What Is Eternal Generation?

The post-apostolic church fathers fall into two camps regarding who Jesus is: Logos Christology and eternal generation. Eternal generation is the belief that the Father eternally generates the person of the Son, and in doing so, eternally communicates the divine nature to him so that the Father is the fons divinitatis or fountain of divinity from whom the Son derives his divine nature making the Father the eternal origin and fontal source of the Son who is his eternal product. Richard Muller defines eternal generation as “the eternal and changeless activity in the Godhead by which the Father produces the Son without division of essence and by which the Second Person of the Trinity is identified as an individual subsistence or modus subsistendi, mode of subsistence, of the divine essence” (Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 127).

To understand eternal generation as it was historically understood, we must go back to the original sources to the time when it was first articulated. Origen was the first person in the history of the church to teach eternal generation and therefore we must consult his writings to accurately define the doctrine. Origen says concerning this generation:

“We recognize that God was always the Father of his only-begotten Son, who was indeed born of him and draws his being from him, but is yet without any beginning” (On First Principles 1.2.2).

“This is an eternal and everlasting begetting, as brightness is begotten from light; for he does not become Son in an external manner, through the adoption of the Spirit, but is Son by nature” (On First Principles 1.2.4).

“The existence of the Son is derived from the Father but not in time, nor from any other beginning, except, as we have said, from God Himself” (On First Principles 1.2.11).

“For in the exercise of His will He employs no other way than that which is made known by the counsel of His will. And thus also the existence of the Son is generated by Him” (On First Principles 1.2.6).

“Each fills the place of a fountain – the Father is the fountain of divinity, the Son of reason” (Commentary on John 2.3).

But in Origen’s theology, it is not just the Son who is eternally begotten, but everyone who believes in him:

“The Savior is eternally begotten by the Father, so also, if you possess the ‘Spirit of adoption’ (Rom 8:15) God eternally begets you in him according to each of your works, each of your thoughts. And being begotten you thereby become an eternally begotten son of God in Christ Jesus” (Homilies on Jeremiah 9.5).

Origen taught a doctrine of deification where those who are in Christ are lesser gods:

“And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him. . . . It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then, is ‘The God,’ and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype” (Commentary on John 2.2).

Origen subordinated the Son to the Father and created a hierarchy within the Trinity:

“The God and Father, who holds the universe together, is superior to every being that exists, for he imparts to each one from his own existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone. So that in this way the power of the Father is greater than that of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and that of the Son is more than that of the Holy Spirit” (On First Principles 1.3.5).

“The Father exceeds the Saviour himself and the Holy Spirit as much (or even more) as the Saviour himself and the Holy Spirit exceed the rest. . . . For he is an image of the goodness and brightness, not of God, but of God’s glory and of his eternal light, and he is a vapour, not of the Father, but of his power” (Commentary on John 13.151-53).

Like Eusebius of Caesarea, Origen believed that the Holy Spirit was a created being:

“We therefore, as the more pious and the truer course, admit that all things were made by the Logos, and that the Holy Spirit is the most excellent and the first in order of all that was made by the Father through Christ” (Commentary on John 2.6).

To support his belief in eternal generation, the main texts he drew from were Proverbs 8:22-36 and Wisdom 7:24-26. The apocryphal text from Wisdom says: “For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.” Since Christ is the wisdom of God, and wisdom is an emanation from God, this created a kind of emanation Christology where Christ is eternally proceeding from God in an always ongoing yet never completed action. Muller even calls generation and procession active emanations in the Trinity (Dictionary, 309-10). The passage calls Wisdom “a reflection of eternal light” which became the basis for the saying that Christ is “light of light.”

Origen had called the Son a “creature” (On First Principles 4.4.1), “another god” (Dialogue with Heraclides 2), a “second god” (Against Celsus 5.39; 5.61), and even said “the Son is other than the Father in being and essence” (On Prayer 10). He believed that prayer in its fullest sense should only be given to the Father (On Prayer 10). The Arians were able to use Origen’s theology to defend their own because of Origen’s subordinationist tendencies even though he believed that there was never a time when the Son did not exist because of eternal generation. But Origen did not just believe that there was never a time when the Son did not exist, he also believed this to be true when it came to the created order. He believed created beings must exist eternally as well or else God could not be eternally sovereign (On First Principles 1.2.10). Therefore, he affirmed a belief in the pre-existence of the soul (Commentary on John 2.24). For Origen, Jesus is a pre-existent human soul who became the Logos because he alone did not fall away from God as the other souls did (On First Principles 2.6.5; Against Celsus 5.39; Commentary on John 2.2). Before the Logos became man in the incarnation, the soul of Jesus had to be united with the Logos.

Origen was deeply influenced by Greek philosophy having been trained by the philosopher Ammonius Saccas (John Dillon, The Middle Platonists, 362-69, 381-82, 396). He had a penchant for allegorical interpretation: literalizing verses that were meant to be understood metaphorically and spiritualizing verses meant to be understood literally. He even castrated himself based on his literalizing of Matthew 5:28-30. Origen, together with Gregory of Nyssa, affirmed a belief in universal salvation where eventually all created beings will be reconciled to God (On First Principles 3.6.6). Origen’s theology is the reason why those who are Eastern Orthodox believe in deification and a large number of them are universalists believing that it is possible that in the end all will be saved. Out of all the early church fathers, Origen is one of the most influential. As Gregory the Theologian once said, “Origen is the whetstone of us all.”

In spite of the unbiblical theology of Origen, Athanasius was able to use Origen’s doctrine of eternal generation as a means to combat the arguments of Arianism. To give one example of this, the Arians argued that since Colossians 1:15 says that Christ is the “firstborn” of all creation, he must have come into existence. But the orthodox responded by arguing that Christ is eternally born from the Father and therefore there was never a time when he could have come into existence. All of the verses used to argue that Christ had a beginning became eternalized into never-ending timeless actions. But the proper way to interpret this verse is to understand the Old Testament background of what it means to be a firstborn son and the rights that come with it known as primogeniture (Ps 89:27). To say that Christ is the firstborn over all creation is to say that he is exalted and supreme over his Father’s creation analogous to how a firstborn son has the rights over his father’s estate.

Hilary of Poitiers continues Origen’s legacy of teaching that the Son derives his divine nature from the Father:

“Is not the meaning here of the word homoousion that the Son is produced of the Father’s nature, the essence of the Son having no other origin, and that both, therefore, have one unvarying essence? As the Son’s essence has no other origin, we may rightly believe that both are of one essence, since the Son could be begotten with no substance but that derived from the Father’s nature which was its source” (On the Councils 84).

“And lastly, when the Son said, I went forth from the Father and have come, did He leave it doubtful whether His Divinity were, or were not, derived from the Father? He went out from the Father; that is, He had a birth, and the Father, and no other, gave Him that birth. He bears witness that He, from Whom He declares that He came forth, is the Author of His being” (On the Trinity 6.16).

The eternal generation of the Son became a way to explain those verses which appear to subordinate the Son to the Father as Basil of Caesarea explains John 14:28 by arguing from the created order back to God:

“Since the Son’s origin is from the Father, in this respect the Father is greater, as cause and origin. Wherefore also the Lord said thus, ‘My Father is greater than I,’ clearly inasmuch as He is Father. Yea, what else does the word Father signify unless the being cause and origin of that which is begotten of Him?” (Against Eunomius 1.25).

But this raises the question, if the Son derives his eternal origin and divine nature from the Father, then is the divine nature communicated from the Father alone to the Spirit or from the Father and the Son? That is, is the ability to communicate deity itself communicated in the communication of the divine nature from the Father to the Son or is the ability to communicate deity only a personal property of the Father which distinguishes him from the Son and the Holy Spirit? This is what the debate over the filioque is about. The Western church added “from the Son” to the Nicene-Constantinople Creed at the Third Council of Toledo in 589 arguing that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. The Eastern Church rejects this and argues that doing so would result in two gods since there would be two fountains of divinity instead of one. They argue that the fountain of divinity must be located in the Father alone because it is located in the Father’s person rather than his nature. Since it exists in the Father’s person and not his nature, the Son cannot act as a fountain of divinity because he does not share the Father’s person, only his nature. Since he does not participate in the fountain of divinity, he cannot communicate divinity to the Holy Spirit as the Father does. If the fountain of divinity is located in the Father’s nature rather than his person, then there would be three fountains of divinity since all three persons share the one divine nature so even the Holy Spirit would have the ability to communicate divinity because a nature cannot exist in a naked state by itself apart from a supposit to dwell in. This would result in more than one God since there would be more than one self-existent, uncaused, unoriginated subsistence (Laurent A. Cleenewerck, His Broken Body, 317-44). As Paul Owen notes, the East and West have a long history of misunderstanding and anathematizing each other:

“The Eastern Church charges the West with subordinating the person of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son; and furthermore suspects that the Western tradition leaves an open door to the heresy of modalism. The Western Church charges the East with subordinating the Son to the Father; and furthermore suspects that the Eastern tradition leaves an open door to the heresy of tritheism.”

This is the result when you abandon the exegesis of the text of Scripture and engage in speculative theology concerning fountains of divinity. When this happens, human reasoning and the authority of man usurp the place of the Word of God which makes no mention of such things. The debate over the filioque is a reductio ad absurdum which God foreordained to show us how ridiculous these conceptions of generation and procession are just as the debate over the pretribulational rapture versus the midtribulational rapture demonstrates how silly it is to interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:4 as something distinct from the second coming of Christ. The entire question of whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or the Father and the Son is based on a misunderstanding of John 15:26. This verse is talking about the missio Dei of the Spirit, not his ontological origin. The Spirit proceeds or goes forth from the Father to carry out the Father’s mission of bringing salvation to the elect by pointing them to Christ. “Proceeds” is in the present tense because the Spirit’s work in the world did not begin at Pentecost, but has been ongoing from the beginning of creation (Ps 104:30).

I do not believe Origen’s concept of eternal generation can be supported from Scripture. It is better to say that the Son is autotheos or God of himself rather than saying he derives his divine nature from the Father. If this makes me a heretic, then John Calvin was also a heretic because he did not accept eternal generation’s teaching that the Son’s divine nature is derived or communicated from the Father. While many theologians have tried to reconcile Calvin’s doctrine of Christ as autotheos with eternal generation, they must redefine how eternal generation was historically understood. Communication or derivation of essence from the fons divinitatis is essential to eternal generation. Origen explicitly denied that the Son is autotheos. He does not possess the divine nature of himself:

“To such persons we have to say that God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God of Himself) . . . But the archetypal image, again, of all these images is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, and who by being with God is at all times God, not possessing that of Himself, but by His being with the Father” (Commentary on John 2.2).

This is what the Nicene Creed means when it says that the Son is “true God from true God.” His deity comes from God the Father who is the fountain of being. The Son does not exist of himself as the Father does, but he owes his personal existence and divine nature to the Father who “continually gives existence to him” (Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah 9.4). The belief that the Son owes his hypostatic existence to the Father was shared by the proponents of Logos Christology except that they believed this generation occurred before the foundation of the world rather than being an eternally ongoing action within the being of God. Eternal generation is an evolution of Logos Christology which took its place because eternal generation was able to be reconciled with the immutability of God and answer the arguments of Arianism. But ironically, it is the mistaken assumption that the Son owes his existence to the Father that led to the rise of Arianism to begin with.

My study of the early church fathers has only reinforced my belief that we must make Scripture alone our starting point for doing Christian theology and treat every piece of writing outside of Scripture with caution lest we derive our theology from man instead of God. Otherwise, we are simply condemned to the beliefs of our tradition. The theology of Origen is a rotten foundation on which to do Christian theology. That he was the first person to teach eternal generation should immediately raise a red flag and send us back to the Scriptures.

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