Is eternal generation a necessary doctrine?

Is eternal generation a necessary doctrine?

In the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, in the article discussing “the true God,” the text says: “in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; equal in every divine perfection, and executing distinct and harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.”

I’ll focus on that last phrase in this article. How do you tell Father, Son, and Spirit from one another? There are two ways to answer this question. I’ll begin with the older, more established option and close with the second, which I believe is more helpful.

Option 1—Distinguish by Eternal Generation and Procession

This option uses a framework that might be unfamiliar to you, and if so it might not make too much sense. If I’m wrong, then more power to you!

The Church’s classical position is that all three Persons are “the same substance,” which doesn’t mean they share the same nature of “Godness” the way you and I share “humanness.” No; the classical position says Father, Son, and Spirit are literally the same essence. They act together and have the same singular will and consciousness. One theologian explained this by way of a telling analogy: “I prefer to speak of one space with three dimensions – height, length and depth.”1 Do you see? According to this analogy, God is a space, and each Person is a different aspect of that space. Without some modification, there are no distinctions between Persons at all. Some theologians have even gone so far as to suggest any member of the Godhead could have become incarnate and died for the sins of the world, because they are each the same essence.2 

So, this classical position on the Trinity heavily emphasizes the “oneness,” perhaps to the point of collapsing the Persons into one another like a shapeless Jell-O blob … which is why the Church has employed the doctrines of eternal generation of the Son, and eternal procession of the Spirit. These doctrines are the Church’s traditional answer to “how do you tell ‘em apart?” Note that this “collapsing into a Jell-O blob” model of oneness is different from the alternative, “single society of persons” model I’ve described elsewhere.

To keep things simple,3 I’ll only discuss eternal generation—but what is it? In a nutshell, eternal generation says:4

  1. the Son’s Person (not the essence) was generated by the Father,
  2. in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”5),
  3. and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”6),
  4. in a manner we can’t ever understand,
  5. but this timeless (i.e. eternal) generation does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created

This doctrine is crucial to its advocates, because it’s their best way to distinguish the Persons—they distinguish them by their mutual relations to one another:

  1. the Father begets
  2. the Son is begotten
  3. the Spirit proceeds forth

Yahweh’s nature is singular and identical (the “same substance”), but the relations of the Persons are the key. Without eternal generation and procession, the idea goes, you’re left with a monad; a generic “oneness” without a way to distinguish Persons.

This doctrine is confusing because:

  1. we have no category for understanding Christ’s Person being generated in a non-physical, timeless manner,
  2. advocates cannot even describe what this means,7 and
  3. the notion of derivation (timeless or otherwise) seems to imply a subordination—the very thing the Church designed the Nicene Creed to combat.

Indeed, when an advocate of eternal generation attempts to explain the doctrine, he often:

  1. appeals to mystery,
  2. declares we must believe it on faith,8 and
  3. becomes icy when pressed to explain how derivation doesn’t imply subordination.

Gregory of Nazianzus, a famous Eastern theologian from 4th century Constantinople, explained that Jesus stems from the Father in a unique, non-physical way,9 and that the Father is, in some sense, Jesus’ parent or originator.10 He then frostily criticized those who suggested this made little sense.11 John of Damascus, a 9th century Syrian Christian, explains in unguarded terms that the Father “is the cause of the Son,” is the Son’s “origin,” and is “greater than the Son.” He employs an analogy of fire and light—the fire produces the light, but they are the same essence. The light is the fire’s natural force, just as the Son is to the Father.12 Hugh of St. Victor, a 12th century French Christian, declared the Son is divine because the Father “begat” Him, and the offspring always has the characteristics of the parent.13 Augustine declared Jesus is “from the Father,” in that He was “born in eternity.”14

The Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas explained this non-physical derivation by comparing Jesus to an “intelligible emanation” which proceeds from the intellect, like a spoken word reflecting an idea in the speaker’s mind—it remains inside him and yet proceeds out at the same time.15 An object of the intellect, Thomas declared, is a likeness of the object conceived,16 and Christ’s eternal generation from the Father is the same.

The biblical support for this doctrine is weak. Advocates offer three main arguments:

  1. The word “begotten.”17 They point to passages which say Jesus was “begotten,” and then reason (1) begotten means derivation, (2) but Christ is eternally divine, (3) so this can’t be a physical or timeless derivation, or else this would be heresy, so (4) this “begetting” or “generation” must be timeless and non-physical. However, the word which older translations rendered “begotten” actually means something like “unique” or “one and only—special.” This is why no contemporary English translation, except the NKJV or the NASB (1995), render it as “begotten” at John 1:14.18
  2. Jesus as Son.19 What else can “Son” mean, in conjunction with the “begotten” concept, if not some kind of derivation of Personhood from an “originator?”20 Hilary, a 4th century French theologian, explained the Father is the source of the Son’s life—“it is through the living Father that He has life in Himself.”21 God gave life to the Son as a gift.22 Each of these remarks implies Jesus is somehow inferior to the Father—no amount of caveats will wish that implication away.
  3. John 5:26.23 In this passage, Jesus is explaining about judgment. If people believe in Him, whom the Father sent, they will pass from death to life (John 5:24). The “dead” (i.e. the spiritually dead) will hear the Son’s voice (the Gospel) and live (John 5:25). How is this so? Because, just as the Father has “life in Himself” as a fountainhead to dispense to others, so He has given the Son the same gift: “Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself,” (John 5:26). But, some disagree. They say John 5:26 is really about eternal generation—the Father gave life to the Son eternally.24 Context shows this is absurd. In reality, it simply means that Jesus, as the representative person during the incarnation, received power to grant life to people—the same power the Father has always had.25

The scripture passages advocates offer in support of these three arguments say absolutely nothing about eternal generation and give no hint of the complicated doctrine I summarized, above. Where is a derivation of Person, but not essence? Where is any hint that Christ’s divine Person originated anywhere? Where is an eternal birth and grant of life from the Father? Search the scriptures in vain, for you won’t find answers.

Some conservative theologians today are keen to suggest this is the only orthodox framework one can hold in order to rightly distinguish the Persons from one another. That is wrong.26 What’s behind that claim is a dogged allegiance to a framework hammered out in a very different culture, using categories that are little known and perhaps unhelpful today. That framework insists on beginning with a very strong, almost unitary “oneness,” which requires them to depict the Father as a divine fountainhead or source of eternal, timeless life to Son and Spirit. If you come from a church tradition which affirms this framework for distinguishing the Persons, and you find it helpful and understandable, then that’s lovely.

But, there is a simpler way.

Option 2—Distinguish by Highlighting Different Roles27

The Apostle Paul said, “We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit,” (Ephesians 2:18). This suggests:

  1. Believers want access to the Father—but how?
  2. They have it through Christ in His incarnation, death, and resurrection for sinners—but by what means?
  3. By the Spirit, who applies the Gospel to our hearts and minds, and then connects us to the Father through the Son.

In other words, we “see” the Trinity in the Person’s “distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.”

In another place, the Apostle Paul closed one letter by writing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” (2 Corinthians 13:13). What does this mean?

  1. Jesus has grace in that He emptied Himself and left heaven to take the form of a servant, to be obedient to the incarnate Father’s will—even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
  2. God has love, in that He loved the world so much that He surrendered His only Son—His precious Son—so that every person who trusts in the Son won’t die, but will have eternal life (John 3:16; my translation).
  3. The Spirit provides fellowship, in that He’s the One who changes our hearts and adopts us into God’s family.

Again, “distinct but harmonious” jobs. In another place, the Apostle John wrote that Jesus showed him the Book of Revelation, because the Father had given it to the Son to show everyone what would soon happen to the world (Revelation 1:1)! John then declared that Jesus would soon come on the clouds to return to earth (Revelation 1:7), a reference to the strange human-divine figure from Daniel 7:13-14 who receives an eternal kingdom from the ancient of days (i.e. the Father). Again, different but harmonious roles.

The Apostle Peter explained, “God the Father chose you because of what he knew beforehand. He chose you through the Holy Spirit’s work of making you holy and because of the faithful obedience and sacrifice of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 1:2). This means:

  1. The Father chooses individual for salvation before they believe,
  2. and so the Holy Spirit purifies us, makes us holy, sets us apart as belonging to Him,
  3. and all this can happen because of Jesus Christ’s faithful sacrifice.

Jude, at the beginning of his short letter, addressed it to: “those who are called, loved by God the Father and kept safe by Jesus Christ,” (Jude 1).

  1. The Holy Spirit calls individuals to faith
  2. God loves them, which is why He rescued them
  3. And the Son keeps them safe, because no one can pluck His sheep out of His Father’s hands (John 10:29).

Distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption!

Because God is a single society of Persons, knit together by love and showing an inexhaustible unity, they do everything together. This is why, in one place Moses can write “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), and in another place one New Testament letter can clarify that the Father created the world through the Son (Hebrews 1:2), while Moses can also write that God’s wind or Spirit swept over the waters of the shapeless raw creation (Genesis 1:1). Jesus said the Comforter (i.e. the Holy Spirit) would come to believers (John 14:16-17), then immediately promised they wouldn’t be orphans, because “I will come to you,” (John 14:18). Then, Jesus explained He and the Father would both come along and “make our home” with believers (John 14:23). Apparently, when the Spirit comes, Father and Son come along with Him. Unity in action, not just unity in existence.

God, as this single society of Persons, acts in union and together. Scripture, as though holding a jewel aloft to the sun, simply turns the gem this way and that so our eyes can catch the differentiated facets. So, we “see” the Trinity in the way Scripture highlights each Person’s contributions in service of the one “team’s” mission28—the great work of redemption.


1 Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), p. 186.

2 The doctrine of divine simplicity is behind this insistence. I don’t have space to explain that doctrine in the body of this article. Suffice it to say that simplicity says (1) God is not composed of parts, and (2) he is the living unity of all His attributes (see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), pp. 130-132). Matthew Barrett writes, “In the purest sense, God is one; he is singular perfection,” (None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), p. 76).

There are divergent flavors of simplicity. For example, Henry is more moderate the Barrett, who so emphasizes the otherness of God that one could perhaps accuse Him of painting a picture of extreme impersonalism.

Millard Erickson has suggested this is unhelpful: “Much of the discussion has been carried on in terms of a substance metaphysic, in which reality is a substance possessing certain attributes. A better way of thinking may be to conceive of reality as fundamentally personal rather than impersonal. Thus, God is a subject, a person— and a very complex person at that. He is what he is, and is unique. If he did not possess the essential attributes we have discussed in this volume, he would not be the person he is. The attributes, then, are not qualities added to this nature. They are facets of his complex and rich nature.

It does not seem necessary, in order to preserve these values, to follow the full traditional meaning of simplicity with its attendant problems, such as God having but one attribute and being equivalent to that attribute, with the paradoxical conclusion that each attribute of God is the same as each of the others. The doctrine of divine simplicity need not involve all of the details it has sometimes borne,” (God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 230-231).

3 This is an intentional pun. Only the Trinity nerds who read this will truly understand …

4 See especially Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), pp. 114-121, for a good explanation. This excerpt from WCF 2.3 reads, “… The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.”

Millard Erickson explains, “The traditional doctrine is that the Father is in some sense eternally the basis or the source of the life or at least the distinct personal subsistence of the Son. This, however, is not in any sense to be confused with the doctrine of creation by the Father, as the Arians held,” (Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009; Kindle ed.], KL 1846-1847.

5 See the Nicean-Constantinople Creed of 381. 

6 Ibid.

7 One Anglican theologian said, “I have not the least idea of what is meant by either filiation or procession in respect of the divine Being,” (Leonard Hodgson, The Doctrine of the Trinity, Croall Lectures at Edinburgh University 1942-1943 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), p. 144. He stated much space along these lines in doctrinal statements contains “a great deal that I exclude as belonging to the realm of the imagination,” (Ibid, p. 143).

Ambrose is representative when he exclaims: “Dost thou ask me how He is a Son, if He have not a Father existing before Him? I ask of thee, in turn, when, or how, thinkest thou that the Son was begotten. For me the knowledge of the mystery of His generation is more than I can attain to,—the mind fails, the voice is dumb—ay, and not mine alone, but the angels’ also. It is above Powers, above Angels, above Cherubim, Seraphim, and all that has feeling and thought … Do thou, then (like the angels), cover thy face with thy hands, for it is not given thee to look into surpassing mysteries! We are suffered to know that the Son is begotten, not to dispute upon the manner of His begetting. I cannot deny the one; the other I fear to search into …” (Exposition of the Christian Faith, 1.10.64, 65, in NPNF2, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), p. 212.

Peter Lombard, in his Sentences, quoted this excerpt from Ambrose approvingly, influencing generations of medieval theologians (The Sentences, 9.3.1, vol. 1, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007, p. 53). It’s difficult to overstate the impact Lombard had on the Church’s thought.

8 Letham, Systematic, p. 119. “It is a matter of faith. This poses no problem, or else faith would be based on our own capacities.”

9 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 30.20,” in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). “I take the view that he is called ‘Son’ because he is not simply identical in substance with the Father, but stems from him. He is ‘Only-begotten’ not just because he alone stems uniquely from what is unique, but because he does so in a unique fashion unlike things corporeal.”          

10 Ibid, Oration 29.2. “In a serene, non-temporal, incorporeal way, the Father is parent of the ‘offspring’ and originator of the ‘emanation’—or whatever name one can apply when one has entirely extrapolated from things visible.”

11 Ibid, Oration 29.4. “You are incapable of understanding that one who has a distinctive fleshly birth—what other case of a Virgin Mother of God do you know?—has a different spiritual birth, or rather, one whose being is not the same as ours has a different way of begetting as well.”

12 John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 1.7, in NPNF 2:9, ed. Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 9. 

13 Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, §1.3.23, rev. ed., trans. Roy Deferrari (Ex Fontibus, 2016), pp. 52-53. “… the Father was named in the Trinity because from Him was the Son, who was of His substance. For he who begets and begets of his own substance, begets that which he himself is. And so He from whom He was and He who was with Him are the same as He himself was. He was called Father because the Son was from him.”

14 Augustine, The Trinity, 2.1.3, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1991), p. 99. 

15 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica,

16 Ibid,

17 The 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith (Article 2.3) point to John 1:14, 18 on this point. 

18 My point here is highly disputed by eternal generation advocates, such as Charles L. Irons, “A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten,’ in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2007), pp. 98-116. If I may be so bold, Irons’ arguments are unconvincing and have more to do with retrieving a venerable doctrine than with lexical reality. I’ve catalogued every instance of μονογενοῦς in the LXX (including the Apocrypha), the New Testament, and the Apostolic Fathers. The sense of μονογενοῦς = eternal generation just ain’t there. In every instance, a more plausible interpretation is something like “one and only—special” or “unique.”

19 The Westminster Confession cites Hebrews 1:2-3, Colossians 1:15 for this point (Article 2.3).

20 “‘Son’ language tied to ‘Father’ language is one of the unavoidable hints that the relationship between the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’ is rightly conceived of in terms of generation—indeed, of eternal generation,” (D.A. Carson, “John 5:26: Crux Interpretum for Eternal Generation,” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, p. 87).

21 Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity 7.27, in NPNF1, vol. 9, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. E.W. Watson and L. Pullan (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 130.

22 Ibid. “And, moreover, when He said, ‘For as the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son also to have life in Himself,’ He bore witness that life, to the fullest extent, is His gift from the living God.”

23 No less a New Testament scholar than D.A. Carson calls this verse the “crux interpretum for Eternal Generation,” (this is the title of Carson’s article in Reclaiming Eternal Generation, pp. 79-97). If this is the best text this doctrine can offer, then it is pretty weak indeed.

24 See Augustine, The Trinity, 1.5.26; 2.1.3. See also Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith, 3.16.133, in NPNF2, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), p. 261.

25 See Alvah Hovey, Gospel of John, pp. 138-139. In his article, Carson lists three potential solutions to John 5:26, and opts for eternal generation. He does not mention Hovey’s solution, which is too bad, because it’s simpler, clearer, and more logical than any of the three Carson offers.

Henry Alford offers the same interpretation as Hovey: “The Father hath given Him to have life in Himself, as He is THE SON OF GOD. We have none of us life in ourselves: in Him we live and move and have our being. But He, as the Father is, is the source of Life. Then again the Father hath given Him power to pass judgment, because He is THE SON OF MAN; man is to be judged by Man …” (The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition, vol. 1 (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 508).

26 See anything Matthew Barrett and Craig Carter write on Twitter. Carl F.H. Henry warned, “While revelation supplies hints for solving philosophical difficulties, it does not provide a fully developed metaphysical system to which we can accord revelational status. Christians must therefore avoid claiming supernatural authority for one or another interpretation that seems to resolve the problem of persons and essence in the Trinity,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), p. 210).

27 I could be accused here of focusing on the Trinity ad extra at the expense of the ad intra. Perhaps I deserve some of that critique. However, Scripture does give us passages like Phil 2:5-11 which shows an ad intra distinction of Persons before the incarnation. Phil 2:6 even suggests discrete wills within the one God, because ad intra the Son distinguishes Himself from the Father by not reckoning His status of equality as something to desperately hold on to. Before the incarnation, the Son makes a distinct self-reflection and assessment of His own status as compared to the Father’s, and then acts accordingly. I don’t discuss that passage here, but I simply mention it to say that Scripture shows us “distinct but harmonious offices” ad intra and ad extra. So, I contend we don’t need the doctrine of eternal generation to distinguish the Son.

28 Lutheran theologian Carl Beckwith has written, “If the essential attributes, like the external acts of the Trinity, belong equally and indivisibly to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the church rightly confesses, why do Scripture and our creeds sometime assign them more particularly to one person? The explanation given by the Fathers and reformers has been that the external acts and essential attributes of God may be appropriated or attributed more particularly to one person in order to more fully disclose the persons of the Trinity to our creaturely ways of thinking. This doctrine of appropriation assists us conceptually and aims to focus our prayers and worship on the divine persons,” (The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics (Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 9433-9447).

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

Older English translations used the phrase “only-begotten” at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9. Newer translations don’t use that. Don’t take my word for it; just look at your bible of choice. Newer translations use “unique,” “one and only” or “only,” (etc.) depending on the context.

The phrase “only-begotten” is tied up with the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation is built on a conceptual framework that tries to explain how Father and Son can be distinct from one another, and yet have the very same essence/being. It is perhaps a great misunderstanding of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed to interpret it to mean Jesus and the Father each share the essence of “god like-ness.” That isn’t what it means. It says Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” or “the same essence as the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί).

Eternal generation says that:

  1. the Son was generated by the Father,
  2. in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”)
  3. and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”)
  4. in a way we can’t ever understand
  5. but this does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created

This doctrine is confusing to many non-confessional Christians. It’s likely most of these have never heard of the doctrine. It’s also quite likely few non-confessional seminary professors and even fewer seminary-trained pastors could coherently explain it. For proof, ask your pastor, “what does it mean that Jesus is the only-begotten Son? Does this mean Jesus came into being after the Father?” If your pastor does not reply by describing eternal generation, then he does not understand the doctrine. This doesn’t mean your pastor is a terrible person! It does mean he likely did not receive training in classical theology proper. I certainly did not!

Be that as it may … I say all that to tell you that the translations of John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 are inseparably bound up with this doctrine. It’s a third rail. The past several years have seen extraordinary pushback from certain theologians advocating a return to “Nicene orthodoxy.” Specifically, to the “same essence” doctrine that Nicea taught. Jesus and the Father do not simply share the same essence, like you and I share “humanness.” No, they share the same, identical essence. They are the identical, same being. Part of this pushback is a quest to re-capture “only-begotten” as a valid rendering at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9.

Are they right? How should the passages be rendered? What does μονογενὴς mean? Let’s see …


The lexicons conclude μονογενὴς has a range of meanings that do not require one to posit a timeless, non-physical derivation of divine essence from the Father to the Son.

  • BDAG: (1) “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” or (2) “the only one of its kind or class, unique[1]
  • Abbott-Smith: only, only-begotten; of sone and daughters and of Christ[2]
  • Moulton and Milligan: “is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique,’ not ‘only-begotten’ … the emphasis is on the thought that, as the ‘only’ Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.”[3]
  • Louw-Nida: “pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—‘unique, only.”[4]
  • LEH LXX: “the only member of a kin, only-begotten, only (of children) Jgs 11,34; id. (of God) Od 14,13; alone in its kind, one only Wis 7,22[5]

Septuagint Usage[6]

Here, I survey every use of the word in the LXX.[7] The basic sense in the LXX is special, unique, one and only. These are very close synonyms for one another, but they convey the same force. The one outlier is Psalm 24:16, which gives the sense of alone or lonely.

Judges 11:34: And Jephthah went to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter was going out to meet him with drums and dancing. She was his only begotten; there was not another son or daughter to him.

The sense here is “unique, one and only.” The girl is Jephthah’s precious daughter, which makes the consequences of his vow more serious.

Psalm 21:21: Rescue my soul from the sword, and my unique one from the hand of a dog.

Again, the sense is “unique, special, one and only.”

Psalm 24:16: Look upon me and have pity on me, because I am alone and poor

The sense here is different; more like monos than monogenes.

Psalm 34:17: O Lord, how long will you observe? Restore my life from their wrongdoing, my unique life from lions.

Unique, one and only, special.

Wisdom 7:22: … for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent …

Unique, one of a kind. This is in the midst of Solomon’s recounting of his ordinary origins, and the blessing of wisdom he received because he sought higher things than earthly accolades (Wisdom 7:6-7).

Tobit 3:15: … and neither have I defiled my name nor my father’s name in this land of my captivity. I am an only child to my father, and neither is there to him a young child who will become his heir, nor a close relative.

One and only. Sarah, the woman whom Tobit’s son eventually marries, is lamenting her misfortune. An evil demon has, in turn, killed her seven successive husbands and she is now without any hope.

Tobit 8:17: Blessed are you because you have shown mercy on two only-begotten children! Show them mercy, O Master, fulfill their life in health with gladness and mercy!”

One and only. Sarah’s father gives God praise because Sarah and Tobit’s son, her new husband, have lived through the night. The demon has been defeated!

Psalm of Solomon 18:4: and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the children of Israel. Your childhood is upon us like a firstborn unique son

One and only, special, precious.

New Testament Usage

The usage here tracks with the evidence from the Septuagint. There are no surprises.

Luke 7:12: As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 8:42: And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 9:37-38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child!

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Hebrews 11:17-18: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Usage Related to Jesus

With this foundation in place, from the LXX and every citation in the New Testament, we’re in a good place to determine how to take the word in reference to Jesus. Basically, the usage here fits perfectly with what we’ve seen in the LXX and the remainder of the New Testament.

John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth

The sense is uniqueness, a special “one of a kind-ness.” Jesus has a very special glory, a glory that can only come from someone in the closest possible relationship with the Father (v. 18). They share the same glory. To find implications about an eternal generation here are speculative and depend on an a priori determination to “find” the doctrine in the passage.

John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Again, context suggests uniqueness, one of a kind-ness. Jesus, as the one “in the bosum of the Father,” has the closest possible relationship with Him. Thus only Jesus, the very special, one and only God (or “Son,” if you prefer the variant reading) can truly make the Father known to the world.

John 3:14-16: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life

The force of the passage is God’s love. He has so much love that He sent His unique, special, one and only Son to die for His people’s sins. Abraham’s would-be sacrifice (the emotional force of giving your only son’s life) prefigures this event. Again, finding eternal generation here is eisegesis.

1 John 4:9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him

See the comments at John 3:16 (above).

Apostolic Father’s Usage[8]

There are no new surprises here.

1 Clement 25:2: For there is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This bird, being the one and only of its kind, lives five hundred years


Martyrdom of Polycarp 20:2: And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and gift, to his heavenly kingdom, by his one and only child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and majesty ⌊forever⌋. Greet all the holy ones

One and only. Older translation used “only-begotten” (e.g. Lake), but there is no need for this. A theological presupposition about eternal generation would have to drive this interpretation.

Diognetus 10:2: For God loved humankind, for whom he made the world, to whom he subjected all things, the things in the earth, to whom he gave reason, to whom he gave mind, to whom alone he allowed to look above to him, whom he made in his own image, to whom he sent his one and only son, to whom he promised the kingdom in heaven and will give it to those who love him.

This is an allusion to John’s usage (John 1:14, 18, 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9), and the same comments apply here.

So, What’s It Mean?

Charles Irons argues there is a “directional flow” in the lexical evidence to see the meaning of μονογενὴς expanding in “ever-increasing” figurative ways … ways that allow one to interpret it to imply Jesus’ metaphysical derivation from the Father (“A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only-Begotten,'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 111). Indeed, Irons contends it is a human metaphor to express an eternal timeless, non-physical derivation from Father to Son (Ibid, p. 115). He states “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated,” (Ibid, p. 116).

Irons is arguing for interpretation, not pure translation. In fact, if one took his approach to its logical implication for bible translation, the result would be a dynamic equivalent rendering so interpretive it might make even Eugene Peterson blush. Only an a priori commitment to the doctrine of eternal generation would make you render μονογενὴς as “only-begotten. This doesn’t mean eternal generation isn’t real. It just means the word should not be translated as “only-begotten.”

It would be as if I, when encountering Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο at John 1:14, rendered it as “and the Word kept His divine nature and added a human nature, and thus became fully God and fully man.” I smuggled a whole host of good stuff in there, but it isn’t what John wrote. He actually wrote “and the Word became flesh.”

In the same way, John did not write that Jesus is “only-begotten” in the sense that He derives His essence from the Father in a timeless, eternal manner. “Only-begotten” means nothing, in and of itself, when it comes to Jesus. It only engenders confusion. You may wish to guard the sanctity of eternal generation. Have at it, but support a rendering that communicates more than it confuses. Talk about the doctrine in exposition. Don’t smuggle it crudely into your translations.

The controversy about the meaning of μονογενὴς isn’t as difficult as some would like you to believe. Set aside the lexical essays. Just look at every usage of the word in the literature for yourself. It isn’t difficult. But, like so much else, it’s become difficult because of the freight the various interpretations pull with it.

[1] BDAG, p. 658.

[2] Abbott-Smith, p. 296. 

[3] Moulton and Milligan, pp. 416-417. 

[4] Louw-Nida, §58.52.

[5] Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).

[6] The LXX citations here are from Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[7] I do not include Ode 14, because it is clearly a Christian composition of some maturity. It is not properly a citation from before the time of Christ.

[8] My citations here are from Rick Brannan, tran., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012).

Redefining the faith? Leonardo Boff on eternal generation and procession

Redefining the faith? Leonardo Boff on eternal generation and procession

I’ve been reading Leonardo Boff’s work Trinity and Society. Boff is a Roman Catholic liberation theologian who may or may not be a Marxist. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking book on the Trinity I’ve yet read; right up there with Jurgen Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom. Both these gentlemen are social trinitarians. They had a formative influence on Millard Erickson’s own monograph on the Trinity, which is excellent.

One interesting thing Boff does is re-conceptualize eternal generation and procession. Some readers may not know what these doctrines are. They’ve been pillars of Christian orthodoxy for centuries, but the turn towards social trinitarianism in the latter half of the 20th century has muted their impact in many evangelical churches. Some conservative theologians today downplay them.

What are eternal generation and procession?

Well, Christians believe Father, Son and Spirit are the same being. Not that they merely share the same nature (like you and I share a human nature), but they are the exact same being. But, if this be the case, then are we not collapsing all three Persons into one Jello-O mold, without distinction? How is this not modalism?

It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:

For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.

John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.

These distinctions are:

  • Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
  • Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
  • Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.

How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism. For more on classical trinitarianism and divine Personhood, see my article, “Modalism Redux? The Concept of ‘Person’ in Classical Trinitarianism.” For an excellent, short explanation of eternal generation, see Charles Irons’ article, “The Only Begotten God: Eternal Generation in the Nicene Creed.”

Many contemporary theologians are not satisfied with this. They see it as an abstract idea that’s nearly impossible to understand. This is likely why many conservative Christians have never heard of them; because their pastors probably don’t understand these doctrines, either.

Instead, a more social, relational model of the Trinity has made significant headway in the last few decades. Classical advocates do not appreciate this social, relational model. Carl Beckwith is representative when he writes:

When we apply this modern notion of person to the Trinity, we end up with three distinct subjectivities, three authentic and self-determining persons, who freely and willingly coexist in unity. We end up with sophisticated sounding tritheism.

Carl Beckwith, The Holy Trinity (Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 10098-10100.

See my article “On Divine Personhood and Three-headed Dogs” for a discussion of social trinitarianism and divine Personhood. This perspective often goes hand in hand with a rejection of eternal generation and procession. It is fair to say, then, that Leonardo Boff’s comments along this line would not be welcomed by classical trinitarians.

What Boff does with eternal generation and procession

Boff is a social trinitarian. He does not jettison the doctrines, but re-frames them so completely that he might as well have done. The classical model distinguishes the Persons by causality, but hastens to add this causality is timeless and non-physical (see above). Nonetheless, there is an order in the Trinitarian relationships.

Boff demurs, and suggests this ordering “is rather a descriptive device to indicate the differences and simultaneous reciprocity between the divine co-eternal Persons,” (140). It’s analogical language; terms of word art struggling to express the inexpressible. There is no real order in the Trinity; no real causality at all.

For Boff, ultimate reality begins with the three Persons already together; not “the solitude of One but in the co-existence and communion of Three,” (139). This union, this knot of relationships that define the Persons, is eternal; “it is not something that comes after them, but is simultaneous with them, since they are always with the others and in the others,” (138-139).

So, Boff suggests we dismiss terms that imply causation (like, say, “generation” and “procession”) and “use the biblical terminology of revelation and recognition: the three Persons reveal themselves to themselves and to each other,” (142).

This implies – and this is my basic thesis – that the three divine Persons are simultaneous in origin and co-exist eternally in communion and interpenetration. Each is distinct from the others in personal characteristics and in the communion established by that Person in everlasting relationship with the others, each revealing that Person’s self to itself and the self of the others to them

Boff, Trinity and Society, 142.

This is fairly standard for social trinitarianism, but Boff truly goes his own way by claiming the Church intended language about generation and procession to be analogical, not real:

Talk of ‘processions’ should not be understood as a genesis in God or as a theogonic process, as though God were subject to the principle of causality. the idea of different processions is used to emphasize at once the difference between the Persons and their reciprocal respectiveness or communion.

Boff, Trinity and Society, 144.

The classical model has always been careful to explain that generation and procession do not imply temporality; that Son and Spirit ever “came into being.” Yet, there has always been an insistence that they’re somehow real and causal; just in a way we can’t ever understand.

These explanations have always been more guardrails boxing the problem in rather than explaining them. Boff explodes these categories by making them entirely analogical; entirely words of art to express reciprocity in eternal relationship. Having dropped this artillery shell, he then backpedals a bit by assuring readers he will still use the classical terms, but will “do so with an appreciation of their specifically trinitarian application; they do not indicate any theogony, any result of an intra-divine production process, any causal dependence,” (146).

For, to Boff, this knit-together relationship of Father, Son and Spirit is the starting point. Not for him a solitary Father who, before time began, begat the Son in an incorporeal way, and together the Spirit proceeds from them both. Rather, it’s the eternal relationship that constitutes God as triune.

Their relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than hypostatic derivation, of correlation and communion rather than production and procession. What is produced and proceeds is intra-trinitarian and interpersonal revelation. One Person is the condition for the revelation of the others, in an infinite dynamism like a series of mirrors endlessly reflecting the image of the Three.

Boff, Trinity and Society, 146.

Some thoughts

Boff is thought-provoking because the social model has a very strong pull in contemporary society, and has many implications for understanding the scriptures. For example, if the imago dei is structural (there’s something about our nature and make-up that reflects God’s nature and make-up), and the social model be true, then the “image of God” may well be substantive in that we are hardwired to long for relationship and community; “that set of qualities that is required for these relationships and this function to take place,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., 471).

This would have obvious explanatory power for God’s motives regarding salvation, the need for church membership, and the reason why God wants Christians to be holy:

  1. God saves His people because He wants relationship with them; to invite them into His family and be in communion with them. To adopt them.
  2. Church membership is about brotherly love; about a loving commitment to a particular community of brothers and sisters. Father, Son and Spirit are united to one another by love; so Christians must do the same in their faith communities … to image God Himself to the world.
  3. God wants Christians to be holy so these now-restored vertical and horizontal relationships are strengthened and refurbished ever more. We grow closer to one another in the family of God, as we grow closer to Him.

Of course, many theologians do not agree with the social model. They also don’t believe we should extrapolate out from God’s intra-trinitarian relationships to find a model for human relationships:

Boff’s re-conceptualizations of eternal generation and procession are novel and intriguing. I don’t believe they were what Christian have meant by the terms throughout the centuries. That doesn’t necessarily mean Boff is wrong to focus on relationship, instead of an eternal causality. I’m looking forward to finishing the book.