Heidelberg 33: God’s Eternally And Only Begotten Son And His Adopted Sons (3)

We are considering how we understand the language of the Apostles’ Creed, when we say, “only begotten Son” and how we explain it in our catechism. In Question 33 we say:

33. Why is He called God’s “only begotten Son,” since we also are the children of God?

Because Christ alone is the eternal, natural Son of God; but we are children of God by adoption, through grace, for His sake.

As we saw in part 2 there is ample reason for thinking that the we understand “only begotten” not only to refer to Christ’s uniqueness but also to his eternal generation. There are some difficulties, however, in holding this view in our time. One of them is that the older reading of John 1 and other passages, on which the traditional view relies, are no longer in fashion. Another is that Calvin is sometimes understood to deny eternal generation. Some appeal to language Calvin used in Institutes 1.13.25 to suggest that he denied eternal generation. There is reason to doubt this interpretation. That reading seems to ignore the context of Calvin’s comments and his intent. Calvin affirmed both that God the Son is autotheos (God of himself) with respect to essence and that, with respect to his person, he exists from the Father. There is no necessary conflict between Calvin’s doctrine of autotheos and eternal generation, if we make the same distinctions that Calvin himself made. If we read earlier sections in Institutes 1.13 we find Calvin repeatedly affirm the eternal begotteness of the Son. He seems to have assumed eternal generation. He certainly used the same language as the orthodox who affirmed eternal generation. I am not aware that the Calvin’s orthodox successors saw themselves as contradicting or disagreeing with Calvin and they were willing to do that when necessary. They did not see Calvin as the gold standard of Reformed theology but rather as an important voice in the tradition.

Richard Muller, in his magisterial Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (vol, 4) surveys the Reformed defense of the eternal generation of the Son over against the Some Remonstrants (Arminians), who were tending toward Socinianism. One of them argued, e.g., that Logos means “reason” and that the Son is merely the Father’s reason, i.e., the Son is a faculty of the Father (p. 275). This, of course, is an ancient heresy. They also defended the against the Socinians, who re-asserted an Arian Christology. Muller notes that the Reformed drew analogies and inferences from Ps 2:7, “You are my Son and today I have begotten you.” They recognized the redemptive-historical context of this language but they did not restrict those passages only to that horizon. They saw in them a reflection of eternal intra-Trinitarian relations. The Socinians argued from Acts 13:32–33 that the reference was to Christ’s resurrection, not to intra-Trinitarian relations and eternal generation.

Muller addresses Calvin’s relations to the doctrine of eternal generation:

From the earliest encounter with antitrinitarians, the Reformed were pressed to argue the divine begetting of the Word and the incarnation as the operations of an eternal and immutable being. Calvin noted the “outcry” of certain persons who feared to deny the divinity of Christ but who nonetheless denied his eternity, claiming that “the Word only began to be when God opened his sacred mouth in the creation of the world.” To claim this is to deny the immutability of God. Rather, the interpretation of the text ought to observe the rule that “the names of God, which have respect to external work, began to be ascribed to him from the existence of the work, as when he is called the Creator of heaven and earth.” Even so “piety does not recognize or admit any name which might indicate that a change had taken place in God himself.” Calvin returned to the question from a different perspective when confronting Servetus’ claim that Christ’s sonship derived from the fact that “he was begotten in the womb of the Virgin by the Holy Spirit.” On the contrary, Calvin insists that “the definition of the Church stands unmoved, that he is accounted the Son of God” in his humanity “because the Word begotten by the Father before all ages assumed human nature by hypostatic union, a term used by ancient writers to denote the union which of two natures constitutes one person,” and the Word himself “is called a Son on account of his Godhead and eternal essence.”1

He observes that, contra the Socinian adoptionist, subordinationist Christology (which they claimed to be biblical), Turretin argued that Christ is the Son not only “by way of eminence” but rather that he God’s own Son and only begotten and “most beloved” Son all “imply essential Sonship,” which entail eternal filiation (idem, 4.282).

Owen saw in the Socinian rejection of eternal generation a kind of rationalism.

“this is the fruit of measuring spiritual things by carnal, infinite by finite, God by ourselves, the object of faith by corrupted rules of corrupted reason.2

We cannot leverage or decide a priori what God can or cannot do on the basis of what is impossible among humans. Simply because generation among humans implies separation or a temporal beginning does not mean that it is so for God. The Reformed understood that eternal generation is a great mystery. They confessed eternal generation because they found it in Scripture and reason, they held, must submit to Scripture (sola Scriptura). The Reformed, Muller notes, argued that the Socinians tended to misrepresent the Reformed argument. “From of old” does not imply a beginning. Rather, Ps 2:7 was an accommodated way of signaling, by using temporal categories an eternal relation.

Positively, “this generation of the Son is defined as an act of both the Father and the Son….”3

Scripture explicitly refers to the generation of the Son (Psalm 2:7) and to the fact that the Son is beloved (dilectus: Matt 3:17; 17:5), the proper (proprius) Son of God (John 5:18; Rom 8:32), and only begotten (unigenitus: John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). This generation is, moreover, eternal and perpetual, and unlike the generation of things in the physical world. Marckius argues, thus, that the generation of the Son is not a physical but a “hyperphysical” generation from which—as in the via negativa approach to the attributes—all “imperfection, dependence, succession, mutation, division, and multiplication” is absent. Nonetheless, he adds, this is a “proper,” not a “metaphorical,” generation, a genuine filiation flowing (fluens) from the Father according to which the Son is the true image of the invisible God, the representation of the glory and character of the Father’s person (cf. Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). By this generation, the Son is “produced from the Father” in an “eternal and incomprehensible communication of the unitary divine essence.”4

I understand that some significant modern Reformed theologians have rejected eternal generation principally on the ground that they think that the doctrine is speculative but we should be cautious about embracing such significant revisions of Reformed theology without first seriously engaging the history of the doctrine and the history of biblical interpretation. Nor should we accept uncritically the contemporary evangelical suspicion of the tradition lest we unintentionally fall into a Socinian pattern of reading Scripture (hermeneutics) and Socinian conclusions.

Next time: Our adoption as sons.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy;  Volume 4: The Triunity of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 281–82.

2. John Owen, Works 12.237 quoted in Muller, idem, 283.

3. Muller, idem, 4.287.

4. Idem, citing Marckius, Compendium, V.viii and Gürtler, Synop. Theol, vi.24.

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  1. I find it difficult to see how Calvin can be said to have disowned eternal generation in his Institutes since he wrote, in relation to the Word (Jn 1):

    Constituimus ergo rursum, sermonem extra temporis initium a Deo conceptum, apud ipsum perpetuo resedisse; unde et aeternitas et vera essentia et divinitas eius comprobatur.

    which we can take with the statement from his Catechism:

    At Dominus Iesus, qui ex substantia Patris est genitus, uniusque cum Patre essentiae est, optimo iure Filius Dei unicum vocatur:

    As Dr Clark says, “Calvin is sometimes understood to deny eternal generation. Some appeal to language Calvin used in Institutes 1.13.25 to suggest that he denied eternal generation. There is reason to doubt this interpretation. That reading seems to ignore the context of Calvin’s comments and his intent.”

    Unfortunately, C. Hodge, B.B. Warfield and J. Murray carry a great deal of responsibility for the misinterpretation, and ignoring the context of Calvin’s comments and his intent, and it has still not been straightened out.

    • Institutes 1.13.8: “We, therefore, again conclude, that the Word was eternally begotten by God, and dwelt with him from everlasting. In this way, his true essence, his eternity, and divinity, are established.”

      Genevan Catechism (1545), Q.46: “But the Lord Jesus who was begotten of the substance of the Father, and is of one essence with the Father, is by the best title called the only Son of God”.

  2. Warfield stated (in ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity’, Princeton Theological Review, vii, 1909):

    ‘The point of view which adjusted everything to the conception of “generation”… as worked out by the Nicene Fathers was entirely alien to him…we cannot doubt that he was ready…to sacrifice, if need be, the entire body of Nicene speculation. Moreover, it would seem at least very doubtful if Calvin…thought of this begetting…as involving any communication of essence.’

    ‘The direct Scriptural proof [of eternal generation] which had been customarily relied upon for its establishment he destroyed…He left, therefore, little Biblical basis for the doctrine of “eternal generation” ‘

    We only have to look at the two Latin quotes I gave above (and more can be adduced) to see that there is something suspect with Warfield’s assertions, which have been seized upon and used by Reymond.

    In fact, Calvin’s Genevan Cathechism of 1545 has proof texts, so Calvin hardly destroyed them. Taking this and the 1560 edition together on Q.46, Jn 1:1, 14; Eph 1:3, 5 and Heb 1:1, 2 are cited.

    Q46 Why do you call him the only Son of God, seeing that God designs to bestow this appellation upon us all?

    That we are the sons of God we have not from nature, but from adoption and grace only, in other words, because God puts us in that place, but the Lord Jesus who was begotten of the substance of the Father, and is of one essence with the Father, is by the best title called the only Son of God, because he alone is his Son by nature.

    Moreover, in the Institutes where he was talking about the Word, he was referencing John 1, which again is hardly destroying the proof texts.

    There is a continuous thread from C. Hodge (Warfield states that he capture’s Calvin’s thoughts precisely, which is not true), Warfield, Murray, and Reymond, the later one’s citing the former ones, as though this settled the matter, when it was wrong from the start.

  3. Good afternoon Dr. Clark,

    These posts on the eternal generation of the Son of God have been real informative. In this post, you touched upon the old or not-so-old heresy of Socinianism. I say not-so-old only in the sense that strands of the kenosis theory of Christ sound similar to it. The reason I bring this up is that the kenosis theory seems to be on the rise in the broad world of Evangelicalism. Some adherents to the kenosis view say that Christ became the Son of God either in Mary’s womb or at his baptism.

    Now, truth be told, there are other problematic aspects to the kenosis theory or theories (the ontological and functional perspectives) that are unique to them. It’s my impression that “old” heresies like Socinianism, or some of its tenets, seem to be recast in different molds, but the content remains the same. I guess my point is that your post has provoked me to examine kenosis and Socinianism in light of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God. It seems to me that church history is an essential subject to study and explore.

    Enjoy your weekend,


    • Matthew,

      The Kenosis (emptying) theory has been a temptation for a long time, of course. I haven’t seen evangelicals taking it up but it wouldn’t surprise me completely. The liberals were attracted to it, of course, because it eased the tension with the broader culture, which seems to offer rewards to those who soften the sharp edges of the faith. Of course, as it was in the garden and again in the desert, in Christ’s temptation, it’s always a lie. It’s not good exegesis for one thing. The kenosis of Phil 2 is figurative, not literal and the pouring out his Christ as a sacrifice. Paul has no idea that Christ might stop being God the Son incarnate.

      I do think it’s legitimate to worry about Socinian-izing inroads into broad evangelicalism and even into some Reformed quarters. The broadly held biblicism, which seems to be so influential today, is one entry point. Rationalism is always a threat.

      Have a blessed Lord’s Day.

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