Eternal Generation

The establishment from all eternity of the filial relationship of the second person in the ontological Trinity. Another way of stating this is the eternal mode of the filiation of the second person in the Trinity, describing the relational order of His personal subsistence to the Father’s. Charles Hodge defines the term as “the communication of the same numerical essence whole and entire from the Father to the Son” (Systematic Theology, 1:460). The Father is the source, not of the deity or divine essence of the Son—for all the trinitarian persons possess the undivided divine essence in common—but of His filial relationship. The more common definition of eternal generation in standard theologies (reproduced, alas, in earlier editions of this dictionary!) is the “eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby he, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like his own, and puts the second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 94). This definition is open to the serious objection that logically it infers that since the Father puts the Son in possession of the whole divine essence, the divine essence must not in itself be a trinal essence. References to “an eternal and necessary act” only confuse the logical issue even further, for while they exclude all thought of the Father possessing the divine essence before the Son in a temporal sense, they still infer that the divine essence develops from being unipersonal to tripersonal. Such definitions also involve the idea of the eternal and necessary subordination of the second person in the Trinity to the first. It is common for defenders of these traditional definitions (e.g. Francis Turretin, W.G.T. Shedd, and A.A. Hodge all use similar language) to guard their position by stating that there is no subordination as to essence. However, it is difficult to ascribe any meaning to their original definition or to their disclaimer, for if the communication of deity from the Father to the Son is necessary and eternal, it would appear that the subordination involved must be essential. The best statements of Reformed theology, as in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and in the Westminster Confession of Faith, are careful to avoid ascribing any kind of subordination within the Trinity. Rather they see perfect equality of essence and eternity in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Yet the eternal Sonship of the second person in the Trinity is described in Scripture by the term monogenes, “only begotten.” This description of divine Sonship occurs only in John’s Gospel and First Epistle (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). It cannot be limited to Christ’s incarnational (mediatorial) Sonship. John speaks of the Father’s sending His only begotten Son into the world. Only begotten describes His eternal, intra-trinitarian relation with the Father, not the office He assumed as Mediator.

The importance of monogenes in the discussion of the Trinity can hardly be overstated. Many modern linguists hold that it means no more than “unique,” or “beloved.” It certainly includes these elements, but it is a mistake to limit its meaning to them. While usage rather than etymology must be decisive in establishing the meaning of a word, the etymology of monogenes cannot be ignored, for it is clearly the immediate reason for its usage. In human relationships an adopted son may be termed an only son, but not monogenes, precisely because the latter word includes a reference to one actually begotten of his father’s substance.

The reasons advanced for denying the native force of the term when applied to the eternal Son of God cannot bear the weight that their proponents place upon them. These proponents conclude that monogenes means no more than “unique,” or “beloved,” largely because of what the Bible says about Isaac. In Genesis 22:2 God calls Abraham to be willing to sacrifice Isaac, “thine only son” and in referring to this Hebrews 11:17 describes Isaac as monogenes. So the argument goes as follows: Abraham already had a son by Hagar, Ishmael. Therefore Isaac could not properly be termed his “only begotten.” The most monogenes can mean here is “unique,” or “beloved.” Isaac was Abraham’s son in a unique sense. He enjoyed a unique place in his father’s house and affections. Indeed the LXX translated “only son” in Genesis 22:2 as “beloved son.” This, the argument continues, gives us a clear basis for evaluating the meaning of monogenes before we try to understand its use in relation to the eternal Sonship of Christ. With reference to Christ, all it means is that He is God’s Son in a unique way, His wellbeloved, and we do not need to burden the doctrine of the Trinity with abstruse statements about eternal generation that are more philosophical than theological or biblical.

The argument sounds impressive, but in fact it misses the point entirely. There is no doubt that Isaac was actually begotten by Abraham and that that is the sole reason why monogenes is used to describe him. Isaac’s being termed monogenes despite the fact that Abraham already had another son is not meant to exclude the idea of begetting in the word. Rather it shows that it is the mono, “only,” part of monogenes that needs explanation. In classical Greek usage monogenes may indicate sharing the same parent (James Donegan, A New Greek and English Lexicon). In this sense, when it is used of brothers the prefix seems to refer to the father: he is their common begetter. But this usage does not appear in Scripture and is obviously inapplicable in the reference to Isaac in Hebrews 11:17 (for the writer is not seeking to establish Ishmael’s equal claim to Abraham’s paternity). That shuts us up to the only other possible reason for the use of the word in this context. Isaac was Abraham’s monogenes because he was actually begotten by him, and he was unique because he alone was begotten by Abraham according to God’s covenant promise. If it is impossible to exclude the idea of begetting from monogenes in the place most relied upon to evacuate the word of such a connotation, there is no linguistic basis for denying its full force with reference to Christ’s eternal Sonship. In His eternal Sonship He is “the only begotten of the Father,” and that justifies the term “eternal generation.” That is the inescapable significance of monogenes as applied to God’s Son.

Only begotten distinguishes the Son from all created beings. “Begotten, not created” is the orthodox statement of biblical truth regarding Him. But it also distinguishes Him from the Holy Spirit, of whom it cannot be said that He was begotten (see Procession of the Spirit). So the term is a special and specific reference to the peculiar relationship the second person in the Trinity has with the first person. They are co-eternal, consubstantial, and equal in power and glory.

However, while the meaning of monogenes must not be denied, its precise significance cannot be defined As long as we remember that it signifies that the Son is consubstantial—or coessential—with, yet hypostatically distinct from, the Father, we will do justice to it. But as soon as we follow the lead of the early church fathers and seek to define the mystery of filiation, or precisely how the Father is such to His Son, we will involve ourselves in dangerous self-contradictions.

All attempts to define eternal generation more minutely have been unsuccessful. Hilary of Poitiers made as fair an attempt as any: “There is One Unbegotten God the Father and One Only-begotten Son of God, perfect Offspring of perfect Parent; … The Son was begotten by no lessening of the Father or subtraction from His Substance, but … He who possesses all things begat an all-possessing Son; a Son not emanating nor proceeding from the Father, but compact of, and inherent in, the whole Divinity of Him who wherever He is present is present eternally” (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 9:256). Even here the danger is apparent: making the Son “compact of … the whole Divinity” of the Father plainly suggests the ideas of the essential derivation and subordination, even the posteriority, of the deity of the Son, despite Hilary’s assertions to the contrary. It is better simply to say that filiation involves a divine begetting, but that we cannot state how the Father begets. What we can state emphatically is that in contrast to the human father-son relationship, there is no suggestion of derivation of being or existence, of subordination, or of posteriority in time.

Unfortunately, orthodox theologians have not always been rigorous in guarding their language so as to maintain this truth. This can be seen in the writings of Tertullian, Hilary, and even of Athanasius and Augustine. Some deny that Augustine falls into subordinationism, but the facts do not justify their confidence. It was common for ancient writers to speak of the Father as the fountain of deity and the Son as the stream that flows from the fountain. They likened the Father to the sun and the Son to the light streaming from it, or (in the case of Tertullian) even employed the analogy of a tree (the Son) growing from the seed (the Father). They speak in clear subordinationist terms. Athanasius, the great defender of the true deity of Christ against the Arians, wrote: “The Father’s essence is as the origin and root and fountain of the Son” (ibid. , Second Series, 4:474). Augustine wrote: “The Father is the beginning of the whole divinity, or if it is better so expressed, deity” (ibid. , First Series, 4:20.29). Indeed, the language of the Nicene Creed itself is thought by many to be inherently subordinationist. The Creed speaks of the Son as being “true God out of true God,” or “very God of very God,” as we usually say. W. G. T. Shedd, an avid supporter of the Nicene phraseology, asserts that the Nicene Creed—though it holds to a complete equality between the persons as to essence and denies the Arian notion of the Son’s subordination as a creature—teaches His subordination to the Father in their trinitarian relations (ibid. , First Series, 3:98). Shedd says, “Dogmatic historians like Petavius, Bull, Waterland, and Pearson, contend … that the Nicene Creed enunciates a revealed truth” in teaching the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father within the Trinity (idem ). He continues, “This is endorsed by all the Trinitarian fathers, Eastern and Western.”

Charles Hodge admits that the Creed enshrines “the principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.” However, he draws a sharp contrast between the teaching of the Nicene Creed and the opinions of the Nicene fathers on the subject. He holds that the Creed does no more than reflect the facts of Scripture. Of the Creed’s subordinationism he says, “This subordination does not imply inferiority. For as the same divine essence with all its 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 that 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.… 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. The mere facts of Scripture are affirmed” (op. cit , 1:460–461).

It is difficult to say how justifiable is Hodge’s distinction between the language of the Creed and of those who formulated it and defended it. One would think that the language of Athanasius would be a safe guide to understanding the Nicene formulation—and he certainly used terms that were objectionable. Had he and the rest of the orthodox been content to leave the mystery of Scripture unadorned with their philosophical speculations, things would have been much better. But they did not and many have followed in their train.

As Shedd indicates, Anglican—and we may add Roman Catholic—theologians adhere to Nicene subordinationism. Canon H. P. Liddon, an orthodox Church of England theologian, writes, “The subordination of the Everlasting Son to the Everlasting Father is strictly compatible with the Son’s absolute divinity; it is abundantly implied in our Lord’s language; and it is an integral element of the ancient doctrine which steadily represents the Father as Alone Unoriginate, the Fount of Deity in the Eternal Life of the Ever-blessed Trinity” (The Divinity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, p. 202). Liddon’s claim that the language of our Lord justifies this subordinationist dogma is unsustainable. Augustine, despite himself falling at times into the subordinationist trap, makes this very point. He asserts that it was by transferring “those things which are said of Jesus Christ according to the flesh to that substance of His which was eternal before the incarnation” that men have supported their subordinationist arguments (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, First Series, 7:14).

Not surprisingly, many trinitarians have found the subordinationist language of the early fathers and their modern followers unacceptable. Recognizing that the kind of writers we have quoted are orthodox in their doctrine of the Trinity—and certainly far from the Arian heresy of making the Son a creature fashioned according to the Father’s will—they yet find all theories of the subordination of the Son in His trinitarian relation to the Father unscriptural. Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:5 that the Son “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God” allows no room for making the Son eternally subordinate to the Father. Nor does any other Scripture, if it is properly understood. Nor does the fathers’ appeal to the mutual indwelling of the divine persons (see Circumincession) relieve their statements of their fundamentally unscriptural tenor.

Luther was repelled by speculation into the mystery of eternal generation. He says: “We should, like little children, stammer out what the Scriptures teach: that Christ is truly God, that the Holy Ghost is truly God, and yet there are not three Gods, or three Beings, as there are three Men, three Angels, three Suns, or three Windows. No, God is not thus divided in his essence; but there is one only divine Being or substance” (Works, 13:1510).

Calvin also rejected all attempts to penetrate the mystery of the divine begetting. After quoting Augustine’s admirable summary of the trinitarian relations of the Father and the Son (see Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, First Series, 8:301), he states, “It is safer to stop with that relation which Augustine sets forth than by too subtly penetrating into the sublime mystery to wander through many evanescent speculations” (Institutes, 1:13.19). Some commentators—e.g. R. L. Reymond (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 330)—hold that Calvin rejected the idea of eternal generation. But this is too sweeping a judgment. Calvin clearly rejected the idea of the Father’s eternal generation of the Son in the sense of the Son’s deriving his deity from Him. However, he accepted that though it is not wise to employ “comparisons from human affairs to express the force of” the personal distinction of the Father from the Son (Institutes, 1:13.18), we must observe it in terms that are supported by Scripture. So while he does not use the actual term eternal generation, he says that the Son of God “was the eternal Word, begotten before all ages from the Father” (ibid. , 1:13.24). That is eternal generation.

Further, Calvin clearly affirms the native force of “only begotten” by insisting that it denotes a community of nature between the Father and the Son. Commenting on John 1:14 he states, “He calls him the only begotten, because he is the only Son of God by nature” (Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 47). “The Son of God by nature” is Calvin’s interpretation of the term “only begotten Son.” And he admits a personal distinction that is exclusively true of each trinitarian person, that is, Scripture ascribes a property to each person that it does not ascribe to the others. Calvin speaks of the “peculiar quality” that belongs exclusively to each trinitarian person: “In each hypostasis the whole divine nature is understood, with this qualification—that to each belongs his own peculiar quality” (Institutes, 1:13.19). He goes so far as to describe the peculiar property of the Father in terms that at least approach the language of earlier writers, though much more chaste and accurate: “We admit that in respect of order and degree the beginning of divinity is in the Father” (ibid. , 1:13.24). Again: “Inasmuch as the Father is first in order, and from himself begot his wisdom, … he is rightly deemed to be the beginning and fountainhead of the whole divinity” (ibid. , 1:13.25). Calvin summarizes his position as follows: “The essence of the one God is simple and undivided, and … it belongs to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; and on the other hand … by a certain characteristic the Father differs from the Son, and the Son from the Spirit” (ibid. , 1:13.22).

So far this is almost classic language to describe eternal generation. Calvin seems to have recognized this, for he seeks to understand the statements of the early fathers in harmony with his own views: “In this sense the opinions of the ancients are to be harmonized, which otherwise would seem somewhat to clash” (1:13.19). Or perhaps he was seeking to interpret the ancients as charitably as possible, for as both friends and foes agree, he was not simply restating their opinions, certainly not in the sense in which most of their commentators have understood them. In either case, the opinion that Calvin rejected the Nicene Creed on the eternal generation of the Son does not seem to coincide with his own view of the matter. He looks on himself as a true interpreter of the ancient position of the church, though he does admit that at times the language the early writers employed was “sometimes rough and thorny” and “a hard saying” (1:13.28). So it is too much to say that Calvin rejected the Nicene formula or its doctrine of eternal generation.

B.B. Warfield, an eminent Calvin scholar who dismissed much of the Nicene view of eternal generation as philosophical speculation, professed himself astonished at Calvin’s deference to the ancients, which he put down to the power of ecclesiastical tradition. He wrote, “Nothing could illustrate more strikingly the vitality of ecclesiastical tradition than that … the Nicene construction of the Trinity held its ground … with Calvin himself in its substantial core.… We are astonished … at the effort which Calvin made to adduce Nicene support for his own conceptions” (Warfield, Works, 5:279). Warfield’s point is that the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit were basic to the Nicene treatment of the Trinity, whereas they were not to Calvin’s. “Although he [Calvin] admitted the facts of ‘generation’ and ‘procession,’ he treated them as bare facts, and refused to make them constitutive of the doctrine of the Trinity. He rather adjusted everything to the absolute divinity of each person, their community in the one only true Deity; and to this we cannot doubt that he was willing not only to subordinate, but even to sacrifice, if need be, the entire body of Nicene speculation” (ibid. , 5:257). Clearly Warfield thought that to be consistent, Calvin should have sacrificed the “Nicene speculation.” But obviously Calvin did not see the Nicene construction as fundamentally at variance with his own views.

Warfield was right about one thing. Whatever his own opinion of his fundamental unity with the Nicene construction of the doctrine of the trinity around the ideas of the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, Calvin forever altered the manner of discussing and understanding these subjects. He shifted the discussion of the personal properties of the trinitarian persons on to solidly biblical ground.

First, he insisted that each of the persons in the trinity was autotheos, self-existent because truly possessed of the whole divine essence. The Son does not derive His deity from the Father, but possesses it because He is truly God.

Second, he used the term “unbegotten” in two distinct ways. “God without particularization [i.e. , without reference to a particular trinitarian person] is unbegotten; and the Father also in respect to his person is unbegotten” (Institutes, 1:13.25). So the whole divine essence, including the Son, is unbegotten but when we have personal subsistences in view the Son is said to be begotten and the Father unbegotten.

Third, admitting that the personal properties of the trinitarian persons reflect real [i.e. not merely nominal] distinctions in the undivided divine essence, Calvin explained them in two main ways: as opera ad intra, and as opera ad extra. Considering them as opera ad intra, he explained them as describing an order of relations, not of essence. He expounds this position at length. “When we profess to believe in one God, under the name of God is understood a single, simple essence, in which we comprehend three persons, or hypostases. Therefore, whenever the name of God is mentioned without particularization, there are designated no less the Son and the Spirit than the Father; but where the Son is joined to the Father, then the relation of the two enters in; and so we distinguish among the persons. But because the peculiar qualities in the persons carry an order within them, e.g. , in the Father is the beginning and the source, so often as mention is made of the Father and the Son together, or the Spirit, the name God is peculiarly applied to the Father. In this way, unity of essence is retained, and a reasoned order is kept which yet takes nothing away from the deity of the Son and the Spirit” (ibid. , 1:13.20. Emphasis added). This reflects the common use of the terms “the first, second, and third persons in the Trinity,” a mode of expression that precisely conveys Calvin’s meaning when he refers to “a reasoned order.” He allows no speculation into the mystery of the divine essence but is content to make an understandable statement of the meaning of the Son’s generation.

Calvin also expounded the significance of the peculiar properties of the trinitarian persons with respect to the opera ad extra. Indeed, he saw this as the major way in which Scripture makes use of them. “To the Father is attributed the beginning activity, and the fountain and wellspring of all things; to the Son, wisdom, counsel, and the ordered disposition of all things; but to the Spirit is assigned the power and efficacy of that activity.… We must not seek in eternity a before or an after, nevertheless the observance of an order is not meaningless or superfluous, when the Father is thought of as first, then from him the Son, and finally from both the Spirit. For the mind of each human being is naturally inclined to contemplate God first, then the wisdom coming forth from him, and lastly the power whereby he executes the decrees of his plan. For this reason, the Son is said to come forth from the Father alone; the Spirit from the Father and the Son at the same time” (ibid. , 1:13.18). This is a major emphasis and a real help in dealing with otherwise abstruse issues. The Scripture tells us of the Son that his “goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). While some take the reference to be to the Son’s eternal “going forth” from the Father, His eternal generation, others understand it of His many preincarnation appearances during OT history. There is no good reason to exclude either thought. However, one thing is clear. We may state the fact that His goings forth are eternal, thereby affirming the truth of His eternal generation, but that is all we can say about the matter. But with reference to His goings forth throughout OT history, we have a wealth of Scripture data that we can understand and benefit from, despite the mysterious nature of the subject.

Calvin’s doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is a parallel case. He admits its eternal, intra-trinitarian aspect. He states it and leaves it as a mystery to be believed. But he finds a reason for the Scripture’s references to it in God’s decree and His execution of it in the works of creation, providence, and especially in the covenant of redemption. Thus what to many is a recondite matter to be treated in a doctrinaire fashion that provides little spiritual benefit becomes a strength to our faith and an aid to our devotion, inculcating humility and adoration.

Warfield accurately noted that Calvin’s views had the effect of arousing intense opposition and of creating a new party. “That party was shortly the Reformed Churches, of which it became characteristic that they held and taught the self-existence of Christ as God and defended therefore the application to Him of the term autotheos; that is to say, in the doctrine of the Trinity they laid the stress upon the equality of the Persons sharing in the same essence, and thus set themselves with more or less absoluteness against all subordinationism in the explanation of the relations of the persons one to another” (Works, 5:251).

We do well to follow Calvin’s lead, as did the Westminster divines when they drafted the beautifully succinct Scriptural, and non-speculative statement of their Confession of Faith: “In the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, of one substance [essence], power, and eternity” (Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 2, sec. 3). Beyond this we cannot speak with any degree of understanding. J.C. Ryle summed up our knowledge and our ignorance as follows: “The subject [of eternal generation] is one of those which we must be content to believe and reverence, but must not attempt to define too narrowly. We are taught distinctly in Scripture that in the unity of the Godhead, there are three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. We are taught with equal distinctness, that ‘Sonship’ describes the everlasting relation which exists between the first and second Persons in the Trinity, and that Christ is the only begotten Son of God. We are taught, with equal distinctness, that the Father loveth the Son, and loved Him before the foundation of the world. (John 17:24).) But here we must be content to pause. Our feeble faculties could not comprehend more if more were told us” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 3:33). In the words of Hilary of Poitiers, “Devotion must stand in lieu of definition” (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 9:248).

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms. Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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