Scott Swain On Warfield’s Revision Of The Doctrine Of The Trinity

We may shed further light on the nature of Warfield’s position by looking at the broader historical-theological context within which it emerges. Toward the conclusion of his ISBE article, Warfield offers a brief sketch of the history of Trinitarian doctrine. On his reading, the history of the doctrine exhibits a struggle between those who properly assert “the principle of equalization” among the persons of the Trinity and those who “unduly … emphasize the elements of subordinationism which still hold a place … in the traditional language in which the church states its doctrine.”32 Warfield identifies John Calvin among those who stand on the right side of this historical contest: “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.” According to Warfield, Calvin’s particular contribution to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is “to reassert and make good the attribute of the self-existence of the Son.” Although Warfield’s ISBE article does not fully indicate how Calvin’s theology accomplishes this, his other writings do. Calvin’s radical commitment to the aseity of the Son leads to a revision of the doctrine of eternal generation in the Reformer’s own thought and lays the exegetical foundation that would eventually lead to wholesale rejection of the doctrine of eternal generation by later followers. I believe Warfield’s rejection of the personal properties of paternity, filiation, and spiration is best understood as an attempt to perfect this trajectory in Calvinian Trinitarianism.

As Richard Muller observes, the affirmation and defense of the Son’s aseity is “the distinctive feature of Reformed trinitarianism.”According to common Reformed teaching, the Son not only possesses the divine attributes of eternity, immutability, omnipotence, and omnipresence, he also possesses the divine attribute of aseity. The Son is autotheos, God in and of himself. For Reformed theology, the affirmation of the Son’s aseity is integral to the affirmation of the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father. Because he is “equal with God” (John 5:19), the Son must have “life in himself” just “as the Father has life in himself” (John 5:26).

The majority of theologians in the Reformed tradition argue that the aseity of the Son is consistent with the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. The consistency between these two aspects of the Son’s person lies in properly distinguishing the Son’s being (that which the Son holds in common with the Father and the Spirit) from his mode of being (that which distinguishes the Son from the Father and the Spirit). Because he is “equal with God” in being (John 5:19), the Son has “life in himself” just “as the Father has life in himself” (John 5:26). Because he is distinct from the Father in his mode of being, the Son has “life in himself” as something eternally “granted” or communicated to him by the Father (John 5:26). For these theologians, it is precisely the Son’s distinct mode of being as one eternally begotten of the Father that accounts for his being consubstantial with the Father.

Scott R. Swain,B. B. Warfield and the Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” Themelios 43.1 (2018).

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  1. It is truly disturbing that some modern theologians, based on His being begotten and subordinate to the Father, are questioning Christ’s equality with the Father. Like the Arian and Socinian doctrines, that were condemned in the early ecumenical creeds, their reformulations would seem to bring them to a conclusion that Christ is less than true God. The implications for the Christian faith, are potentially devastating. How such teachers, even in Reformed seminaries, manage to escape being fired under heresy charges is something I cannot understand, since they are undermining the foundations of the Christian faith. The JWs must be laughing.

    Thank you for presenting the historic counter arguments to this false teaching, showing how Christ is equal with the Father precisely because He is the only begotten of the Father. His distinct qualities of being the Son and God\man, in voluntary subordination to the Father, is further proof of His aseity, God in and of Himself. John 1:1-3

  2. Maybe it’s too big a concept for my human brain but I have never understood what it means that Christ was “begotten” of the father. I understand the meaning of begotten in its human application and for Christ’s incarnation but my understanding fails me with the term “eternally begotten”. Can it be explained for a finite mind?

    • Bob,

      It is a great mystery but that is the inference the church has always drawn from passages such as John 1:18, “the only-begotten God” (πώποτε μονογενὴς θεὸς). It’s about personal properties. Begottenness belongs to the Son. Procession belongs to the Spirit. Unbegottenness belongs to the Father.

      There is no way to see those in the abstract. There’s no birds-eye view of the personal properties of the persons of the Trinity. We accept those truths by faith, on the authority of Scripture. We say “eternal begottenness” because the Son has always been the Son. There is no beginning of his Sonship and no end. The Father has always been the Father. There’s no beginning or end of the Spirit’s procession. It just is.

      The Athansian Creed is helpful here:

  3. A big thank you to Dr. Clark and Bob for using words like “I cannot understand” and “it is a mystery” and also statements like “We accept those truths by faith on the authority of Scripture”. All too often we see the arrogance of man in the position of “I cannot understand it therefor it is not true or cannot exist”. One day we will know and understand everything but until then it behooves us to remain humble. Thanks for being humble gentlemen, I love you for it.

  4. We usually emphasize the eternal nature of the Father in order to demonstrate the eternal nature of the Son. But in the Trinitarian/relational sense, doesn’t the opposite hold as well? The Son must also be autotheos if the God is to be eternally his Father. The aseity of God as Son is essential to the aseity of God as Father.

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