Retrieving Eternal Generation

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Fred Sanders, Scott R. Swain
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , November
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It can be said that in contemporary evangelicalism, the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son (that the Son has the divine essence communicated to him by the Father) has fallen on hard times. It has been denied by some on both sides of the Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS) debate, had its biblical foundation questioned by modern exegetes, and had it philosophical and explanatory laurels challenged by some of the best minds of evangelicalism. It is in the face of these and other challenges that this volume was created to retrieve the doctrine of eternal generation as one which “secures Trinitarian theology against a broad array of disorders, scleroses, and deflections” (1). To counter such an array of challenges, the book is split into three sections: biblical evidences, historical witness, and contemporary philosophical and dogmatic articulations. The depth and quantity of these essays prevent comment on all, but I will endeavor to direct my comments towards important themes and discoveries.

The first section counters perhaps the most pervasive argument against eternal generation amongst evangelicals: that it has no scriptural foundations. In refuting this claim, several of the contributors point to a weakness in contemporary evangelical theology, namely a rigid and short-sighted reliance upon a biblicist hermeneutic. In his chapter on Old Testament evidence for eternal generation, Mark Gignilliat notes the resonance between the 17th century Socinian John Biddle’s notion of being “only interested in what the Bible claims and nothing more” and the sensibilities of modern evangelicals (71). While he goes on to point out the mutually informing nature of doctrinal claims about God and the witness of scripture to those claims, other writers make similar points through different avenues. Both Scot R. Swain and R. Kendall Soulen, in chapters 1 and 7, turn to the theology of divine names as a fruitful area of biblical witness to the truth of eternal generation. What is remarkable about these essays is that they take the same subject matter and interpret and deploy it in remarkably unique ways. Swain defends the doctrine by noting that the unity of the Bible presupposes the unity of its main character YHWH, while differentiating between three ontological relations these terms have to their subject (33). In contrast, Soulen focuses on the various means by which scripture denotes the relation between Father, Son and Spirit, arguing that we should employ them all in articulation of the doctrine and identification of the three persons of the Trinity (146).

In addition to these hermeneutical volleys, the defense of monogenes as “only begotten” by Charles Lee Irons provides a firm lexical foundation for the doctrine, while the interpretations of Proverbs 8 and Hebrews 1 further demonstrate its exegetical viability. Oddly enough, the most disappointing essay within an otherwise solid collection is that of one its most able exegetes, D.A. Carson. While Carson does an excellent job of demonstrating the doctrine from John 5:26, “ For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself,” his comments which follow seem to indicate that he endorses one of the positions the collection of essays is meant to refute, namely some kind of EFS of the Son. In commenting on 1 Corinthians 15:28, he states, “The most natural reading of these verses is that the Son… remains, after the consummation, eternally subject to his Father,” and “if ‘being made subject’ to the Father does not entail some kind of intrinsic inferiority…then why should any sort of functional submission among the persons of the Godhead be thought to entail ontological inferiority?” (95). What Carson is giving with his right hand—affirmation of eternal generation, he is taking away with his left, affirming EFS.

Proceeding to the section on historical witness, the essays on the Westminster Assembly’s view of the doctrine and Jonathan Edwards’s articulation of it are particularly noteworthy. Charles Van Dixhoorn points to the doctrinally diverse and polemically charged environment which the Westminster Divines waded through to present their formulation of the doctrine. This diversity, represented by three streams of thought concerning the doctrine, add color to the theological debates of the time and provide potential areas of constructive development (186, 193). Christina N. Larsen also presents another unique formulation of the doctrine provided by Jonathan Edwards, based off of a psychological model of the Trinity, and his own emphasis upon the glory and happiness of God as constitutive of and resulting in the generation of the Son. One cannot help but think of the recent efforts of Oliver Crisp to expand the borders of classical Calvinism, and the multiple views presented in these two essays do well to show the broadness of the tradition, all while fulfilling their stated purpose of demonstrating the historical agreement over and witness to the doctrine in question.

The last section dealing with the contemporary philosophical and dogmatic statements of the doctrine present novel defenses and uses of the doctrine in other areas of theology. Mark Makin in his chapter “Philosophical Models of Eternal Generation,” presents a robust defense of the doctrine against some of its more philosophically inclined detractors though deft use of contemporary philosophical categories and potentially novel reworkings of what it means for God to be the Father (258). In the final two chapters, Fred Sanders and Josh Malone offer up the doctrine’s value for soteriology and other theological loci. The benefit of these last two chapters is that they successfully integrate eternal generation into the large scheme of dogmatics. While some detractors may claim that eternal generation is an unintelligible and useless doctrine, Sanders and Malone demonstrate that it is in fact integral to the very essence of the gospel and God’s work ad extra.

In summation, Retrieving Eternal Generation offers a panoply of insightful research and careful argumentation as to why the doctrine of eternal generation is not only worthy of retrieval by evangelicals, but why it must be lest our understanding of our Triune God be impoverished.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brendon Norton is a graduate student in Biblical and Theological Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Fred Sanders is professor of theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in La Mirada, California.

Scott R. Swain is professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.


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