Fred Zasperl interviews Fred Sanders and Scott Swain, eds.;
RETRIEVING ETERNAL GENERATION
Fred Zaspel: The Eternal Generation of the Son is likely one of the most important doctrines you’ve never heard much about, but our guests today want to change that.
Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and we’re talking to Fred Sanders and Scott Swain, editors of the new book entitled, Retrieving Eternal Generation. It’s an important work – a genuine contribution to this area of theological discussion, and we are very pleased they can talk to us about it today.
Fred, Scott – welcome again, and congratulations on this important book.
Fred Sanders & Scott Swain: Thank you. Thanks, Fred, glad to be here.
Zaspel: Let’s begin with some basics. Just briefly, what is the doctrine of eternal generation?
Sanders: It’s a part of the doctrine of the Trinity. It’s the part that talks about the relation of the Father to the Son; and it teaches that the Son is always from the Father, that the co-equal, co-eternal Son of God has always stood in a relationship to the Father of being from Him.
Zaspel: Your title – “Retrieving Eternal Generation” – seems to assume that the doctrine has fallen on bad times. Explain that for us, and maybe you can give us a bit of its history.
Swain: I think that while the doctrine of eternal generation was central to the Church’s confession of the Trinity in the fourth century, it was a doctrine much discussed of church fathers, by medieval doctors and even into the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Really in the 18th and 19th centuries and in a way that that has affected, I think, 20th century evangelical thought, you see a spectrum of folks who either offer what I would call a tepid affirmation of the doctrine. Like, they know they can’t deny it, but maybe they’re a little bit apologetic for it. Or, you have some who just come out and say that we really don’t need this doctrine anymore; we can still be Trinitarian without it. And so, that kind of attitude has led to it not being on the surface of evangelical Trinitarian theology. If you look at a number of textbooks from the 20th century, they can discuss the Trinity without discussing the doctrine of eternal generation at all.
Zaspel: Okay, this isn’t the most familiar concept in contemporary Christian discussion, so maybe you could explain a bit further. Just what is in view in eternal generation – the person of the Son, his essence? And just what does “generation” mean, especially if it is eternal?
Sanders: I can establish the big picture. You know, when you’re doing Trinitarian theology, you always want to keep your wits about you, and know that you’re answering questions that arise from the biblical witness itself, and from the overarching story of how God has revealed himself in saving us. What that means is, we know from biblical revelation you’ve got the Father and the Son; they’re not each other; they’re not two Gods. And so you kind of work all that out, and then you asked the question, “What’s the difference between the Father and the Son?” I mean, if everything that the Father is, the Son is also, except for the Father, what does that mean then? Are we just saying the words? And as the early church thought through that they decided that there’s lots of ways in which the Son is only metaphorically Son. I mean, the Father’s not older than him, obviously. There’s not a God, the Mother, etc. etc. We’re not talking about physical bodies here. So if you sort through all of that and try to get to the kernel of what it is we’re affirming when we say the Father and the Son are distinct persons, the classic answer has been: from eternity, within the unity of the life of the one God, the Son has always stood in this relationship of fromness to the Father. So, you can talk about this relationship, you can have it as doctrine, without using the standard terms of the doctrine. You don’t have to say the phrase, eternal generation. The Nicene Creed, of course, can say that the Son of God is God of God; true God of true God; light of light. And hidden in that little word, of, there, is everything about that relationship.
Swain: I think I would add, with reference to the question, is that when we are speaking of eternal generation, we’re speaking of the person of the Son. We’re not speaking of his essence. If the Son’s essence is generated, then the Son is a creature. The divine nature, by definition, is self-existent, un-generated. So, we’re talking about the eternal production of the Son, by the Father. There are debates about how the essence relates to eternal generation. Is it communicated from the Father to the Son, eternally, or not? But, we’re speaking about the first person’s relationship to the second person as person. We’re not speaking about the Son’s essence being generated.
Zaspel: Is there a way to be more specific as to what does it mean that the Son is from the Father, and yet self-existent and equal?
Swain: It’s easier to speak negatively then positively. It’s easier to say it’s not a generation that involves a beginning in time. It’s not a generation that involves a kind of passion, something that happens to the son; it’s eternally actual. But this is where I get one of my favorite Fred Sanders quotes about Gregory of Nazianzus. He’ll die defending it, but he’ll kill you if you try to explain it. (Laughing.) It’s easier to say what it is not, then what it is. But, the point we want to say is that fathering and begetting, being begotten, isn’t just a creature reality; and it’s not primarily a creature reality. It’s primarily true of the Father and the Son, and derivatively it’s true of creatures. And so, God is principally Father, principally Son; and whatever that means, it’s a paradigm of all other fathering in the creaturely realm.
Zaspel: Why is it important for us to retrieve this doctrine? And what might we lose without it?
Sanders: We try to come at that from a number of angles in this book and kind of call in relevant specialists to put in their two cents. My leading answer is the application answer. That to understand this is really to understand the nature of Christian salvation better. That is to say, when I teach on what the Gospel is, and when I try to open up for people the Trinitarian depths of what the Gospel is, I’m going to begin using terms like adoption. You know, that we are brought into sonship by the Father sending the Son. And the more you work at that, the more you realize this doctrine, behind this, of eternal generation, of who God is and would have been even if this salvation by adoptive sonship had not come about through the grace of God, God would still have had this relationship within him, that we then, later on, are led into as an understanding of how we are united to God.
Way back when I did the first edition of my book, The Deep Things of God, about God and the Gospel, I had to make a big decision. I knew the doctrine was a little bit, not controversial, but I knew that not everyone would just keep nodding and saying Amen, when I started teaching eternal generation. But I thought, I’ve got to put it in there. If you leave it out, you can only say so much about the Trinity and the Gospel. And I don’t want to stop prematurely; I want to be able to go all the way in and say a lot about it.
Zaspel: Can you give us a brief sketch of the primary lines of biblical support for the doctrine?
Swain: The foundational thing, for me, is the fact that the names, Father and Son, are taken to mean something. And so, the doctrine of eternal generation is really just trying to take those names seriously. And so, you get the baptismal statement of Matthew 28:19, “baptize them into the name,” the single name, of Israel’s one Lord God, but the name shared by these three, who are identified as Father, Son and Spirit. Well, what do these names mean?
You broaden from there to see how the persons speak to each other in the Gospels. I think of the book of Hebrews picking up on Psalm 2, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you.” That’s a statement that is important for the early Church’s development of the doctrine; I think it should be an important statement for us, as well.
And then you move into, like Fred mentioned earlier, you don’t have to even use the words, eternal generation, to get at the Bible speaking of this relationship between The Father and the Son where the Son is from the Father, and equal to the Father. You get a number of other terms which describe the Son as the Word of God, so he’s from God and he is God; or he is the radiance of the Father’s glory as radiance shines out; the expression of glory, the Son shines out from the Father. Or, the Son is the image of God, and so forth. So, there are various different ways – you get the name, Son; you get statements like, I have begotten you; but then you’ve got these other illustrations that show forth this asymmetrical relationship between the Father and the Son, that the Son is, from the Father; the Father is not from the Son; and yet they are both the one Lord God of Israel.
Zaspel: With all those images you’ve given, there is a fromness that’s inherent in them, right?
Swain: Yes. And I think Fred and I have played around with using, at some point along the way, way back there, Fred and I started talking about this, fromness became, I think, one of our favorite prepositions to describe the doctrine, right? (Laughing) I mean, at base that’s what you’re trying to describe – filial fromness.
Zaspel: Okay, talk to us briefly about Lee Irons’ chapter on monogenes, “only begotten.” Does monogenes derive from genos or gennao? Just what does monogenes mean?
Sanders: It’s an important chapter in the book and it’s been really helpful for a lot of people. I always feel the need to preface my enthusiasm for the chapter by saying that the doctrine of eternal generation does not hang on one word and how it’s translated. Neither now, in our defense of it, does it depend on the word, monogenes being translated, “only begotten,” nor in the arguments of the church fathers, did they routinely appeal to it as the foundation of the doctrine. They’re all over Proverbs 8 and Hebrews 1, and John 5; they’re just doing all kinds of stuff. And then they just casually, without putting much thought or analysis into it, explicitly, are happy to pick up this, “only begotten” language. Whether it’s monogenes or the Latin translation, uni genesis, they’re happy to use it.
So, I don’t want to go into this because there are still a lot of people out there who think… You can hear someone say, “I don’t believe in the doctrine of eternal generation because I don’t think monogenes should be translated, “only begotten.” So, I want to make two points there: one, that’s insufficient reason for calling this doctrine into question. And two, I think Lee Irons has an argument you should listen to.
Zaspel: Okay, how does all this inform God’s external works – his works of creation, incarnation, salvation. And how might it shape our worship?
Swain: Yeah, I think Fred touched on something of it earlier. So, if the doctrine of eternal generation says that the person of the Son is eternally from the Father, then it shapes our understanding of the Son’s actions because, as he is eternally from the Father, so he, in time, acts from the Father. So, everything he does, he does as the one God with the Father and the Spirit; but he does all that he does, as the Son from the Father. So, he is eternally generated by the Father; he comes in his mission from the Father; he is sent by the Father. And the results of his saving work (this is what Fred mentioned earlier) are to make sons and daughters of us. It shapes the understanding of the effects of Christ’s saving work as a work of making sons and daughters, as adoption.
Zaspel: Give us an overview of your book so readers can know what to expect.
Swain: After a brief introduction, we’ve got Part One, that deals with biblical reasoning and tries to not only discuss some of the broader hermeneutical moves that go into play in reading the Bible in a Trinitarian way, but also looks at specific texts, such as Proverbs 8, Micah 2, John 5:26. We’ve got Lee Iron’s work on monogenes; we’ve got a chapter on Hebrews 1, and some others as well.
Part Two deals with historical witness. Looking at early church fathers; looking at some Reformation and some modern developments. It’s a fascinating section because you see that the doctrine is developed in different ways by different thinkers, different emphases; and yet, there is an underlying commitment to some common features of the doctrine, even among widely diverse thinkers.
And then Part Three deals with contemporary statements of the doctrine. There’s a chapter on philosophically, what would it mean to speak of eternal generation? Then there’s Fred’s excellent chapter connecting eternal generation to the doctrine of salvation. And then it concludes with a chapter helping us think about how eternal generation relates to broader patterns in Trinitarian thought, both related to the doctrine of God, but also the doctrine of the works of God.
There’s a lot the book doesn’t do. Certainly, there could be more historical figures. Certainly, there could be engagement with more biblical texts, but we feel like it puts the doctrine and its importance back on the table for discussion, or at least we hope so.
Zaspel: The book is still very new, but has there been enough time yet to receive any significant feedback? Have you been encouraged with the response so far?
Sanders: I haven’t seen much by way of reviews. We worked on it over the course of several years by giving papers at ETS, so we had a lot of good feedback along the way as we went. I like to think there’s been a shift in the plausibility of this doctrine, that more people at more levels are immediately inclined to think, “yeah, that sounds right.” I don’t think we’re causing that, but I like to think that we are part of the movement.
Zaspel: I think you are. That’s right, definitely.
We are talking to Fred Sanders and Scott Swain about their new book, Retrieving Eternal Generation. It is a resource you will not want to overlook in the study of this doctrine – the newest and best book on the subject.
Fred, Scott – thanks so much for your faithful work and for talking to us today.
Buy the Book: Retrieving Eternal Generation; Zondervan
This exchange took place at BOOKS AT A GLANCE; February, 2018.