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The Eternal Generation of the Son

Lee Irons

The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son has fallen on hard times. The majority report among evangelical and Reformed scholars seems to be that the doctrine is speculative, a vestige of the Hellenistic modes of thought by which the fathers of the Nicene age were unfortunately encumbered. Such famous theologians as Calvin, Warfield, and Van Til all questioned the traditional language of the Nicene creed and attempted to reformulate the doctrine in a way that would avoid any hint of the Son's being derived from the Father. [1]

The motive behind this reformulation may seem laudable. The doctrine of eternal generation has been called into question in the interests of maintaining the Son's absolute, ontological equality with the Father. Yet, ironically, it was this same concern that moved the church fathers to stress the doctrine in the first place. Hilary of Poitiers, commenting on the term "consubstantial" (homoousion) in the Nicene creed, writes:

Is not the meaning here of the word homoousion that the Son is produced of the Father's nature, the essence of the Son having no other origin, and that both, therefore, have one unvarying essence? As the Son's essence has no other origin, we may rightly believe that both are of one essence, since the Son could be begotten with no substance but that derived from the Father's nature which was its source. [2]

What was the exegetical basis of this patristic doctrine that the Son's nature is derived from the Father? Were the fathers correct in their handling of the biblical data? How should we conceptualize this eternal generation - as a communication of essence, or merely of personal properties? And if this doctrine is Scriptural, how do we harmonize it with Calvin's concern to uphold the aseity of the Son? These are the questions I wish to examine in this paper.

Traditionally, the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son was supported by an appeal to the five Johannine texts in which Christ is identified as monogenes (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; I Jn 4:9). As early as Jerome's Vulgate, this word was understood in the sense of "only begotten" (unigenitus), and the tradition was continued by the Authorized Version. However, most scholars of this century reject this understanding and believe, instead, that the idea behind the word is more along the lines of "only" (RSV) or "one and only" (NIV) [3]. One of the main arguments is that the -genes suffix is related to the verb ginomai rather than gennao, thus acquiring the meaning "category" or "genus."

Unfortunately, this argument requires a selective reading of the evidence. It ignores the wealth of lexemes that have the -genes suffix. After searching Thesaurus Linguae Graecae on CD-ROM (a comprehensive collection of all extant Greek literature up to the 6th century AD), my estimate is that there are approximately 120 such words in the Greek vocabulary. Of these, 30% are not listed in Liddell and Scott, but the lexicon's glosses of 55% contain such words as "born" and "produced." For example, neogenes is glossed as "newly produced," and theogenes, "born of God." A mere 11% involve meanings related to "kind" (e.g., homogenes means "of the same genus"), while the remainder of usages have miscellaneous meanings. The sheer preponderance of the evidence would indicate that monogenes in the Johannine literature could very well mean "only begotten." At least, it cannot be ruled out on the basis of etymology. [4]

If this meaning is now considered a very live possibility, then an inspection of some of the Johannine texts will render that possibility all the more likely. In the first text monogenes is used as a substantive: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14). In the second text, I follow the textual variant found in the Bodmer papyrus, dated c. 200, and other ancient manuscripts: "No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God, who is in the Father's bosom, has made him known" (v. 18). The NIV completely misses the point ("God the One and Only ... has made him known"), for it is not the fact that the Son is the only God (as opposed to another god) but the fact that he is begotten of God (and thus truly God) which enables him to make God known. On balance these passages provide strong support for the interpretation "only begotten." [5]

Further support may be marshaled from I John 5:18, which, though it does not use the word, shows that John taught that the Son is begotten of God: "We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who is born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him." It seems reasonable to suppose that "the one who is born of God" is the Son of God. Some follow the textual variant "keeps himself" and see this as referring to the believer. However, this would lead to a redundant statement. It seems likely that John is pointing to the similarity between two sonships - that of the believer and that of Christ. Christ, of course, is the Son by nature, and we are sons by grace. But the point is that the ontological Son of God will protect the adopted sons of God from the evil one. Although it would be dangerous to make too much out of the different tenses (aspects) used, the distinction may be signaled by the fact that the believer is ho gegennemenos of God (perfect), while Christ is ho gennetheis (aorist). Be that as it may, the fact that the verb gennao is used in this context at least suggests the idea of generation. It also adds credibility to the traditional etymology of monogenes (mono + gennao) by providing at least one text where gennao is used in reference to Christ's sonship.

Some have felt that the New Testament interpretation of Psalm 2:7 ("You are my Son; today I have begotten you" - a traditional proof-text) requires that the begetting of the Son be seen as occurring in time - at his resurrection (cp. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). However, I would suggest that the historical begetting of the Son (at the resurrection) is organically related to and, in fact, founded upon the eternal begetting. If we take it as a given that the Son was always the Son even before his incarnation, then those passages which speak of the resurrection as the moment when he was "designated (or appointed) the Son of God in power" (Rom. 1:4) cannot be pressed into the service of a conclusion which would contradict the eternality of his sonship. However, neither would it be permissible merely to ignore or suppress them.

What do these passages mean, then? My suggested solution is to take note of the request of Christ to his Father: "And now glorify me, Father, in your presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was" (Jn 17:5). There is continuity between the primeval, pre-incarnate glory of the Son and his redemptive historical, resurrection glory. The Son was raised from the dead and designated to be the Son of God in power, because he was the eternal Son of God. Thus, only the Son of God could rightfully have been "begotten" on the day of his resurrection, that is, anointed as the Messianic king (II Samuel 7:14 shows that the "begetting" of Psalm 2:7 is not an ontological generation but a functional appointment to kingship). The eternal generation of the Son is ontological, while the historical generation is redemptive historical; but the latter is appropriate only because the former is a reality.

Having thus seen some of the biblical data which compels us to affirm the eternal generation of the Son, let us examine more carefully what we mean by it. First, it should be obvious that we are using an analogy from human experience to describe something about the eternal, immutable God. Clearly, then, the manner in which a human father begets a son differs significantly from the manner in which the Father begets the Son. For one thing, in human begetting, there is a time when the son does not exist; but in the divine original of which the human begetting is but a pale reflection, there never was a time when the Son did not exist (pace Arius). Furthermore, human begetting involves a mother and a father, whereas the Son is begotten of the Father alone. And a human father's begetting is a free and voluntary act, while the Son's filiation is an eternal and necessary act. Otherwise, the Son would be a contingent being, but no contingent being is divine. Athanasius wrote:

Nor is the Son's generation like a man's from his parent, involving His coming into existence after the Father. Rather He is God's offspring, and since God is eternal and He belongs to God as Son, He exists from all eternity. It is characteristic of men, because of the imperfections of their nature, to beget in time; but God's offspring is eternal, His nature being always perfect. [6]

So with all of these vast differences between human and divine begetting, wherein lies the point of analogy? Just as a human father communicates his essence (humanity) to the son, so the Father communicates his essence (deity) to the Son. In the words of Turretin:

As all generation indicates a communication of essence on the part of the begetter to the begotten (by which the begotten becomes like the begetter and partakes of the same nature with him), so this wonderful generation is rightly expressed as a communication of essence from the Father (by which the Son possesses indivisibly the same essence with him and is made perfectly like him). [7]

However, not all Reformed theologians agree on this point. For instance Calvin argued, "Whoever says that the Son has been given his essence from the Father denies that he has being from himself." [8] Thus, Calvin teaches that the Father is the source of the Son's person but not of his deity. The Son is autotheos (God-of-himself), that is, the Son's divine essence is not derived from the Father but from himself. What are some of the arguments for this view? Calvin's main argument is that Christ, the Son of God, called himself by the name, "I AM." And since that name implies self-existence, the Son's deity must be of himself. Hodge thinks "this argument is conclusive." [9]

But is it really? In John 8 (the locus classicus for Jesus' claim to that divine name), we read this interesting statement: "So Jesus said, 'When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM. And I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.'" (vv. 28f). If self-existence and filial subordination are incompatible, then why does Jesus seem to expound "I AM" in terms of his being taught of, sent by, and pleasing to his Father? It is clearly his relationship of dependence upon his Father that Christ wishes to highlight.

Hodge adds another argument: derivation of essence is not essential to the concept of sonship. When the Bible declares that the relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity is that of a Father and a Son, the point of this analogy is not communication of essence but a peculiar relationship of reciprocal affection. However, it would be more accurate to say that both aspects (communication of essence and relationship of love) seem to be involved. An example of the former can be seen in that well-known passage, John 10, where Jesus makes the astounding claim, "I and my Father are one" (v. 30). Several verses later Jesus restates his initial claim in different words: "I am the Son of God" (v. 36). Thus, the title "Son of God" and the claim "I and my Father are one" seem to mean the same thing. There is an ontological and not a merely social (or relational) element in Christ's claim to be the Son of God.

Let us return to Calvin's argument for a moment. Assuming that both are true, how do we harmonize the aseity of the Son with the doctrine of eternal generation? If the Son is eternally generated by the Father, then he is a derivative being, dependent on another for his existence. It would seem inescapable, therefore, that he is no longer a se. How are we going to resolve this dilemma?

Calvin attempted to resolve the problem by claiming - as we have seen - that the eternal generation of the Son only implies a communication of the personal property of Sonship, not a communication of divine essence. If the latter were the case, then, Calvin assumed, the deity of Christ would be a derived deity and hence no true deity at all. By making the Son's generated-ness a personal rather than an essential property, he thereby sought to eliminate the idea of derived deity. Calvin's concern to affirm the Son's autotheotes (his God-of-himself-ness) is thus in the interests of maintaining his full ontological equality with the Father (homoousion).

Turretin agreed with Calvin that the true deity of Christ necessarily dictates that the Son be autotheos. Yet Turretin also taught that the eternal generation of the Son involved a communication of essence. Thus, Calvin's solution was not open to him. So Turretin resolved the problem by asserting that aseity is properly attributed to the Son's divine essence not to his person. The Son has the divine essence from itself as God but not from himself as Son. The eternal generation of the Son involves a communication of the divine essence to the Son from the Father, not the generation of a new essence. As a result the Son's divine essence, which flows from the person of the Father, is not derived from another essence and is therefore a se.

Although the Son is from the Father, nevertheless he may be called God-of-himself (autotheos), not with respect to his person, but essence; not relatively as Son (for thus he is from the Father), but absolutely as God inasmuch as he has the divine essence existing from itself and not divided or produced from another essence (but not as having that essence from himself.) [10]

Turretin goes on to point out that this generation is not to be understood as the divine essence generating another divine essence (for that would involve tritheism), but as the person of the Father generating the person of the Son in a manner that involves the communication of essence.

I want to argue that Turretin's solution is better than Calvin's, because it maintains the full deity and autotheotes of the Son without having to give up the key doctrine of eternal generation. For in spite of that doctrine's susceptibility to being misunderstood (as if it implied that the Son were a lesser "god" than the Father on the chain of being), it actually functions as the linchpin of Trinitarian orthodoxy. The logic at work here is captured in the words of Robert Dabney:

In a word, the generation of the Son, and procession of the Spirit, however mysterious, are unavoidable corollaries from two facts. The essence of the Godhead is one; the persons are three. If these are both true, there must be some way, in which the Godhead multiplies its personal modes of subsistence, without multiplying its substance. [11]

Without the notion of an eternal generation to "multiply" the essence of the Godhead, not substantially but hypostatically only, it is impossible to maintain any differentiation of equally-divine persons within the one, undivided substance of the Godhead. (Admittedly "multiply" is a horrible word-choice, but I cannot think of another more suitable.)

It would appear that Turretin's view involves something of a paradox: the notion of derived deity. Although this may be perceived as a problem for the view maintained here, several comments can be made to help alleviate the tension. First, let us not forget that this is a paradox embraced within the Nicene Creed itself. The Son's divine essence is from the Father, as the Nicene Creed says, "God of (ek) God."

Second, such language is unavoidable in any sound doctrine of the Trinity. For we do not maintain that there are three divine beings, but one God in three persons. Were we to argue that the three persons of the Godhead each had aseity in the sense that each had its own divine essence independently of the other two, would we not be committed to tritheism? If so, then we cannot escape the notion that these three hypostases must be related to one another in a way that involves dependence or derivation. But then derivation is the opposite of aseity. On the one hand, we must affirm that each of the three persons has the same divine essence, or that each of these persons subsists within the unity of the Godhead. And since that divine essence in which all three share must be underived (a se) if it is to be truly divine, we are thereby forced to conclude that all three hypostases share in that quality of aseity. But on the other hand, we must avoid saying that they have that quality of aseity independently of the others. Otherwise we are committed to three, independently a se, divine beings. Thus we say that they share in the quality of aseity, just as they share in the one undivided divine essence.

But the mode of that sharing is eternal generation for the Son and eternal spiration for the Spirit. It would appear to be unavoidable, therefore, to assert the paradoxical notion of a divine person whose derived deity partakes of the quality of being underived! The Son's divine essence is not from himself, yet that essence is not from another essence but from the Father, such that the Son's essence is a se and from the Father at the same time. Hence, the Son derives the divine attribute of inderivity (aseity) from the Father! May I remind you that this odd language is strikingly similar to the teaching of Jesus himself, "Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself" (John 5:26). Recall my appeal to John 8:28f against Calvin's argument. I noted that the claim "I AM" is found in a context that emphasizes the Son's submission to the Father. Once again, then, we see that there is no ultimate conflict between the two ideas: it is precisely because the Son does and says nothing on his own initiative (i.e., because he is totally dependent on his Father) that he can claim aseity. The Son is God-of-himself because he is the only begotten God.

Note, however, that we do not have a formal contradiction, because derive is being used in two different senses. When we affirm that the Son is derivative, we refer to the communication of divine essence from the Father to the Son in the act of eternal generation. When we deny that the Son is derivative, we are claiming that the divine essence as possessed by the Son is not derivative from any other essence outside itself.

This is Turretin's solution. Even if a residual feeling of discomfort remains, I can't see any other way of reconciling the two doctrines of eternal generation and the autotheotes of the Son that remains faithful to the total teaching of Scripture on this subject.

If Calvin's view that the generation of the Son involved only the communication of personal properties is correct, then it would be fair to ask, "What are those personal properties?" He certainly would not be able to use the language of the Westminster Larger Catechism: "It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity" (WLC # 10). But were Calvin to attempt to find any other language that would distinguish the three persons, he would be going beyond Scripture. Therefore, it is necessary for us to affirm that the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit involve the communication of the divine essence. The mode of communication (generation or procession) is the only characteristic that is proper to each person. As to the difficult question of what constitutes the difference between generation and procession, I would rest content with saying that generation is from the Father, while procession is from the Father and the Son (filioque). To go beyond that is to go beyond Scripture.

Having looked at the exegetical and theological justification of the doctrine of eternal generation, we return to the thought with which we began. Eternal generation, far from detracting from the Son's ontological equality with the Father, actually provides its most profound logical ground. The original Creed of Nicea (325) appeals to the Johannine monogenes in support of the Son's consubsantiality with the Father:

And [I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father …

The key sentence here is "begotten of the Father as only begotten." It is clear that monogenes is a precision further defining gennethenta, which clearly implies that the framers of the creed interpreted the Johannine monogenes in the traditional sense as deriving from gennao. [12] But, what is more, the word order of the Creed of Nicaea (which is not reflected in the revision of 381 at the Council of Constantinople) undeniably indicates that the fathers at Nicaea understood this generation of the Son to involve a communication of the divine essence, for the very next clause reads, "that is, of the ousia of the Father, God of God, etc." Therefore, the fathers of Nicea seem to have believed that the biblical teaching regarding the generation of the Son (as indicated by the term monogenes) was powerful evidence that he is homoousios with the Father!

John 1:18, which speaks of Christ as "the only begotten God," strongly supports the Nicene position that the Son's being begotten of the Father demonstrates his co-equality and consubstantiality with the Father. Note the context: "No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God, who is in the Father's bosom, has made him known." How is the incarnate Word able to make the invisible God known? Because he is essentially God (cp. Jn 14:7). John expresses the essential, ontological identity of the Father and the Son by calling the Son "the only begotten God."

In fact, it may very well be that John's monogenes theos is the ultimate textual source of the famed homoousion clause. Hilary of Poitiers, though he wrote after the Council, cites John 1:18 in defense of the Nicene terminology:

And so God Only-begotten (monogenes theos), containing in Himself the form and image of the invisible God, in all things which are properties of God the Father is equal to Him by virtue of the fulness of the true Godhead in Himself. [13]

To conclude, the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, understood as involving the communication of the divine essence, is not only the historic position of the church, but it is a biblical doctrine essential to an orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.


[1] B. B. Warfield, "Calvin's Doctrine of the Trinity," in Calvin and Augustine, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1956), pp. 189-284. Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, n.d.), p. 101. Van Til depends heavily on Warfield's interpretation of Calvin. However, it should be noted that Van Til's position is more radical than Calvin's.

[2] Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis 84.

[3] Dale Moody defends the RSV's translation of monogenes in "God's Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version," Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (Dec. 1953) 213-19. Richard N. Longenecker goes to bat for the NIV in "The One and Only Son," in The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation, ed. K. Barker (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), pp. 119-26.

[4] Those who use etymological considerations to support their revisionist exegesis would do well to remember that arguments from usage are far more relevant than arguments from etymology. James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961). A comprehensive study of the usage of monogenes supports the traditional translation. John V. Dahms, "The Johannine Use of Monogenes Reconsidered," New Testament Studies 29 (1983) 222-32.

[5] For more on the textual variants in John 1:18, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), pp. 169-70.

[6] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Fifth Edition (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1978), p. 244.

[7] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. I (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992), pp. 292-93.

[8] Calvin, Institutes I.xiii.23.

[9] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), p. 467.

[10] Turretin, vol. I, p. 291.

[11] Robert Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), p. 209.

[12] A precision is a word which further defines and interprets another word to which it is in grammatical apposition. Oskar Skarsaune, "A Neglected Detail in the Creed of Nicaea (325)," Vigiliae Christianae 41 (1987) 34-54.

[13] Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate XII.24.