Keith Johnson, “Is the Eternal Generation of the Son a Biblical Idea?” (June 18, 2012)
Johnson is the director of theological education and development for Cru. He also serves as a guest professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is author of Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment (Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology) (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011). The article he recently wrote is “Augustine, Eternal Generation, and Evangelical Trinitarianism,” Trinity Journal 32 NS (2011): 141-163.
Though the eternal generation of the Son is biblical and this truth is supported and given expression in confessions and creeds, some evangelicals reject this doctrine. When questions like this are raised, it provides an opportunity to revisit a doctrine through the authoritative truth of Scripture (which is the norma normans, or the norming norm) for the purpose of gaining biblical clarity on the doctrine, positively stated (constructive theology), and to defend that doctrine against denials of it, negatively stated (polemical theology). For other recent doctrinal questions, think about the denial of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge (open theism), or of God’s wrath (denial of God’s simplicity and of penal substitutionary atonement).
Here is Johnson’s introduction:
Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ is both one with the Father and yet distinct from the Father. The doctrine of the “eternal generation” plays an important role in securing both points. This doctrine teaches that the Father eternally communicates the divine essence to the Son without division or change so that the Son shares an equality of nature with the Father (sharing all the attributes of deity) yet is also eternally distinct from the Father.
As he pondered the eternal generation of the Son, he examined the writings of one of the most significant and important theologians of the Christian church, Augustine of Hippo (354-430). He found that there were “two hermeneutical assumptions” in Augustine’s argument for and defense of the eternal generation of the Son.
As I explored his discussion, I discovered that Augustine’s case for eternal generation does not depend on the mistranslation of monogenes but is deeply rooted in the way Scripture portrays the relation of the Son to the Father. I was surprised by the breadth of biblical evidence Augustine marshaled. Although one might assume that Augustine’s commitment to eternal generation is merely rooted in a handful of dubious “proof texts,” nothing could be further from the truth. This doctrine is rooted in a rigorous and comprehensive Trinitarian hermeneutic.
Two hermeneutical assumptions play an essential role in Augustine’s case for eternal generation.
The first assumption concerns three ways Scripture speaks about Jesus Christ. According to Augustine, New Testament references to the person of Christ can be grouped into three categories: (1) texts that refer to Son in the “form of God” (divine nature) in which He is equal to the Father (e.g., Phil 2:6; John 10:30); (2) texts that refer to the Son in the “form of a servant” (human nature) in which He is “less” than the Father (e.g., John 14:28); and (3) texts that suggest that the Son is “from” the Father. This third category is crucial to Augustine’s case for eternal generation. He argues that a distinction between the Son in the “form of God” and the “form of a servant” cannot encompass the rich way that Scripture speaks about the person Christ.
The second hermeneutical assumption is “God’s self-revelation in Scripture.” What this means is that the actions of God in salvation are reflective of the eternal relationship within the Godhead. Based on what God did and our experience of those divine actions, we understand who God in His divine essence is.
A second hermeneutical assumption relates to the reliability of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Augustine (rightly) believes that patterns of divine relation in the economy of salvation echo eternal relations among the divine persons. The economy of salvation (constituted by the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit) is not merely a record of the actions undertaken by God to save us. It is also designed to teach us about God.
Johnson identifies five patterns that shed light on this relationship between Father and Son: 1) the Son was “sent” by the Father; 2) the Father “giving” and the Son “receiving”; 3) ordered equality between Father and Son such that the Father works all things through the Son; 4) passages that use the names of “Father” and “Son”; and 5) parallel passages about the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Son and the Father.
Although critics sometimes present this doctrine as if it depends on a handful of dubious proof texts, the biblical evidence for eternal generation is rooted in broad patterns of scriptural judgment regarding the unique nature of the eternal relationship of the Son to the Father. There is no undisputed proof-text for eternal generation. The question we must ask is, “What must be true of God in order to make sense of all these ‘from another’ passages?”