In the introduction to his magisterial Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford University Press, 2004), Lewis Ayres observes that despite the revival of "Trinitarian theology," many theologians have engaged the legacy of Nicaea "at a fairly shallow level, frequently relying on assumptions about Nicene theology that are historically indefensible." If Kevin Giles is right, some of the most respected conservative, evangelical theologians are prime exhibits of Ayres's complaint. An Australian Anglican minister and noted scholar, Giles writes as a member of the evangelical and Reformed family.
If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in essence (homoousios), how are they distinct persons? The focus of Giles's book is the Father-Son relation. There are several ways of coming to a wrong answer, and the church became well aware of all of them by the late fourth century. The Nicene consensus, forged through controversy and finally adopted at the Council of Constantinople in 381, is that the unbegotten Father eternally begets the Son. This procession is eternal; it is perfect, admitting no degrees of sharing in the essence; and it is necessary. While the Triune God freely chose to send the Son and the Spirit in history (the economy), the Father's begetting of the Son and breathing out of the Spirit are intrinsic to the very life of the Godhead independently of an external world.
The Son's eternal generation is not an isolated theory, Giles argues. Delete it from the creed and "the very doctrine of the Trinity" is threatened, along with the deity of the Son and therefore our salvation.
But are there conservative evangelical theologians today who reject the eternal generation of the Son? Frankly, I didn't know that there were so many before reading this book (see sidebar on page 49).
Scripture is our only foundation, but "doing theology" is a spiritual work of discernment not only for the church but also within the church’the whole church across its diverse times and places. And it involves not only induction from biblical statements but also deduction from the broader sense of Scripture. Nearly every heresy in history resulted from literalistic exegesis of a handful of proof-texts, set over against a consensual reading of Scripture over many times and places. Reasons offered for rejecting "eternally begotten of the Father" are that the doctrine is more speculative, illogical, obscure, and/or trivial. But Giles thinks the complaints reflect a superficial (and erroneous) knowledge of the positions they are revising or rejecting, as well as the history that produced them.
Chapter 3 takes on the charge that there is no biblical warrant for the eternal generation of the Son. Giles observes that many textual scholars have concluded that monogenes in John (John 1:14, 19; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9) is more likely "one of a kind." I still hold out for "only begotten" since: (1) "unique/only God" contradicts the difference between the Father and the Son expressed in verses 1-3; (2) John always refers to Jesus as "Son" (huios) and believers as "children" (tekna); and (3) the phrase monogenous para patros suggests that Jesus reveals God as an only begotten son of a father can do. Nevertheless, I appreciate the way in which Giles shows that the theological sense of John's teaching in many places confirms that Jesus is "unique" because he is the "only begotten." He is "from the bosom of the Father" (eis ton kolpon; John 1:18). This is certainly how the Greek-speaking fathers of Nicaea understood monogenes. "The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son arises and is predicated primarily on the biblical revelation that the 'first' and 'second' persons of the Trinity are eternally and indelibly identified and related as 'the Father' and 'the Son.' A father-son relationship presupposes begetting. Fathers beget children" (69).
Giles demonstrates that for the church fathers, Augustine, and Aquinas, the eternal generation of the Son was the lynchpin for identifying both his unity with and difference from the Father (chapters 4-6). Chapter 7 shows the continuity of the Reformers and post-Reformation confessions with this catholic consensus, citing Richard Muller's point that the anti-Trinitarians of the era "often advocated a starkly rational Biblicism over against the tradition" (see "The Triunity of God," in Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4 [Baker, 2003], 20). He also does a fine job of dispensing with the attempt of those who reject eternal generation to recruit Calvin. He also cites several post-Reformation theologians. "For those evangelicals who call themselves 'Reformed,' this is a 'tradition' that cannot be ignored or perfunctorily dismissed" (204).
In chapter 8 he enters into the heart of the argument: Does the orthodox doctrine "imply or necessitate the eternal subordination of the Son?" (205). He delineates four versions of the opposition:
Giles judges that the now widespread assumption that eternal generation entails the Son's eternal subordination reveals "a minimum of knowledge of the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity" and fails to "understand what this doctrine teaches and safeguards." It was precisely against the Arian subordinationists that the Nicene fathers affirmed the eternal begetting of the Son. "Wayne Grudem's argument that the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds, along with the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles and the Westminster Confession of Faith, actually teach the eternal subordination in authority of the Son is profoundly perverse," given their explicit claims to the contrary (212). Ironically, William Lane Craig regards the doctrine of the Son's eternal begottenness as Arian only because he seems to accept the Arian presuppositions concerning it. The whole point of the pro-Nicene party was to affirm that the Son was "one in being (homoousios) with the Father." Similarly, Calvin defended the Son's aseity precisely on the basis of his being eternally begotten of the Father.
From here, Giles asks whether there are "better ways to ground the Father-Son distinction than the eternal begetting of the Son" (ch. 9). The theologians he has been challenging fall into two alternatives to the orthodox view. Some lodge the distinction between persons in their works in the economy, which "eternally and primarily differentiate them" (220). I cannot help but interject my own reaction at this point. The conservative theologians Giles criticizes have been at the forefront of defending classical theism. Nevertheless, any move that makes the external works of the Godhead somehow constitutive of the immanent life of the Trinity differs from the "open theism" and the panentheistic theories of Pannenberg, Moltmann, Jenson, Weinandy, and others only in degree. So, as Giles points out, this thesis (lodging the difference of divine persons in their works in the economy) "is to be rejected because what God does in the world does not establish in any sure way what is true in eternity" (222). Further, this thesis violates the patristic rule that the works of the Godhead are undivided. In other words, Scripture teaches clearly that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all engaged together in every work.
Others lodge the distinction in that the "differing authority of the divine three seen in the economy eternally and primarily differentiates them" (220). Giles observes that this thesis arose in direct connection with "the debate about the subordination of women. Virtually every evangelical who argues theologically for the Son's eternal subordination in authority is committed to the permanent subordination of women" (226). Astonishingly, Wayne Grudem asserts that this is the heart of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Instead of eternal begottenness, he suggests that "authority and submission between the Father and the Son…and the Holy Spirit, is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity" (Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1995], 250). Without such "subordination…we would not have three distinct persons" (Grudem, 251). And in another place: "If we did not have such differences in authority in the relationships among the members of the Trinity, then we would not know any differences at all" (Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth [Crossway, 2004], 433). The "differing authority" is only part of what distinguishes the persons. "The differences in authority among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the only interpersonal differences that the Bible indicates that exist eternally among the members of the Godhead" (Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 433). Thus authority and submission is "the most fundamental aspect of interpersonal relationships in the entire universe" (emphasis added; Grudem, Evangelical Feminism, 429).
This is a dangerous view chiefly because it projects an ontological subordinationism onto the life of the Godhead. Although Grudem insists that this is only subordination in terms of roles and authority, he seems unaware of the Arian provenance of this theory. Just as mainline theologians like Jürgen Moltmann project their ideal of human society (democratic socialism) onto the Trinity, resulting in tritheism, these conservative theologians project onto God their questionable (at least reductionistic) view of what distinguishes men and women. In Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Crossway, 2005), Bruce Ware gives a full-scale defense of this view. Like Grudem, he claims erroneously that this is what orthodoxy has always taught. Driscoll and Breshears offer a more popular defense of the view in Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe (Crossway, 2010). Regardless of how it is presented, the doctrine of the Trinity is in danger of becoming a political football on both sides of the debate over male-female roles. Despite their disagreements, there appears to be a common error: namely, to undermine the crucial difference between God and the world by seeing a one-to-one correspondence between the immanent Trinity and human relations.
Giles responds to the thesis set out from the conservative side by pointing out that even human persons are distinguished from each other by more than authority roles. More importantly, the unity of the Son with the Father (John 10:30; 17:11, etc.) is lost, and the persons are no longer coequal in every respect. The thesis amounts to ontological subordinationism; the Father is more sovereign than the Son. There is no lesser status or authority without lesser being, the orthodox argued against the Arians. Yet the rejection of the rule that the works of the Trinity are undivided also reflects a tendency toward tritheism. Finally, Giles points out that both Scripture and the tradition teach that the Son voluntarily submits to the Father's will. If so, the roles of authority and submission cannot be either eternal or necessary to the divine persons. In any case, according to orthodox teaching, the difference between divine persons is grounded in who they are, eternally and necessarily, not just their roles. This is why the church fathers and Reformation/post-Reformation orthodox teachers affirmed both the essential attributes that all three persons share identically and the personal attributes that render each person different from the others.
Giles spends the final pages summarizing the critique of eternal generation among mainline (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) theologians. While similar moves are made (especially erasing the immanent-economic distinction), these theologians are more fully aware of and upfront about the points at which they diverge from traditional formulations.
Giles concludes the book with a clear summary of his case. Giles's outspoken advocacy of an "egalitarian" view of male-female roles in the church sometimes compromises his critique. Nevertheless, he is at his best when his argument focuses on the dogmatic concerns. Evangelicalism has produced first-rate biblical scholars and a number of skilled philosophers. However, even among its systematic theologians there is a weakness in the area of historical theology that seems grounded in a flawed and superficial theological method. To the extent that the movement and even its theologians continue to assert a naive Biblicism, and that it is not even aware of what it is rejecting, evangelicalism has yet to mature into a tradition that thinks with the church and for the church.