In our last adventure, we were introduced to the doctrine of eternal generation, a doctrine that takes us to the very heart of what it means for the Son to be a Son. From all eternity, the Father communicates the one, simple, undivided divine essence to the Son. We also stressed that divine, eternal generation must be distinguished from human, temporal generation. We must rid our minds of anything impure.

But what else might that include?

Nine Marks of an Unhealthy Generation

The Calvinist Baptist John Gill once listed nine marks of human generation that should not characterize divine generation. Actually, these are not original to Gill, but are voiced by the Great Tradition as well, as seen in men such as Gregory of Nyssa. These are the nine marks of an unhealthy generation:

1. Division of nature

2. Multiplication of essence

3. Priority and posteriority

4. Motion

5. Mutation

6. Alteration

7. Corruption

8. Diminution [i.e., to lessen]

9. Cessation from operation1

We cannot touch on every one of these (for more, see Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit). But we can address a few that are especially dangerous.

No Multiplication, No Division

The Son’s generation involves no multiplication or division of nature. No multiplication of the divine essence is involved in the generation of the Son. When the Father begets, He communicates the one (simple) divine essence to His Son, but He does not multiply the divine essence. If He did, there would no longer be one, simple essence but two essences. Likewise, when we say the Son is begotten, we do not mean He receives from the Father the divine essence in part but that He receives it in whole.

Or think of it this way: God is “not triple (triplex) but trinitary (trinum).”2 The Father does not give to His Son what He previously received from His own Father. Generation works that way among created, finite fathers, but God the Father has no beginning; nor is He Himself generated. He is fathered by no one. He alone is unbegotten, without origin. “Human parents transmit what they have received,” but “God the Father alone gives to the Son and to the Holy Spirit what He has from no other person.”3 This does not involve a multiplication of the divine nature, which would result in three gods (tritheism). The Son is begotten of the Father by nature, so that the Son is a subsistence of that one divine nature, not the production of another, second nature.

Not only is the divine nature not multiplied, but it is not divided as a result of the Son’s generation either. In the fourth century, the Arians claimed it must be divided. They appealed to divine simplicity to argue against the Son’s eternal generation from the Father and coequality with the Father. As Athanasius reports, the Arians “deny that the Son is the proper offspring of the Father’s essence, on the ground that this must imply parts and divisions.”4 The Son cannot be from the Father’s essence, for then the Father must part with a portion of the essence to generate a Son.

Divine, eternal generation must be distinguished from human, temporal generation.

In human generation, the human nature is divisible. It can, Francis Turretin says, “remain the same in species when propagated by generation, although it is not the same in number because it detaches a certain part of its substance, which passes over to the begotten.”5 That’s because human generation is physical and material. The divine nature, however, is spiritual and therefore indivisible. God is spirit, so He remains one, simple, and undivided. Thus, some call the generation of the Son hyperphysical to communicate that the Son’s generation is not in time or space; nor does it result in divisible parts.

As mentioned, the Son does not receive what the Father received from His father, since the Father has no father Himself. It does not follow, however, that the Son is born out of nothing (ex nihilo) as the Arians insisted. If He was, then He would be no different from the rest of creation, which was made by God out of nothing. But the Son is no creature; yes, He is begotten, but He is not made (Nicaea). Let’s not confuse the two. Rather than the Son being “born out of nothing,” Thomas Aquinas says, He is “born out of the substance of the Father.”6

Again, this should not be taken in the human sense. The “Son of God is born of the substance of the Father. Yet not in the same way as a human son. For a part of the substance of the human father passes into the substance of his offspring.” That would divide up the substance or nature of God. By contrast, the divine substance “is above being divisible.” The Father “in begetting the Son did not pass on part of his nature to the Son, but bestowed the whole nature upon him, with only the distinction based on origin remaining.”7 The divine nature belongs to the Son—not in part, but in whole—due to His origin from the Father, and if in whole then the divine nature has been neither multiplied nor divided.

Notice, divine simplicity plays a major factor at this point. Since God is not made up of parts, it’s not as if eternal generation involves a portion of the divine essence being broken off and given to the Son by the Father. The Son, Hilary of Poitiers objects, is no “mutilated fragment of the Father.”8 Not only would that make God a composition of parts, but it would sacrifice the full deity of the Son, as if He were only part divinity. Nor would the Trinity be simply Trinity. Rather, to be begotten from the Father is to wholly possess the one, undivided divine essence. “That birth, which brought Him into being, constituted Him divine, and His being reveals the consciousness of that divine nature. God the Son confesses God His Father, because He was born of Him; but also, because He was born, He inherits the whole nature of God.”9 Each person is a subsistence of the one divine nature, that nature wholly subsisting in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “The Son is begotten of (de) the Father’s essence,” Thomas Aquinas says, “because the Father’s essence, bestowed on the Son through generation, is subsisting in the Son.”10

Since the Son is begotten of the Father’s essence, there is “no partition, or withdrawing, or lessening, or efflux, or extension, or suffering of change, but the birth of living nature from living nature”; eternal generation is “One from One,” that is, “God going forth from God.”11 Or as the Nicene Creed says, the Son is “true God from true God.” The Son’s existence “did not take its beginning out of nothing, but went forth from the Eternal.” It is appropriate to still call it a birth (that is the meaning of begetting), but “it would be false to call it a beginning.”12 Birth, not beginning. Unlike the creation of the universe ex nihilo, the “proceeding forth of God from God is a thing entirely different from the coming into existence of a new substance.”13 Hilary is right: the Son “has no origin external to God, and was not created out of nothing, but is the Son, born from God.”14

What’s Next?

If the Son’s generation involves no multiplication or division, are we safe to conclude that it can involve no priority and mutation either? The answer to that question will launch our final adventure in the next article, and it may just be the most important adventure yet.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Trinity. Previous post. Next post.

  1. John Gill, Body of Divinity, 146. ↩︎
  2. John Forbes, Instructiones hist. 1.33.1, 3; quoted in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003), 4:170. ↩︎
  3. Gilles Emery, The Trinity: An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 120. ↩︎
  4. Athanasius, Against the Arians 1.5.15 (NPNF2 4:315). ↩︎
  5. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:256. ↩︎
  6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.41.3. ↩︎
  7. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.41.3, emphasis added. ↩︎
  8. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 3.23 (NPNF2 9:69); cf. 4.4 (NPNF2 9:72). ↩︎
  9. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 11.12 (NPNF2 9:207), emphasis added. ↩︎
  10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.41.3. ↩︎
  11. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 6.35 (NPNF2 9:111). ↩︎
  12. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 6.35 (NPNF2 9:111). ↩︎
  13. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 6.35 (NPNF2 9:111). ↩︎
  14. Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 7.2 (NPNF2 9:118); cf. 9.30 (NPNF2 9:165). Also see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.41.3. ↩︎

What Is Eternal Generation?

Undivided Trinity