Berkhof On The Eternal Generation Of The Son

c. The eternal generation of the Son. The personal property of the Son is that He is eternally begotten of the Father (briefly called “filiation”), and shares with the Father in the spiration of the Spirit. The doctrine of the generation of the Son is suggested by the Biblical representation of the first and second persons of the Trinity as standing in the relation of Father and Son to each other. Not only do the names “Father” and “Son” suggest the generation of the latter by the former, but the Son is also repeatedly called “the only-begotten,” John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Heb. 11:17; 1 John 4:9. Several particulars deserve emphasis in connection with the generation of the Son: (1) It is a necessary act of God. Origen, one of the very first to speak of the generation of the Son, regarded it as an act dependent on the Father’s will and therefore free. Others at various times expressed the same opinion. But it was clearly seen by Athanasius and others that a generation dependent on the optional will of the Father would make the existence of the Son contingent and thus rob Him of His deity. Then the Son would not be equal to and homoousios with the Father, for the Father exists necessarily, and cannot be conceived of as non-existent. The generation of the Son must be regarded as a necessary and perfectly natural act of God. This does not mean that it is not related to the Father’s will in any sense of the word. It is an act of the Father’s necessary will, which merely means that His concomitant will takes perfect delight in it. (2) It is an eternal act of the Father. This naturally follows from the preceding. If the generation of the Son is a necessary act of the Father, so that it is impossible to conceive of Him as not generating, it naturally shares in the eternity of the Father. This does not mean, however, that it is an act that was completed in the far distant past, but rather that it is a timeless act, the act of an eternal present, an act always continuing and yet ever completed. Its eternity follows not only from the eternity of God, but also from the divine immutability and from the true deity of the Son. In addition to this it can be inferred from all those passages of Scripture which teach either the pre-existence of the Son or His equality with the Father, Mic. 5:2; John 1:14, 18; 3:16; 5:17, 18, 30, 36; Acts 13:33; John 17:5; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:3. The statement of Ps. 2:7, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee,” is generally quoted to prove the generation of the Son, but, according to some, with rather doubtful propriety, cf. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5. They surmise that these words refer to the raising up of Jesus as Messianic King, and to the recognition of Him as Son of God in an official sense, and should probably be linked up with the promise found in 2 Sam. 7:14, just as they are in Heb. 1:5. (3) It is a generation of the personal subsistence rather than of the divine essence of the Son. Some have spoken as if the Father generated the essence of the Son, but this is equivalent to saying that He generated His own essence, for the essence of both the Father and the Son is exactly the same. It is better to say that the Father generates the personal subsistence of the Son, but thereby also communicates to Him the divine essence in its entirety. But in doing this we should guard against the idea that the Father first generated a second person, and then communicated the divine essence to this person, for that would lead to the conclusion that the Son was not generated out of the divine essence, but created out of nothing. In the work of generation there was a communication of essence; it was one indivisible act. And in virtue of this communication the Son also has life in Himself. This is in agreement with the statement of Jesus, “For as the Father hath life in Himself, even so gave He to the Son also to have life in Himself,” John 5:26. (4) It is a generation that must be conceived of as spiritual and divine. In opposition to the Arians, who insisted that the generation of the Son necessarily implied separation or division in the divine Being, the Church Fathers stressed the fact that this generation must not be conceived in a physical and creaturely way, but should be regarded as spiritual and divine, excluding all idea of division or change. It brings distinctio and distributio, but no diversitas and divisio in the divine Being. (Bavinck) The most striking analogy of it is found in man’s thinking and speaking, and the Bible itself seems to point to this, when it speaks of the Son as the Logos. (5) The following definition may be given of the generation of the Son: It is that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby He, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change

—Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 93–94

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Q. 8. Are there more Gods than one?
    A. There is but one only,l the living and true God.m

    (l) Deut 6:4; 1 Cor 8:4,6; Isa 45:21-22; Isa 44:6
    (m) Jer 10:10; John 17:3; 1 Thess 1:9; 1 John 5:20

    Q. 9. How many persons are there in the Godhead?
    A. There be three persons in the Godhead, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost;n and these three are one true, eternal God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory; although distinguished by their personal properties.o

    (n) Matt 3:16-17; Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14
    (o) John 1:1; Gen 1:1-3; John 17:5; John 10:30; Ps 45:6; Heb 1:8-9; Acts 5:3-4; Rom 9:5; Col 2:9

    Q. 10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?
    A. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son,p and to the Son to be begotten of the Father,q and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity.r

    (p) Heb 1:5-6,8
    (q) John 1:14,18
    (r) John 15:26; Gal 4:6

    Q. 11. How doth it appear that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father?
    A. The Scriptures manifest that the Son and the Holy Ghost are God equal with the Father, ascribing unto them such names,s attributes,t works,u and worship,w as are proper to God only.

    (s) Isa 6:3,5,8; John 12:41; Acts 28:25; 1 John 5:20; Acts 5:3-4
    (t) John 1:1; Isa 9:6; John 2:24-25; 1 Cor 2:10-11
    (u) Col 1:16; Gen 1:2
    (w) Matt 28:19; 2 Cor 13:14

  2. Q. 10. How doth it appear that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, being one God, are three distinct persons? A. 1. The Father begetting, is called a person in the Scripture. —Hebrews 1: 3. Christ is said to be the express image of his person; and by the same reason, the Son begotten of the Father, is a person, and the Holy Ghost proceeding from the Father and the Son is a person. 2. That the Father and the Son are distinct persons, is evident from John 8: 16-18. “I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me.” 3. That the Holy Ghost is a distinct person from the Father and the Son, appeareth from John 14: 16-17. “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth,” etc. 4. That the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three distinctdistinct persons, in one essence, may be gathered from 1John 5: 7. “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one.” These three are either three substances, or three manifestations, or three persons, or something else besides persons; but-(1.) They are not three substances, because in the same verse they are called one. (2.) They are not three manifestations, because all the attributes of God are manifestations, and so there would be more than three or thirteen; and then one manifestation would be said to beget and send another, which is absurd. (3.) They are not something else besides persons; therefore, they are three distinct persons, distinguished by their relations and distinct personal properties.
    Q. 11. What should we judge of them that deny that there are three distinct persons in one Godhead? A. 1. We ought to judge them to be blasphemers, because they speak against the ever-glorious God, who hath set forth himself in this distinction in the Scripture. 2. To be damnable heretics; this doctrine of the distinction of persons in the unity of essence being a fundamental truth, denied of old by the Sabellians, Arians, Photineans, and of late by the Socinians, who were against the Godhead of Christ the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; amongst whom the Quakers are also to be numbered, who deny this distinction.

    Thomas Vincent’s Explanation on the Shorter Catechism

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