Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? (Part 5) The Nicene Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son
In my previous blogs posts I have cited a little of the biblical and historical evidence for the doctrine called the monarchy of the Father. This doctrine is clearly articulated in the first words of the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” But the real emphasis of the Nicene Creed makes explicit the monarchy of the Father by affirming the eternal generation of the Son. Here are the key words which state it in the second paragraph: “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds light of light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made…”
Perhaps the first order of business for contemporary Christians is to really understand the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. The simplest way to do this is to work through the above statement phrase by phrase.
The Lord Jesus Christ is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father.” This affirms that there is an organic relationship between God the Father and God the Son similar to that of an earthly father-son relationship. Of course, it is not that Scripture and the Nicene Creed borrow the human father-son relationship after the fact to illustrate this Trinitarian relationship. It is rather that the human father-son relationship was created to illustrate this divine relationship in the Trinity. As with all human analogies for the divine, there are limits beyond which this analogy must not be taken. I will mention one of them below. Yet the Nicene Creed stresses that this analogy holds with regard to the point of begotten-ness. The Son is “begotten” of the Father. This means that the person of the Son is somehow derived from the person of the Father and dependent upon it. It also means that this derivation and dependence is filial in character. Or to put it from the standpoint of the Father it is paternal in nature. It is not a bare derivation. Nor is it the same as the relationship of derivation and dependence sustained by the person of the Spirit to the Father and the Son through His eternal procession from Them. Eternal Procession does not create a Father-Son relationship. Eternal generation does.
The immediate objection which students of mine have made to this doctrine over the years is that it implies that the Son is not eternal. They have difficulty putting the concepts of derivation and eternity together. However we may further respond to this natural objection, it is clear that the Nicene Creed had no difficulty in putting these two concepts together. It does so explicitly in the words which follow those we have been discussing: “begotten of the Father before all worlds.” The intent of these words is to stress that the generation of the Son is not temporal (taking place in time), but eternal (taking place before all worlds—the ages of space-time existence.)
Another natural objection to the doctrine of eternal generation which occurs in the minds of many is that this doctrine must mean that the Lord Jesus is not truly, really, and in the highest sense God. The contemporary controversy with the Jehovah’s witnesses and other modern Arians has perhaps led some evangelicals to be suspicious of the historic doctrine of eternal generation. Again the very next words of the creed refute this suspicion. The Lord Jesus, it asserts, is “very God of very God.” Though eternally generated—in fact, for the authors of the Nicene Creed, because he is eternally generated—the Son of God is really and truly God. While this assertion may not fully express the later explicit assertion by Calvin of the “self-existence of the Son,” it certainly prepares the way for it. Sometimes the Nicene Creed has actually been accused of containing remnants of the Subordinationism of some forms of Ante-Nicene Trinitarianism. This remarkable assertion (which implies that Athanasius and his fellows were Subordinationists) is refuted by this phrase.
Eternal generation is also sometimes misunderstood as implying that the Son is created. But this is exactly and precisely what the doctrine does not mean. Because of His eternal generation, and diametrically opposed to the Arian doctrine, the Lord Jesus is “begotten not made.”
The phrase, “being of one substance with the Father,” is probably the most important phrase in the entire creed. It contains the key Greek word, homoousias, which affirms that that the Son possesses the very same being as the Father. This word was at the center of the controversy with the Arians and the Semi-Arians in the fourth century. Against them it affirms that the Son is not merely like (homoios) the Father, nor merely like-essenced (homoiousias) to the Father, but that the Son has the same essence as the Father. It is nonsense to say that the Nicene Creed is guilty of the Subordinationism associated with the Logos Christology of the 2nd and 3rd centuries in light of this assertion.
But the Creed ends this important section by once more affirming that this eternal relationship lies behind the historical relationship of the persons of the Trinity. Because He is the eternally begotten Son of God, it is through or by Him that the Father made the world: “by whom all things were made…” The eternal Son of God is the instrument and means by which God the Father made everything (John 1:3; Col. 1:16-17). He is, thus, subordinate to the Father in the act of creation.