[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Eternal Generation Exegetically Considered
Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church. For introduction to the series, see this first post.
When in the course of theological events Christians have wanted to make their confession of the identity of Jesus Christ clear and definite, they have usually taken recourse to the doctrine of his eternal generation.
The relation between Jesus of Nazareth and the heavenly Father who sent him outstrips the time of the Lord’s earthly life. In fact, that Father-Son relation outstrips time itself, belonging rather to eternity, indeed, to the very nature of God. Before he became the son of Mary (“for us and our salvation,” per the Nicene Creed), Jesus was the Son of God, with an eternal sonship.
Having risen to this great height of confessing eternal sonship, Christian doctrine is delivered from the theological catastrophe of thinking of Jesus as merely a phenomenon of creaturely history. He is not only something God does (as we might describe the works of deliverance wrought through Moses or through angels), but something or someone who God is. Why, we might ask, should we need to go further than this staggering confession of eternal sonship, and take the step of confessing eternal generation? Why has the classic doctrinal tradition considered it wise and necessary to add to the relation of sonship this relation of generation?
There are two reasons. First, eternal generation thickens the metaphor of sonship. And second, eternal generation limits the metaphor of sonship. When we confess the eternal generation of the Son, we guard against making too little of his sonship (that is, we thicken the metaphor) or too much of his sonship (that is, we limit the metaphor).
A Thicker Account of Sonship
It is easy to forget that the history of doctrine has been punctuated by these episodes of conservative demurrals on eternal generation. In the late nineteenth century, William G. T. Shedd noted that “some trinitarians have attempted to hold the doctrine of the Trinity while denying eternal generation, spiration, and procession.” Such theologians are generally recoiling from the speculative sound of those long, latinate words, preferring the short, simple, and directly scriptural words like “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” Shedd is sympathetic to the biblicist worries, with a wise sympathy that shows a dogmatician’s willingness to be called back to the very words of Scripture. His goal, in fact, is to help his less convinced contemporaries see the traditional doctrines clearly at their scriptural source.
“These trinal names Father, Son, and Spirit,” Shedd points out, “force upon the theologian the ideas of paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession.” To accept that God names himself with these proper nouns is already to admit that much is going on behind the nouns. “Whoever accepts the nouns Father, Son, and Spirit as conveying absolute truth must accept also the corresponding adjectives and predicates—beget and begotten, spirate and proceed—as conveying absolute truth.” Especially when we focus on the relation that must obtain between Father and Son, we are able to see that Fathering and Soning is eternally here in God, and we have crossed the frontier into the confession of eternal generation. To say “eternal generation of the Son” is to say “Son of God” and mean it metaphysically. It thickens the revealed metaphor of the Son’s relation to the Father by accepting the implications of the revealed relation.
Limiting the Metaphor
The revealed metaphor of sonship needs this thickening, because if we settle for a conceptually thin sonship, we might find ourselves philosophically restless and apt to draw the wrong conclusions about sonship. An eternal Son might be younger than his Father, after all, or physically derived, or produced through conjunction with a divine Mother, or diminished, or subservient to paternal authority. But none of these things are envisaged by the biblical revelation of divine sonship. What God reveals in revealing this sonship is rather an eternal relation that is, as Gregory of Nazianzus says, “without passion of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner.” This mighty series of negations marks off the meaning of sonship: apathos, achronos, asomatos. The doctrinal shorthand for this is that the generation by which the Son is the Son is eternal.
What conceptual residue does sonship minus time (and body, and passion, and so on) leave us with? It leaves us with identity of essence, just as a human may craft or construct any number of things out of any essence at hand, but begets a son only out of his own essence. That observation, of course, is what the Nicene homoousios draws out and makes explicit. It also leaves us with a relation of fromness, and not the same relation of fromness that constitutes the temporal mission of the Son among us in the incarnation. It confesses a fromness above that missional fromness, a fromness that is the very nature of God when we consider that nature in relation to itself. That observation is what the Nicene “God of God, light of light, very God of very God” draws out and makes explicit. The “of” is the relation of origin, the grammatical genitive of hypostatic generation.
The confession of essential, relational fromness safeguards us from drawing the wrong associative connections from sonship. It brings the revealed metaphor of sonship into line with a handful of other biblical metaphors: Jesus is to the God who sent him as radiance is to glory, as word is to speaker, as wisdom to mind, as image is to that which it images. Early among the pro-Nicenes, Athanasius already showed his awareness that Scripture gives us “such illustrations and such images that, considering the inability of human nature to comprehend God, we might be able to form ideas even from these, however poorly and dimly, and as far as is attainable.”
It is tempting, especially for theologians who earnestly desire to see doctrines clearly and firmly established in Scripture itself, to consider divine sonship as something clear and distinct, but eternal generation as something nebulous and speculative. But eternal generation is the key to taking divine sonship with metaphysical seriousness, and to comprehending what it tells us and doesn’t tell us, about the relation of Jesus Christ to the Father who sent him. Eternal generation is the secret of sonship, and is exegetically crucial for Trinitarian theology.
Fred Sanders (PhD, Graduate Theological Union) is Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California. Author of numerous books on Trinitarian theology, he has most recently written The Triune God in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors
 Gregory Nazianzus, Oration 29.
 Athanasius, Against the Arians 2:32.