Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? (Part 16) The Biblical Support for Eternal Generation: Does Eternal Generation Lead to Arianism?
Millard Erickson has warned that in some way the doctrine of the eternal functional subordination of the Son will lead to Arianism. We have seen that there are clear boundaries which set the Nicene doctrine of eternal generation at odds with all forms of Arianism. Eternal generation is the explicitly the reason that the Son of God is “begotten not created” according to the Creed. The same Creed confesses that Christ is “very God…being of one substance with the Father.” Furthermore, we have seen that much different than Arianism the subordination of the Nicene Creed has to do with personal roles and a Platonic hierarchy of being.
Why does Erickson despite this historical evidence fear Arianism to be the outcome of the theology he opposes? He insists that attributing a kind of authority to the Father and subordination to the Son in the inter-personal working of the Godhead means that the Father has a different attribute of authority than the Son at this point. Frankly, Erickson should know better than to make such a charge. Basic and essential to the entire Trinitarian tradition is the fundamental distinction between the personal properties of the persons of the Godhead with regard to one another and the attributes of the essence of the Godhead in opposition to created reality. The monarchy of the Father and the eternal generation of the Son are personal properties not essential attributes. Nobody claims that the deity of the Son is less sovereign over creation than the deity of the Father. The authority and subordination under discussion has only to do with the interpersonal relationships of the Trinity.
But if eternal generation is in no danger historically of lapsing into Arianism, there is a danger in Erickson’s Egalitarian Trinity. It is the ancient error of Modalism. By Modalism I refer to the doctrine also known as Sabellianism and Patripassianism which teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three roles played by one and the same divine person.
I am not, of course, accusing Erickson of Modalism. But without the personal distinctions signified by the monarchy of the Father, the eternal generation of the Son, and the eternal procession of the Spirit there is no scriptural or other way of distinguishing the three persons of the Trinity from one another. Steve Wellum confirms this:
“As noted above, every orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity must preserve both the unity of God’s nature as well as the threeness of person.In attempting to do so, the church has drawn a distinction between “nature”and “person”with “person”referring to, as Calvin stated it many years ago, “a subsistence in God’s essence, which, while related to the others, is distinguished by an incommunicable quality” (Institutes 1.13.6). This entails that each person of the Godhead has specific properties unique to him that distinguishes him from the others, otherwise modalism would result.”
On Erickson and the Egalitarians view one is left with a triplet Trinity of three neutered persons who are exactly alike so far as we know from Scripture. It does not take any imagination to see how such an inconsequential distinction of three persons would lose significance. It is not far-fetched to think that such an inconsequential and inexplicable distinction between three exactly identical persons would tend directly over time to the error of simply not thinking of a Trinitarian God, but a God not too different from that of the Unitarian God of Modalism!