The early church fathers considered eternal generation a first principle, essential to the Trinity, even indispensable for a biblical view of salvation history.
Each advent season, my family enjoys singing classic Christmas hymns. One Christmas, however, our family made a disturbing discovery. As we were singing, O Come, All Ye Faithful, my wife started singing a stanza the rest of us did not have in our hymnals. She was singing from the Trinity Hymnal and the second stanza is the Nicene Creed almost verbatim:
God of God, Light of Light…
God begotten, not created.
As she sang, the rest of us looked up at her and then back down at our Baptist Hymnals only to realize someone had removed that stanza altogether. To this day I have no idea why. But the discovery did make me wonder, How many generations of Christmas singing churchgoers have been robbed of this core confession?
The average evangelical churchgoer today has never heard of eternal generation. It rarely if ever makes its way into the pulpit. Nor does it make an appearance in many church confessions. And, as you now know, it’s not likely to keep a tune…even if it’s a Christmas tune about Christ himself. But that was not always the case. The early church fathers considered eternal generation a first principle, essential to the Trinity, even indispensable for a biblical view of salvation history.
So, what is eternal generation? The word “generation,” says Thomas Aquinas, means “coming forth,” and with reference to the Trinity it refers to the Son coming forth from the Father’s essence but from all eternity. A son is, by definition, one who is generated by his father, one who has his origin from his father. When this metaphorical, biological concept is used of the Son of God—as it so often is by the authors of Scripture—it means in its most basic sense that the eternal Son is from his Father.
There are, as Gregory of Nyssa pointed out, legions of dissimilarities between human and divine generation. Unlike human generation, there is no division of nature, multiplication of essence, priority or posteriority, motion, mutation, alteration, or corruption. But we cannot miss the one fundamental similarity: sonship means one is generated by a father. From all eternity, the Father communicates the one, simple, undivided divine essence to his Son.
The biblical names themselves give the meaning away. That is by design. For example, the Father is only Father if he begets or generates the Son, and the Son is only Son if he is begotten or generated by his Father. As Augustine says, “When we say begotten we mean the same as when we say ‘son.’ Being son is a consequence of being begotten, and being begotten is implied by being son.”
Eternal generation serves several purposes. On the one hand, eternal generation is what distinguishes the Son as Son. As one of my favorite Baptist theologians, John Gill, liked to say, “Without his eternal generation no proof can be made of his being a distinct divine Person in the Godhead.” On the other hand, eternal generation safeguards the Son’s total equality. In the fourth century, the Arians argued that the unity between the Father and the Son was merely a unity of will(s). The Son was a product or effect of the Father’s will. There was, then, a time when the Son was not. To counter this argument, the church fathers said the unity between the Father and the Son is a unity of nature. The only reason the Son is homoousios, from the same nature as the Father, is because the Son is begotten or generated from the Father’s ousia or nature from eternity.