Immutability and Eternal Generation: The Son’s Generation as a Spiritual, Internal, and Eternal Act
Last week, the new issue of Credo Magazine released: The Immutability of God. The following is an excerpt from Josh Malone’s article, Immutability and Eternal Generation: The Son’s Generation as a Spiritual, Internal, and Eternal Act. Josh Malone (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Dr. Malone has written two books which are under review and proposal for publication.
When we venture to speak of Almighty God we come to hallowed ground. The classic tradition has been intensely self-reflective concerning creaturely speech about God’s inner life – especially of divine generation. Patristic theologians issued a range of warnings from Irenaeus urging the Gnostics not to speak impiously of the Son’s generation “as if they themselves had assisted at His birth,” to Hilary cautioning “in this case we, whose faculties can deal only with the visible and tangible things, are straining after the invisible, and striving to grasp the impalpable.” An acute awareness of the limits of creaturely speech, rooted in the absolute interval between Creator and creature, has caused theologians to give a chastened account of theological language. This spiritual posture of humility and analogical reserve is essential for wise speech about the Son’s procession in God’s inner life.
Following this patristic and medieval precedent, Herman Bavinck’s treatment of the Son’s generation seeks to honor the sheer difference between Creator and creature and is instructive for our question. Bavinck’s description of the Son’s generation wisely traverses the analogical interval between human and divine generation, laboring to speak rightly of the ineffable. He highlights three types of necessary distinctions between the Son’s generation and creaturely generation which help distinguish the two: (1) corporeal/incorporeal; (2) procreation/generation; (3) temporal/eternal.
The Son’s Generation is a Spiritual Act
The Son’s generation by the Father is spiritual. To say that the Son’s generation is spiritual is to mark the distinction between the incorporeal life of God and the corporeal existence of creation. Failing to recognize this dimension of the Son’s generation was part of the Arian objection to the doctrine of eternal generation in the fourth century. This objection reasoned that all generation must involve a separation and division between begetter and begotten. Accordingly, if the Son was truly generated by the Father, then this must alter the life of God, rendering him mutable. Athanasius reports Arius’ clever argument that God did not beget his Son as Valentinus pronounced that the offspring of the Father was an issue; nor as Manichæus taught that the offspring was a portion of the Father, one in essence (homoousios); or as Sabellius, dividing the Monad, speaks of a Son-and-Father; nor as Hieracas, of one torch from another, or as a lamp divided into two. To say that the Son’s generation is spiritual is to mark the distinction between the incorporeal life of God and the corporeal existence of creation. Click To Tweet
Arius sought to show that each of these approaches fall short by making God compound rather than simple, divisible rather than undivided, mutable rather than immutable, corporeal rather than incorporeal. This argumentative approach, associating Nicaea’s homoousios with heretical options, enabled Arius to deny its theological judgement. If the Son did issue forth from the Father, in such a way that the two shared the same nature (homoousios), then either there are two gods (Valentinus), or God is corporeal (Manichæus), or God is mutable (Sabellius), and thus God is not one (Hieracas) because the Monad is divided. Thus Arius set out to comprehensively and methodically remove all notions of generation other than creation from the divine will on the basis that all other conceptions would involve corporeality, change, or division within the one eternal Godhead—options which both Arius and his pro-Nicene opponents agreed were theologically untenable. The Arian argument demanded that it was impossible for God to be one and for both the Father and the Son to be that one God.
The pro-Nicene response to this, which Bavinck proffers, is to reply that while certainly this is the case with corporeal generation, yet the Son’s generation is an incorporeal act – spiritual and thus incapable of separation or division.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies2.28.5-6 (ANF1:401).
 Hilary of Poitiers, On the TrinityIII.18 (NPNF29:67).
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: 2 (309-310). Bavinck writes of generation as (1) spiritual; (2) within the divine being; and (3) eternal. Here I’ve rephrased this and paired them his categories with their analogical counterparts in creation.
 Athanasius de Synodis 16 (NPNF Series 2, 4:458).
 Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction, 54.