Eternal generation of the Son

The eternal generation of the Son is defined as "an eternal personal act of the Father, wherein, by necessity of nature, not by choice of will, He generates the person (not the essence) of the Son, by communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead, without division, alienation, or change, so that the Son is the express image of His Father's person, and eternally continues, not from the Father, but in the Father, and the Father in the Son." [1]

Brief explanation

The name "Creator" or "Savior" refer to acts of God's will, but in contrast his name as Father to the Son is a revelation of the identity of God Himself. The Father brings forth the Son by the act of being God, not by an act of will, so that the Son fully shares in the Father's deity and glory as God. There has never been, nor is it possible for there to be, any God and Father without the Son.

God is an absolutely simple being. There are not three gods. There are not three Lords. There are not three parts of God. Rather, there are three who are Lord, three who are God, three who are One. The Father is not changed by being Father to the Son; Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God eternally. The Son is not divided from the Father by being the Son; the Son is as near to the Father as the Father is to himself. There is distinction among the divine Persons, but there is no separation.

By simply being God, the Son expresses the Father's person and being. Whoever sees the Son, sees the Father; that is, the Father is revealed to whomever the Father chooses to reveal the Son. Only God can reveal God. "No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known" (John 1:18; ESV). "That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:21).

"Eternally begotten" compared to "born of"

This doctrine suggests that Jesus, the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin, and declared to be the Son of God when raised up by the Spirit of God, manifests in human and therefore derivative terms an eternal and unchanging mystery concerning the relationship between the Father and the Son.

Historical development

Nicene Creed

"I one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made."

_See main page on Nicene Creed_


To speak of the "begottenness" or "generation" of the Son implies an analogy to God in human nature. When God speaks of himself as Father and Son, it suggests a social likeness to himself in man, who is made in God's image. Similarly, when he speaks of Himself as God and Word of God, it suggests likeness to God in man's modes of self-awareness, a "psychological analogy". When meditating on distinctions between the persons in the Trinity, for example, Augustine discovered something comparable (analogous) in the distinct modes of his own intellect, heart, and will. Similarly, there is a creaturely trinity of wisdom, knowledge of wisdom, and delight in that knowledge, that can be shown to be analogous to God:

Does that wisdom which God is said to be, not perceive itself, and not love itself? Who would say this? Or who is there that does not see, that where there is no knowledge, there in no way is there wisdom? Or are we, in truth, to think that the Wisdom which is God knows other things, and does not know itself; or loves other things, and does not love itself? But if this is a foolish and impious thing to say or believe, then behold we have a trinity,—to wit, wisdom, and the knowledge wisdom has of itself, and its love of itself. For so, too, we find a trinity in man also, i.e. mind, and the knowledge wherewith mind knows itself, and the love wherewith it loves itself.^[2]^ As Augustine observes, these distinct modes of human self-awareness do in fact correlate rather compellingly, with the way we think about the unity and diversity of the Father, Son and Spirit. However, even as Augustine explored such trinities in nature, he became increasingly aware that there is no temporal thing to which God, the Trinity, can be adequately compared.

"Directing my course according to this rule of faith, insofar as I could, and insofar as You made it possible for me, I sought You, and desired to see with my understanding that which I believed, and I have argued and labored much. O my Lord, my God, my only hope, hear me lest through weariness I should not wish to seek You, but may ardently seek Your face evermore. . . .Deliver me, O God, from the multitude of words with which I am inwardly afflicted in my soul; it is wretched in Your sight, and takes refuge in Your mercy. For I am not silent in my thoughts, even when I am silent in my words ... "^[3]^ Analogies to the Trinity, to the Son begotten and the Spirit proceeding, are so readily found in creation that it is tempting to imagine that the comparison can be reversed, to learn something really new about God from the created things. But, Augustine learned that while he was delighted to find that likenesses to God as He has revealed himself can be found everywhere in creation and especially within man himself, it became an exhausting burden on his mind and soul to try to go in the other direction, to "see with (his) understanding that which (he) believed". It is idolatry to simply equate God with the likenesses to him that we find in creation. We are put in danger of stopping this way, short of knowing God Himself, Augustine complains, because of the oppressive weariness produced by longing to understand Him who is beyond understanding. Therefore we must continually strive to know God, although this leaves us restless awaiting his appearing. God is incomparable and beyond understanding, Augustine concluded, and yet because He has revealed himself to us, we are able to see with our minds that man is made in the likeness of God.

Jonathan Edwards

"The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity [eternally] generated by God's understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God's infinite love to and delight in Himself. And . . . the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons." ^[4]^

Edwards comes very near to literally equating God's essence with rational thought, defining the relationships within God as aspects of the process of reasoning. The tendency to rationalize the Trinity has plagued Evangelical theology, and Edwards' comment typifies this problem.

Robert L. Dabney

"In a word, the generation of the Son, and procession of the Spirit, however mysterious, are unavoidable corollaries from two facts. The essence of the Godhead is one; the persons are three. If these are both true, there must be some way, in which the Godhead multiplies its personal modes of subsistence, without multiplying or dividing its substance. The Scriptures call one of these modes a 'genesi' and the other an 'ekporeusi.' We hence learn two truths. The Second and Third substances are eternally propagated in dissimilar modes. The inscrutable mode of the Second substance bears some mysterious analogy to the generation of human sons." ^[5]^

Although Dabney speaks of a "Second" substance and a "Third" substance, he evidently means by "substance" the same thing that he says earlier using the word "subsistence" – that is, that God is one undivided substance (being), not three beings; and therefore he concludes that the idea expressed by "generation" and "procession" is necessary in order to maintain that each of the three Persons is a distinct subsistence of the one God, as opposed to a separate or divided being (substance).

Westminster Confession of Faith

"In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten, not proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son." (WCF II.3)

Common arguments for the doctrine

  • "[It] is virtually implied in the very relation of terms, Father and His Son, Father and His pneuma, by the primariness of order always assigned to the Father, and by the distinction in the order of working." ^[6]^
  • It grounds economic order according to an order of relationship; rather than the reverse. It is unbiblical, and implicitly tri-theistic, to imagine for example that the Father might have been the Son had the three persons decided differently.
  • It is the only doctrinal discussion of the deity of Christ that depends directly on Biblical language for its basic content, for example:

John 1:1 John 1:1 John 3:16 John 5:20 John 5:26 John 14:11 John 17:21 John 10:38 Hebrews 1:3 Psalm 2:7 (quoted in Acts 13:33 & Hebrews 1:5; 5:5)


Because the terminology of "generated" and "begotten" can be mistaken to imply a temporal or even a fleshly analogy, there have been objections to this terminology, even though these terms are used to refer to the mysterious and eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. Nevertheless, it is confessional Reformed orthodoxy that Jesus Christ reveals eternal relationships within God, which are not arbitrary or reversible "roles": he is eternally the Son to the Father, without any implication of ontological subordination.^[7]^^[8]^ However, some Reformed theologians, in recent times notably Loraine Boettner and Robert Reymond, object to what they perceive as a confusion of the way God has chosen to enact his will (the "economic Trinity"), with who and what God is as God (the "immanent Trinity"). Such objections are comparable to some Eastern Orthodox theology, such as that of Gregory Palamas, which teaches that God is not at all knowable in his essence but in his energies only: that is, what he wills may be known if he so chooses, but God as such transcends revelation and therefore he is hidden rather than revealed by words and names. In Eastern Orthodox theology, at least, this approach leads to an apophatic (negative) approach to knowing God - a theology by negation of rational assertions. This contrasts with cataphatic theology, which demands acceptance of assertions made by God concerning himself — an approach which otherwise characterizes the work of these Reformed theologians.

Loraine Boettner

Loraine Boettner argues in The Trinity that the Son and Spirit are not in any sense "dependent upon another as their principal cause", which would seem to suggest that Boettner misunderstood the doctrine as teaching that generation and procession are effects rather than acts of communication entirely without change in being. He evidently is concerned with protecting against the implication that the Father exists prior to the Son and Spirit, when he says:

"... when the Scriptures tell us that one Person within the Trinity is known as the "Father," and another as the "Son," they intend to teach not that the Son is originated by the Father, nor that the Father existed prior to the Son, but that they are the same in nature."^[9]^ In this, Boettner departs from the Nicene Creed and supposes that he may enlist Calvin for support, but based on a misunderstanding of Nicea. Under his discussion of the procession of the Spirit, Boettner goes farther, to strongly suggest that each of the Persons is an autonomous entity, arguing that generation and procession imply subordination or derivation of being:

"[W]ithin the essential life of the Trinity no one Person is prior to, nor generated by, nor proceeds from, another, and that such priority and subordination as we find revealed in the works of creation, redemption and sanctification, relate not to the immanent but to the economic Trinity." ^[10]^ Boettner's view of Nicene-Chalcedonian Trinitarianism conflicts with the orthodox understanding of it, that the Son has eternal relation to the Father by eternal communication, by eternally sharing in the Father's being and glory as the one God, without subtraction from the Father, without dividing his being, without multiplying entities, and without the Father adding to Himself.

Robert Reymond

Reymond discusses his objections in A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. ^[11]^ Departing from orthodox Reformed theology of the Trinity, Reformed theologian Robert Reymond is rather emphatic in his rejection of eternal generation and procession. For Reymond, it is clear that Father, Son, and Spirit relate in covenant; he places distinctive emphasis on the equal self-existence of each person and the arbitrariness of the roles enacted by them. The subordination in their roles in salvation indicate nothing about what they are ontologically; and therefore, the name "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" is not a revelation of who God is, but rather only a revelation of God's purposes.

Reymond on Calvin

Robert Reymond includes John Calvin among those who reject any form of dependence ("subordination") of the Son to the Father with respect to the divine essence. ^[12]^ He explains Calvin's view as such,

[T]here is no question that Calvin espoused the doctrine of the Son's eternal generation as being true with respect to his hypostatic identity, that is, with respect to his Sonship, and he employed the doctrine to distinguish between the Father and the Son as to their order, but he did not espouse the doctrine as being true with respect to the Son's divine essence. ^[13]^ While Reymond interprets Calvin as accepting the Nicene Creed, he argues that Calvin was critical of its language. ^[14]^ Even Warfield noted that Calvin "refused to treat any human composition as an authoritative determination of doctrine, from which decline only on the pain of heresy: that belongs to the Word of God alone." ^[15]^ Calvin's hesitancy about eternal generation eventually came down to the act of continually begetting: "But, studying the edification of the Church, I have thought it better not to touch upon many things, which would be unnecessarily burdensome to the reader, without yielding him any profit. For to what purpose is it to dispute, whether the Father is always begetting? For it is foolish to imagine a continual act of generation, since it is evident that three Persons have subsisted in God from all eternity."^[16]^ Interestingly, the same passage of Calvin's Institutes is cited for support by Boettner.

Robert Letham has critiqued Reymond for his "shoddy" handling of Calvin's views.^[17]^ "Reymond cites one short paragraph from Warfield’s fine article 'Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity' to argue that Calvin rejected Nicene trinitarianism (334-35). This article is ninety-five pages long and Warfield repeatedly affirms Calvin’s approval of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan doctrine of the trinity. For instance, 'It will have already become apparent... that in his doctrine of the Trinity Calvin departed in nothing from the doctrine which had been handed down from the orthodox Fathers.’ [Warfield] also underlines Calvin’s 'pervasive' approval of eternal generation and eternal procession (244-45). From this long article Reymond extracts one small paragraph and uses it to counter all Warfield has carefully stated over scores of pages."^[18]^ Ralph Allan Smith suggests in his article Tritheism and Christian Faith that, viewed according to certain critical criteria, J. Oliver Buswell and Robert Reymond hold a version of Trinitarianism that "tends implicitly towards tritheism". By denying any dependency on the Father at all, the rejection of eternal generation and procession tends to imply without actually asserting it, that the Son and Spirit are independent and autonomous beings (that is, Smith sees Reymond's view as "defective" but not heretical). ^[19]^

Common objections

  • "Eternal generation" safeguards the idea that, the sonship of Christ is his equality with the Father as God, in contrast to any subordination or derivation. However, the language simplistically understood strongly suggests the very error that it is intended to safeguard against.
  • The Son is neither more nor less dependent on the Father in order to be God, than the Father is dependent upon the Son and the Spirit, because there is no God other than the one God: Father, Son and Spirit. However, the language of "generation", misunderstood, suggests that the Son is not equally God, but in some sense comes into being - which is ontological subordinationism.
  • It was developed to an extraordinary, speculative excess by Origen, on account of whom, the doctrine is often thought to teach that the Son is a subordinate (i.e. derivative) aspect of God's being. "Generation" was also the preferred terminology of the Arians and Eunomians, over against the orthodox, until the Council of Nicea robbed the heretics of their argument. Nevertheless, some regard the terminology as being tainted by these controversies.
  • In the Scriptures, "Son of God" never unequivocally refers to Jesus in a pre-incarnate state. Some therefore reject the idea of Eternal Sonship, not denying that God is eternally triune but intending only to deny that there is "eternal generation". Dabney describes this "incarnational sonship" view: "But among Trinitarians themselves there are some, who give to Christ's Sonship a merely temporal meaning. They believe that the Second and the Third persons are as truly divine as we do; they believe with us, that there is a personal distinction, which has been eternal; but they do not believe that the terms generation and procession were ever intended by Scripture to express that eternal relation. On the contrary, they suppose that they merely denote the temporal functions which the persons assume for man's redemption." - Robert L. Dabney ^[20]^

However, the denial that the Son is always the Son of the Father suggests that God changes his understanding of Himself in order to reveal himself. This is called voluntarism, which is a false teaching that the truth concerning God is only what He wills it to be. Accordingly, the voluntarist tendency denies that what God reveals concerning himself has any necessary relation to what God is as God. In contrast, we are told that God cannot lie, because he is incapable of denying himself - and therefore, when we are baptized into the name of "Father, Son and Spirit" we are placed into reliance upon God revealed truly and fully by Him who is the fullness of the Truth, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.


A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 182. Augustine, The Trinity, 15:6/10 Augustine, The Trinity, 15:28/51 "Essay on the Trinity," p. 118. Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, chapter 16 Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, chapter 16 Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 20, That Jesus Christ is true and eternal God, "We believe that Jesus Christ, according to his divine nature, is the only begotten Son of God, begotten from eternity ..." Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 2 Of God and of the Holy Trinity, section 3, "In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son." Loraine Boettner, The Trinity, chapter 8, Boettner, Trinity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), pp. 324-338. Systematic Theology, 326. Systematic Theology, 327. Systematic Theology, 328. Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 (Baker, 1981), 207. Cf. Stephen M. Reynolds, "Calvin's View of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds," Westminster Theological Journal 23 (Nov 1960/May 1961): 33-37. Institutes, Book I, Chapter 13, Section 29; cited in Reymond, Systematic Theology, 327. Westminster Theological Journal 62/2 (Fall 2000): 314-319. Cf. an excellent article: Paul Owen, "An Examination of Robert Reymond's Understanding of the Trinity in his Appeal to John Calvin," Calvin Theological Journal 35 (2000): 262-281. Tritheism and Christian Faith - Ralph Allan Smith Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, chapter 16

See also