The incomprehensible God and Eternal Generation

 I want to flesh out some thoughts in response to a question that Ollie Lansdowne student minister at All Souls Langham Place raised on twitter.

He raised the question as a statement which he then offered a poll for people to give their choice ranging from hard yes to hard no.

Then he offered his own answer.

Now, this might sound like a technical conversation of little interest to most and feel free to skip over this article if that’s your take. However, I would encourage you to stick with me.  It’s good to take time to pause and think more closely about the nature of God. I commend Ollie for that.  We also as true worshippers want to know and speak of God aright and so I also commend Ollie’s desire to get doctrine right. This concern is good news for students attending All Souls.  I do think however that this particular concern is misplaced.

Let me explain why.  The basis of Ollie’s conclusion is that if God is incomprehensible but Eternal Generation of the Son reveals God, then this means that the Son is comprehensible in a way that the Father is not.  If incomprehensibility is essential to the God’s nature, then by being comprehended, The Son would be less than the Father in terms of deity.

So, it’s important to get some definitions in place.  What do we mean by incomprehensibility, Eternal Generation and revelation?

When we talk about incomprehensibility, we are reminding ourselves that God is infinite and eternal. He is beyond our comprehension because he is other than us.  He is transcendent.  We are finite but we are also fallen meaning that there is an additional limitation on our ability to know and comprehend God.

It is important then to spot therefore, that incomprehensibility does not mean that we cannot know God at all. It means that we cannot know him exhaustively.  We both cannot know everything that there is to know about God and we cannot know the things we do know to their full depth. 

Eternal Generation is the phrase which describes God the Son as the eternally begotten son of the Father (as per John 3:16). It means that The Son is not a created being and that there hasn’t been a point in time or before time when he was not (c.f. John 1:1).  It’s where we get the language which appears in our creeds and which we sing about every Christmas that Christ is “God of God” and “light of light.”  It means that we don’t believe in 1 God who appears in different forms neither fo we believe in three Gods sharing a common nature or mission. We believe in the Triune God with no denial of oneness, distinction of persons or equality.

When we talk about revelation, we are saying something about God’s character, that he is the one who discloses truth about himself. He is the speaking God.  In fact, because he is incomprehensible, all that we can know about him is only possible because he reveals it to us. We are dependent upon his self disclosure.  If this is at the heart of who God is then we might also argue that everything God says and does is revelation.

This is why I think Ollie’s concerns are misplaced.  God’s incomprehensibility does not mean that we cannot know him or anything about him at all. Ollie would agree with me on that.  It means that knowledge is not exhaustive.  Therefore, any revelation that enables us to know something of God does not deny anything of God’s transcendence, his eternity or infinity.

Secondly, there would only be a problem if by saying that Eternal Generation was revelatory meant that we were looking to the Son to reveal something different about himself. But this would also make the Father uninvolved or at best passive in Eternal Generation.  He isn’t. The point of eternal generation cannot merely be that the Son is begotten but that the Father begets.  If we are saying that Eternal Generation is revelation then it is not revelation from the Son alone because it is not an action of the Son alone.  Rather, if there is revelation, it is from the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.

Does this mean that I’m denying God’s incomprehensibility? Am I saying “the Son is comprehensible but so too is the Father.”  Well only if by incomprehensibility you mean that God cannot be known at all. Yet, as we’ve been clear about from the start, incomprehensibility does not mean this. It means that we cannot know God exhaustively and we cannot know him by his own efforts.  We can only know him by his revelation.

This leads us to a final question. If Eternal Generation is a revelatory act, then what exactly is it revealing?  Well, as the church fathers such as Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers knew very well, the eternal generation is crucial to our knowledge that we can call God Father and that we believe in the Triune God.  It’s why we believe in God in three persons. It’s why we know that Jesus is fully God.

I think it has been suggested that this revelation is limited to the incarnation but that would be problematic.  First, it might lead us to think that God is not eternally the Father, that he became the Father at Christ’s birth and that Christ’s Sonship therefore relates only to his human nature.  It would also, I think, bring us into conflict with John 1:1 which describes Christ as the eternal Word who was with God and was God.  He has always been the revelation of God. I think it also runs aground on Colossians 1:15-16.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 

Of course the point at which humanity properly encountered this revelation was at the Incarnation. Up until that point it was hinted at but the mystery was fully revealed in the coming of Christ.  However, the revelation was given in eternity.

So, what’s the take home from this? Well, first of all, as I said, I applaud the desire of brothers and sisters for doctrinal exactitude.  I want you to hear this.  Sometimes people can be dismissive of theological rigour.  This is wrong.  Right doctrine is crucial to right worship. We want to name, know and worship God aright.  However, I do think that in recent years we’ve started to see a few examples where academic theologians have unnecessarily tied themselves up in knots and that’s been both unnecessary and unhelpful to pastoral ministry.

So the bigger take home is this.

  1. God is incomprehensible. This means that we are never going to completely grasp how wonderful, glorious, sovereign, mighty, infinite, eternal, strong, loving, kind and just he is.
  2. However, this great God stoops down to us, so that we can know him. We don’t know or comprehend everything about him but we know enough to know him, to have a relationship with him, to be welcomed into his family. We know him as little children know their father.  There’s a reason for that!
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