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Why We Need the Doctrine of Eternal Generation

June 9th, 2020 | 12 min read

By Tyler Wittman

To kill every sparrow in sight, try the following: shoot them, raze their nests, beat drums constantly to scare them, and shake the trees where they land. Eventually they will drop dead of exhaustion. It’s true.

Of course, if you kill all the sparrows you might also kill upwards of 45 million people. So, maybe think about it first.

Just ask Mao Zedong, who accomplished all this and more in 1958, as part of the infamous “Four Pests Campaign,” which sought to rid China of mosquitos, rats, flies, and, oddly enough, sparrows. The latter, so it was thought, filled their bellies too much with the grain that the people needed for food and trade. If China was to increase, the sparrows must decrease.

Unfortunately for Mao, sparrows aren’t so much pests as they are vital elements of the ecosystem. Without sparrows, real pests like locusts flourished who made short work of China’s crops. Together with some deforestation and bad weather (not to mention the bad ideology), this led to a famine that ravaged the nation claiming millions of lives.

This disaster illustrates an important truth: misunderstanding the nature of things makes us blind to their reality, function, and significance. And it always carries a human cost. While this is plainly visible in Mao’s technological presumptuousness towards the natural world, it also functions in more subtle ways within the church’s dismissive attitude towards long-standing doctrines she no longer understands. For example, consider the seemingly recondite doctrine of the Father’s eternal begetting of the Son.

Over the past few decades, evangelicals have become increasingly suspicious of the idea that within the infinite depths of God’s life, the Father eternally begets the Son – a doctrine known as “eternal generation.” While a handful of mainstream theologians in the 20th century have critiqued the doctrine, so too have several high-profile, low-church evangelicals (like Wayne Grudem and William Lane Craig, among others). Misgivings about the doctrine are several: that it rests on an exegetical mistake or has no biblical warrant, that it says something far too speculative, that it doesn’t make any sense, that it results in subordinationism, etc. All of this would come as no small surprise to theologians like Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and, well, the list could go on for a long time. The critiques may be idiosyncratic, but they’re prevalent enough that it’s worth asking why they persist.

Reasoning Biblically Towards Eternal Generation

We can get a sense for why critics don’t like the doctrine by coming to grips with the doctrine itself, by looking at where it comes from and what it does and does not mean. Clues to all these matters are readily available on the opening pages of the New Testament, in the Gospel according to Matthew.

Matthew opens with a lengthy genealogy that proves Jesus is the “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). Naturally, fatherhood is a recurring theme in these opening verses: Abraham fathered, or begat, Isaac, who begat Jacob, the father of Judah and his brothers, and (deep breath) Judah begat Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez begat Gezron, and Hezron, you may have guessed by now, begat yet someone else and so the names keep coming, all the way down to “Jacob who begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was begotten Jesus who is called Christ” (Matt 1:16). Notice anything different there?

Matthew builds his whole genealogy on a series of fathers begetting sons, until we get to Joseph and Jesus. Then we are introduced to Mary and the verb for begetting is suddenly in the passive (“of whom was begotten Jesus…”). This subtle detail is important, because Matthew often uses passive verbs to speak circumspectly of God’s activity where a human subject is either unclear or missing entirely. That Joseph is missing from the begetting and that a “divine passive” is used, suggests that Jesus’ begetting is something done by God and involving only the virgin Mary. Hence, the virgin birth.

But it gets more interesting still, because Matthew also refuses to say that Joseph is the father of Jesus at all. Indeed, only once in the Gospel is Jesus called Joseph’s “son” and this comes from the lips of people in his hometown who reject him (Matt 13:55). When the magi come to visit him, we’re told, “And going in to the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him” (Matt 2:11). Never mind for a moment that worship is reserved exclusively for God (Matt 4:10), what we see here is that they recognize Mary as the mother but no mention is made of Joseph.

This fits with how Matthew refers to Joseph in relation to Jesus. When they’re fleeing to Egypt in order to escape the murderous Herod, the Lord tells Joseph what he is to do with “the child and his mother” (Matt 2:13, 14, 20, 21). After Herod dies, the Lord tells Joseph again to “take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel” (Matt 2:20).

The question of Jesus’ father lingers over these opening chapters, creating a narrative tension. It’s not Joseph, so who is it? The answer comes at Jesus’ baptism: “behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matt 3:16-17). When Jesus is at last named “Son” it is by the Lord himself (cf. Matt 2:15). This fits a larger pattern throughout the Gospel of Matthew where only Jesus refers to God as his Father. Joshua Leim highlights all of this and argues that it contributes to Matthew’s identification of “God” in terms of the Father-Son relation, which doesn’t exclude the Holy Spirit.[1]

By now we can see how this same evidence also contributes to the doctrine of eternal generation. The sensitive reader of the opening pages of the NT has to admit that something funny is going on with both “begetting” language and who Jesus’ father is. Not only does Matthew affirm the virgin birth, but he also suggests that the way Jesus is “Son” cannot be reduced to his human relationships with either Mary or Joseph. His Jewish opponents realized clearly enough that by “calling God his own Father” Jesus was “making himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18).

It’s easy to feel the force of these odd features nudging us in the same direction, towards some kind of coherent portrait of who Jesus is as Son and who God is as Father. Mary is indeed Jesus’ mother because he is begotten from her womb and receives his human nature from her, but Joseph bears no similar relation to Jesus because the “begetting” that characterizes his filial relation to his heavenly Father is hidden from us and unseen. Naturally, then, Jesus is “the only-begotten God, who is in the Father’s bosom” – the Father whom no one has seen or can see (Jn 1:18). Matthew doesn’t even speak about it, much less see it, but only faintly gestures towards this mysterious relation.

Thinking Theologically About Eternal Generation

Faced with evidence like this, the church has acknowledged that in the infinite depths of God’s life, somehow “as the Father has life in himself, so too he has given the Son to have life in himself” (Jn 5:26). By virtue of his begetting, the Son is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb 1:3). Like Matthew, however, we can speak only circumspectly about the Son being begotten from the Father. According to Gregory of Nazianzus: “God’s begetting ought to have the tribute of our reverent silence.”[2]

But how do we honor such a difficult truth by silence, especially when the church has always found it necessary to elaborate on truth against heresies? Most theologians went about this by speaking to what eternal generation is not, rather than speaking directly about how the Father begets the Son. Through a series of careful negations, the doctrine was articulated indirectly.

So, since Scripture tells us that God is the Creator of all things out of nothing, who is unchanging, immeasurable, simple, and eternal, then the church has always sought to understand the Son’s begetting from the Father in a way “that is worthy of God.” This means “without passion, partition, division, and temporality.”[3] The point is that “one whose being is not the same as ours has a different way of begetting as well.”[4] Inevitably, it’s mysterious to us. If it’s not mysterious, then we’re talking about something else.

What “eternal generation” means, minimally, is that the Father-Son relation is characterized by a perfect commonality of being – one that transcends any commonality between earthly fathers and sons. John Owen summarizes the main lines of thought: “the whole essence of the Father is communicated to the Son as to a personal existence in the same essence, without multiplication or division of it, the same essence continuing still one in number.”[5] The Son is thus Light from Light; true God from true God; begotten, not made; of one being with the Father; existing from the Father, but neither after nor apart from him.

It’s difficult to overstate the important of this oft-misunderstood piece of divine teaching for the whole edifice of the Christian faith. Everything from the Creator-creature distinction to the nature and perfection of our salvation hangs in some sense on this truth. For this reason, it’s pastorally relevant. At his baptism, we discover that Jesus already is the Son of God in a unique and proper sense that precedes the history of his obedience unto death on the cross. God sent his Son, after all, not someone or something to become his Son (Gal 4:4; Rom 8:32). Jesus doesn’t have to earn his Sonship or the Father’s good-pleasure because these are his naturally.

The gospel tells us that by God’s grace, we partake of this sonship and good-pleasure. We cannot earn either of these but merely receive them as gifts of adoption through the Son and by his Holy Spirit (1 Jn 3:1; Rom 8:12-17). Because the Son is eternally Son and therefore the Father eternally Father, when we are brought to share in the Son’s relation to the Father, we are welcomed into the very “household of God” (Eph 2:19). God has “blessed us in the Beloved” and so our salvation is as strong as the Son’s relation to his Father (Eph 1:6). Our identity as sons is secured in the Son – so it is eternal.

Inhabiting the Faith

Why would anyone take issue with this? At the risk of oversimplification, we cannot ignore the role of what older theologians called habitus. The habitus of theology is the God-given disposition or temperament for receiving, confessing, and living in accord with divine teaching. It includes several things: reverence for God and his will (cf. the ten commandments and the Lord’s prayer); teachableness before Holy Scripture; gratitude to God for the wisdom of the saints, especially when our own judgment becomes too idiosyncratic; and a sense that growth in understanding comes about more by prayer and repentance than by philosophical acumen because the end of theology is fellowship with God “who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16).

This habitus is cultivated by the grace of the Holy Spirit as we hear the Word of God in the communion of saints, characterized by the baptismal pattern of dying to sin and living to God. It endears us to the intellectual practices and standards conducive to dogmatic theology: ones that appreciate mystery, resist vain curiosities, and that don’t treat theology as “just another subject like any other.”[6]

When theologians without a well-developed habitus attempt to instruct the church, error usually results. After all, an ornithologist can tell you the ecological significance of sparrows and help you to see it when others can’t, because she is equipped with the right habitus. Like any disposition or skill, the theological habitus can be malformed or confused with the habitus of another subject.

Where this happens, we have a hard time perceiving mysteries and stewarding them well (1 Cor 4:1). Our eyes are unadjusted and we struggle to see divine teachings for what they are. We lose sight of their purpose, function, and significance in God’s dealings with us, and so we scatter them like pests. And the void they leave will always be filled with real problems, as the history of trinitarian theology’s decline throughout the 20th century attests.

However, just as no sparrow falls to the ground without our Father’s notice, so too no doctrine goes neglected without the Spirit’s patient enlightenment and instruction. Because our heavenly Father delights in giving us good things, we still have sparrows. And good doctrines as well.

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Further Reading

Basil of Caesarea, Against Eunomius, trans. Mark DelCogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz. Fathers of the Church 122 (Catholic University of America Press, 2011).

Ivor Davidson, “Salvation’s Destiny: Heirs of God,” in God of Salvation: Soteriology in Theological Perspective, ed. Ivor Davidson and Murray Rae (London: Routledge, 2010).

Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham. Popular Patristics Series 23 (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).

Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, eds., Retrieving Eternal Generation (Zondervan: 2017).

John Webster, “Eternal Generation,” in God Without Measure: Working Papers in Systematic Theology, vol. 1, God and the Works of God (Bloomsbury, 2016).

William Lane Craig, “Is the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?” TheoLogica 3.1 (2019): 22-32.

  1. Joshua E. Leim, Matthew’s Theological Grammar: The Father and the Son. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2/402 (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2015).
  2. Nazianzen, Or. 29.8, in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius. PPS 23 (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).
  3. Basil of Caesarea, Against Eunomius 2.16 (Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
  4. Nazianzen, Or. 29.4.
  5. John Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 12, p. 237.
  6. Nazianzen, Or. 27.3.