The Bulwark of Trinitarian Theology
The new issue of Credo Magazine focuses on the eternal generation of the Son. The following is an excerpt from one of the issue’s featured articles with Griffin Gulledge. Gulledge is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a proud alumnus of Auburn University and Beeson Divinity School at Samford University.
In the past century, a renewed interest in the doctrine of the Trinity has emerged. Unfortunately, as this doctrine has moved from the wings to center stage, it has done so stripped of the classical distinctions within trinitarian grammar. Language of persons has given way to distinctions more akin to personalities. Traditional categories of divine processions and missions have been blurred, and new subordinationist theologies have emerged on both the left and the right.
Supporting doctrines such as divine simplicity, impassibility, and invisibility have often been cast aside or modified beyond recognition. Steve Holmes says of this 20th century reinvigoration, “We called what we were doing a ‘Trinitarian revival;’ future historians might want to ask us why.” Holmes’s point is well-taken. If the church is to recover a classical trinitarian doctrine, she must concern herself with the classic language that composed trinitarian theology in the first place.
One such doctrine which has been tragically neglected is the eternal generation of the Son. Pastors and theologians who seek to guard the good deposit of the faith (2 Tim. 1:14) will greatly benefit from understanding what the eternal generation of the Son is, and what it isn’t.
The Foundations of Eternal Generation
Trinitarian theology depends on more than the mere confession of God’s three-in-oneness. Classical trinitarian theology utilizes a precise set of terminology in order to describe the full biblical teaching of who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit. This is often referred to as trinitarian grammar. This grammar consists of two parts: vocabulary and syntax. The vocabulary describes the Bible’s teaching regarding who God is (such as “one God in three persons”, etc.). It also provides the syntax (rules for how the doctrines fit together and the logic they follow) needed to understand how to talk about this reality.
Trinitarian grammar is analogical, but it is not metaphorical. Through it, we know God truly, even if the analogy is not exhaustive, of God as he reveals himself in Scripture. However, we must not confuse language that is analogical (God is like this, God is described this way, etc.) with language that is metaphorical (such as to say God is Father, Son, and Spirit, but that this isn’t how God knows himself).
Pastors and theologians who seek to guard the good deposit of the faith (2 Tim 1:14) will greatly benefit from understanding what the eternal generation of the Son is, and what it isn’t. Click To Tweet One of the key distinctions in trinitarian grammar is that of divine relations. Christians believe that there are real relations in God. Divine relations represent who God is according to how he knows himself: as Father, Son, and Spirit. The relations are (1) Paternity, (2) Sonship, (3) Common Spiration, and (4) Procession. Procession is the language used to describe the manner in which the Son and Spirit are from the Father, while not being created by him. How can it be that the Son is begotten by the Father, but not a created being? This relation is called procession. There are two processions, one of the Son and one of the Spirit. The procession of the Son from the Father is called the eternal generation of the Son.
Defining the Doctrine of Eternal Generation
John Webster’s definition of eternal generation is helpful: “Eternal generation is the personal and eternal act of God the Father whereby he is the origin of the personal subsistence of God the Son, so communicating to the Son the one undivided essence.” Kevin Giles, author of The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology, defines it similarly but also adds “begetting and generation in relation to the Son…are the best words available to us human beings.” This is central to the exegetical case for eternal generation. Because of its critical place in trinitarian theology, eternal generation is a foundational doctrine which shapes and governs the development of countless other doctrines.
Key Claims Considered
Eternal Generation is a biblical doctrine. It is important to recognize that eternal generation is not a piece of speculative theology abstracted apart from the Bible. Much of the argument surrounding whether or not eternal generation is biblical has centered around the meaning of the word monogenes as “only Son” or “only begotten Son” in key texts (Jn. 1:18, 3:16, 1 Jn. 4:9, among others). Kevin Giles points out, however, that the case for eternal generation does not hinge on a single word. This is rarely ever the case, and it was not the case for the church fathers on eternal generation. Even if the proper meaning of the term is “only Son”, all sons are begotten of their fathers.
For Arians, the language of Christ’s Sonship (begotten or otherwise) leads to the confession that the Son was created in time from the Father. The doctrine of eternal generation is not the result of prooftexting; instead, it encapsulates the full biblical witness’s own internal reasoning. The canon of Scripture bids theologians to account for God’s own nature as Father, Son, and Spirit. We must ask then: what is the internal reasoning of Scripture for eternal generation? The doctrine of eternal generation is not the result of prooftexting; instead, it encapsulates the full biblical witness’s own internal reasoning. Click To Tweet
Scripture’s description of the divine name (singular) as Father, Son, and Spirit (Mt. 28:19-20) and its repeated use of the triune formula (1 Cor 12:4-6; 2 Cor 13:13) demands an explanation of the unity of persons in one essence. Biblical language of Sonship implies communication of an eternal nature from Father to Son and their unity with one another, while also recognizing the differentiation between the persons. God’s unchanging nature resists any account of emanation out of a monadic God, creation of the Son, or divided will within God (Ex. 3:14; Ps 102:27; Heb 1:12). Eternal generation is grounded in the absolute unity between the Father and the Son, accounting for claims such as “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30).
The logic of the Father sending the Son to be incarnate implies a prior, eternal relation of equality of nature since (a) the Son pre-existed with the Father and therefore can be sent, and (b) the language of Son implies the same eternal nature of the Father. Fathers cannot beget sons with a different nature than their own. Unlike created man, the Father begets a Son eternally who shares his eternal nature. Eternal generation is the internal logic of the Bible’s description of God as “Father, Son, and Spirit”. Eternal generation at the most fundamental level is the recognition of these truths and explanation of the relation between the divine persons of Father and Son; namely, the Father and Son have an essential unity but are self-differentiation by a relation of procession.
**Read the remainder of Griffin Gulledge’s article in the latest issue of Credo Magazine.