A Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

In a previous post I argued that biblically rooted and informed doctrine begins with exegesis, pays attention to patterns of biblical language, and is narratively shaped. The question that surrounds that post and peeks through the white spaces in between the words is whether or not the traditional doctrine of the Trinity is biblical. And the context of that question is of course the question of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS), alternatively called Eternal Submission of the Son (ESS) and Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission (ERAS). (Even though EFS was the original terminology, I will stick with ERAS and ESS in this post given some of the recent arguments for moving away from “subordination” language among proponents of this view.) While some proponents of ERAS, including Wayne Grudem, would cast serious doubt upon the traditional doctrines of eternal generation (EG) and eternal procession (EP), and thus replace it with ERAS, others affirm the traditional relations of origin while also affirming ERAS.

David Yeago and “Patterns of Biblical Language”


The Nicene Creed. Image from Wikimedia



Given these two camps of ERAS proponents, I have one goal in this post with two different applications, one per ERAS view. My aim here is to articulate a biblical argument for the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, with particular focus on the doctrines of eternal generation and eternal procession. I hope to thereby, and in the first place, answer objections that EG/EP are not “biblical” through making a biblical argument for EG/EP. This argument will rely particularly on David Yeago’s argument in “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” that the Nicene Trinitarian formulations were “biblical” in the sense that they used appropriate conceptual terms (e.g. “homoousios”) to render accurate judgments about patterns of biblical language in Scripture. So, while “homoousios” is not found in Scripture, it does accurately judge the patterns of Scripture’s language that speak about Father, Son, and Spirit as God and as one God. Given this biblical defense of EG/EP, there is therefore no need for ERAS as a replacement doctrine that explains how God can be one God who exists in three persons. EG/EP can do and always has done that work in Trinitarian formulations. The second aim is perhaps more ambitious; I want to show that, in Yeago-ian terms, the patterns of biblical language point us away from ERAS, not toward it.

In other words, I want to use Yeago’s model to argue not only for our continued confession that that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Spirit eternally processed from Father and Son (yes, I’m Western), but also that ERAS is not a biblically warranted addition to an affirmation of EG/EP. I should also note that neither of these aims is accomplished through exegeting individual texts in an isolated fashion. Neither EG/EP nor ERAS have proof-texts, texts that we can undoubtedly point to as proof positives for those doctrines. So, contra Owen Strachan, 1 Cor. 11:3 is not a supporting text for ERAS; there is no textual warrant in that particular text for saying that “Christ” has no temporal marker and then from there concluding that the Son’s submissive relation to the Father is eternal. Rather, we must read particular texts in light of the narrative shape of Scripture and the patterns of language used throughout that economy. One final introductory matter is in order: I will have to do just a bit of Trinitarian legwork to begin, in order to demonstrate what I mean by “patterns” and “economy” and so forth. But most of my time will be spent on EG/EP and ERAS.

A Brief Overview of Trinitarian Formulation in the Early Church

We begin where the early church theologians began: how do we make sense of the fact that, in Scripture, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all spoken of in one sense or another as “God,” “Lord,” etc.? Further, how do we make sense of it in light of Israel’s foundational claim that “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6:4)? The early church asked these questions because they noticed patterns of language that forced them to wrestle with them. For instance, as Matthew Bates has argued in his recent The Birth of the Trinity (Oxford, 2015), the early church interpreters, as part of the ancient world and its pedagogical milieu, were accustomed to utilizing prosopological exegesis. This approach sought to identify the various voices in particular texts. When the early church theologians came to such texts as Psalm 110 or Psalm 39 (LXX) and saw different persons, both identified as God either in the text or elsewhere in Scripture via intertextual links, speaking to one another as God, they had to wrestle with the fact that multiple (namely three) persons were all identified as God and speaking to one another in an intra-divine dialogue. Another important pattern is identified by Wesley Hill in his recent Paul and the Trinity (Eerdmans, 2015); he argues that early Trinitarian formulations were spurred on in large part by the relational way in which Paul talks about Father, Son, and Spirit. In Paul’s letters, and particularly in Phil. 2:5–11; 1 Cor. 8:6; and 1 Cor. 15:24–28, Hill notes that the Father is Father precisely because he has the Son, and both have this relation to one another because of the Spirit. In other words, each exists as God because of their relations to one another.

There are other patterns we could note here: Father, Son, and Spirit are each called by the same names and referred to with the same titles in Scripture (e.g. “Lord,” “Creator,” etc.; see, for instance, Basil, “On the Holy Spirit,” 8.17; Nyssan, “Ad Ablabius” and “On the Holy Trinity”); they each are described as acting in ways only God acts (see on this Richard Bauckham, “God Crucified”); and they are all three referenced in divine action in Christian worship, particularly in baptism (e.g. Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 18.41). Further, the early church saw that there was a vast chasm between Creator and creature, and so, contra the Arians etc., there could be no space for a mediatorial demigod (see e.g. Nazianzen, “Third Theological Oration,” 4).


The Cappadocians. Image from bktheologian.wordpress.com.


The Son and the Spirit were either God or a creature, and, because of those other patterns of language, it was clear to the Fathers that biblically speaking, the Son and the Spirit, along with the Father, are God. One final piece is necessary here before moving on to EG/EP. The Arians, Eunomians, etc., posited that the Son was not God because he was spoken of as subordinate to the Father in texts such as John 4:24 (“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me.”) The pro-Nicenes, however, argued that these texts spoke of the Son within the economy of redemption. Scripture has a particular shape to it, a shape that centers on the incarnation of God in the person of the Son, and when it speaks of the Son as subordinate to the Father it does so only in an economic sense, i.e. only with reference to his taking on human flesh. For the pro-Nicenes, they saw the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified because they shared the same essence, an essence that included one will. For the anti-Nicenes, they saw Father, Son, and Holy Spirit unified via relations of authority and unity of wills. They posited three distinct wills and subordination of the Son to the Father from eternity (see on this point Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea).

The Place of Eternal Generation and Its Biblical Warrant

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then, are one God subsisting in three persons. They share one essence (and, by implication, one will). How then do we retain both of these biblically based affirmations? The pro-Nicenes’ answer was EG/EP. The distinction between Father and Son is not in authority or being, as the anti-Nicenes posited, but in the manner in which they subsist in the divine essence. The Father, unbegotten, begets the Son eternally (without time; it doesn’t stop and it doesn’t start). They saw that Scripture speaks of the Son being generated from the Father and the Spirit processing from the Father and the Son. Since this is running long and will run longer I’ll focus on EG here; texts such as Proverbs 8 and John 5:26 were key. Proverbs 8 has come under fire in recent scholarship as a text that does not teach EG, and, because EG is in many ways dependent upon Proverbs 8, therefore many reject EG based on this understanding of Proverbs 8. I hope to have an essay out soon in an edited monograph on EG regarding precisely this text; in the meantime, I will simply say that the pro-Nicenes had much more compelling exegesis than we often given them credit. For instance, they argued that the Son is God’s Wisdom, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, and so it makes no sense for there to be another personified wisdom in Proverbs 8 that creates with the Father. Proverbs 8, and particularly vv. 22 and 25, must be speaking of the Son (on this particular point, see Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 2.5). How do we account for Proverbs 8 and its language about the Son, then? Well, for the pro-Nicenes, via EG on the one hand and the economy on the other. (This is admittedly a complicated issue; the early church disagreed on how exactly to interpret Proverbs 8. They tended to agree, however, that some of it spoke to incarnation and some to eternal generation. See, for instance, Athanasius, “Against the Arians,” 20-22; Nazianzen, “Third Theological Oration,” 13; Nyssan, “Against Eunomius,” I.22).

Further, even beyond these particular texts, they saw that the scriptural pattern of speaking about the relations of the first and second persons of the Trinity are inherently related to generation. “Father” and “Son” are relational terms. If it means anything to be a son, it means to come from one’s father. This pattern of biblical language informed the pro-Nicenes not only about the Son’s divine nature but also about the manner of his divinity. Because he is the Father’s Son, his subsistence in the divine nature is communicated from the Father to the Son (Nazianzen, “Fifth Theological Oration,” 9). This is a thoroughly biblical affirmation, not only in that it exegetes particular texts but also in that it pays attention to patterns of biblical language. While this is not a thorough going defense of EG, I think it is enough to suggest that, rather than casting doubt upon EG, the biblical data actually provides us reason to affirm it, or at least pursue further understanding with a hermeneutic of trust rather than one of suspicion.

Against Eternal Submission

Now to my second aim: how does Yeago’s schema help us not just with defending EG but with defeating ERAS? Here I would posit three lines of argument. First, I’d say that many defenses of ERAS rely on a number of individual texts, exegeted individually. So, the argument goes, John 6:38 says the Father sent the Son, 1 Cor. 11:3 says that God is the head of Christ, and 1 Cor. 15:28 says that the Son will submit his kingdom to the Father. But a handful of texts does not a theological method make. How are these texts speaking of the Son? Is it in his humanity or his divinity? This decision is not and cannot be made via the most rigorous exegetical method, if that method excludes canonical, narrative, and dogmatic considerations.

Particularly important here is the pro-Nicenes’ economic understanding of Scripture; when a text speaks about the Son’s submission, it is talking about his incarnation. The pattern they saw in this regard is made explicit in Phil. 2:5–11. The Son, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be clutched, and so took the form of a servant. He became a servant in the incarnation, not before it (see Nazianzen, “Fourth Theological Oration,” 6). In other words, the pattern of Scripture is to speak of the Son’s submission only with reference to his incarnation, and this pattern is made explicit in the narrative of Phil. 2:5-11. Notice that Phil. 2 is not a prooftext for this notion of the economy of Scripture; rather, the whole of Scripture centers on the incarnation, and the life of the Son is spoken of in different terms with respect prior to and during or after the incarnation. Phil. 2 provides the explicit verse for that pattern, but the pattern is noticeable in abundant other places in Scripture. Thus to conclude that the texts cited in defense of ERAS – 1 Cor. 11:3; 1 Cor. 15:28, etc. – are about anything other than the Son’s incarnation would be to go against this pattern. Grudem concludes his less-than-two-page appendix, in which he casts doubt upon EG, the lynchpin of Nicene orthodoxy, by stating that while there is no biblical evidence to deny EG, there is also not much to support it either. The shoe is actually on the other foot. There is much biblical evidence to support EG, and very little, if any, to support ERAS.

Second, when we come to texts that seem to affirm ERAS, given, at the very least, the ambiguity surrounding those texts and whether they do in fact teach ERAS, we need to ask about the implications of such a view. I’ve already written about this in a previous post so I’ll make this brief: ERAS seems to require three wills in the Godhead, for how can one person submit to another without two distinct wills? This in turn questions the unity of God and his actions. And so on and so forth. (Luke has also already addressed the will issue.) Third, one must again ask about the patterns of biblical language. Some ERAS proponents point toward Father/Son language as necessarily entailing submission. But, as the pro-Nicenes noted, authority and submission is not always true of a Father/Son relationship. The only aspect of that kind of relation that remains constant is generation. Given the ambiguity surrounding a few select texts used to support ERAS, the implications of such a view, and the fact that the patterns of language do not support ERAS, it is hard to conclude that this view has biblical support. I should add, as a final point, there are those who would argue for ERAS based not necessarily on any particular text but on the relationship between the ad extra and ad intra. This post is already much too lengthy so I will have to articulate my argument about that in another post. Suffice it to say that I think the statement “the missions follow but are not equal to the processions” answers this objection, effectively tying together ad extra and ad intra without conflating the two. I will have more to say on this, and on what the pro-Nicenes had to say about the taxis, or ordering, among the persons of the Trinity in a later post.



24 thoughts on “A Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

  1. What do you think of Swain and Allen’s treatment of John 5 in their article on the obedience of the eternal Son? In particular, I would be curious as to what you think of their section in response to Calvin on the passage.

  2. Would an irreversible taxis that is expressed in the fittingness of the Son becoming incarnate be sufficient for the points complementarians want to make? The Son eternally proceeds from the Father and not vice versa; the Son is sent from the Father and not vice versa. Do complementarians need more than this? I intend this as a genuine question.

  3. Sorry, I was unclear. I intended to wonder out loud whether complementarians could still appeal to the Trinity in some way with only ad intra processions and ad extra missions.

    Incidentally, on the will thing, I believe Swain and Allen suggest that just as the Son eternally proceeds from the Father so the manner in which the Son holds the one indivisible will with the Father (i.e. from the Father).

    • Hi Keith, I’d say 1 Cor. 11:3 does give warrant to appealing to Trinitarian relations for complementarianism, but only to economic, and not immanent, relations.

      Yes, Swain and Allen are very helpful on any number of topics, but especially here.

      • Fair enough, I have often wondered why complementarians need the immanent relations point to use 1 Cor 11:3. It has seemed to me they could concede that God is the head of Christ is the consequence of incarnation but still make the point about complementarianism.

        Though if procession makes it fitting that it was the Son who was sent ( not vice versa) into an incarnate state where God is head, it seems to me that it can’t be completely a matter of economic vs. immanent. In other words, even if God as head of Christ is not immanent, it is fitting–and that does say something about the immanent. God as head of Christ is an incarnate expression of an immanent taxis, even if the two shouldn’t be identified strictly.

  4. Matt, again, I fear that you are presenting “Nicene Orthodoxy” as if it is monolithic. I understand a blog is not a dissertation, and for the sake of brevity we are sometimes forced to be functionally-reductionistic. However, as you are well-aware, the language of “cause” and “greater” was abandoned by post-Nicaean fathers because it wreaked of Subordinationism , and led to many instances of it after (e.g. Barth’s commentary on the Nicene Creed in Church Dogmatics). Those, like Calvin, who struggled with the patristic proof texts utilized for the formulation of EG, did so on the grounds of fast and loose exegesis, and a host of “exegetical fallacies.” Of course, Calvin was not alone in his reticence to affirm the patristic formula “God from God” (See Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, Warfield, Murray, Frame, Helm, and Oliphint). If one wants to argue, as Basil did, that the doctrine of eternal generation is based on “reflections” on the biblical datum, then that is a seperate issue.

    My pushback on EG, isn’t against the doctrine—as I find it most necessary and biblical—but on what one means when he or she affirms it. And in my estimation, EG/P as a communication of essence is certainly unbiblical (even according to the biblical pattern). Beza was wrong when he assumed that conferral of Personhood = communication of essence; and the majority of the Reformed followed suit. If you ask me, as Ellis and Oliohint have consistently argued, many in the tradition who are concurrently arguing for autotheos and communication of essence want to have their cake and eat it to. Hence all the confusion on Swain and Allen’s position in their essay on John 5. They try to keep all the plates spinning by means of verbal fiat, but in my estimation, their position is wholly inconsistent.

    I am happy to substantiate my claims when I get to my computer if you would like (currently writing from my phone). But I realize that the comment section of your blog isn’t exactly the best medium for a conversation like this; I just didn’t want to blowup your Twitter feed again 🙂 Blessings, brother.

    • Dave, you’re right – it is a blog. That’s 2300 words on why EG is biblical, and I had to stop there. There are almost innumerable related issues which I could have covered, among those being the issues you raise. But as you noted, it’s a blog, not a dissertation.

      • Let me clarify a bit further – my intention for this post was clearly stated – to use Yeago’s model and patristic sources to provide biblical justification for EG. Your questions concern *how* EG happens and the implications for decisions made about the answer to that issue. These are important questions, but not ones I intended to deal with in this particular post.

        Incidentally, Calvin, 1000 years later, is not the first to ask that question; the Fathers do as well, and provide what I consider satisfying answers. But that’s for another post.

  5. Matt, I’m not sure that those who support eternal submission have constructed that idea based on a handful of proof-texts but instead would see those proof-texts as expressing a deeper underlying concept. A concept that comes from the way the Father and the Son relate to each other.

    Which then raises an interesting question, if we’re being strict about not having three seperate divine wills, having three seperate anything (persons, substances, relations etc) could be construed as problematic, so is there anything robust to distinguish Father from Son?

    [Sorry don’t mean to sound trollish, I really enjoy your podcast Mere Orthodoxy]

    • Hi Luke – I think the simplest way to put this is that the three persons of the one God are just that one God. They share equally in the one divine essence by different modes of subsistence (persons). Multiples of anything else would imply multiple essences. So, say, three wills would imply three natures because wills pertain to natures. Even if you don’t agree with that last bit, separate wills would still imply divided and multiplied action, rather than inseparable operation.

      Luke and I have both written a couple of posts this week if you scroll down on the main page.

      Thanks for commenting!

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  14. So it seems to me that when father/son terminology is used in an analogical or metaphorical way that the generative aspect of that relationship is the first thing to go. For example Joseph was “father to Pharaoh” (a relational rather than generative term). Angels are called sons of God not because God created them (which is certainly true) but because they resemble God in specific ways. The Davidic King was the son of God because he represented God as God’s King on earth. The language in all of these cases is filial but other aspects of filiation are in view than generation (relationship, resemblance, representation). So generation is actually not intrinsic to father/son language when that language is being used metaphorically or analogically.

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