I recently had the privilege of examining two theological students in Systematic Theology from the floor of Presbytery. In the Presbyterian church, one of the highest callings of the Presbytery is licensing and ordaining men to the Gospel ministry. A large part of this process involves subjecting candidates to several rounds of oral examination. In both of the examinations I gave, I asked the important question “what is eternal generation?” In both cases, I could feel a bit of heartburn coming from examinee due to the question. And to be completely honest I felt a bit of heartburn for them as well, for how can mere creatures like us be expected to define what goes on in the life of the Trinity? Or as Isaiah 53:8 says, “who shall declare His generation?”
Picking up where we left off in our last installment on Christology, we find that the middle section of Larger Catechism 36 assumes an understanding of this doctrine, while also providing us with a general outline of what it means in relation to Christ’s mediation. Far from seeking to explain what only God the Father and God the Son know in themselves, the catechism describes the general contours of this doctrine so that we might find confidence in our Savior’s identity:
Q36: Who is the Mediator of the covenant of grace?
A36: The only Mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, forever.
After introducing us to our need for a Mediator, as well as the name of God’s appointed Mediator, the Westminster divines now point us to the glory of His divine nature. Jesus Christ is identified as being both the eternal Son of God and of equal substance with the Father. Each of these statements are deeply theological descriptions of the meaning and implications of His eternal generation. As we will see, this reality not only uniquely qualifies Jesus to be our Mediator since He is God Himself, but the inter-Trinitarian relationship of the Father and the Son also unfolds to us the glory that is now ours as adopted sons.
The Eternal Son of God
When the Catechism introduces us to our Savior’s divine nature it describes Him as “the eternal Son of God.” In other words, it identifies Him with an attribute of God (“eternality”) and then identifies Him according to His distinct personal subsistence within the Godhead (“Son of God”). This description is rooted in Trinitarian categories. Both His unity with the divine essence and attributes are assumed, as well as His unique personal distinction within the divine essence. It is this latter subject, the distinct personal identity of the Son, which compels us to contemplate the doctrine of eternal generation.
When we think about what distinguishes the persons of the Trinity from one another, theologians normally speak of these distinctions as “incommunicable properties”; or properties that are unique to each divine person. When it comes to the incommunicable property of God the Son, His eternal generation is what identifies Him as the Son and distinguishes Him from the Father and the Spirit.
Question 10 of the Larger Catechism teaches us that “[i]t is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father.” In other words, for the Son to be “begotten” of the Father is for the Son to be eternally generated by the Father. Orthodox theologians have historically ascertained this from the very title “Son” itself. Sons, by definition, are generated by their fathers. This is different then the concept of creation. The concept of creation implies the making of something external to one’s being, whereas generation implies something either internal to one’s being, or originating from one’s internal being. For example, a man may create a wooden figurine from objects and tools external to Himself, but he generates his son from properties inside of himself, or identical to himself in some way. This is why the Nicene Creed says that the Son is “begotten not made.” The Son is not a creature, but a generation of the Father.
However, with God the Father’s generation of the Son, we have to add the qualifier that this is not an action that happens in time, nor is it an ongoing process. It is a timeless and eternal act; hence why it is called “eternal generation,” or why the catechism calls Him the “eternal Son of God.” Louis Berkhof defines eternal generation as follows:
“It is that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby He, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation or change.” (Berkhof 94)Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology, New Combined Ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996, Pg 90
Notice that Berkhof says that this was both an eternal and necessary act. In other words, the Father didn’t “choose” to be the Father. Rather, He is the Father and therefore can’t but generate His Son. Likewise, the Father is said to be the ground of the Son’s person (or “subsistence”), but He is not the ground of His being (or “essence”). In other words, the Son’s personal subsistence is from the Father, but His possession of the divine essence is from Himself. This language describes the most intimate of relationships, of which the creaturely father-son relationship is just a pale comparison. Being the eternal Son of God, Jesus is “the brightness” of His Father’s glory, “the express image of His person” (Heb. 1:3), and He likewise dwells within the very “bosom of the Father” (Jn. 1:18) – sharing in the same divine essence as the Father.
This not only grounds creaturely filial relationships in a profoundly eternal reality, but it means that believers have been engrafted (or “adopted”) into this filial relationship. The New Testament repeatedly describes Jesus as God’s “beloved Son” (Mt. 3:17) and His “only begotten Son” (Jn 1:18; 3:16). In Christ we are assured that we have entered into this most intimate of relationships with the Father.
Of One Substance and Equal with the Father
Just as we might be relishing in the reality of the Son’s filial relationship to the Father, a common error can creep in: the heresy of subordination. Subordinationism is an error that seeks to distinguish the Father and the Son, not by incommunicable properties, but by downgrading the essence of the Son. This error has manifested itself in Church history in gross forms, such as the Arian heresy that the Nicene church addressed. It is also found in more subtle forms, such as the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) heresy that has arisen in Reformed and Evangelical circles. In either case it implies that the Son is somehow less than the Father. However, contra all forms of subordinationism, the Westminster divines assert that the eternality of Jesus’ Sonship means that he is of “one substance and equal with the Father.”
This truth is taught in both testaments of Scripture. From Genesis 1, where God says “Let us make man in our image,” to Psalm 110, where David says “the Lord said unto my Lord, sit at my right hand,” we see that the plurality of persons in the Godhead are referred to as equals. Likewise in the New Testament, Jesus’ many “I AM” statements imply his unity and equality with the Father for the name “I AM” is a reference to the unity and simplicity of the divine essence.
The significance for believers is that they are not only brought into this Father-Son relationship, but through this relationship with His person they are reconciled to the fullness of the Godhead and, thus, to all three persons of the Trinity. As Jesus Himself says in John 14:23, “ If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” Prior to this utterance, Jesus also promised to send the Holy Spirit who would be within us (Jn 14:17). The fact that Jesus is of the same substance and equal with the Father assures us of our union with the entirety of the Godhead. If either form of subordinationism were true, there would yet remain a distance between ourselves and the Father. If Jesus is not equal to the Father and of the same substance, then the Father yet remains distant from us and we are not reconciled to the Godhead.
The Scriptures, as explained by the catechism, assure us of the fact that when we enter into union with our Mediator we are reconciled to the Triune God. This reconciliation through union ties in with the idea examined in our previous post; in the face of our Mediator we see the very God whom we need Mediation with, making the Lord Jesus Christ a perfect Mediator. Jesus is not an outside agent of reconciliation. He dwells in the very bosom of the Father, sharing in His essence.
This truth is why the Gospel only makes sense in light of Trinitarian categories and why doctrines like eternal generation matter. Confessional orthodoxy not only explicates the Scriptural doctrine of God to us, providing us with a coherent understanding of the Godhead in light of salvation, it also unfolds the beauty of God’s love to the believer. We have been elected by the Father, to be adopted through the Son, as He is then applied to us through the Holy Spirit. And as Jesus Himself assures us, when we behold His beauty by faith, we can know that the Triune God is dwelling with us. We have been adopted in the Son and engrafted into the life of the Trinity.
Indeed, we cannot comprehend this mystery – we cannot “declare His generation” – but as believers we can receive it by divine revelation and relish in it by faith, knowing that our Mediator is “the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father.”