Let us all reflect for a moment on the dramatic significance of Grudem’s claim about eternal generation. What he is saying is that the church catholic has for over 1600 years been affirming theologically and liturgically, as the key ecumenical summary of its faith, a document – the Nicene Creed – which in one of its core and defining assertions is superfluous or virtually meaningless or confused (or a wax nose which means whatever any Christian chooses). That is surely far more audacious than disagreeing with a selective concatenation of decontextualized quotations from Charles Ryrie and a few other evangelical luminaries.
There are a few strange moments. For example, Grudem quotes Bruce Ware in support of his position. Now, given the fact one of Goligher’s charges is that Grudem and Ware are both wrong on the Trinity, then it is surely no cogent counter argument to claim that ‘No, we must be correct because we agree with each other.’
Grudem also makes a key statement about eternal generation which deserves attention:
‘But just what is meant by “eternal generation”? In what they have written, I cannot discover what they mean. To substitute the words “paternity” and “filiation” provides some Latinized terminology but those terms simply mean “existing as a father” and “existing as a son,” which tells us nothing more. Quite honestly, I find it impossible to say whether or not I agree with “eternal generation” until someone explains, in ordinary English, what he means by it (not just what it does not mean). (If “eternal generation” simply means “an eternal Father-Son relationship,” then I am happy to affirm it.)’
What can I say in response? Well, many Christians struggle with the idea. It is technical and to understand it requires some technical knowledge. But it is one thing as an ordinary Christian to have questions about this and quite another to redefine or reject it as someone who aspires to teach the church as whole on this point. It is that which makes this comment of more moment and concern. The creedal tradition is of course corrigible in light of scripture; but one must first understand that tradition in its fulness and its depth before one declares it to be inadequate or wrong or irrelevant or confusing.
First, a good explanation in ‘ordinary English’ can be found in the translation of Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics II, pp. 308-10. Bear in mind, however, that this is merely a distillation of the church’s teaching through the ages and no substitute for reading more deeply on the subject.
Second, to take ‘eternal generation’ as meaning simply ‘existing as a father’ and ‘existing as a son’ would be an error. Such a view of generation is not even true of the created order. To say that my sons came from me by way of generation is not merely to say that I exist as their father and they exist as my sons; it is to make a causal connection. Nor by way of analogy is it true of the Father and Son in eternity. Grudem is confusing a relation for a cause.
Further, for Grudem to claim eternal generation is not defined requires him to ignore the history of the concept’s development in the third and fourth centuries and flies in the face of the testimony of the church and of the large literature on this topic since then. Again, it is incumbent on a teacher in the church, if he chooses to reject church teaching, to do so from a position of knowledge. I refer the interested reader to the Cappadocians, the medieval scholastics, the Reformers, and the great theologians of the seventeenth century; and also to the scholarly works of such as Lewis Ayres, Steve Holmes, Gilles Emery, and Richard Muller on the history of Trinitarianism, and Kevin Giles (as endorsed by Robert Letham, of whom Grudem approves) on eternal generation. These should more than adequately compensate for this deficiency in the recent interventions of Goligher and myself on the matters of eternal generation, paternity and filiation.
And this brings me to a very basic but very important hermeneutical point which I emphasize to my students again and again: theological texts have contexts, synchronic and diachronic, and these contexts are critical to understanding their meaning.
Perhaps this is nowhere more true than in discussions of the Trinity. Indeed, of all theological topics, the Trinity has involved the development of the most specialized and finely-tooled conceptual vocabulary over extended periods of time. The result is that it is very hard indeed to pull out isolated sound-bite quotations, slap them down on the page, and really have any idea what the authors are actually saying. Where Trinitarianism is concerned, the doctrine simply cannot be tweeted with any hope of success, despite recent efforts to the contrary.
Here’s an example I sometimes use in class: if one reads Tertullian on divine substance, directly connects this to later discussions of substance in the Middle Ages, and thereby assumes that he was orthodox on the issue by the standards of later years, one would be wrong. Substance for Tertullian had a profoundly material aspect. The same need for understanding terms in context applies to the word hypostasis – in 325 one was anathematized for holding to three hypostases, in 381 for not holding to three. The reason? The word underwent a fundamental change of meaning in the middle of the fourth century, a change crucial to understanding why the church uses the language she does.
Therefore, simply throwing out a handful of quotations from a small number of albeit respected theologians may have a certain rhetorical power but it is of no real use in clarifying the matters at hand. Whether all or some or none of them support Grudem, we cannot tell simply from the quotations. After all, that which he quotes from Jonathan Edwards seems as it stands to say the exact opposite of what Grudem claims. We need context – diachronic and synchronic – to understand what is being said in each case. Again, Hodge’s use of the language of subordination surely needs to be understood against the background of Turretin, whose Institutes was the textbook from which Hodge both learned and later taught theology. His background – theological and linguistic — was not that which Grudem blithely reads back into him. To repeat: the Trinity cannot be tweeted.
And just to return to where I started. Let us all reflect for a moment on the dramatic significance of Grudem’s claim about eternal generation. What he is saying is that the church catholic has for over 1600 years been affirming theologically and liturgically, as the key ecumenical summary of its faith, a document – the Nicene Creed – which in one of its core and defining assertions is superfluous or virtually meaningless or confused (or a wax nose which means whatever any Christian chooses). That is surely far more audacious than disagreeing with a selective concatenation of decontextualized quotations from Charles Ryrie and a few other evangelical luminaries.
It also brings me back to the point of my very first post: whatever else Dr. Grudem is advocating and however sincere his motives may be (which I do not question), it is not Nicene Trinitarianism.
Carl Trueman is professor of historical theology and Paul Woolley chair of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This article is used with permission.