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The eternal generation or begetting of the Son

Making Disciples | Rev Kevin Giles | 27 July 2012

book cover

I have been asked to give a brief outline of what my new book, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Trinitarian Orthodoxy (InterVarsity) is all about. Few soldiers and I suspect few officers in the Salvation Army  will rush off to buy this book but the deep and difficult matter this book deals with should be of interest and concern to all Christians.

Every Sunday millions of Christians around the world congregate to celebrate the Eucharist. For most of them, the reciting of the Nicene Creed is part of this assembling and in this creed they confess, ‘We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.’ It is therefore with some surprise and much dismay to open theological works by contemporary conservative evangelicals to find them advocating the removal of the words from the Nicene Creed, ‘eternally begotten of the Father,’ in the clause beginning, ‘We believe in Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,’ because they tell us these words have no biblical warrant, or they are of no great importance.

To reply to this radical suggestion a number of questions need to be explored. 1. What is involved in ‘doing’ evangelical systematic theology? 2. What is this doctrine saying and teaching? 3. What in scripture might support his very widely held belief? And, 4. Who has held this belief?

Evangelical theology involves far more than having a proof text. Two pieces of evidence make this conclusive.

1. On every complex question the Bible has more than one answer because each author is addressing a specific question rather than seeking to cover all possibilities. So for example, the problem of suffering is dealt with from many different angles. And,

2. sometimes the Bible does not explicitly answer the questions we ask today. There is no proof text to settle the issue that concerns us. For example, no text says that abortion is prohibited in some or all situations or that gambling is wrong in all circumstance or some.

Because this is the nature of biblical revelation it is invariably hard to find agreement on what the Bible teaches on complex issues, especially contemporary ones. So we have disputes on almost every matter imaginable. The best answer is that evangelical theology is the fruit of long and hard study of the scriptures in fellowship with other Christians. Only when a common mind is reached as to what is fundamental to all that is said in scripture can we say we have doctrine.

In the early third century the church was faced with possibly the biggest challenge to its life it ever faced. Arius taught that Jesus was God in second degree. The Father was true God; the Son was like a human son just a bit less and under his father. He found texts that supported this idea and he gathered a very big following. Basic to his position were a couple of Old Testament texts that spoke of God begetting a son (Ps 2:7) or his wisdom (Prov. 8:25). For Arius this proved by appeal to scripture that the Son was created in time like everything else in the world and thus less than the Father.

The great Athanasius clearly saw that much was at stake. If the Son was not truly God he did not perfectly reveal the Father, if he were not God in all might, majesty and power we could not be sure that he could save us, and if he were not true God he should not be worshipped.  Only God is to be worshipped. In contrast to Arius, he concluded that the New Testament unambiguously and consistently taught that the Son is God in all might, majesty and power. He noted that the Son is repeatedly called ‘God’ (Jn 1:1, 20:28, Rom. 9:5, Heb. 1:8. etc.) and ‘Lord,’ God’s own title. If he is God then, he said, he was not created in time and not less than God. In reply to Arius, he argued by way of human analogy that like produces like in an act of begetting. If the Son is begotten of the Father he is of the same divine nature or being as the Father. He is ‘God from God.’ What is more if the Son’s begetting speaks figuratively of the begetting of the Son of God it must be an eternal act. What God creates he creates in time; what God begets he does so eternally. For him the two Old Testament texts we mentioned above (Ps. 2:7, Prov. 8:25) prophetically spoke of the eternally begetting of the Son and he added, in any case the very names Father and Son imply a generative act. Fathers beget offspring.

The force of Athanasius arguments and interpretation of scripture eventually won the day. And from his time the doctrine of the eternal generation has been seen as central to the doctrine of the Trinity and having good biblical support. It has been supported and strongly endorsed by almost every one of the better known theologians across the ages. What the doctrine of the eternal generation or begetting of the Son establishes is hugely significant. This doctrine aserts that the Son is of the same divine being or nature as the Father, he is ‘true God from true God,’ yet he is other than the Father. He is the Son of God for all eternity and the Father is the Father for all eternity.

For me the case for retaining the Nicene confession, ‘We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, … eternally begotten of the Father … begotten not made,’ is compelling.

  1. It reflects the belief and the agreed doctrine of the church for almost 2000 years.
  2. It uses the language of scripture in speaking of the Son as ‘begotten;’ it embraces the biblical teaching that speaks of the Son as ‘from’ the Father, and it bears witness to the belief that the God revealed in scripture is self-differentated for all eternity.
  3. It guarantees the full divinity of the Son. As the begotten Son he shares the same nature/being/essence as the Father. He is ‘Light from Light, true God from true God.’
  4. It explains why the Son is ultimately, monogenes, unique. Alone he is begotten in eternity by the Father; he is not a son of God, but the one and only Son eternally begotten Son of the Father.
  5. It distinguishes the person of the Father and Son (and the Spirit) without dividing the being (ousia) or power of the one God. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit proceeds and these relations of origin cannot be reversed or changed.
  6. It marks out those who confess this doctrine as members of the one catholic (universal) church.