Friday, November 05, 2010

No Country For Old Doctrines: Why Driscoll & Breshears reject the eternal generation of the Son of God

Below is the fourth post looking at Driscoll & Breshears' rejection of the eternal generation of the Son of God.
You may wish to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

In their book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears identify the classical, creedal doctrines of the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Spirit as doctrines that Christians should not believe.

They give three reasons for this:
The whole attempt to define the eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided.
First, God has given us no revelation of the nature of their eternal relations.  We should follow the command of the Bible: "The secret things belong to the LORD our God" and refuse to speculate.
Second, the Apostles' Creed defines the Son as "begotten, not made."  The point was that something begotten was of the same substance as the one who does the begetting.  But the term "begotten" could never be defined with any clarity, so it was of little use.
Third, begotten unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten.  That would certainly lend support to the the Arian heresy that the Son is a created being and not the Creator God.
For these reasons it is best to omit the creedal terms "begotten" and "proceeds" from our definition of the Trinity.  Our authority is not in creeds but in Scripture.
We stand with the universal Trinitarian definition of the church to confess that God is one God, eternally existing in three persons, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. (p. 27-28)
The best way to face up to this bold approach, and let's face it anyone who wishes to tippex out some of the clauses found in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the Chalcedonian Definition, and the Reformed Confessions is being pretty bold when it comes to doctrine, was exemplified by Samuel Miller in his book Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ (1823):
No man will ever forfeit my esteem or affection, by kindly and respectfully calling me to re-investigate any article in my creed, however long since I may have supposed it to be settled.
To begin with there some points of clarification that need to be made.

The phrase "Begotten, not made" is not, as Driscoll and Breshears claim, found in the Apostles' Creed.  It is found in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

The "universal Trinitarian definition of the church" is surely to be found in these ecumenical creeds.  They really are the old country, and these creeds include the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.

How then can Driscoll and Breshears claim to stand with the "universal Trinitarian definition of the church" at the very same time as they are deleting doctrines from those universal Trinitarian definitions?  To make this claim is somewhat muddle headed to say the least.

I'm not entirely convinced that Driscoll and Breshears have really got to grips with the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.  They are clearly bothered by it and attempt to dissuade readers of it's credibility in Vintage Jesus and Doctrine.  However, there seems to be little attempt to adequately describe it on its own terms, even if they then choose to reject it.  In particular I think that their arguments are lacking when it comes to "judging, as of infinity" upon these matters.

Their discussion shows little awareness of the care, precision, and nuance found in the creedal articulation of the doctrine.  For example, they say that:
The Bible says the Father sent the Spirit to conceive Jesus in the womb of Mary.  Jesus is therefore referred to as the "only begotten [monogenes] Son."  Theologians extended this begetting in history back into the eternal Trinity and posited that the Son is eternally begotten of or generated by the Father. (Doctrine, p. 27)
This is an inadequate statement on biblical, theological and historical grounds.

Jesus is not referred to as the only begotten Son because of the virginal conception.  The Chalcedonian Definition carefully distinguishes between the Son being begotten by the Father before the ages, and his humanity begotten of Mary.

That he is called the only begotten Son we owe not to Luke's account of his conception but, at the very least, to John's use of monogenes (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9).  Indeed the Son was sharing the Father's glory before the world began, and was sent into the world as the Son in order that he should be its Saviour (John 17:5; Gal. 4:4; 1 John 4:9).  In other words, the Sonship of the Son of God was not conferred upon him by virtue of his incarnation or resurrection

Having laid out their objections to the doctrine, do these objections carry sufficient weight to overturn the creedal affirmations about the Son being begotten by the Father before all worlds?

1.  God has given us no revelation of the nature of their eternal relations

This is simply not true.  Were it not for the presence of this language in Scripture it is hard to see how anyone would have arrived at the doctrine of eternal generation.

Furthermore, the language of begetting is not confined to Jesus' incarnation or redemptive work but appears in Scripture in connection with the Son's relationship with the Father.  It is used in John 1:14, 18 where it clearly stands in contrast to the spiritual rebirth of believers as children of God, which itself is contrasted with normal physical begetting.  Believers are the children of God, but the Word is the monogenes of the Father.  As Letham rightly says "it is impossible to eradicate the idea of begetting from this description."

 Nor, as Driscoll and Breshears allege, is this doctrine the result of speculation, as if we had a revelatory blank concerning the eternal relationships in the Trinity and attempted to fill it (as if we were at liberty to do such things) by projecting on to the Trinity revelatory data drawn from the begetting of Jesus by Mary.

To be clear as to where they do stand, unlike those writers who affirm the eternal deity and distinct personality of the second person in the Trinity (designating him as the eternal Logos) but who deny that the Sonship of the second person of the Trinity is an eternal Sonship, Driscoll and Breshears affirm that the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are eternal.

2.  The term "begotten" could never be defined with any clarity, so it was of little use

Concerning this lack of clarity Driscoll and Breshears may mean one of two things.

They may be referring to the -genes ending and whether it is related to the verb ginomai, and so indicates kind ("one and only"), or the verb gennao, and so indicates to beget or give birth ("only begotten").  If this is their meaning then perhaps they are saying that we shouldn't base a doctrine on a contested word.

They may be referring to the use of the word in relation to the persons of the Godhead, and therefore in what sense one could be said to be begotten by the other when they are both co-equal and co-eternal, and therefore that it is unclear how the word could apply to the relationship between God the Father and God the Son.

I am at a loss to explain, because their discussion is so concise, as to exactly when this lack of clarity was discovered and when the redundancy of the word was recognised.  I could understand their thinking a little better if they said that "the term 'begotten' cannot be defined with any clarity, and so is of little use."  However, because they use the past tense I am uncertain as to what period in church history they are referring to.  

Although it is true to say that understanding mongenes as "only begotten" has fallen out of favour in the last one hundred years this has, by no means, been a universal phenomena.  That aside it is worth considering what Robert Letham has said on this subject:
The Greek fathers understood monogenes in these Johannine passages to mean "only begotten."  Were they less qualified to determine its meaning than people living nearly two millennia later who speak a different language? (The Holy Trinity, p. 388). 
For more on the testimony of the early fathers see the relevant chapters in Samuel Miller's Letters on the Eternal Sonship of Christ.  For more on the exegetical issues involved you may wish to read Lee Iron's helpful paper on "The Eternal Generation of the Son."

3.  "Begotten" unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten

This is the crux of the matter.  In addition to the third reason for rejecting eternal generation given in Doctrine ("begotten unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten.  That would certainly lend support to the the Arian heresy that the Son is a created being and not the Creator God.") in Vintage Jesus they argue that:
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. (p. 102)
In the above quotation it appears that they are assuming that the only "real" generation that we can conceive of is creaturely.  They are also assuming that the term generation is to be applied univocally and not analogically. Michael Horton has a very helpful explanation of this point:
When we assert certain predicates of God, based on God's own self-revelation, we use them in one of three senses: univocally, analogically, or equivocally. 
If we say that the predicate "gracious" means exactly the same thing, whether in God or a creature, we are using "gracious" univocally.  At the other end of the spectrum, if we say that by using the predicate we are ascribing something to God whose appropriateness is unknown to us, we are using it equivocally.  If, however, God is said to be "gracious" in a way that is both similar and dissimilar to creatures, we say it is analogical.
For instance, when we acknowledge that God is a "person," (MD: or better "three persons") do we really mean to say that he is a person in exactly the same sense as we are?  When we follow Scripture in using male pronouns to refer to God, do we really believe that he is male?
Unless we are willing to ascribe to God (in a univocal sense) all attributes of human personhood, predications must be analogical.
(Michael Horton, "Hellenistic or Hebrew?  Open Theism and Reformed Theological Method" in Beyond the Bounds, p. 209-10)
Human generation involves a beginning of existence, a beginning of the one begotten.  Human generation also involves a time when a father is not a father, for a father becomes a father when he begets a son.  But when we are thinking about the eternal generation of the Son of God we are not thinking about these things in a creaturely way, even if we are using, as we must, anthropomorphic language.  

Carefully consider the distinctions involved in this offered by Herman Bavinck:
In using these terms we are of course speaking in a human and hence an imperfect language, a fact that makes us cautious.  Yet we have the right to speak this language.  For just as the Bible speaks analogically of God's ear, eye, and mouth, so human generation is an analogy and image of the divine deed by which the Father gives the Son "to have life in himself."
But when we resort to this imagery, we must be careful to remove all associations with imperfection and sensuality from it.  The generation of a human being is imperfect and flawed.  A husband needs a wife to bring forth a son.  No man can ever fully impart his image, his whole nature, to a child or even to many children...But it is not so with God. (Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2, p. 308)
We must, accordingly, conceive that generation as being eternal in the true sense of the word.  It is not something that was completed and finished at some point in eternity, but an eternal unchanging act of God, at once always complete and eternally ongoing.  Just as it is natural for the sun to shine and for a spring to pour out water, so it is natural for the Father to generate the Son.  The Father is not and never was ungenerative; he begets everlastingly. (RD Vol 2, p. 310)

In my estimation the crux of the matter as to why Driscoll and Breshears have problems with the eternal generation of the Son and wish to jettison this creedal, catholic, and historic biblical doctrine is not because of the meaning of monogenes.  Their diffidence stems from a misconception about the implications of begetting for God, a failure to articulate how the language applies to the eternal Father-Son relationship with similarity, but a greater degree of dissimilarity, when it is used of human father-son relationships.

Gregory of Nyssa spoke well and wisely on this very point:
Again when it interprets to us the unspeakable and transcendent existence of the Only-begotten from the Father, as the poverty of human intellect is incapable of receiving doctrines which surpass all power of speech and thought, there too it borrows our language and terms him "Son,"--a name which our usage assigns to those who are born of matter and nature.
But just as Scripture, when speaking of generation by creation, does not in the case of God imply that such generation took place by means of any material, affirming that the power of God's will served for material substance, place, time and all such circumstances, even so here too, when using the term Son, it rejects both all else that human nature remarks in generation here below,--I mean affections and dispositions and the co-operation of time, and the necessity of place,--and, above all, matter, without all which natural generation here below does not take place.
But when all such material, temporal and local existence is excluded from the sense of the term "Son," community of nature alone is left, and for this reason by the title "Son" is declared, concerning the Only-begotten, the close affinity and genuineness of relationship which mark his manifestation from the Father. (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Book II:9)


Anonymous said...

Before I go on reading your article I would like to state that most of your arguments are very half hearted. To start out with if the Son was not begotten then he was made hence he is not God. To define God is to define as eternal and unchanging. To not be eternal and to change would not to be God. In way you would not be a Christian since the Mystery of the Trinity is central. See that I called the Trinity a Mystery because we just don't know and could never know in this life. Like I stated above the few things we do we state in what we believe in the Creed. The Creed was expanded for this reason to combat those who had their own idea's instead of the teachings of Christ handed down to his apostles. Also to say that some how the Church was apostasies would to say that Christ did not keep his promise, "And so I say to you, you are Peter(which in greek means rock), and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it." Just some food for thought. God bless.

Martin Downes said...

Thank you for the comment.

To be a clear as possible let me say that Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears affirm the eternal deity of the Son of God, they deny that he was made. They affirm that the Son is eternally related to the Father, but they are not willing to affirm that this relationship can be described as eternal generation.

I think that they are wrong, and I think that they fail to describe accurately the classical creedal doctrine of eternal generation.

That said it it would be unwise to accuse them of denying the eternal deity of the Son seeing as they unequivocally affirm this truth in plain words.

You will have to let me know if this nuance casts my arguments in a better light. I have tried to respond to what they have written. They do not deny the Trinity.

Sungyak said...

it seems to me that driscoll and breshears are no more against 'eternal generation' than they are for the opposing doctrine; they seem to be simply withholding judgment. a certain agnosticism if you will when it comes to the triune relations of God. my question to you, respectfully, would be 'at which point does the mysteries of God remain as mysteries unreachable to our knowledge?' thanks for the post.

Martin Downes said...

Thanks John

It would be fair to say that those who have upheld this doctrine have done so knowing full well that it is a great mystery beyond our reach. In my second post on this issue there are some representative extracts from Athanasius, Ambrose etc. on the mystery of eternal generation. That said they were still willing to affirm it and to defend it whilst at the same time confessing their inabilty to understand how it could be so.

From what I can tell Driscoll & Breshears are a bit more than agnostic. They do say that the nature of the eternal relationships between the persons of the Trinity is a matter not revealed to us, and then, at least to my mind, wrongly explain how anyone ever came to confess the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit.

It is the third reason that they give for rejecting the doctrine and motting it from the creeds that troubles me the most.

Anthony Buzzard said...

Can anybody explain why the question of the begetting of the Son does not target the birth narrative accounts of Matthew and Luke? In Matt 1:18, 20 the genesis and begetting of the Son are rooted in the miracle in Mary. Even more expressly in Luke 1:35 what is begotten is entitled to be called (i.e. be) the Son of God. The miracle in Mary is given as the precise reason for Jesus being the Son of the Father. I can understand Driscoll and Breshears balking at the idea of eternal begetting, a "beginningless beginning" as having no recognizable content. But why shouldn't our attention then be paid to those verses which expressly speak of the begetting of the Son? At present we have Trinitarians who believe in eternal generation, others who deny that there is a Son until Jesus is begotten in Mary, and now a third variety claiming that the Son is eternal but not eternally begotten. Is this the best that Bible study can do?

Anonymous said...

I need help understanding the concept of Jesus being the "Word" John 1, and how it all fits into this discussion please. Never even heard of this stuff before or thought about it. Thanks

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Anonymous said...

The Greek word " Logos" was used by the Apostles out of evangelistic needs in the contemporary society wherein they live. The Logos denotes three meanings now:

(1) Greek Philosophy - impersonal force/being of nature,reality and rational beings
(2) Hebraic Adaptation - personified power of YHWH's interaction and intervention with men.
(3) Christian definition - personal entity, the Son per se of the Father.One who is the only offspring who is God as to his nature. The one who exegetes the Father. ( John 1:1,18)

The Apostolic church (A.D. 33-100) and the early church (A.D 100-200) believes in the eternal Sonship of the Logos via eternal generation.

The stance of Arius about the Logos is purely Greek Philosophy. Historical and Biblical evidence proves that the Johannine Logos is a divine person.

This is what I know about the said doctrine:


The Son within the Father was birthed out from the womb of his Father's heart anterior to creation. ( Ps. 45:1 LXX, Ps. 110:3, Prov. 8:25,30, 1 Cor. 1:24, Heb. 1:3,5)

Meaning of statement

The Son within ( logos endiathetos) was birthed out ( logos prophorikos) from the Father’s substance shortly near the time of creation. In other words, the Son is a Person who is consubstantial to the Father that is why John speaks of the Word as God in nature and was with God in the beginning of creation (John 1:1-3).

Anonymous said...

@Anthony Buzzard

Trinitarians believes that Jesus was born of God before time and that he was born of Mary in time at his incarnation. Matthew 1:18,20 is clearly referring to the latter.

Luke 1:35 fits Romans 1:4.

Jesus WILL be called/ declared to be God's Son in his post-resurrection.

The incarnation is the reaoson why will this happen.

Context is the answer. Jesus is not just Son of Mary but God's own Son even before the world was.

Take Note:

Eternal generation only denotes " timeless birth" or as the scripture says "born before creation".

It is important also to know that it is possible to be a created son without being born ( e.g. Adam) and to be a birthed son without being created (e.g. the Word).

To be born is different from to be created. Let me explain, to be born merely means to come out from within somebody as preexisting while to be created means to come into existence from the first time.

The Word always exists. He was "born" of God and this ONLY means that he is a " Son" who is " same in nature" with the Father.

Hence, God did not became a Father but is eternally a Father and that the Word did not became a Son but is eternally a Son.

If you have more questions: