Book Review

Recommended Reading on the Eternal Generation of the Son

Lee Irons
Kevin Giles
Saturday, September 1st 2018
Sep/Oct 2018

In the Nicene Creed, the Christian church confesses that the Second Person of the Godhead is not a creature made by God but the eternally begotten Son of God. The creed affirms the church’s belief “in the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made.”1 Translated from Latin into modern theological terminology, this is the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation.2

One might be tempted to dismiss this concept as a remnant of Greek philosophy, or at best a human theological construct devised by the church fathers to express the faith in terms accessible to their cultural context. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The doctrine is simply saying what the Scripture says, using Scripture’s own words. The adjective “only begotten” (monogenēs in Greek) was lifted by the framers of the creed directly from the Scriptures. In the writings of the apostle John, the preincarnate One sent by the Father is called the “only begotten” Son (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). Most modern English versions obscure this by rendering the word monogenēs in these verses as “only” or “one and only,” but the traditional rendering “only begotten” better captures the way the church fathers understood the term.3

The participle “begotten” (gennēthenta), which is used twice in the creed (“begotten of the Father before all worlds . . . begotten not made”), is derived from a number of verses in both the New Testament (“he who was begotten of God”; 1 John 5:18) and the Greek translation of the Old Testament, commonly called the Septuagint (LXX), where the verb “beget” (gennaō) is used three times in reference to the Son’s being begotten before creation (LXX Ps. 2:7; 109:4; Prov. 8:25).

In order to do battle in the fourth and fifth centuries with the Arians, who taught that the Son was a creature whom God made, the church fathers made much of these scriptural statements that the Son is begotten. Athanasius explained that, unlike creatures who are made out of nothing and therefore distinct from and alien to the divine nature, the Son does not possess a substance different from the Father, since he is eternally begotten of the Father’s own being:4 “Whereas it is proper to men to beget in time, from the imperfection of their nature, God’s offspring is eternal, for His nature is ever perfect.”5

It may seem strange that the Bible uses the analogy of human procreation (fathers begetting sons) to describe the Father’s begetting of the Son. In human experience, fathers are older than their sons; and prior to their generation, sons don’t exist. But such temporal qualities do not apply to this begetting, which, as Gregory Nazianzen said, is “beyond the sphere of time, and above the grasp of reason.”6 Augustine used the analogy of “fire” (Father) and “shining” (Son). As the fire begets the shining and yet the fire does not precede the shining temporally, so the Father begets the Son and yet does not precede him temporally. The Begetter and the Begotten are coeternal.7

Why is the doctrine important? Historic Nicene Trinitarianism holds that relations of origin are the only revealed distinguishing characteristics of the three persons of the Trinity. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son.8 Thus eternal generation is a key structural support for the doctrine of the Trinity that cannot be removed without endangering the whole structure.9

Unfortunately, throughout most of the twentieth century, the eternal generation of the Son suffered serious neglect. A theological malaise or lack of conviction about it seemed to have prevailed. Worse, some evangelical and Reformed theologians of stature published influential books and systematic theologies in which they questioned whether the doctrine is really taught in Scripture.

Recently, however, there is renewed interest in the doctrine, and it is now receiving the sustained attention it deserves. Within the past six years, two books have been published that fill in this gap and provide solid defenses of the doctrine from a Protestant position: The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology by Kevin Giles; and Retrieving Eternal Generation, edited by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain. Below are reviews of both.

The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology

by Kevin Giles

IVP Academic, 2012

270 pages (paperback), $27.00

The strength of Giles’s book is in how he traces the historical development of the doctrine from the church fathers to the modern era. After an introduction and two chapters on theological method (to which I’ll return in a moment), Giles shows how the doctrine first emerged with second-century apologist Justin Martyr and was then further developed by Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen. Next, he surveys the Arian controversy and the response of the Council of Nicaea and Nicene fathers, such as Athanasius. As we move into the later part of the fourth century, Giles gives due attention to the Cappadocian fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa). Giles also describes Augustine’s views, as well as the teaching of the so-called Athanasian Creed. (Despite its name, that creed was not written by Athanasius but represents a fifth-century summation of Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity.) Next in Giles’s historical survey is the Trinitarian thought of Thomas Aquinas, who represents the high point of medieval theological reflection on the doctrine. After Aquinas, Giles deals with the Reformers, Luther and Calvin, as well as some representative post-Reformation Protestant theologians. He then shows how the doctrine fared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

After completing that survey of key theologians throughout church history, Giles devotes a chapter to a lively question in evangelical circles today—namely, “Does the eternal generation of the Son imply or necessitate the eternal subordination of the Son?” The context behind this question is that some evangelical theologians have made the following argument: The eternal generation of the Son necessarily implies the eternal subordination of the Son; but the eternal subordination of the Son is unacceptable theologically; therefore, the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son should be rejected. Giles rightly argues that the doctrine does not imply the eternal subordination of the Son.

However, the weakness of Giles’s argument shows up in chapters 2 and 3 on theological method. Here he argues that the doctrine is biblical, not in the sense of being taught explicitly in Scripture, but in the sense of being a legitimate inference from the total teaching of Scripture. He argues that it is a “human attempt” (16, 68) to explain what differentiates the three persons of the Trinity. This understanding of the doctrine as a human theological inference colors his reading of the church fathers. He reads the church fathers through the lens of his own theological method, claiming that they did not appeal to any scriptural verses that speak of the Son as “begotten” but rather inferred the doctrine from the Father-Son relationship. He even claims the scriptural term monogenēs was understood by the church fathers to mean merely “unique” or “only,” and that they did not use the Johannine verses where the term occurs as textual support for the eternal generation of the Son (64–69, 81, 144–48).10

In spite of the problems with Giles’s theological method, however, the book is a valuable contribution. His survey of the history of the doctrine demonstrates that it has a solid claim to being an essential part of the historic consensus of the church.

Retrieving Eternal Generation

by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, eds.

Zondervan, 2017

304 pages (paperback), $34.99

If the weakness of Giles’s book lies in his theological method, then this volume edited by Sanders and Swain provides a much-needed corrective. This multiauthor work is divided into three parts. “Part I: Biblical Reasoning” has seven chapters. In chapter 1, Scott Swain provides a wonderful theological exegesis of Hebrews 1:2, which speaks of the Son as “the radiance of the Father’s glory.” In chapter 2, Matthew Y. Emerson analyzes the patristic appeal to the mysterious figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22–31. He looks particularly at verse 25: “Before the mountains were established and before all the hills, he begets me” (LXX). Emerson shows that “the patristic interpreters had clear exegetical and theological grounds for interpreting [this passage] as both referring to Christ and as teaching the eternal generation of the Son” (56).

In chapter 4, veteran Johannine scholar D. A. Carson takes a deep dive into John 5:26, which does not use “begetting” language per se but nevertheless affirms that the Father has granted the Son to have “life in himself”—that is, divine self-existence. Carson draws the conclusion: “If such [self-existent] life is ‘granted’ to the Son, the conclusion of Augustine—that this is an eternal grant—is the only one that makes sense of the text” (85).

In chapter 5, I defend the traditional rendering of monogenēs in the five Johannine texts as “only begotten.” The translation committees of the modern English versions that have “only” (e.g., ESV) or “one and only” (e.g., NIV, CSB) relied on outdated scholarship that can now be shown to be incorrect in light of more abundant comparative data.

Other key passages dealt with in this section include Madison N. Pierce’s exegesis of Psalm 2:7 as quoted in Hebrews 1:5, and Mark S. Gignilliat’s defense of John Owen’s appeal to Micah 5:2 (“whose goings forth are from of old, even from eternity”). This part also contains an interesting chapter by R. Kendall Soulen on John 17:11–12, in which he refers to the Father’s eternal grant of the divine name to the Son.

“Part II: Historical Witnesses” covers some aspects of historical theology that Giles either does not cover or covers in a cursory manner. Here we find superb treatments of the doctrine in Origen (by Lewis Ayres), Augustine (by Keith E. Johnson), Jonathan Edwards (by Christina N. Larsen), and Karl Barth (by Michael Allen). Chapter 10, “Post-Reformation Trinitarian Perspectives,” deserves special notice. In this chapter, Chad Van Dixhoorn gives us a fascinating snapshot of the status of Trinitarian theology among Reformed theologians at the time of the Westminster Assembly.

Finally, “Part III: Contemporary Statements” completes the circle of retrieval by providing contemporary theological constructions of the doctrine that are in harmony with the ecclesiastical and conciliar tradition. Mark Makin’s chapter explores three philosophical models for construing the doctrine: a causal model, a grounding model, and an essential dependence model. The two final chapters, which grapple with the doctrine’s place in systematic theology, provide a fitting conclusion that puts everything together and shows how the doctrine relates to the larger fabric of the Christian faith, such as the loci of soteriology (by Fred Sanders) and the doctrine of the image of God, from creation to new creation (by Josh Malone).

Charles Lee Irons (PhD in New Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary) is senior research administrator at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, and adjunct professor at California Graduate School of Theology in Garden Grove, California.

  1. This is from the version of the Nicene Creed adopted at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.
  2. The English word generation is from the Latin word generatio (“the action of producing offspring; begetting”), which in turn is from the verb genero (“beget”).
  3. See my chapter contribution in Retrieving Eternal Generation, which I summarize in this article.
  4. Athanasius, Defense of Nicene Definition §19.
  5. Athanasius, Against the Arians 1.14.
  6. Gregory Nazianzen, Third Theological Oration §3.
  7. See Augustine’s Sermon 117 on John 1:1 and his Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed §8.
  8. Cf. The Westminster Confession of Faith II.3 and Larger Catechism Q. 10.
  9. Notable theologians who question the doctrine include J. Oliver Buswell, Lorraine Boettner, John Feinberg, Wayne Grudem, William Lane Craig, Millard Erickson, Paul Helm, Robert Reymond, and John Frame.
  10. I survey the patristic biblical warrant in my article “Begotten of the Father before All Ages: The Biblical Basis of Eternal Generation according to the Church Fathers,” in Christian Research Journal 40.1 (2017): 41–47.
Saturday, September 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology