Is the Son Eternally Begotten?

The second sentence of the Nicene Creed famously confesses belief... one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.[1]

For 1,600 years, the church has echoed these words in its theology and liturgy. Today, however, an increasing number of voices are questioning the theology of eternal generation as outlined in the creed. These critics of the creed come from a variety of theological schools and traditions and so, naturally, do not all raise the same objections or offer the same alternatives to this classic teaching.[2]

One critic worth considering is the noted philosopher and theologian, William Lane Craig. In a recent journal article entitled, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, Craig answers his own question with a resounding “no”.[3] Craig’s article offers a number of reasons for critiquing the doctrine of eternal generation and offers several proposals of alternative ways of understanding the Trinity. Upon consideration, however, Craig’s reasons for rejecting eternal generation are unsatisfactory, and his alternative proposals create far more problems than they solve.

Before offering a reply to Craig’s arguments, it will be helpful to briefly summarize both his critique of eternal generation, and the alternative he proposes.

Craig’s Critique

Craig summarizes his view in the abstract of the article, which reads:

The doctrine of the Father’s begetting the Son in his divine nature, despite its credal affirmation, enjoys no clear scriptural support and threatens to introduce an objectionable ontological subordinationism into the doctrine of the Trinity. We should therefore think of Christ’s sonship as a function of his incarnation, even if that role is assumed beginninglessly.[4]

Craig, therefore, critiques the Nicene doctrine of eternal generation on three grounds: Exegetical, historical/philosophical, and theological.[5] Exegetically, Craig echoes the claims of other modern scholars who argue that the word traditionally translated as “only begotten” (μονογενής) is often better understood as meaning “unique” or “one and only.”[6] Even in cases where it might be translated as “begotten” or communicate the idea of derivation, however, Craig argues that Christ’s “begottenness” applies only to His incarnation.[7] Thus he concludes that “Nothing in Scripture warrants us in thinking that Christ is begotten of the Father in his divine nature.”[8]

So if this doctrine did not arise from Scripture, from where did it come? Craig points to the 2nd and 3rd century Greek Apologists who sought to bridge the gap between Christian and pagan thought. Craig argues that one of the ways they did this was by combining the biblical language of the λογος with Greek connotations connected with the same word.[9] The λογος was understood as referring to God’s reason which proceeded from Him and was instrumental in the work of creation.[10] This understanding was passed on to the West through Irenaeus and became part of the theological toolbox which was used by the Nicene theologians as they grappled with Arianism in the centuries that followed. Thus, according to Craig’s understanding of the history, the doctrine of eternal generation is a philosophical intrusion into Christian theology and not a teaching which is drawn from the Bible itself.

Theologically, Craig has grave misgivings about the impact which eternal generation has on the Church’s understanding of the Trinity. He argues that eternal generation leads (or at least tends) towards a crass subordinationism, undermining the aseity and deity of Christ by making his deity contingent on the Father.[11] Craig summarizes his critique this way:

...although credally affirmed, the doctrine of the generation of the Son (and the procession of the Spirit) is a relic of Logos Christology which finds virtually no warrant in the biblical text and introduces a subordinationism into the Godhead which anyone who affirms the full deity of Christ ought to find very troubling.[12]

Craig’s Proposals

This critique prompts Craig to proffer two proposals: 1) Christians should reject eternal generation, and 2) Christians should embrace social trinitariansm. The first proposal follows naturally from Craig’s critique. If the Nicene doctrine of eternal generation is without exegetical basis, emerged in the history of the Church as a philosophical intrusion, and trends theologically towards subordinationism, then one can hardly disagree with Craig’s conclusion that the doctrine of eternal generation should be left by the wayside.[13]

Craig recognizes, however, that the doctrine of eternal generation does not hang suspended in isolation. It answers an important question, even if Craig thinks that the answer it offers is unhelpful: If we confess a God that is both One and Three, how can we rightly distinguish between the three members of the Trinity without dividing them from one another?

There are two dangers which immediately arise in attempting to answer this question. On the one side lies Modalism, which so stresses the One that the Three are scarcely distinguished at all. In this view, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit become little more than masks worn by the One God at different points in redemptive history. On the other side lies Subordinationism, which divides the members of the Trinity from one another by placing them in a relationship of dependence and/or derivation. This is the danger which Craig sees as inherent in eternal generation, and so he suggests a different approach altogether. Craig argues that we should not seek to distinguish the members of the Trinity on the basis of eternal, intra-trinitarian relations at all.[14]

So how does Craig propose to resolve this problem? His answer is social trinitarianism.[15] A view which reasons from the “analogy of the human soul”[16] (and its relationship with personhood) to our understanding of God. As Craig frames it:

I invite us, then, to suppose that God is a soul which is endowed with three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties, each sufficient for personhood. Then God, though one soul, would not be one person but three, for God would have three centers of self-consciousness, intentionally, and volition, as social Trinitarians maintain.[17]

What then of the biblical language of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”? Craig suggests that these names only tell us about what God does in the economic Trinity, not who God is in the ontological Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are only “titles” or “roles” which the three members of the Trinity agree to take on for the purposes of redemption. Thus, according to Craig, “it may well be arbitrary which person plays the role of ‘Father’ and which of ‘Son.’”[18]

How should Christians respond to Craig on these points? It will be helpful to divide our response into two parts: First, responding to Craig’s critique of eternal generation, and second, responding to the counter-proposals that he offers in his paper. We plan to address both parts in the coming weeks. 

Note — To read more in this series, follow the links below:

Ben Franks is an MDiv student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College and completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.

Related Links

Mortification of Spin: "The Trinity Debate"

"Proverbs 8:23, the Eternal Generation of the Son and the History of Reformed Exegesis" by Nick Batzig

"The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: The Debate so Far" by Alastair Roberts

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw [ Paperback  | eBook ]

The Essential Trinity, ed. by Brandon Crowe and Carl Trueman

The Holy Trinity (Revised and Expanded) by Robert Letham


[1] The text and punctuation for this version of the creed is found in The Trinity Psalter Hymnal, (Willow Grove, PA: Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Venture, 2018), 852. Though often associated with the Council of Nicaea which met in 325, the version of the creed used today is more likely the product of further theological and liturgical refinements which took place in the decades which followed, culminating in the work of the Council of Constantinople in 381. For a comprehensive discussion of these developments, see Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009) and R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381, (Edinburgh: T&T Clarke, 1988). A helpful summary of this material is found in Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2019), 131-207.

[2] A brief description and discussion of leading Protestant and Roman Catholic critics can be found in Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 244-255. Noted Evangelicals such as Bruce Ware and Wayne Grudem have replaced the doctrine of eternal generation with that of eternal functional submission. As Ware defines it: “What distinguishes the Son is his particular role as Son in relation to the Father and to the Spirit and the relationships that he has with each of them. […] the Son in fact is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, and hence, the Son stands in a relationship of eternal submission under the authority of his Father.” Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2005), 69, 71. See also the comments in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), n. 27, 244-255; 1233-1234. For discussion and critique of this teaching, see Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, and D. Glenn Butner Jr, The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son, (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018).

[3] William Lane Craig, “Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?”. TheoLogica: An International Journal for Philosophy of Religion and Philosophical Theology 3, no. 1 (March 1, 2019): 22-32.

[4] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 22.

[5] Because each of these points will be considered in further detail later, only a brief summary of them will be offered here.

[6]  Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 26.

[7] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 26-27.

[8] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 29.

[9] Craig argues that they did this by appropriating the categories of Philo of Alexandria (25 BC-AD 40). Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 22-23.

[10] Craig summarizes his understanding of the history this way: “for the Christian Apologists, God the Father, existing alone without the world, had within Himself His Word or Reason or Wisdom (cf. Prov. 8:22-31), which somehow proceeded forth from Him, like a spoken word from a speaker’s mind, to become a distinct individual who created the world and ultimately became incarnate as Jesus Christ.” Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 23.

[11] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 27.

[12] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 26.

[13] As Craig comments: “Protestants bring all doctrinal statement, even Conciliar creeds, before the bar of Scripture.” Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 29. In this, he is quite right. If all that binds us to the doctrine of eternal generation is a commitment to tradition or a nostalgic affection for the Nicene Creed, then we are standing on shaky ground.

[14] To do this is, he argues, to improperly collapse the ontological and economic Trinities together. These, he asserts, should be sharply distinguished. As he states in the conclusion of his paper: “The economic Trinity, while eternal, does not reflect ontological differences between the persons but rather is an expression of God’s loving condescension for the sake of our salvation. The error of Logos Christology [Craig’s preferred term for Nicene Orthodoxy] lay in conflating the economic Trinity with the ontological Trinity, introducing subordination into the nature of the Godhead itself.” Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 31.

[15] Craig lays out a summary of his view in Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 24-31. For a full discussion of his understanding of the Trinity, see J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2nd and revised edition, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017), 575-596.

[16] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 25.

[17] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 26.

[18] He adds: “The Son is whichever person becomes incarnate, the Spirit is he who stands in the place of and continues the ministry of the Son, and the Father is the one who sends the Son and Spirit. In a possible world in which God did not choose to create but remained alone, the economic Trinity would not exist, even though the ontological Trinity would.” Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 30.