Monday, October 18, 2010

Not even half baked: Breshears & Driscoll on Christ being the eternally begotten Son

I'm returning to an issue previously discussed at Against Heresies.  You may wish to read the following posts in addition to this one:

Begotten before all worlds?  Is Driscoll right to reject the eternal generation of the Son?

The Unbegotten Son?  Is Driscoll right to reject the the eternal generation of the Son of God?

Discussing the creedal, catholic, doctrine of the eternal generation or begetting of the Son of God, Driscoll and Breshears (in their book Vintage Jesus) say the following:
There has been a raging controversy in the church about this term.  Many see it as referencing the Trinitarian relation between the eternal Father and the eternal Son.  The emphasis is that the Son is begotten not made.  When I beget a son he is of the same essence as I am.  But if I were to make a son, like a robot, he would certainly be entirely different from me. (p. 102)
We are not told when this raging controversy took place, what the different parties believed, and who those parties were.  What we do know is that the formal stating of the doctrine of the full deity and distinct personality of the Son of God, and of his eternal relationship with the Father, can be found in the ecumenical creeds.  These symbols freely describe the Son as eternally begotten of the Father:

The Nicene Creed states that we believe in:
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.
The Athanasian Creed follows this:
For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.  God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world. 
The same teaching is upheld by the Definition of Chalcedon which in addition distinguishes the begetting of the manhood of Jesus from Mary from the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father:
As regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.
All of which gives the distinct impression that this is a settled controversy, as far as orthodoxy is concerned.

Unlike these creeds the doctrinal statement of Mars Hill Church has no affirmation of the eternal generation of the Son.  Nor for that matter is there an affirmation of this doctrine in the statement of faith and teaching position document of Western Seminary where Gerry Breshears teaches systematic theology.

Driscoll and Breshears then add the following comments:
But if the Son is really begotten, it certainly sounds like we are headed into a cultish, Mormon-like understanding of a God who fathers children.  Worse yet, it would also mean that rather than being eternal, the Son had a beginning, which is a core tenet of the Jehovah's Witness cult.
Perhaps we would be heading into a cultish direction if the Son were in fact a creature, if he were not the eternal Son of God.  Maybe we would be well on the way to Cultville if we ignored the Creator-creature distinction and thought that the terminology of 'begetting' applied to the Father-Son relationship in the Godhood in exactly the way that it applies to human father-son relationships in time and space.

For the cults the very fact that he is called the Son reduces his status, and not the fact of his eternal generation.  If he is called the Son doesn't that somehow, by sheer possession of the title, make him less than the Father?  Does it not imply creation, that he has a beginning?

I fail to see how claiming that he is 'begotten' makes any difference when it comes to those who seek to diminish the ineffable glory of the Son of God. Why isolate the language of begetting and generation and quibble over it when it belongs to the same category of language as father and son.  Why is 'begotten' problematic when 'Son' isn't?  For the cults all of these words are taken as indicative of creaturehood.  And of course they are wrong to do so.

Look again at the first sentence:
But if the Son is really begotten, it certainly sounds like we are headed into a cultish, Mormon-like understanding of a God who fathers children.
What does 'really' mean in that sentence?  Are we to suppose that 'really' in this sentence is synonymous with literally?  'Really' as opposed to what?  'Metaphorically' perhaps?  Is 'begetting' only real if it done by creatures?  What about divine Sonship?  Has he always been the Son?  Is God really a Father if he has always had a Son?

It sounds as if to be 'really begotten' is only conceivable to Driscoll and Breshears if it applies at a creaturely level.  Can Christ not be eternally begotten and that count as a real begetting?  Samuel Miller, one of Princeton Seminary's first professors, remarked, on this precise point:
No one, I suppose, ever thought of contending for the literal sense of these terms, in reference to the persons of the Trinity; that is literal, when measured by their common, earthly sense.  Their meaning, on this great subject, is not natural, but supernatural and Divine, and, of course, beyond the reach of our minds.
I fear that what is missing with Driscoll and Breshears, in terms of approaching this subject, is the right starting point for thinking about God.

We must begin with God.  We must begin with what God has said.  We must remember that although he is infinitely exalted above all that he has made, and that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite, God has stooped down to speak to us on our level.  We must remember that all and not part of God's verbal revelation is anthropomorphic, or else we could not grasp any part of his communication to us.

The point is surely clear, and this is why I find their squeamishness about Christ being the eternally begotten Son so half baked.  When God tells us about himself, the paternal and filial language that he uses applies to himself as God in a way that is does not apply to us as creatures with direct equivalence.

Surely we are not tripped up by the free use in Scripture of God's arm, hand, eye, ear and mouth being referred to as if those words carried direct equivalence when used of God and man?  When God smelled the aroma of Noah's sacrifice are we to think that he really has a nose?  Why would we stumble then at 'begotten'?  Why do Driscoll and Breshears isolate it and make it into a special case?

Furthermore, we will not fall into the error they warn us about in their second sentence, 'Worse yet, it would also mean that rather than being eternal, the Son had a beginning, which is a core tenet of the Jehovah's Witness cult', if we are clear about the right starting place for thinking about God, the Creator-creature distinction, and how we are to understand the proper application of analogical language.

The eternal begetting of the Son of God does not mean that he has a beginning,  and it lends no support to Arian ideas ancient or modern.  The words of protest on this point, written by Samuel Miller in 1823, are worth repeating:
I will...once more say that I protest utterly against attaching to the terms in question, any of those carnal and grovelling ideas which the same terms excite when applied to the affairs of men.
I hope to return to this issue by interacting further with the reasons for rejecting the eternal generation of the Son in Doctrine: What Christians should believe, and by taking up the exegetical case for this creedal truth.  I'm also hoping, time permitting, to take a look at John Owen's exposition and defense of eternal generation, against the Socinians, in Vindicae Evangelicae (vol. 12 in the Banner edition of Owen's works), and also at the Princetonian Samuel Miller's work Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ.


mikeb said...

Would you consider their doctrinal statement that the Trinity was "eternally existing in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" to include the eternal generation of the Son?

If not, what's an example of how the doctrinal statement should read?

Martin Downes said...

Not explicitly. The wording here neither affirms nor denies eternal generation.

I know that they both affirm the eternal Sonship of Christ but deny the personal properties of the Son and Spirit in relation to the Father.

I would not be unhappy with this wording in tandem with a reference to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, Chalcedonian Defintion, for a fuller treatment.

One of the things that bothers me with their writing on this is the inadequate explanation of what they are rejecting.

Anonymous said...

It's also odd, because the objections you cite them giving (the bit where they say that it's like mormonism or the Jws) were all raised in the early centuries and answered very carefully and clearly by the church fathers.

Frederick Santal said...

In other words they got it right, but they weren't perfect about it. Great.

Reminds me of CNN's coverage of the initial Iraq War invasion. In the history of warfare, and with all the friction of war at all times with any military force involved, the invasion was a 10 on a scale of 10, so CNN leads their stories with something like: "A water truck was delayed for 15 minutes in getting to very thirsty soldiers at the front line. This is incredible incompetence by this administration. Do they care about our men and women in arms?"

Baus said...

Maybe they're getting their theology from MacArthur:

I found Lee Iron's paper helpful:

Scott Roper said...

Frederick, why do you say "they got it right, but they weren't perfect about it"? They seem to deny the eternal generation of the Son and nowhere else do they confess this catholic doctrine. It doesn't seem like they got it right at all.

Frederick Santal said...

You say they 'seem' to deny, but clearly they are quibbling with the language not the doctrine. You are sounding like Lutherans who literally *count* the number of times a Calvinist writes the name 'Jesus', or 'Christ', or references the 'cross' in a post or comment citing the number as evidence that Calvinists are not cross-centered or interested in the Words of Jesus rather than the words of a man (or whatever).

Martin Downes said...


Thanks for the link to Iron's paper.


They are quibbling with the doctrine and not the language. In 'Doctrine' they say that clauses about the eternal generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit should be omitted.

This is not about refining an idea, or giving a right interpretation of the words, they flat out reject the doctrine and want it deleted.

Frederick Santal said...

You're writing as if they are heretics on this when they are merely mistaken in their worrying people won't understand such language.

It may, though, have helped if you'd have quoted them in a way that more clearly has them saying what you claim they are saying.

Martin Downes said...


I'm not writing as if they are heretics. If I thought that they were I would have said so in plain English. I have written three posts on their position and have acknowledged that they affirm the eternal Sonship of Christ.

I have also supplied, over the three posts, their own position in their own words. Did you read the two other posts?

Finally I would say that given that they think eternal generation and procession to be mistaken, and that in face of the creedal and confessional commitments to those doctrines in the history of the church (not that they adequately explain the doctrines or the reasons why they were held to) their move is pretty bold.

It is incumbent on their readers to weigh these arguments. That is what I am seeking to do.

Dave Sarafolean said...

They also might be getting their theology from John Piper who is following Jonathan Edwards at this point. I can't remember if it is in Desiring God or The Pleasures of God.

Ted Bigelow said...

Baus et. all. Choose your friends wisely.

Martin Downes said...

Thanks Ted,

I appreciated reading the article and was aware that John MacArthur had changed his position some time ago.

For the record Driscoll and Breshears do not hold to precisely the same view that MacArthur once held. They affirm the eternal Sonship but deny the eternal generation.

...and thanks for dropping by.


Jonathan said...

Mr. Downes,

Thank you for addressing this issue. I was once (quite recently, actually) utterly mortified when in a seminary course on the Doctrine of God the class was told that eternal generation isn't essential to creedal orthodoxy. I suppressed the urge to cry out, "Then what exactly does "begotten of the Father before all worlds" mean!? It seems many in our day just can't grasp the significance of these issues.

Btw, I think Bavinck is particularly helpful on the importance of the doctrine of eternal generation, especially regarding how the Nicene doctrine guards us against thinking of the Holy Trinity in terms of a static "threeness."

Jonathan Bonomo

Martin Downes said...

Hi Jonathan,

I've been reading Bavinck on this and have found him, as you note, very helpful. I will make use of him in due course.

I'm working on a post that deals with the three reasons that Driscoll and Breshears give for rejecting the creedal doctrine but my time is squeezed and so it may not appear for a week or so.

Every blessing


John Thomson said...

An interesting and helpful post. The comments opened up food for thought.

Paul: I think martin and some others give some very solid reasons for accpting the personality of the Holy Spirit. Yet I do think you raise an interesting question - why is the Holy Spirit absent from the salutations. It is one I have occasionally wondered about without pursuing. You have intrigued me to pursue it further.

If it is not an issue of personality (and the evidence suggests it is not) what other reason could it be? One suggested is that grace and peace are rightly the remit of Father and Son. That is worth reflecting on. I am wondering whether the fact that the Spirit indwells those to whom Paul writes makes it inappropriate for him to be included in a greeting. I shall certainly consider this further.

Hudson said...

"Eternally Begotten" does not mean exactly the same thing as "Begotten before all worlds".

As I understand it, the orthodox/catholic and reformed position is that time itself is created, that the uncreated Jesus is begotten outside of time (before time started to be counted at Creation). Therefore, the plan of salvation, which is intimately connected to the person of Christ, is made in the counsel of God without respect to circumstances of the created world.

The expression "eternally begotten" may or may not mean the same thing. I'm afraid it infers that the plan of salvation is not superior to the plan of creation, but is rather co-existent with it or even subordinate. The modern rephrasing "eternally begotten" can be read as a rejection of predestinarian doctrine.

Acolyte4236 said...

I would kindly suggest thinking about the fact that the Reformed have historically dissented from the Nicene Creed's clauses "true God of true God" since they single out the Father alone as autotheos. Calvin is quite clear in rejecting the Nicene view and affirms that all three persons are autotheos or deity of themselves.

That said, since the Reformed reject the Nicene view of the Father alone as autotheos, how can they maintain that the Son is eternally begotten qua deity? If they define eternal begetting in another sense, then they have simply redefined the original intention of the Creed. If they can do so, why can't these guys?