Recent neglect of the doctrine of eternal generation has left evangelicals and Christendom as a whole lacking in a theological foundation that has been affirmed for centuries. This collection of essays by scholars and theologians will engage your mind and help you to see and remember why this doctrine is central to the Christian belief. The following is an excerpt from R. Kendall Soulen, professor of systematic theology at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University.
~ Cory Mansfield
Scripture and Tradition’s Threefold Vocabulary for Eternal Generation
Eternal Generation as Processio Verbi: Common Nouns in the Apologists
The first Christian theologians to ref lect extensively on God’s pretem- poral relation to Christ were the second-century apologists, and they had a preferred vocabulary for doing this: common nouns drawn from the vocabulary of the wisdom tradition. As Maurice Wiles has pointed out, for the apologists “the ideas of God and his Word or God and his Wisdom” were much more important than “the idea of God the Father and his Son.” Tatian, for example, never uses the concept of Son in his Address to the Greeks, and Theophilus does so only rarely in Apology to Autolycus. Instead, both theologians prefer to speak of Christ as the first-begotten Word or Wisdom of God.
This fact is fairly well known, and indeed it accounts for another name by which the apologists are commonly known: Logos theologians. The apologists’ choice of conceptuality is often chalked up to the fact that they were seeking to make Christian faith intelligible and attractive to con- temporaries, and no doubt there is something to this. Still, on this score at least, we cannot fairly accuse the apologists of abandoning Scripture for Hellenistic fashion because they were in fact echoing the Bible’s most common way of portraying God’s generation of a divine counterpart before the creation of the world. The thickest seam of such language is found in wisdom literature, which describes the origin of divine Wisdom in a host of impressive ways but never in terms of the kinship vocabulary of Father and Son. True, we do find the procreative verb gennaoˉ (“beget”), as when God is said to beget Wisdom “before all the hills” (Prov 8:25) and “before the morning star” (Ps 110:3 LXX). Still, gennaoˉ is but one among several verbs that describe the relation of origin and derivation, most of which are verbs outside the sphere of kinship language. Turning to the New Testament writers, they too speak of the preexistent Christ most commonly in the imagery of common nouns inherited from Wisdom literature, as when they call him “the Word” ( John 1:1, 18), “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “the ref lection of God’s glory” (Heb 1:3), “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3), “in the form of God” (Phil 2:5), and so on. Yet however biblical their inspiration, the Logos theologians famously failed to resolve some key questions. Was God’s generation of Wisdom inherent in God’s very identity as God, and thus as eternal as God himself ? Or was it God’s first act of creation, and thus temporally subsequent to God himself? In its prolixity of images, wisdom literature could be inter- preted in either direction, and it must be said frankly that even the New Testament’s Christ hymns are not wholly free of this ambiguity (cf. Christ as “the firstborn of all creation,” Col 1:15). This leads us to consider the role played by another vocabulary of divine generation, that of divine kinship.
Eternal Generation as Generatio: Kinship Nouns in Origen and Athanasius
One the of key breakthroughs in the development of Trinitarian theology in the ante-Nicene period is often said to be the idea of eternal generation, which freed the concept of generation from one element of subordina- tionism, namely, temporal secondariness. The credit for this development usually goes to Origen. While Origen could express the idea of eternal generation in more than one way (as, for instance, the image of Light from Light), he did so quite often by reasoning from the language of Father and Son. His choice of vocabulary was no accident. Unlike most common nouns, kinship terms are inherently reciprocal in character. If God is eternally Father, as Origen held, then the Son too must be eternal, for, as Origen writes, “one cannot be a father apart from having a son.”8 Origen’s reason- ing remained potent a century later, when Athanasius championed it in his campaign against the Arians. Athanasius sought to sharpen Origen’s insight into the eternal relation of Father and Son by emphasizing the distinction between the Father’s begetting of the Son and the Father and Son’s creation of the world in the power of the Spirit. The first is an eternal and necessary act of nature; the second a temporal and contingent act of divine will.
Still, even the concept of eternal generation as expressed in the language of kinship is not impervious to subordinationist interpretation. After all, fathers are commonly understood to be superior to sons in power and authority, and this might seem especially true in the case of one who is eternally Father vis-à-vis one who is eternally Son. Perhaps because they sensed this lingering vulnerability, the bishops gathered at the Council of Nicaea sought for yet another way to express the relation of God and Christ, one that would express not only their co-eternity but their co-equality. And this brings us to the historical role played—and not played—by a third vocabulary.
Taken from Retrieving Eternal Generation by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, Editors. Copyright 2017 by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.