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I remember my perplexity when I first encountered the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation (i.e., being eternally begotten of the Father). I was preparing for seminary by reading Louis Berkhof’s classic Systematic Theology, and I found the topic overly speculative. I recognized the importance of affirming that the Son of God is not a creature but is Himself God. But I could not conceive why it was necessary to discuss the nature of the Son’s begetting in such detail. Where in the Bible would one get such an idea? And why does it matter?
It turns out that it matters a great deal and that it’s not as speculative as it may seem at first.
The God of Scripture is Trinitarian—one God in three persons1. The distinctions between the persons are not between levels of deity, for all three persons are equally God. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism captures it, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (WSC 6). Christians should not doubt the deity or personality of any person of the Godhead. Instead, the distinctions among the persons of the Trinity are known as personal properties: the Father begets, the Son is begotten, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is crucial that we understand these distinctions correctly, for denying them is the first step to many heresies. The Son is not somehow less divine than God the Father; the Son of God is Himself God no less than the Father is God.
So, to speak of the eternal generation of the Son is to speak of what is proper to the Son of God: He is begotten. This does not downplay the divinity of the Son in any way. The Son’s being begotten does not mean that His deity is less than His Father’s but means that He receives His personal subsistence from the Father. The divine essence itself is not begotten. Instead, in eternal generation the Father communicates the divine essence to the Son; Father and Son possess the same essence, without change.
And this generation must be eternal. The generation of the Son could not happen at a moment in time, for if it did, the Son would not be eternally the Son—nor would the Father be eternally the Father. If the Son’s generation were a singular event, this would mean that God in some sense changes. If the Father ever became the Father, or the Son ever became the Son, then God would not be immutable (that is, unchangeable). Because the Son of God never changes, His begetting must be an eternal begetting—it is not something that happened a long time ago or once-for-all. It is a timeless, placeless, changeless communication from the Father to the Son. Neither does eternal generation entail any division in God, as though the divine essence is divided between the three persons or is multiplied from one person to another. Each person possesses the same divine essence and the fullness of the divine essence. Eternal generation is also a necessary act, which means that it always is and could not be otherwise.
Eternal generation affirms the full divinity of the Son of God; it does not refer in any sense to the Son’s creation. Were the Son to be created, He would not be fully divine. This was at the heart of the conflict between the church father Athanasius and the heretic Arius in the fourth century: Athanasius rightly argued that the Son of God could not be the first created being, but He must be eternally the Son of God. There never was a time when the Son was not. The Son always relates to the Father as Son, and the Father is always Father.
Admittedly, eternal generation is a complex issue. Even if we can explain it properly, we cannot understand it fully. In other words, it is mysterious.
Where does this teaching come from in Scripture? An important witness is the gospel of John, where we find the Greek term monogenēs , which the King James Version translates as “only begotten” Son (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; see 1 John 4:9). However, most modern translations render monogenēs as “one and only” Son (ESV, NIV, CSB). The jury is still out on whether “one and only” is actually a better translation than “only begotten,” but the concept of eternal begetting is not dependent on the way monogenēs is translated. Instead, the concept comes largely from what Scripture reveals about the Son’s preexistence and the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son (e.g., John 17:5, 24; see Col. 1:15–20; Heb. 1:1–3). There has never been a time when the Father was not the Father to the Son or the Son not the Son of the Father (John 1:1–2; see Matt. 11:25–27; Luke 10:21–22). John 5:26 has often been used to support eternal generation: “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” Many theologians note that this is a granting of life to the Son that could not have occurred in time. Therefore, it must be an eternal granting of life. If so, John 5:26 is strong support for eternal generation.
Support for eternal generation can also be found in the Old Testament. One prominent proof text historically has been Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Though this text is used in the New Testament to refer to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 13:33), the Sonship declared and vindicated in the resurrection is grounded on preexistent Sonship. Micah 5:2 has also been used historically to support eternal generation: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” This has often been understood to refer to both the place of Jesus’ birth (Bethlehem) and the eternal begottenness of the Son (“whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days”). Many modern exegetes doubt that this text teaches eternal generation, but newer interpretations are not always better than traditional ones. Regardless of one’s view on these Old Testament texts, the eternal generation of the Son is indeed sufficiently grounded in Scripture. As with many crucial doctrines, it does not come from one or two isolated texts but comes from the teaching of Scripture as a whole.
As a biblical doctrine, the eternal generation of the Son is not speculative; it is practical, for it speaks of the One who is Mediator of creation and redemption. The preexistent, divine Son is the Word—the Logos (John 1:1, 14)—through whom the world was made (Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2). It would be mistaken to view the work of the Son as beginning only in the New Testament; He was already active as Creator and Revealer in the Old Testament (see John 1:1–5). The Son was also active in the Old Testament in redemption. Jude identifies Jesus as the One who delivered the Israelites from Egypt (Jude 5). In the New Testament, Jesus’ Sonship is especially important with respect to the work of redemption. In the incarnation, the Son of God takes a true body and a reasonable soul. He is born of a virgin, which is fitting for the preexistent, holy Son of God. His unique birth means He was not implicated in the sin of Adam but stands at the head of a new creation. As Son of God, Jesus is the fulfillment of David (Luke 1:31–33) and Adam (3:38). But He is more than that. He is the Son of God eternally. He is Immanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23), the Son of the Living God (16:16). It is thus fitting that His Sonship is proclaimed at His baptism (3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), tested in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13; Luke 4:1–13), confirmed in the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35), mocked in the crucifixion (Matt. 27:37–44; see 26:63–64), and vindicated in His resurrection (Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3–4). Yet the Son does not act in isolation from the Father and the Spirit, for the external works of the Trinity are undivided.
The Son of God did not first come to be in first-century Palestine; He existed even before the world began. He created and upholds the world, and He has definitively accomplished redemption for His people. He is our God and Savior (2 Peter 1:1)—the eternally begotten Son of God.
- In the Godhead, a person, or hypostasis, is “a subsistent individual of a rational nature” (Thomas Aquinas). Each of the Trinitarian persons can be distinguished as an individual though each also subsists in—each is—the one divine essence. What distinguishes Them is not a difference in divine attributes but the distinct, incommunicable personal property of each person (unbegottenness for the Father, begottenness for the Son, procession for the Spirit). ↩