Kevin Giles’ “The Eternal Generation of the Son”

* This review is an abbreviated version of a review of the same book I wrote for the 2012 Confessional Presbyterian Journal

Introduction

Not long ago, we did a show at Christ the Center on the Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son (DEGS, hereafter). There we all expressed an appreciation for the book. Not all, however, have been as appreciative. Nick Norelli, for one, has registered a mostly negative review of the book.1 For the most part, Norelli does not care for Giles’ connecting his doctrine of the Trinity to the gender debate (Giles is himself an egalitarian). With this sentiment, I am quite sympathetic. I am quite unsure how or way the issue of the eternal relation of the Son to the Father in the Godhead has to be used to advance one’s own position in the debate over the role of women in the church. In fact, in all my years of being a complementarian, I never once thought to defend the position on the basis of the doctrine of the Trinity.2 So, with Norelli I agree that the debate over the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and gender roles/authority in the church should remain distinct issues. Yet, I remain somewhat disappointed in Norelli’s review in that he seems to think that the whole book is a cover for Giles egalitarian agenda.3 And so I want to propose a fresh reading of the book without undue weight given to the small section Giles dedicates to making the (unfortunate, in my opinion) connection to the gender debate.

About the Book

The introduction to the book details the current rejection of DEGS in evangelical theology. It is in part interesting to note that he lays at least part of the blame at the feet the Old Princeton theologians (Giles, 31, fn. 46). While it is true that the old Princetonians were weak on the doctrine, they did hold to it and taught it as the received tradition. It is unfortunate that the cherry picking of the Princeton theologians continues without reading them more broadly. While the Old Princeton theologians cannot be blamed for the rejection of the doctrine, there is no doubt that their irresolute disposition toward the doctrine has been exploited by some to justify DEGS rejection.

But this rejection is no small matter, according to Giles. In fact, he goes so far as to claim, “we can see why [the doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit] are foundational elements … why they are ‘the linchpin’ that holds together divine unity and eternal threeness…Remove these two doctrines and the historic doctrine of the Trinity collapses.” (Giles, 21). But Giles raises the stakes of this rejection as he claims that “the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son takes us to the heart of the gospel, the good news, that in Jesus Christ we meet with the God who saves.” (Giles, 16).

In chapter 2 Giles tackles the issue of theological methodology. How do evangelicals do theology? And here he sets two different approaches over against one another. First, there is the method of “the Bible alone.” He describes this method in this way:

This definition indicates that systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizes their teachings clearly so that we know what to believe about each topic. (Giles, 40)

The second method holds the Bible as the ultimate authority, but also involves more than direct appeals to Scripture. This is the view exemplified by Robert Letham’s work, especially in his award winning book, The Holy Trinity in Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship.4 There, Letham concedes that “other Christians provide insights that do not immediately spring from the text of Scripture” and that “we should listen seriously and attentively to the Fathers.” (Giles, 41). Furthermore, this approach does not “downplay the ecumenical creeds in favour of the latest insights from biblical studies.” (ibid).

I did have some concerns about this chapter on methodology. I am not sure that the two he highlights are the only two available to evangelicals, nor that his categorization is accurate. I will at this point simply direct you, the reader, to my full length article in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal for why I believe there is an inaccuracy here.

Chapter 3 is a survey of the biblical warrant for DEGS. He helpfully traces back the denial of the doctrine to the 1952 article by Dale Moody who argued that the John 3:16’s monogenes is more accurately translated “only” or “unique” son, rather than “only begotten” son. Chapters 4 to 7 survey the history of the development of the idea of DEGS from the apologists right up to Karl Barth.5 The survey he offers is concise and helpful for gaining a snap shot picture of the particular theologians’ formulations. What is also helpful is that there is included a survey of Arius’ articulation of the Trinity and the orthodox response. I myself am no ancient church historian, so I will leave it to others to evaluate the accuracy of the survey of patristic thought. But it is worthy to note one thing Giles says with regard to Athanasius:

To reject the doctrine of the eternal begetting of the Son, Athanasius concluded, opened the door to either “Sabellianism” (what is today called “modalism”) or to “polytheism” (three separated and divided divine person, in the case of Arius, hierarchically ranked), which in both cases denies the eternal triunity of God (Giles, 118).

A brilliant observation on the part of Athanasius! In particular, what is most helpful here is to observe the potential dangers—or else, the logical conclusions – of the rejection of DEGS. While it is true there are plenty of theologians, both ancient and modern, who reject DEGS and yet also reject Sabellianism and polytheism, one must wonder about the issue of consistency. Without DEGS, what is the conceptional mechanism in place to prevent collapsing the Trinity into a monad on the one hand, or dividing it into three gods on the other? More on this, in the conclusion.

Now, it is true, in these chapters Giles hits home the point consistently that the great doctors of the faith reject any subordination within the Trinity. He rejects the idea of subordinationism among the persons in either power, being, authority, or obedience (see, for instance, 141 and 143). And with this, we are generally agreed. Giles could have nuanced things, a wee bit, however. For instance, orthodox protestant theology will speak about the pactum salutis, a subject—as far as I know – completely ignored by Giles. The Son in the eternal covenant of redemption agrees to do the Father’s will in laying down his life on the cross (a la, Philippians 2:6–8). And this covenant is properly said to be eternal in so much as it takes place between the persons, primally. However, it is not eternal if by that we mean it constitutes the personal properties or the relations between the persons of the Trinity. No, the relations are there necessarily by virtue of who God is as Trinity. But the pactum salutis, while eternal in the way just described, is a conditional relation between the Father and the Son. Here, and only here, can we say that the Son is obedient to the Father. But his obedience is not inherent to his personhood as Son. But it is a voluntary act of the Son in agreement with the Father for the sake of the Trinity’s acts of redemption ad extra and pro nobis. Contrary to Norelli’s argument, then, there is—in fact—no subordination among the persons of the Trinity as persons. Here Giles is absolutely correct, as far as I can tell theologically (if not historically—again, I leave that to better minds than myself).

Chapter 8 is another extremely helpful section of the book where Giles outlines four views on the relation between DEGS and subordinationism. For one, the way he outlines and surveys the various perspectives out there with regard to the relation between DEGS and subordinationism is as lucid as it is useful. In chapter 9 Giles speaks to the matter of other alternatives to understanding the differentiation of the persons in the Trinity. This is also the chapter Norelli is most concerned about because in it Giles argues against subordinationism and applies his position to the debate on gender roles. I do agree with Norelli that this is a weakness in this chapter, though perhaps for different reasons. But what is useful in this chapter is the way Giles exposes the weaknesses of other contending views as they try to figure out a way to speak of some kind of subordination without falling into heresy.

Chapters 10 and 11 are wrap up chapters with a survey of where modern theology is on DEGS. He divides the chapter up into good news and bad news. This chapter alone is worth the book if for no other reason than to gain a sense of where modern trinitarian theology is today. And chapter 11 is simply a wrap up and summary of his argument for DEGS.

Conclusion

It may seem that DEGS is a relatively minor doctrine given the heavy emphasis on other matters currently being hotly contended. But we do not want to underestimate the dangers lurking for those who dismiss centuries of theological articulation. The theological greats of the past knew what they were doing and what was at stake when it came to how they said what they did. But what is at stake?

First, if the Son is not begotten of the Father eternally, then how is the Son differentiated from the Father? If the Son is not eternally begotten of the Father, then in what sense can we say that the Son is truly, ontologically, the Son? Is “Son” simply a title which has no ontological reality standing back of it? In other words, to be properly called a “son” requires some kind of begetting. It requires having some kind of property proper to one’s personal relation to the begetter. To deny this property seems to amount to nominalism. And nominalism, at its heart, is nothing but Sabellianism in disguise.

Second, when the eternal personal properties are denied, another (ironically, opposite) error becomes a danger: tritheism. The personal properties not only provide for differentiation within the Godhead, but they also serve to keep the three persons in an eternal perichoretic unity. If each person of the Trinity is autotheos, but no eternal relations of generation and procession bind them together, then we are left with three separate essences; i.e., three gods.6

Third, it seems fundamentally wrong to pit economic references against ontological categories. In the history of doctrine, it is held that economic statements have ontological referents. So, when in John 15:26 Jesus says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me,” Jesus is referring to an economic procession of the Spirit. However, this is the case in time only because it is first the case in eternity. As Francis Turretin has helpfully explained, “the order of operating follows the order of subsisting.”7 In other words, what the triune God does in redemptive-history really relates to his personal relations. What happens in history is true only on the basis of what is first true in the Godhead. And yet, while there is a relation—an all-important relation! – between God’s acts in history and his divine subsisting, not all things predicated of the economic Trinity can be predicated of the imminent Trinity. For instance, while the Son is subordinate to the Father in time in terms of his obedience, that is not something which can be pushed back into the divine, eternal subsistence. Remember, the relation between the economic and imminent Trinity is analogical, not univocal (which would result in tritheism) or equivocal (which would result in nominalism/Sabellianism)

Fourth, however one translates John 3:16—unique son or only begotten son—the reference is clearly to the Son who is “in the Father’s bosom”8 before the creation of the World. He is the Son who transcends the world which is the object of the Father’s sending. Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5 may indeed be understood as a reference to economic events (i.e., the coronation of the exalted Son). However, that economic event may never be pitted against the ontological reality which stands back of it. As Herman Bavinck as succinctly stated it: “the economic Trinity reflects the ontological.”9 Therefore, the Son is “begotten” in the economy of salvation only because he is first eternally begotten of the Father.

In closing, no longer can today’s theologians simply and easily dismiss the doctrine of the eternal generation of Son. Given Giles’ work, the case must be made again, this time while engaging Giles’ objections to the denial. This will, lets hope, once again get us back on the track of reading, loving, and appreciating all that the early fathers did for us in fighting for the truth of who our God is. Giles has laid down the gauntlet against myoptic, biblicistic, and a-historical approaches to doing Protestant theology today. We would do well to do the same.

2 I am aware that Augustine used the family as a picture of the Trinity, but whether or not such an analogy is legit is for another debate. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that while Augustine rejected ontological or personal (as opposed to economical) subordination, he also fully agreed with the church’s and the Bible’s teaching that women are not to hold positions of authority in the church.

3 For instance, Norelli says, “If there’s one thing that my reading of Giles’ work has taught me, it’s that somewhere in the background (or foreground!) is always going to be his obsession with connecting the Trinity to the gender debate. Now to be fair, he denies that he’s the one who does this, preferring rather to attribute this phenomenon to his complementarian counterparts. I’ll let the individual reader make his or her own assessment. All one has to do in EGS is look at the table of contents in order to realize that he’ll address this in chapter 8 [sic, he actually addresses it in chapter 9] but in truth Giles prepares the way for this discussion in all the chapters that precede it and he continues it in the chapters that follow.”

4 Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity in Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004).

5 As an aside, I strongly disagree with Giles for bringing Barth in to defend DEGS. Barth’s whole theological system, being radically actualistic and thoroughly anti-metaphysical, militates against an orthodox version of DEGS. For a full treatment of Barth’s unorthodox doctrine of the Trinity, see my “Election and Trinity,” Westminster Theological Journal 71 (2009): 53–81.

6 Of course, these two points are Athanasius’ insights highlighted so well by Giles on page 112 of his book.

7 Institute of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1997), 1:281.

8 John 1:18

9 Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1951), 296.

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