This is the second in a series of posts that sets out to examine the claim made by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, in Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, that the attempt to"define eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided" (p. 27) and that "it is best to omit the creedal terms 'begotten' and 'proceeds' from our definition of the Trinity" (p.28). You can read the first post here.
I need to underline the fact that the whole chapter on the Trinity is very helpful, and the applications are worth reading, weighing and living by. In fact, from what I have read so far, the book strongly combines doctrine and application in a way that I, and I hope many other readers, will benefit from.
The eternal generation of the Son of God, that he was "begotten by the Father, before all worlds" is a doctrine found in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the Chalcedonian Definition, and, among other Reformed Confessions, the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Standards. It is no small thing to jettison a doctrine with that kind of theological pedigree. Driscoll and Breshears affirm the eternal Sonship of Christ, but argue that we should not use the category of Christ being the eternally begotten Son. He is then the eternal but unbegotten Son.
In the next post I will interact with the three reasons they give for omitting the eternal generation of the Son from the doctrines that we should believe, but before doing that there are some matters of theological method that I want to touch upon that would unnecessarily lengthen that discussion, hence this separate post.
Here are some things to bear in mind as you enter the world of Trinitarian theology.
Every mental power that you possess is inadequate to grasp the infinities and immensities of the Triune God. The capacity for rational thought granted to you by the Trinity, a rationality that has, in believers, been sanctified by the Spirit, is a finite rationality that must receive the truth of God's revelation about himself knowing full well that the God who stoops to speak to us is ultimately incomprehensible to us as creatures.
Faith seeking understanding is no futile endeavour once we place ourselves under the authority of the word of God written, in conscious dependence upon the illumination of the Holy Spirit. God's verbal revelation to us in Scripture gives us all that we need to know and establishes the boundaries of what may and may not be known.
Failure to respect the Creator-creature distinction, failure to acknowledge that God accommodates himself to our level when speaking to us, failure to remember that all of God's revelation of himself to us in Scripture is properly anthropomorphic (it is a knowledge of God suited to our capacities as creatures, given to us by God) will leave us in a world of theological confusion, pain and destruction. In a word this knowledge is analogical.
For example God remembers Noah in the ark. We remember where we left our car keys. But we do not remember things in exactly the same way that God does. He never forgot where Noah was. We retrace our steps mentally to figure out where the car keys are, God knows things immediately and entirely.
God reveals himself to us in three persons. The second person is said to be the Son of the first person. Indeed he is his only begotten Son, not a Son by adoption but his natural or proper Son. If we begin with our own experience of fathers and sons we might be tempted to think that designating the second person as the Son of the first inescapably leads us to conclude that he is lesser, that he has a point of origin. Or, in the words of the Arians, that "there was when he was not." That would hold true if we were dealing with finite persons. I have two daughters. Before they were born I was not a father. I only became a father when my first child was born. With finite persons begetting occurs in time. But God the Father and God the Son are eternal persons.
In human generation a father always exists prior to a son. In divine generation, because we are dealing with infinite and not finite persons, this is not the case. Athanasius underlined this point:
Nor, as man from man has the Son been begotten, so as to be later than his Father's existence, but he is God's offspring, and, as being proper Son of God, who is ever, he exists eternally. For, whereas it is proper to men to beget in time, from the imperfection of their nature, God's offspring is eternal, for his nature is perfect.When did the first person of the Trinity become a Father? He has always been the Father, because he has always had a Son. Did the Son become the Son at a point in eternity past? If he did then at the same time, if one may bend language in this way, that was when the Father became the Father.
The Father-Son relationship in the being of God is archetypal of creaturely father-son relationships. The original and proper reality is in God. In God this relationship is eternal, in creatures it is temporal.
We need to keep in mind the counsel of W.T.G. Shedd:
There is no analogy taken from the finite that will clear up the mystery of the infinite -- whether it be the mystery of the eternity of God, or that of his trinity.If we depart from this then the next station down the line is Idolville Central.
Some people struggle to accept that there is one God who eternally exists as three distinct persons. They see that statement and think "but that's three Gods" (the heresy of tritheism), or they reduce the mystery to that of one God playing out three successive roles (the heresy of modalism), or else they consider one person (the Father) to be God and the other two persons to be creatures made by the will of God (the heresy of Arianism).
What categorical mistake unites these three errors? It is that God can only be one person. Why would we think that? Because when it comes to finite essences, finite beings, a second person demands that there be a second essence or being. That holds true for finite beings. With God we are dealing with an infinite being. The real question is, what has he actually told us about himself?
The Christian Church has confessed, on the basis of the Old and New Testaments, that there is only one true and living God, one being who is eternal, infinite and unchangeable, who is one in substance or essence, and three in persons. To quote Shedd again:
The essence...is not prior to the persons, either in order of nature or of time, nor subsequent to them, but simultaneously and eternally in and with themThe heresies of tritheism, modalism and Arianism have in common a non-negotiable commitment to think of God according to the measure of the fallen human mind. They are all afraid of infinitude. Doug Kelly, in the first volume of his systematic theology, cites some helpful words on this from T. F. Torrance, "the epistemological principle of the Arians (was)...that what men cannot understand cannot be true." That principle can only ever result in the embracing of heresy.
It is worth us bearing in mind that with regard to God being one in essence and three in person, with regard to the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, those who have believed these things and defended them have done so conscious of how much these truths are infinitely above our capacity to understand them. Listen to the voices of four giants as they guide us on these matters.
Consider the wise counsel of the Puritan John Owen:
We have, I say, words and notions about these things; but as to the things themselves what do we know? What do we comprehend of them? Can the mind of man do any more than swallow itself up in an infinite abyss, which is as nothing; give itself up to what it cannot conceive, much less express?This counsel echoes that given more than a millennium before by Ambrose:
Is not our understanding 'brutish' in the contemplation of such things, and is as if it were not? Yea, the perfection of our understanding is, not to understand, and to rest there. They are but the back parts of eternity and infiniteness that we have a glimpse of.
What shall I say of the Trinity, or the subsistence of distinct persons in the same individual essence -- a mystery by many denied, because by none understood -- a mystery whose every letter is mysterious? Who can declare the generation of the Son, the procession of the Spirit, or the difference of the one from the other?
I inquire of you when and how the Son was begotten? Impossible it is to me to know the mystery of this generation. My mind faileth, my voice is silent -- and not only mine, but of the angels; it is above principalities, above angels, above the cherubim, above the seraphim, above all understanding.Gregory of Nazianzen grasped the limitations that these truths place upon us:
Lay thy hand on thy mouth; it is not lawful to search into these heavenly mysteries. It is lawful to know that he was born -- it is not lawful to discuss how he was born; that it is not lawful for me to deny -- this I am afraid to enquire into.
But the manner of his generation we will not admit that even the angels can conceive, much less you. Shall I tell you how it was? It was in a manner known to the Father who begat, and to the Son who was begotten. Anything more than this is hidden by a cloud, and escapes your dim sight.Finally the great Athanasius wrote:
nor again is it right to seek...how God begets, and what is the manner of his begetting. For a man must be beside himself to venture on such points; since a thing is ineffable and proper to God's nature, and known to him alone and the Son, this he demands to be explained in words...It is better in perplexity to be silent and believe, than to disbelieve on account of perplexity.