The doctrine of eternal generation is seen throughout the writings of the early church. Why is this the case? For them, eternal generation not only derived from Scripture itself, but it did theological work. It had explanatory power for the critical doctrines of the deity and distinction of the Son.
The concept of eternal generation has fallen on hard times in recent theology. To be sure, it is one of the most difficult concepts in theology to understand and explain. In the modern period, many theologians have questioned its necessity, and even accuracy, for Christian doctrine. For instance, Millard Erikson has written, “The concept is either meaningless or has a tendency to lead to some variety of Arianism.” Likewise, William Lane Craig has written, “For although credally affirmed, the doctrine of the generation of the Son (and the procession of the Spirit) is a relic of Logos Christology which finds virtually no warrant in the biblical text and introduces a subordinationism into the Godhead which anyone who affirms the full deity of Christ ought to find very troubling.” Further, Bruce Ware once argued, “The conceptions of both the ‘eternal begetting of the Son’ and ‘eternal procession of the Spirit’ seem to me highly speculative and not grounded in biblical teaching.” Though he would affirm the idea of generation and procession, Ware once argued that these concepts applied to the incarnation and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost.
What is eternal generation?
Just what is it that these theologians are rejecting? Eternal generation (along with eternal procession) was a concept developed in the early church to explain the relations between the Father, Son, and Spirit against the doctrines of the Arians, who taught that the Son was a created being in time and less than God, the Sabellians, who argued for a kind of modalism where one God takes on various roles, and polytheism, where there are in fact three gods. These early theologians desired to maintain the eternal equality of the Persons while also maintaining the oneness of the Godhead. In the end, they argued that the Son was of the same substance with the Father. This language has been nearly universally adopted by modern theologians, even those who dismiss eternal generation.
So what is eternal generation and what does it do for this doctrine? Essentially, eternal generation is the doctrine that the Son is true Son of the Father by virtue of being from the Father. However, contrary to the doctrine of the Arians, who maintained on this basis that “there was a time when the Son was not,” this is an eternal begetting and not one in time. As Keith Johnson has written, “This doctrine teaches that the Father eternally, necessarily, and incomprehensibly communicates the divine essence to the Son without division or change so that the Son shares an equality of nature with the Father yet is also distinct from the Father.”
This language would become enshrined in the creeds, such as the Caesarean, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds. For example, the Nicene Creed states, “We believe in one God the Father… and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”
What is the problem with this doctrine?
When theologians question eternal generation, they typically level one of two criticisms. First, they argue that the concept itself is incoherent. What does it mean for a divine Being to be generated eternally? When we consider the concept of generation, we cannot help but think creation in time. And yet, this is not how the early church understood this doctrine. They taught that this was true generation, but eternal.
Second, they argue that the concept leads to heretical conclusions. If the Son is generated from the Father, then how does it not follow that he is ontologically, as well as economically, less than the Father? Once again, however, the early church was able to maintain both eternal generation and eternal ontological equality.