Eternal Generation: A Confession of Historical Significance
The Presbyterian tradition has had a history of doctrinal slippage. This does not make the various Presbyterian denominations unique. Pretty much all theological traditions within Christendom have fumbled the theological ball at some point in history. This fact does not excuse the church from holding firmly to the faith once for all given to the saints. Nor does it justify a que sera, sera or whatever will be, will be attitude. Latitudinarianism and biblical orthodoxy make for uncomfortable bedfellows.
Maintaining biblical and theological orthodoxy, while at the same time recognizing that there is room for greater nuance and precision in many instances in doctrinal formulations, involves constant vigilance. One doctrine that has recently come in for questioning is the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God. Over the years there has been discussion as to whether John Calvin affirmed the teaching and theologians fall out on either side on that question. Our concern here is with the substance of the doctrine and how it was briefly yet clearly affirmed in one of the most significant confessions of Protestant Christianity. Of course, I am referring to the Westminster Confession of Faith. In WCF 2.3 (chapter two, paragraph or section 3), we find a brief reference to this essential doctrine:
3. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.
Take note of the italicized portion of this portion of the WCF. Eternal begottenness is another way of naming eternal generation. What this paragraph is detailing are the properties that are unique to each person of the Triune Godhead. These brief descriptions get to the heart of what distinguishes the Father from the Son from the Spirit. While affirming the unity of the Godhead (the doctrine of divine simplicity, etc), the Westminster divines are here affirming that the Father is, as such, unbegotten, the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son.
As we think about this phraseology, let’s remember that language about God is what theologians call analogical. Our knowledge is analogical of divine knowledge and our existence is analogical of divine existence. This affirms that our existence, language, and knowledge is similar to and reflective of God’s being, language, and knowledge while at the same time denying identity between divine and human existence, language, and knowledge.
Having said that, these descriptions are grounded in Scripture and the actions of God in the history of salvation give us some indication of what he is like in himself. However, this revelation is not exhaustive of who God is. But it is true. God’s revelation of himself (in history, nature, and Scripture) is true but non-comprehensive.
The WCFs affirmation of eternal generation allows us to distinguish between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the Godhead while recognizing each and all are the whole God. God is not like a pie that can be divided into three slices. Specifically, we are saying that what distinguishes the Son from the Father and the Spirit is that he is eternally begotten or generated from the Father. That is, he is the Son and as divine his generation has no beginning or end. Unlike human generation there is no beginning in time nor is there an end to the birthing process.
If we deny eternal generation then we have nothing to say as to what differentiates the three persons of the Triune Godhead. The eternal generation of the Son is his own unique property that distinguishes him from the Father and the Spirit without undermining the reality of divinity simplicity (the doctrine that God is not made up of more basic parts like a brick wall which is made up many bricks and mortar in between the bricks which bricks and mortar can and do exist apart from the brick wall). The Father cannot be the Father without it having always been the case that the Son is the Son and the Spirit is the Spirit.
If we subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith we really ought to be familiar with what it says and be honest with ourselves and our churches if we disagree with such a basic tenet of the Christian faith.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.