With the basic idea of generation in place, we must qualify Sonship in the Trinity lest we interpret it in a literalistic fashion, with a one-to-one correspondence to creaturely sonship. There are significant differences between a divine generation and a human one. Understanding these differences—what eternal generation is not—aids us in better understanding what eternal generation is. It also avoids legions of heresies. Let’s begin with this question: When is the Son generated by the Father?
When Is the Son Generated?
That’s a trick question if there ever was one. There is no “when.” Why? The short answer: our triune God is eternal. He is not bound by time but is timeless; He has no beginning. A succession of moments cannot apply to Him. He just is. That means the following question is most relevant:
Q: If God is timelessly eternal, what does that mean for the Son and His generation from the Father?
A: Unlike human generation, the Son’s generation is eternal. There never was a time when the Son was not, nor ever a time when the Son was not from the Father.
Or, as early church fathers like Gregory of Nyssa like to say, there is no “sometime” for the Son because He was not generated in time. “He exists by generation indeed, but nevertheless He never begins to exist.”
It’s not as if God the Son did not exist but then came into existence at a point in time, created by the Father and therefore after the Father. That may describe how generation works in our human existence, but it cannot depict the Son’s generation. He is, says Nicaea, “begotten not created.” He is, we cannot forget, the eternal Son from the Father. If the divine essence subsists in Him, then He too shares in the attributes of deity, eternity being one of them. He is no creature, and if not a creature, then His generation cannot be temporal. The generation of the Son, Gregory of Nyssa said, “does not fall within time, any more than the creation was before time.”
If the Son’s generation did fall within time, then not only is there a time when the Son was not, but there is a time when the Father was not Father. And if there was a time when the Father was not, then there was a time when the Trinity was not. As Athanasius points out, “If the Son is not proper offspring of the Father’s essence, but of nothing has come to be, then of nothing the Triad consists, and once there was not a Triad, but a Monad.”
Furthermore, if He is Son because He is from the Father, then His sonship must be as eternal as the Father Himself, at least if He is begotten from the same essence as the Father. That is why the Nicene Creed stresses that the Son is “begotten from the Father before all time . . . begotten not created . . . through Whom all things came into being.” The generation within God is unlike any other; it is not susceptible to the limitations of time. The Son’s filial identity has no duration or succession of moments; it is timeless. Everlasting in nature, there never was a time when the Son was not begotten from the Father.
That may sound like a contradiction—how can someone be generated and eternal? It sounds like a contradiction because we know generation only within the experience of our own finitude. For the infinite, timelessly eternal deity, the confines of our finitude do not apply. Let’s not forget that whatever words are used of God—even scriptural words and metaphors—this is God we have in view, infinite and eternal, immutable, and everlasting. Language is, by definition, analogical in every way. The metaphor must then be adapted to the incomprehensible One, not vice versa. So too with generation. As Augustine says, since the generation of the Son is eternal, “one exists not as before the other, but as from the other.” The Son is not generated after the Father, which would make Him less than the Father, but the Son is generated from the Father and from all eternity.
One more thing: Scripture refers to the Son’s eternal origin from the Father with a variety of metaphors, including Radiance, Image, Wisdom, Word, and Ancient of Days (each of which I treat at length in Simply Trinity). But one we can consider here is truth. As Jesus Himself says, He is the truth (John 14:6). Was there ever a time when God the Father was without His Truth? The Arians of the fourth century said yes. With a look of terror on his face, the church father Athanasius ponders this bizarre scenario: “For if the Son was not before His generation, Truth was not always in God.” It is a sin to say such a thing, Athanasius concludes. That sin multiplies if we also say there was a time when the Image was not, for “God’s Image is not delineated from without, but God Himself hath begotten it; in which seeing Himself, He has delight. . . . When then did the Father not see Himself in His own Image?”
The Father always and forever has seen Himself in His own image. So yes, the Son is the image of the Father, but unlike images in our finite world, there has never been a time when the Son was not the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).
Believe it or not, we have only scratched the surface of the mysterious but essential doctrine called eternal generation. Continue this adventure with me in the next article as we answer the question, How is the Son generated from the Father? The answer might just surprise you.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on the Trinity and was originally published May 10, 2021. Next post.