Eternal Generation: Another Reason to Worship our God

            In 1650 amidst the rise of Socinianism in England, Francis Cheynell, a prominent Westminster Divine, wrote an apologetic of orthodox Trinitarianism, entitled The Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[1] This work stood out as clear exposition of both biblical and historically orthodox Trinitarian theology.

            Most notable, Cheynell grounded the doctrine of Eternal Generation in the idea of God’s simplicity. This was as notable as it was surprising because of the Socinian’s understanding of God’s oneness, which caused them to deny the eternal generation of the Son. “The Socinians tell us, they cannot believe that the Father did beget a Son of his own substance, because God is eternal and unchangeable; the single essence of God is indivisible, and being most singularly one is incommunicable; part of the divine essence could not be communicated (they say) to the Son, because the essence is impartible, indivisible...”[2]

            But Cheynell rightly understood that the historic doctrine of simplicity (with its more complex nuances) undercuts (the simplicity of) mere oneness.[3] For Cheynell, it was divine simplicity that gave support to the idea of three eternal Persons, who in relationship to one another, were in essence one God. He asks us to compare John 10 verse 30 with verse 37, where Jesus says “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30) and then goes on to say that “If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not” (John 10:37).

            Cheynell remarks that from these verses we can conclude “that Christ hath the same divine nature and Godhead with the Father; they both have the same divine and essential Titles and Attributes, and perform the same inward operations in reference to all Creatures whatsoever; and therefore [the Ancient Church Fathers] did farther infer that they had reason to use the word consubstantial... Christ doth lay claim to all that is natural, to all that belongs to the Father as God, [but] not to any thing which belongs to to him as the Father, as the first person of the blessed Trinity.[4]

            But in keeping with the doctrine of simplicity, Cheynell makes the point that just “as truth is not goodness, nor goodness truth, nor either of them unity, and yet all three are entity, so too the Father is not the Son, nor is the Son the Father, nor is either of them the Holy Spirit, and yet all three are God.”[5]

            In our own day, James Dolezal has posited the same point when he writes that “if [Divine] simplicity and its unique requirements are denied, any number of compositional models of divine unity might adequately explain how the one God subsists as three distinct persons. And it is not apparent that a compositional model of divine unity must necessarily be monotheistic rather than tritheistic.”[6]

            And indeed, this is what Cheynell wants to argue, but he does so in an interesting move. The angle from which he addresses the eternal generation of the Son from the Father is that, in light of God’s immutable and simple essence, the eternal begetting of a Son is a truth which magnifies the glory of God in all his simplicity.

            He writes, “If God had been the Father of men and Father of Angels only, and not the Father of our Lord Jesus, he would not have been so exceeding glorious as he now is; for Angels have but a finite excellency. But when he begets a Son equal to himself, without any change in himself, and the begetting of this glorious Person is as eternal as the divine nature itself, this mystery is exceeding glorious and admirable, and like the Godhead incomprehensible... Behold how the Godhead shines gloriously not only in one single Person, but in Father and Son both, by this manner of subsistence; that every tongue may confess Jesus Christ to be God and Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[7] For Cheynell, eternal generation is part and parcel of why we worship and glorify God.

            In seeking to unpack even further the connection between simplicity and eternal generation Cheynell writes that “the essence of God is spiritual (John 4:24), and therefore the Son is not begotten of the Father’s seed, or any material substance, because God is a single and pure Act, who doth beget a Son within himself, essentially one with Himself, and therefore his Son doth not subsist out of himself (John 14:10; John 10:30), for an infinite nature cannot be poured forth beyond itself.”[8]

            Chad Van Dixhoorn understands Cheynell here to be arguing that “the will of the Father did not precede and produce the Godhead in the Son... In other words, the divinity of the Son is ‘native’ to the doctrine of the Trinity; there was no decision, no decree that initiates the Son into the fulness of the Triune being.”[9]

            And yet Cheynell is careful to distinguish between the Father and Son. Even though “Scripture saith that the Father and the Son are one, and that all three Persons are one...” Cheynell expresses the truth that “God doth make himself known to us in a way most suitable to our weak apprehensions [and that] we must needs apprehend that there is a Divine relation between the eternal Father and his coeternal Son, and conclude that these two are distinguished from, and in a well qualified sense opposed to one another with a mere relative opposition, for there can be no contrary opposition between the Persons. This Relative and friendly opposition assures us that the Father is not the Son, and that the Father did not beget himself, but did beget his Son.”[10]

            These distinctions arise out of each person’s relations: the Father subsisting in Himself as unbegotten, the Son eternally subsisting as uniquely begotten of the Father, and the Spirit as uniquely spirated from both Father and Son.

            And yet, in God’s simplicity, the Father’s begetting also points to who God is in Himself as Triune! “Eternal Generation points at a personal property considered after the manner of a vital Act. But then as this personal property and relation doth not differ really from the divine essence, so too this personal power of begetting doth not differ really from the Essential Power, because God doth beget a Son in the unity of his own divine essence.”[11]

            So much so is Cheynell jealous to uphold the unity and simplicity of the Triune God that he says, “If you were to ask ‘Where was God before the world was made?’ I answer, that he was then, just where he is now, in himself. If you ask where the Father was, I answer, in the Son; if you ask where the Son was, I answer, in the Father. If you ask where the Spirit was, I answer, he was both in the Father and the Son, and they both in Him. God was in all three persons, and all three persons in the Godhead, and in one another, and so they do, and will remain to all eternity.”[12]

            For Francis Cheynell, this glorious mystery of God’s Triunity, held in biblical balance by his unity and simplicity, is what should undergird our worship of God.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] The full title being, “The Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The blessed Doctrine of the three Coessential subsistents in the eternall Godhead without any confusion or division of the distinct Subsistences, or multiplication of the most single and entire Godhead, acknowledged, beleeved, and adored by Christians, in opposition to Pagans, Jewes, Mahumetans, blasphemous and Antichristian Hereticks, who say they are Christians, but are not.”

[2] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 190.

[3] Herman Bavinck writes that “The oneness of God does not only consist in a unity of singularity, however, but also in a unity of simplicity. The fact of the matter is that Scripture, to denote the fullness of the life of God, uses not only adjectives but also substantives: it tells us not only that God is truthful, righteous, living, illuminating, loving, and wise, but also that he is the truth, righteousness, life, light, love, and wisdom (Jer. 10:10; 23:6; John 1:4-5, 9; 14:6; 1 Cor. 1:30; 1 John 1:5; 4:8). Hence, on account of its absolute perfection, every attribute of God is identical with his essence.” Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation vol 2, pg. 173.

[4] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 26-27.

[5] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 106.

[6] Dolezal, All That Is In God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, 105.

[7] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 55-56.

[8] ibid. 195. He continues, “There can be no essential change in the Son by this generation, because the generation is eternal, and the nature which is communicated by generation is unchangeable; the Father did unchangeably beget his Son, and his Son is unchangeably begotten. There is no shadow of changing or turning either in the Father of lights, or the Son of righteousness, because they are one and the same unchanging Jehovah (James 1:17; Malachi 3:6).

[9] Chad Van Dixhoorn, “Post-Reformation Trinitarian Perspectives” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, edited by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, 198.

[10] Cheynell, The Divine Trinunity, 102. And yet, says Cheynell, “God did not beget another God, for the Power of God is not, nay cannot be, exercised about anything repugnant to the Nature of God, and nothing is more repugnant to the Godhead then a plurality of Gods. Therefore, we must conclude, that the Father and Son are one and the same God. Now we are come to the Mystery which faith must receive and reason admire.”

[11] ibid. 157.

[12] Ibid. 167.

 


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