Eternal Generation and “Monogenēs”

The doctrine of eternal generation does not stand or fall with how one translates “monogenēs.” Although Lee Irons has helpfully argued that the term probably had the connotation of “only begotten” in the fourth century and in the NT, this only gets us so far regarding classic Trinitarianism. Evangelicals who previously cast doubts upon eternal generation now seem eager to affirm it based on Irons’ lexicographical argument. While I am glad to see this shift, there are still a number of problems with the rationale given for such a change.

  1. Shifting one’s belief in eternal generation based on the translation of one word and/or the exegesis of one passage betrays methodological issues. While we should be ready to affirm any doctrine that is clearly taught in a particular passage or even by a particular word, this is often not how dogmatics works. A good theological method does not merely compile verses isolated from their context or other theological affirmations in Scripture. For a doctrine to be biblical, a whole host of other considerations are required. These include the exegesis of particular passages, the canonical context of each verse identified, and logical and dogmatic considerations of possible theological conclusions.
  2. Arius also affirmed that “monogenēs” means “only begotten.” Simply affirming that “monogenēs” means “only begotten” is the baseline not for affirming classic Trinitiarianism for what gave rise to the Nicene controversy in the first place. The Nicene debates were in many ways about what “only begotten” means, not the definition of a particular Greek word. Further, “monogenēs” itself was not necessarily the center of the exegetical debates; Proverbs 8:22, 25 functions much more prominently in many cases.
  3. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stood or fell with the translation of “monogenēs,” or the exegesis of passages that contain it. Because of the diversity of passages that Arius, Eunomius, and others cited in support of their position, the pro-Nicene exegetical arguments also ranged widely throughout Scripture. There was certainly focus on a few passages – Proverbs 8, John 5:26, and 1 Cor. 15:26 come to mind – but “monogenēs” itself, and the passages where it is found, comes up infrequently by contrast. This is because, again, the doctrine of eternal generation is not simply an affirmation that “monogenēs” means “only begotten,” but rather an exploration of what Scripture means by “begotten.” “Monogenēs” cannot answer that question by itself. In other words, eternal generation is not a doctrine that is summed up by the translation “only begotten.”
  4. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stands in isolation from classic Trinitarianism. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply affirm bits and pieces of classic Trinitarianism in isolation from consideration of the whole. Eternal generation is tied up with (of course) the broader articulation of the eternal relations of origin, but also with simplicity, aseity, appropriation, inseparable operations, and a whole host of other dogmatic affirmations. While some evangelicals may not have cast doubt upon these corollaries, there are those who have questioned eternal generation while also questioning other pieces of the fabric of classic Christian theism.
  5. Eternal generation does not fit with ERAS. This point is basically the negative side of the previous one. Some evangelicals appear to think they can have their ERAS cake and eat eternal generation, too. But this simply doesn’t work, not only for biblical reasons but also for dogmatic ones.

I am glad that there are evangelicals who want to shift on eternal generation. But for these reasons I think it will take a much more systematic reorientation of their doctrine of God to do so.

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