Eternal Generation: Who Would Deny it?

While attending an academic conference this past year I went to a dinner with some friends and other conference attendees.  The conversation around the table was spirited, wide ranging and a lot of fun. At one point, the conversation turned to the eternal generation of the Son. In the midst of the discussion a man I had not met before said something to this effect, “I love Warfield but I just can’t understand why he rejected eternal generation.” His statement was not entirely accurate and in keeping with the mental sparring going on at our table I told him so. He did not agree.

Well, the conference is over and my table companions have all gone home. So, let me do some shadow boxing. Let me pose the question to my readers. Did Warfield reject the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son? Now, I have not changed my mind since the conference. So, the answer is no. Warfield did not reject the eternal generation of the Son.  But why would someone think that he had?

The answer can be traced to an article he wrote for the Princeton Theological Review in 1909 titled, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity.” In that article Warfield deals with Calvin’s seeming hesitations regarding the doctrine of eternal generation.  However, they are only “seeming hesitations” because a close reading of the article yields some concrete findings. For example, according to Warfield, Calvin did not reject the doctrine of eternal generation.  In fact, says Warfield, “We have just seen that Calvin explicitly teaches the ‘eternal generation’ of the Son…. It manifestly was a matter of fixed belief with him.”[1] But if Calvin affirmed the eternal generation of the Son, then what was the problem?  

Calvin’s problem was not with the doctrine of eternal generation per se so much as how “it was expounded by the Nicene Fathers.”[2] In other words, the fact of eternal generation as taught in the Nicene Creed was, for Calvin, not in dispute but the Nicene Father’s explanation of the fact was.[3]

The problem?

How can there be “a perpetual movement of the divine essence from the first Person to the second, always complete, never completed”?[4] Calvin seems to have found “this conception difficult, if not meaningless.”[5] To put it another way, how can there be a continuous act of generating when the three Persons have existed from eternity?

Consequently, Calvin argues for two axiomatic points. First, he argues that we ought to believe in and affirm the doctrine of eternal generation without trying to speculate on its nature. Second, not only must we affirm the eternal generation of the Person of the Son but we must also affirm the Son’s aseity as to his essence. To put it another way, if the Son (not to mention the Spirit) is of the same essence as the Father, then he is autotheos or God of Himself, that is to say there is a stress on the equality of the Persons sharing in the same essence. To these points, Warfield spoke emphatically,

In particular, it fell to Calvin, in the interests of the true Deity of Christ—the constant motive of the whole body of Trinitarian thought—to reassert and make good the attribute of self-existence (autotheotos) for the Son. Thus Calvin takes his place, alongside of Tertullian, Athanasius and Augustine, as one of the chief contributors to the exact and vital statement of the Christian doctrine of the Triune God.[6]

In addition Calvin made two striking points; first, he argued that to deny the quality of aseity to the Son or the Spirit would make them creatures of the Father. However, it’s the second of Warfield’s assertions regarding Calvin that is most interesting. Warfield argues that Calvin was far from novel on this point. In fact, he even quoted the Nicene Fathers themselves as asserting it “in so many words.”[7] So, does Warfield deny eternal generation? Not any more than Calvin.


Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.

[1] Warfield, Benjamin B., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 5, Calvin and Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 248.

[2] Ibid., 247.

[3] Ibid., 251.

[4] Ibid., 247.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Warfield, Benjamin. B. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: vol. 2, Biblical Doctrines (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 171.

[7] Warfield, vol. 5.583.


Jeffrey Stivason