Essay / Theology

Adding Eternal Generation

The publication of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Second Edition presents an opportunity to consider the difference the doctrine of eternal generation can make in trinitarian theology. The opportunity arises from the fact that Grudem denied eternal generation in the first edition, but affirms it in the second. That’s a big change.

The widely used first edition of Grudem’s Systematic Theology (sales of over 750,000) taught the doctrine of the Trinity with real warmth, both in the chapter devoted to the subject, and at a few other key points. I know one person who previously denied the triunity of God, but was convinced by studying Grudem’s book to reject unitarian theology and confess the Trinity. I know dozens of Christian people (especially college students and church members without advanced theological training) who, after studying Grudem’s Trinity chapter, came away more confident that the doctrine was biblical and coherent. Grudem’s Trinity chapter put the disparate pieces of the doctrine together for them. The first edition, I’m saying, effectively taught the doctrine of the Trinity. It got the job done (in truly simple language, ×750,000). And peculiarly, in my view, it did so without making adequate use of the doctrine of eternal generation.

In the intervening years, Wayne Grudem has changed his mind about eternal generation, and now argues that it is a doctrine clearly taught by Scripture. Trinitarian teaching that foregrounds eternal generation is a lot more solid and robust than trinitarian teaching that marginalizes, omits, or denies it. This is why I claim that comparing the first and second editions of Grudem’s Systematic Theology give us a chance to see the difference eternal generation can make for trinitarian theology.

To bring out the comparison with adequate detail, let’s review how Grudem structures his teaching on the Trinity. This outline is the same in both editions; Grudem’s revisions in this chapter consist of a few small changes in isolated terminology,1 and the insertion of blocks of new material into the structure.

First, Grudem provides a section on the Trinity’s mode of revelation:

  • A. It is Progressively Revealed
    • 1. Partial in the Old Testament
    • 2. More completely in the New Testament

Next, the core of Grudem’s presentation of the doctrine, summarized in three claims which he proves from Scripture (plus two explanatory elaborations):

  • B. Three Statements Summarize the Biblical Teaching
    • 1. God is Three Persons
    • 2. Each Person is Fully God
    • 3. There is One God
    • 4. Analogies fall short
    • 5. God eternally and necessarily exists as Trinity

These three summary statements, developed over the course of about eight pages with exegetical footnotes, are the most valuable element of Grudem’s teaching on the Trinity. And we would expect them to be: his approach to systematic theology treats it as a discipline that summarizes and synthesizes Bible teaching. Here he applies that method to the doctrine of the Trinity, and the result is a parade of biblical truth. This method is what I have called “the piecemeal proof” of the doctrine of the Trinity because of the way it isolates individual propositions and then proves them one at a time from Scripture. It works. It’s an especially good framework for organizing a lot of material. If you think about it in creedal terms, this method follows the structure of the Athanasian Creed rather than the Nicene Creed. Like the Athanasian Creed, it focuses attention on the three-one dynamic more than on the relations and distinctions of the persons from each other, which is why Grudem goes on to add a long section about those relations. First he gives a section refuting standard heresies:

  • C. Errors
    • 1. Modalism
    • 2. Arianism
    • 3. Tritheism

and then he moves into the important section on the trinitarian distinctions. This is the part of the second edition into which Grudem drops the two largest blocks of new material (on Eternal Generation and, don’t panic yet, on Eternal Functional Subordination). He has also reorganized the older material a bit. In the first edition, Grudem covered in a few pages the arguments that the persons of the Trinity are distinct because:

  • 1. The Persons of the Trinity Have Different Primary Functions in Relating to the World.
  • 2. The Persons of the Trinity Eternally Existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

That is a peculiar order: Surely it would be best to establish first that the persons are distinct in their eternal existence, and then move on to their relations to the world.2 For whatever reasons, though, Grudem follows the order of first explaining their relations to the world (in creation and redemption) and then moving backward, as it were, to their eternal distinctions. He moves back from time to eternity by asking, rhetorically, “But why do the persons of the Trinity take these different roles in relating to creation? Was it accidental or arbitrary?” (first edition, 249). It was not: in the next two pages, Grudem argues that the distinctive roles the persons of the Trinity play in creation and redemption are accurate expressions of their eternal relations to each other. I think it’s fair to say that these two pages in the first edition bristled with implications, and have raised the most questions for interpreters. Grudem is eager to affirm that the Father is really the Father, the Son is really the Son, and the Spirit really the Spirit. This seems to him to be in possible tension with the equality of the persons, so he summarizes their relation with the formula that the Son is “equal in being but subordinate in role” to the Father. He concludes with a statement that is tersely stated but portentous: “This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed…” (first edition, 251).

This is where the major blocks of new material appear in Systematic Theology, Second Edition. Grudem is revising and extending his remarks about the distinction of the persons. Here is the structure of this section in the second edition:

  • D. What are the Distinctions Between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
    • 1. The Persons of the Trinity Have Different Primary Functions in Relating to the World
    • 2. The Meaning of Monogenes: Is Jesus God’s “Only Begotten” Son?
    • 3. The Meaning of The Eternal Generation of the Son
    • 4. The Different Functions (or Roles) of Father, Son, and Holy
      Spirit Are Appropriate to Their Distinct Identities (this is the section previously entitled “The Person of the Trinity Eternally Existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”)

Grudem has inserted the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son into the awkward gap that previously existed in his trinitarianism between the Trinity’s work in the world and the Trinity’s eternal existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I won’t rehearse his whole argument about eternal generation, but it is a fine “why my mind has changed” moment that hinges on reading a colleague’s persuasive argument about the interpretation of a key word:

The evidence and arguments produced by Irons have convinced me that monogenēs when used of God the Son in the New Testament means “only begotten.” As a result, I have removed appendix 6 (where I had argued against “only begotten”) from this edition of Systematic Theology. In addition, I am now willing to affirm the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son (also called the eternal begetting of the Son).

I admit that in years past, when I’ve taught theology classes using Grudem’s first edition, I’ve been pretty tempted to take the removal of appendix 6 into my own hands. That single, rip-outable page has been a real obstacle to me in helping guide students to the proper understanding of an important doctrine. How I rejoice at its excision. O blessed appendectomy!

Reconsidering the accuracy and meaning of “only-begotten” was the occasion for Grudem’s change of mind on this doctrine, but I don’t think his decision is quite as punctiliar as that makes it sound. Grudem pictures the monogenes argument as something like the breaking of a logjam: once it was cleared, he was willing to affirm that the doctrine is also present in passages where the terminology of begetting is not used. Traditionally, of course, Christian theology has drawn the doctrine less from the five “only-begotten” passages and more from places like John 5, Hebrews 1, and others. Grudem also includes some reflections on the systematic value of the doctrine, and argues for its strategic place in summing up a series of crucial biblical doctrines:

Speaking positively, we can say that the eternal generation of the Son implies that (1) the Son is of the same nature as the Father (for a father begets a son like himself), (2) the Son is a distinct person from the Father (for the Son is begotten and the Father is unbegotten), and (3) there is a specific order in the relationship between Father and Son (the biblical pattern is always from the Father through the Son, as in 1 Cor. 8:6). But
all three of these points can be established from the clear testimony of many passages of Scripture without any need for a doctrine of eternal generation (as is evident, for example, from the fact that I affirmed all three of these points in the first edition of this book while denying eternal generation). Still, the idea of the eternal generation of the Son implies all three of these points at once, while otherwise they would have to be established by a combination of the teachings of several different verses.

It’s a tidy argument, satisfying in itself and promising in that it shows Grudem’s quick recognition of eternal generation’s organic fit into Christian doctrine as a whole. Imagine theologizing without the benefits of this doctrine for years, and then suddenly laying hold of it! And the fact that Grudem inserts this new material on eternal generation into his existing structure at exactly the point where his trinitarian teaching was previously at its most brittle and ambiguous is also very promising. Eternal generation, after all, seems to be exactly what the first edition needed at this point. It is a venerable doctrine that states the eternal relation of Father and Son in a way that secures, recognizes, and explains their distinction from each other within the divine unity. Where previously Grudem could only assert that the triune God must be in eternity as he behaves in the world, he now has new (well, actually very old, but newly deployed here) resources for characterizing the distinct, hypostatic identities of the persons in relation to each other. With this doctrine in place, Grudem could dispense with the need to talk about the more abstract categories of equality and subordination.

Note this carefully: With eternal generation making a difference as a doctrine that really does some work, there would be no need to keep seeking other answers to the question about the distinction between the Father and the Son. That distinction is wrapped up in the Father’s standing in the relation of principle to his coeternal, coessential, coequal Son. It’s what most versions of the piecemeal proof (with its emphasis on the three-one dynamic) most conspicuously lack: a specified relation between the persons. Adding eternal generation to that kind of trinitarian teaching provides the foundation simultaneously for the identity of essence and the distinction of persons; this addition makes the whole doctrinal structure cohere; it can satisfy faith’s desire for understanding by leading on to the glory believers have beheld, “glory as of the only-begotten.”

But these promised benefits of adding eternal generation are not fully realized in this second edition. Grudem continues to find the actual distinction between Father and Son to be something still to be specified, and so he continues to pursue what he considers to be much greater elaboration and specificity. That elaboration is an eternal relation in which the Father has a role, or function, of commanding the Son, who has a role, or function, of obeying and submitting. We are back to “equal in being, but subordinate in role” again. The next sub-section is:

  • 5. Does the Son Eternally Submit to the Authority of the Father?

Grudem’s answer is yes, with about a dozen subpoints in which he rehearses the arguments about eternal functional subordination; clarifies what he has meant by it; defends his previously published views against critics; and justifies extending the relation analogically to family authority structures. This series of arguments looms large in bulk (about nineteen pages), and will be the subject of much attention and much controversy. The short report is already abroad in early reviews that in his second edition, Grudem doubles down on EFS. I do think Grudem clarifies a few issues helpfully (he has more to say here about the one divine will and what he calls its “three expressions” than I have seen him offer before), but I think this entire stretch of pages belongs to the archive of a rather dreary controversy. There will be more and more to say about it in a smaller and smaller community of discourse. If it were in my power to divert attention and passion into the right channels, I would direct everybody to focus on the doctrine of eternal relations of origin in the triune God.

Because that is where the doctrine of the Trinity has a fitting environment, in which it thrives and springs to life with its full biblical, systematic, and spiritual vigor. The doctrine of eternal relations of origin is so important that I can survey Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Second Edition, and say that of the two Trinitarian news stories –the addition of eternal generation and the double-down on eternal functional subordination– the former is by far the bigger story.3 I don’t expect many people to agree with me in that estimation, but through a number of conflicts and confusions in the past decade, the strategic task of retrieving eternal generation has been the main objective worth striving for. Let me put it this way: By faithfully equipping his readers with the doctrine of eternal generation in this second edition (and cutting appendix 6!), Grudem has given his students the orientation they need to take their trinitarian theology further into the satisfying resources of the great tradition than his first edition encouraged. Let eternal generation have its patient, perfect work, and obviating the felt need for EFS will be among its lesser accomplishments.

While envisioning a bright future for evangelical trinitarianism moving forward from here, I don’t want to give the impression that in this regard we have to make up some brand new, never-before-accomplished feats of insight and doctrinal construction. In most of the matters under discussion here, the way forward lies in achieving mastery of some very old and proven tools of theological thinking. From among a great wealth of possible illustrations, let me offer one good example of Protestant theology that makes full and proper use of eternal generation: Petrus van Mastricht. Here is the very different way he answers the same question, “in what do the three persons differ among themselves?” He gives three answers, closely related:

  1. In the hypostatic properties, or manner of subsisting: one subsisting entirely from himself; one subsisting from a certain other one, and one subsisting from two.
  2. In the order of subsisting, in which the Father is the first person, since he subsists entirely from himself; the Son the second, inasmuch as he descended from the Father; the Holy Spirit the third, as he proceeds from two.
  3. In the mode of operating, which imitates the manner of subsisting and of order, insofar as, outside himself, the Father works from himself, through the Son and the Holy Spirit; the Son from the Father, through the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son, through himself. (Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, Vol. 2: Faith in the Triune God, 504-505. I have paraphrased a bit for clarity.)

The sequence that Mastricht follows is significant: first the manner of subsisting, from which follows an order of subsisting, which together set the pattern for the mode of operating. The doctrine of eternal generation is, we might say, built in from the very beginning, and Mastricht’s doctrinal drive to distinguish the persons from each other is entirely satisfied by it. As he continues to trace the work of the Trinity outward to creatures, he is not seeking in that work to find fuller or better explanations of how they differ. To the contrary, Mastricht is bringing all these distinctions with him from the internal life of the Trinity into the external operations of God. The order of subsisting is reflected in the mode of operating. The primal perfection of the triune God’s life in himself is graciously made present to us in free fellowship of God with us. That’s the answer. To some readers, it sounds like an empty form of words, leaving the question unresolved. But if, after reflecting on it, you are able to see it as an answer that really answers, then you are ready to forge ahead into classical Trinitarian theology in the Nicene tradition, which throws a surprising light on the word of God.

What real difference does it make whether an evangelical doctrine of the Trinity includes or omits the doctrine of eternal generation? It makes some difference; Grudem’s own trinitarianism is now in certain, specifiable ways stronger than in the first edition. But what makes even more of a difference is to add it in such a way that it fully integrated into the deep structures of our way of approaching the doctrine of God. Adding eternal generation matters quite a bit for this second edition; it can matter even more for trinitarian theology among evangelicals in coming years.


1The most significant such edit is to the passage on p. 251 of the first edition, which had said “if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity” (emphasis added; watch that phrase). This was indeed a very bad sentence, which could only with difficulty be interpreted in an orthodox sense. In the second edition, Grudem has changed this to “if we do not have relational differences (historically called subordination in function), then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another…” The sentence was a subject of dispute during a public debate between Grudem and Tom McCall (along with Bruce Ware and Keith Yandell), where Grudem admitted it was badly stated and needed to be corrected.

2There is a fundamental issue under the surface here that I am avoiding on purpose. I only mention it here for the benefit of those who have already noticed its absence. Readers well versed in recognizing trinitarian actions toward the created world as inseparable operations of the entire Trinity (even if they terminate on one hypostasis or are appropriated to one for our instruction) will notice the trickiness of simply working back from distinct works in the world to distinctions in God. It would be possible to analyze Wayne Grudem’s entire trinitarian theology by asking where it makes contact, or fails to do so, with the doctrine of inseparable operations of the Trinity ad extra. But I don’t think Grudem has publicly worked out his views on that, and the point of this blog post is to inquire into what can be learned from a subject on which he has in fact meditated, changed his mind, and published. In what I quote from Mastricht above, it is easy to see the difference the doctrine of inseparable operations makes for him and his method of argument.

3If you agree that there are two major news stories about the fortunes of trinitarian theology in Grudem’s second edition, you will probably also wonder about the relation between the two items. I do, too. Much depends on the reception the book gets from those who appreciatively use it as a teaching tool, and how they decide to handle the combination of eternal generation and eternal functional subordination for themselves and their students. I predict eternal generation will prove its vigor, and the persuasiveness of EFS will continue to fade.

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