hence older versions refer to “only begotten son.”  John says that this “is God/is with God” defines a unique relationship between father and son.

Now, there is a sense in which all of humanity are sons of God.  Adam is described as a son of God, Israel is also identified as God’s son in Hosea 11:1. However, human sonship is through creation and then as new creations, we are adopted into God’s family. However, Jesus is son not through reation and not through adoption but through begetting or generation.

This then is crucial because a son through begetting will receive their father’s character and likeness. If the son has no mother, then he will receive only the father’s image. This is what Hilary of Poiters describes in this way:

“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.”

Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, 5.37.

He then draws out this crucial implication.  If the Son is begotten or generated from the Father then:

“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.”

Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, 5.37.

In other words, the Son has the Father’s nature. He is fully God. God’s nature is all powerful, all knowing and infinite. So the Son too is those things. God’s nature is eternal, therefore the Son is eternal so that this begetting cannot have happened at a point in time, the Son is eternal. Hilary here counters the argument of Arians who believed that if the Son was begotten then he had a beginning and so was a creature not the creator.

Do we know anything more about eternal generation and what it means to talk about the Father and the Son? Well yes we do. In John 5, Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath. His defence is that he is doing his father’s work because he and the Father are one. The Jews see this as an appeal to divinity nd equality with God and so seek to kill him. Jesus responds with a defence of his claim, insisting that he is the true son.

Now, in what follows in John 5:19-29, it is possible to argue that Jesus speaks about his relationship to his Father with regards to his human nature. However, that would make little sense. It would then purely be the defence of any faithful human being to call God their father. John 5 is right understood as a Trinitarian passage and therefore describes the deity of Jesus. We are learning a little bit more about what it means to say that we believe in the eternal generation of The Son.

Here, Jesus says the following:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father[e] does, that the Son does likewise. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. 21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.

John 5:19-23

Here in this passage, in defence of his divinity as The Son, Jesus says that

  • He does only what the Father shows him
  • He and the Father do the same works
  • The Father loves the Son
  • The Father shows the Son his works
  • The Father gives judgement to the Son
  • Father and Son are worthy of the same, equal honour.

I want to suggest that here in these verses, Jesus describes in language accommodated to human ears what happens in terms of eternal generation. However because he uses human language, it is language that must include time and process but of course there isn’t time or process in eternity.   This is what it means to talk analogically by God. We use language that is constrained by time and space to give us a glimpse into the life of the God who transcends time and space.

You will notice here that the Father loves the Son and this is a crucial definition of the relationship between son and father. Primarily the relationship is defined in terms of love.  Secondly, the language of show and give suggest that there is an order (not to be confused with hierarchy or chronology).  Thirdly, we must take account of Jesus’ statement that he only does what the Father shows him. It’s here that we see language of submission. The Son’s will is aligned to the Fathers. Remember again that we are taking a word that we know in human contexts and using it to talk about God, so we must do so carefully.  We cannot talk about The Son submitting to the Father in the way that we talk about us submitting to each other. 

Further, whilst the language here describes the Son in terms of his divine nature. It still describes him in relation to the incarnation.  We therefore have crucial constraints on what we say about him/ Yet at the same time we must also recognise that the language is analogical. It’s not univocal but nor is it equivocal. Our human words may be limited, they may not give exhaustive knowledge of God but they do give true knowledge of him.  There is a relationship between who God is in terms of eternity and the imminent Trinity and who he is in terms of the incarnation and the economic Trinity.  Jesus speaks truthfully and accurately about himself.

Here then in John we have something of a description about what it means to say that we believe in The Eternal Generation of God The Son.  We may still feel like there is mystery here and that we have not been able to know and say everything about The Son, The Trinity and Eternal Generation but we have been able to say something about them.

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