The Eternal Generation of the Son – Is it Biblical?

Summary

According to the Bible, the Son has been begotten by the Father. In analogy to how humans beget children, this implies that the Father generated the Son from His being. This further implies that the Son is dependent on and subordinate to the Father.

The theory of Eternal Generation, however, explains “begotten” and “generated” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. Eternal Generation is a key part of the Trinity doctrine.

Key Concepts

Eternal Generation may be summarized into two main concepts:

1. While the idea of begetting or generation implies a creation in time, Eternal Generation proposes that that generation is ‘eternal’, meaning that it is a process with no beginning or end so that the Son is co-eternal with the Father.

2. While the idea of begetting or generation implies that the Son is dependent on His Father for His existence and power, Eternal Generation proposes that that generation is not the result of the Father’s will but “by necessity of nature.” In other words, it is an essential part of what God is. In consequence, the Son is not dependent on the Father but co-equal with Him.

Objections

The objections that can be raised to Eternal Generation include:

No Scriptural Support – The Bible does not attest to a generation that is without beginning or end, or for the notion that this generation is “by necessity of nature.”

Not an act of the Father – If the generation is “by necessity of nature,” and if that nature is shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then it is no longer an act by the Father alone.

Not the generation of the Son – In the Eternal Generation, neither the substance nor the mind or will of the Son is generated because the three ‘Persons’ share one single substance, mind, and will. What is generated is not a Person as envisaged by the Bible, but merely a mode of being.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


The Father generated the Son.

According to the Bible, the Son has been begotten by the Father. In analogy to how humans beget children, this implies that the Father generated the Son from His being:

This is explicitly stated by verses that describe the Son as the only being begotten by the Father (e.g., John 1:14, 18; 3:16). (Many modern translations render monogenēs not as “only-begotten” but as “unique.” However, another article argues that the traditional translation “only-begotten” is correct.)

In support of the concept that the Son was begotten by the Father, the Bible also describes the Son as the “Son of God,” “born of God” (1 John 5:18), and as living “because of the Father” (John 6:57). 

This principle is also indirectly stated by verses that say that the Father gave the Son His being and authority, for example:

        • “To have life in Himself” (John 5:26);
        • “All the fullness of Deity” (Col 2:9; 1:19);
        • “All authority … in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18); and
        • To be worshiped (Phil 2:9-10; Heb 1:6).

Eternal Generation

However, if the Father generated the Son, then the Son is dependent on and subordinate to the Father:

“The language of ‘generation’ suggests that the Son is not equally God, but in some sense comes into being – which is ontological subordinationism.” (Theopedia)

In response, the theory of Eternal Generation explains “begotten” or “generated” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father:

“The church fathers turned to the doctrine of eternal generation … to ensure that the Son is understood to be equal with the Father.” (Tabletalk)

“The eternal generation of the Son must be understood to mean that the Father did not bring the Son into existence, which would deny the full immutability and deity of the Son.” (Carm.org)

As such, Eternal Generation is a key part of the Trinity doctrine:

“This doctrine, along with the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit, form the basis for the complete doctrine of the Trinity.” (GotQuestions)

“One of the most essential doctrines for a Christian understanding of the Trinity is eternal generation.” (Tabletalk)

Definition

I will use Hodge’s definition of Eternal Generation as the basis for this discussion:

      1. “An eternal, personal act of the Father,
      2. wherein, by necessity of nature, not by choice of will,
      3. He generates the person (not the essence) of the Son, by communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead,
      4. without division, alienation, or change,
      5. so that the Son is the express image of His Father’s person,
      6. and eternally continues,
      7. not from the Father, but in the Father, and the Father in the Son.”
        (A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 182.)

This definition is used by both Theopedia and Carm.org.

GotQuestions summarizes this definition into three main points:

“The doctrine of eternal generation essentially teaches that God the Father eternally and by necessity generates or begets God the Son in such a way that the substance (divine essence) of God is not divided.”

I would like to discuss this definition under the following headings:

      1. Continues Eternally
      2. Personal Act of the Father
      3. Generates the Son
      4. Without Division, Alienation, or Change.
      5. The Express Image of His Father.
      6. Scriptural Support
      7. Conclusions

1. Continues Eternally

Hodge’s definition says that it is an “eternal” act that “eternally continues.” In other words, it is a process without beginning or end. GotQuestions says, for example:

“There was no beginning, nor will there be an end to the generation of the Son from the Father.”

Scriptural Support

So, where we would find this in the Bible? The Bible does describe the Son as the One through whom God created all things (e.g., Heb 1:2), “the Beginning of the creation of God” (Rev 3:14), and as “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17). We can conclude that the Son has ‘always’ existed.

On the other hand, if the Father generated the Son, then the Father alone is the Ultimate Reality, alone exists without cause, and preceded the Son in existence.

The fourth-century Arians used to reconcile these concepts by arguing that the Father exists outside our time-bound universe and has begotten the Son in that timeless infinity. Therefore, from the perspective of beings existing within time, the Son has always existed, but from God’s perspective, so to speak, the Father pre-existed the Son.

But there is no support in the Bible for the idea that the generation of the Son is a never-ending process.

Need for this Teaching

GotQuestions explains:

“The idea of begetting or generation implies a creation in time … (but) the qualifier ‘eternal’ removes this relationship from the constraints of time and space; there was no beginning, nor will there be an end to the generation of the Son from the Father.”

In other words, this teaching is required to describe the Son as co-eternal with the Father, meaning that He has always existed along with the Father, even in the timeless infinity beyond time.

2. Personal Act of the Father

Hodge’s definition says that the Son’s generation is the “personal act of the Father,” which is entirely Biblical, but then it contradicts that same statement by saying that it is “by necessity of nature, not by choice of will.” To explain:

Firstly, if it is “by necessity of nature,” so that there is no intention or personal purpose involved, it is no longer a “personal act of the Father.”

Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Son is, in all respects, co-equal and co-eternal to the Father. But, to avoid the criticism that it teaches two or three Gods, it argues that the three Persons (Realities) share one single being and “nature” with one single will and mind. Since there is but one “nature,” if it is “by necessity of nature,” it is the being of God that generates the Son; not the Father.

To explain this slightly differently, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit are “not three parts of God” (Theopedia) but each of them is the entire God Almighty. So, how can the Son be excluded from generating Himself if He is the entire God? It can only be done by a verbal denial, but verbal denials are meaningless if the substance of the thing contradicts such denials.

Need for this Teaching

GotQuestions explains why the Trinity doctrine denies that the begetting of the Son is “by choice of will:”

“The idea of begetting or generation … implies an ontological dependence … (but) the qualifier ‘necessarily’ removes any ontological dependence between the Father and the Son; the Son must be generated from the Father and the Father must generate the Son.”

In other words, if it is “by choice of will,” then the Father empowers or upholds the Son, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father for His existence and power and, therefore, subordinate to the Father, something which the New Testament continually asserts but the Trinity doctrine denies. As Carm.Org explains, in Eternal Generation:

“Neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit is dependent upon the Father … for existence” 

3. Generates the Son

The Bible says that the Father has begotten the Son. By implication, the Father has generated the entire being of the Son. In contrast, Hodge’s definition says that the Father “generates the person (not the essence) of the Son.” To explain this, the definition adds:

“By communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead.”

To appreciate what this means one must realize that, in the Trinity doctrine, the Persons are not “persons” in the usual sense of the word because each does not have His own mind or will. For that reason, scholars prefer to refer to hypostases or Realities, rather than to ‘Persons’.

But the point, for our discussion, is that, while the Bible teaches that the Father has begotten (generated) the Son, in the theory of Eternal Generation, the Father generates merely a mode of being; not a Person with His own mind and will.

“The eternal generation of the Son must be understood to mean that the Father did not bring the Son into existence, which would deny the full immutability and deity of the Son.” (Carm.org)

Trinitarians will object that the term “mode of being” equates the Trinity doctrine to Modalism but, if we go beyond verbal denials, it is very difficult to see the difference. See – What is the difference between the Trinity doctrine and Modalism? Note also that Basil of Caesarea, in the years 360-380, was “decisively influential in bringing about the final form of the doctrine of the Trinity” (RH, 676)1Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 198 and he explained a hypostasis as a “mode of subsistence” (RH, 692) or a “mode of being” (LA, 210)2Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004.

4. Without Division, Alienation, or Change

The definition continues and says that the begetting of the Son is “without division, alienation, or change” (in God). In other words, the begetting of the Son, which is so important in the New Testament, does not change anything. This supports the point above that the generation of the Son in the theory of Eternal Generation is not the begetting of the Son envisaged by the New Testament.

5. The express image of His Father

The definition adds that, in consequence of the Son’s begetting, “the Son is the express image of His Father’s person.”

In normal usage, the word “image” implies that the image and the original are different types of things, for example, “a representation of the external form of a person or thing in art”. When the Bible describes the Son as an image of the Father, it also describes them as two different kinds of beings:

In Colossians 1:15, the Son “is the image of the invisible God.” By implication, He is the ‘visible’ image of the invisible God.

In Hebrews 1:3, the Son is “the exact representation of” God’s hypostasis. Hebrews 1:1-3 makes a clear distinction between Him and God and in at least 5 ways describes Him as subordinate to God:

        • He is God’s Son
        • It is God who has spoken to us in His Son.
        • God appointed Him heir of all things.
        • God “made the world” through His Son.
        • He is the radiance of God’s glory.

The point is that Hebrews 1:1-3 describes the Son as very different from the Father.

In both these verses that describe the Son as an image of God, therefore, the Son’s being is different from the Father’s. In contrast, in the Trinity doctrine, the being of the Son is in all respects the same as the Father’s. Both are the entire Almighty God. Therefore, to say that Eternal Generation teaches that the Son is an “image” of the Father distorts how the Bible uses that concept.

6. Scriptural Support

GotQuestions lists a number of verses in support of Eternal Generation. However, not even one of them says that this generation is a never-ending process or that it is an involuntary process. GotQuestions lists the following, to which I add comments:

The Word was God.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Comment: Another article argues that this is better translated as “the Word was LIKE God,” similar to Philippians 2, which said that, before His incarnation, “He existed in the form of God” (Phil 2:6).

Only Son

The Word’s glory is “as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). “God … gave his only Son.” (John 3:16)

Comment: These statements merely support the idea that the Son was generated by the Father.

Made God known

“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)

Comment: This even implies that the substance of the Son is different from the Father’s for, while the Father is invisible, the Son is visible. Colossians 1:15 is a similar verse.

Life in Himself

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” (John 5:26)

Comment: While the Son has received “life” from the Father, the Father has received “life” from no one.

The implication is also that only the Father and Son have “life in himself.”

“How, Augustine asks, did the Son receive “life in himself”? His answer is both simple and profound: the Father “begat” the Son.” (The Gospel Coalition)

This is one of several statements in the Bible indicating that everything the Son has, He has received from the Father, which supports the idea that the Son was generated by the Father and is subordinate to the Father.

I and the Father are one.

“I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:11) “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.” (John 17:21)

Comment: These verses explain themselves: To be “in” another is the same as to be “one” with another. The Father and Son are “one” and “in” one another just like Christians are supposed to be “one” and “in” one another. It does not mean that they are literally one being. For a further discussion, see – I and the Father are one.

Upholds the Universe

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (Hebrews 1:3)

Comment: Read in isolation, this seems to say that the Son upholds the universe by His own power. However, the pronoun “his” is used twice in this quote and four times in Hebrews 1:1-3. In the other instances, “His” always refers to God. Since these verses contrast “God” and “His Son” (Heb 1:1-2), the Son upholds the universe by the word of God’s power.

That does mean that He has existed for as long as this universe has existed. However, God exists beyond this universe. Consequently, there is an incomprehensible infinity beyond our universe about which we know nothing. The Son has been begotten in that infinity. Time, as we know it, is only part of our universe. But if time of some kind exists in that infinity, that the Son exists when this universe was brought into being by no means means that He has ‘always’ existed in the infinity beyond time.

Conclusions

After listing these verses, Gotquestions vaguely concludes that “these verses … suggest that the relationship between Father and Son is one that has existed for all eternity and that the relationship depicts one of ontological equality.” In my view, neither of these points have even remotely been proven.

7. Conclusions

Contradicts the Bible

The Bible is clear that the Father generated the Son and that the Son is subordinate to the Father but the theory of Eternal Generation attempts to explain “begotten” in such a way that the Son is independent from and equal to the Father.

Human Speculation

As the discussion above shows, Eternal Generation is largely based on extra-Biblical speculation. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deut 29:29) but theologians insist on explaining the unexplainable. The theory of the Eternal Generation reveals the arrogance of man.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 198
  • 2
    Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ignatius of Antioch described the Son as our God.

This is an article in the series on the historical development of the Trinity doctrine.

These first articles discuss the views of the church fathers in the first three centuries:

    • Were they Trinitarians?
    • Did they think of God as One Being but three Persons?

Previous articles discussed the views of Polycarp and Justin Martyr. The current article reflects the thoughts of Ignatius of Antioch (died 98/117). All three of them were killed for their faith.

Triadic Passages

A Triadic passage is one in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mentioned together. A famous example is Matthew 28:29:

“Baptizing them in the name of
the Father
and the Son
and the Holy Spirit”

Ignatius also mentioned the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together in a single sentence:

“In Christ Jesus our Lord,
by whom and with whom be glory and power
to the Father
with the Holy Spirit for ever” (n. 7; PG 5.988).

However, just mentioning them together does not mean that they are one Being or that they are equal. It only means that they are related. Take for example:

“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God” (Eph 4:5)

Here, Paul mentions the Son as “Lord” and the Father as “God.” But he does not mention the Holy Spirit. He adds “faith” and “baptism.” This does not mean that these four are equal or one and the same. It only means that they belong together.

The Father alone is God.

That that triadic passage does not mean that the Persons of the Trinity are equal can be seen when Ignatius identifies the Father alone as God:

Thou art in error when thou callest
the daemons of the nations gods.
For there is but one God,
who made heaven, and earth, and the sea,
and all that are in them;
and one Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
whose kingdom may I enjoy. (Martyrdom of Ignatius 2)

Here, Ignatius refers to “gods,” “God,” and Jesus Christ. And he adds the word “one” before “God” and before “Jesus Christ.” This is similar to 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, which reads:

“Even if there are so-called gods
whether in heaven or on earth …
yet for us there is but one God, the Father,
from whom are all things and we exist for Him;
and one Lord, Jesus Christ,
by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.”

Both these statements explicitly identify the “one God” as someone distinct from the one Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the Father alone is the “one God.”

The Only True God

Ignatius further wrote:

There is only one true GodBut our Physician is
the only true God,
the unbegotten
and unapproachable,
the Lord of all,
the Father and Begetter
of the only-begotten Son

We have also as a Physician
the Lord our God Jesus the Christ1Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975 rpt., Vol. 1, p. 52, Ephesians 7.

The following discusses specific phrases from this quote:

Unbegotten

Ignatius describes the Father as “unbegotten” in contrast to the Son who is “begotten.” The ancients created the term “unbegotten” to indicate that the Father alone exists without a cause. See, for example, the Long Lines Creed. The Son received His existence from the Father. 

Unapproachable

Ignatius also describes the Father as “unapproachable.” 1 Timothy 6:16 similarly says that the Father “alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” His unapproachability is related to His invisibility. The Bible often states that God is invisible. For example:

“His beloved Son … is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:14-15).

Since the Son is both visible and approachable, He is not that “invisible” and “unapproachable” God.

Our God, Jesus the Christ

Ignatius describes the Son as “our God.” Trinitarians use such phrases to argue that the church fathers did believe that Jesus is God. Since many writers in the first 300 years referred to Jesus as “our god,” this is discussed in the article, Jesus, our god.

In summary, the ancient Greek language did not have a word exactly equivalent to the modern English word “God:”

In modern English, we use the word “God” as the proper name for the Ultimate Reality; for the One who exists without cause.

The ancients Greeks did not have such a word. They only had the word “god” (theos). This word was used for the Greek Pantheon, the gods of the nations, as well as for the One who exists without cause. Therefore, whether to translate theos as “God” or “god” depends on the context.

According to the translation above, Ignatius (and other church fathers) described Jesus as “our God” and the Father as “the only true God:”

The phrase “only true God” comes from John 17:3, where it describes the Father. This phrase is somewhat illogical because only one God (one Ultimate Reality) exists. The phrase is saying, similar to 1 Corinthians 8:6, that many gods exist but only one of them is truly “god.” So, to reflect the true meaning of the Greek, it might have been appropriate to translate it as “only true god.”

Similarly, the Greek says that the Son is “our god.” To translate theos, when it describes the Son, as “God,” is an application of the Trinity doctrine. It must not be taken as proof of that doctrine.

Basically, the Greek word “theos” means an immortal being with supernatural powers. That description certainly fits the One we know as Jesus Christ. For that reason, and since these church fathers maintained a strict distinction between the Almighty and Jesus Christ, they referred to Jesus as “our theos” as opposed to the “one true theos.” In that instance, “our theos” is better translated as “our god.”

For a further discussion, see – When referring to Jesus, how should theos be translated?

Incarnation

Ignatius continues to describe the Son:

The only-begotten Son and Word,
before time began,

but who afterward became also man, of Mary the virgin.
For ‘the Word was made flesh.’

Being incorporeal, He was in the body;
Being impassible, He was in a passible body;
Being immortal, He was in a mortal body;
Being life, He became subject to corruption,
that He might free our souls from death and corruption,
and heal them, and might restore them to health,
when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.2Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975 rpt., Vol. 1, p. 52, Ephesians 7.

Specific phrases from this quote are discussed below:

Before time began

Ignatius says that the Son was begotten “before time began.” That means that the Son has ‘always’ existed; that He existed as long as time existed.

The ancients assumed, based mostly on Plato’s philosophy, that time began when all things were created. Outside time, there exists a timeless infinity, for God exists outside time. The Father begat the Son in that incomprehensible infinity beyond time. If we use the word “before” metaphysically (not in a literal time sense), then we can say that the Father existed “before” the Son. However, from the perspective of creation, the Father and Son are co-existent.

Afterward became also man

Not all Christians believe that Jesus existed before He became a human being. See, for instance, Dr. Tuggy’s Case Against Preexistence. But, with exceptions, the ancients did believe in Christ’s pre-existence.

Incorporeal

According to Ignatius, before the Son became a human being, He was incorporeal (intangible). This seems like speculation. Where does the Bible say this? He is the perfect image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). Does that not mean that He is visible?

Impassible

Ignatius also said that the Son, before He became a human being, was impassible (incapable of suffering or feeling pain). “Impassibility” is a concept from Greek philosophy and also seems to be speculation when applied to the God of the Bible or to the pre-existent Jesus Christ.

In Greek philosophy, only the High God is impassible. To say that the Son is also impassible puts a very high view on Him.

Ignatius is here consistent with the Nicene Creed of 325. That Creed condemns “those who say (that the Son) is alterable or changeable.” This shows the influence of philosophy on that Creed.

Immortal

The statement that the Son was immortal seems to contradict the Biblical statement that the Father “alone possesses immortality” (1 Tim 6:16).  However, there are two kinds of immortality:

Only the Father exists without cause and is therefore essentially (unconditionally) immortal.

The Son received His immortality from the One who exists without cause. Even created beings will become immortal “when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:54). But this remains conditional immortality. We will be immortal, not because we cannot die, but because God will not allow us to die.

Human souls, therefore, are not essentially immortal. Souls can die. “Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). The immortality of human beings will always be conditional.

Being Life

The description of the Son as “being life” is perhaps explained by John 5:26:

“Just as the Father has life in Himself,
even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself.”

On the one hand, it means that, just like He received His existence from the Father, He also received “life in Himself” from the Father. Since the Father is the only Being who exists without cause, all other beings, including His only-begotten Son, are subordinate to Him.

On the other hand, there are only two Beings who have “life in Himself.” This testifies to a uniquely close relationship and makes the Son very similar to God. Again, He is the perfect (but visible?) image of the invisible God (Col 1:15).

Physician

Ignatius described both the Father and the Son as physicians. He also describes the sinner as “diseased” and God’s aim as to “heal … restore … to health.” “Physician” is a most appropriate description of God’s attitude towards sinners: He is not an independent Judge, but a passionate Father (or Mother, for those of us who did not experience a loving father).

CONCLUSIONS

Ignatius condemned to death by Trajan

For Ignatius, the Father is “the only true God” and the only Being who exists without a cause. He distinguished between the “one God” and the “one Jesus Christ.”

According to the English translation, he described Jesus Christ as “our God.” However, the phrase “our God” is an interpretation. The Greek text simply says “our god.” To translate it as “our God” is an application of the Trinity doctrine; not proof thereof.

On the other hand, Ignatius did say that the Son was begotten “before time began.” That means that the Son has ‘always’ existed; that He existed as long as time existed.

There is also no evidence in the quotes above that Ignatius thought of the Holy Spirit as a self-aware Person, or that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of one substance or one Being, as per the Trinity doctrine.


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975 rpt., Vol. 1, p. 52, Ephesians 7.
  • 2
    Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The ante-Nicene Fathers, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975 rpt., Vol. 1, p. 52, Ephesians 7.