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.
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.