Responding to Craig's Critique

As we saw last time, William Lane Craig argues against the eternal begotteness of the Son and proposes an alternative understanding of the Trinity. We will respond to Craig's proposal in another post; today, we will assess Craig's critique.

Craig considers the doctrine of eternal generation a philosophical intrusion into Christian theology, and not a teaching which is drawn from the Bible itself. This critique falls into three categories:

  • Exegetical,
  • Historical/Philosophical
  • Theological

Each of these must be taken up in turn.

Craig’s Exegetical Critique

Craig argues that there is, “virtually no warrant in the biblical text” for the doctrine of eternal generation.[1] He centers this critique around one Greek word: μονογενής. Although historic translations such as the King James Version have often rendered this word as “only begotten” Craig follows the modern scholars who argue that this word is better translated as “unique” or “one and only.” If the latter rendering is correct, then Craig argues that there is no biblical basis for speaking of generation (which is a concept wrapped up in the language of “begottenness”) in defining and distinguishing the relations of the Father and the Son. Further, Craig argues that when μονογενής is used in the New Testament, it is not telling us something about the Son as He exists in the ontological Trinity, but only about the role of Sonship which He took upon Himself in His incarnation.[2]

However, Craig ignores significant scholarship which argues for the traditional rendering of μονογενής as “only begotten.”[3] Crucially, Craig tries to reduce the biblical argument for eternal generation to the etymology and translation of a single word when the biblical and theological case neither stands nor falls with μονογενής alone.[4] Space will not permit a full consideration of the biblical and exegetical evidence, but two brief arguments can be advanced at this point. 

First, the doctrine of eternal generation is inherent in the pervasive biblical language of “Father” and “Son.”[5] Contrary to Craig’s claims that Sonship only applies to the incarnation, there are many Scriptures which speak of Jesus as “Son” prior to His being sent.[6] If Christ is the Son prior to His incarnation then the language of generation and begottenness actually tells us something about the ontological Trinity, not just the economic Trinity. Second, the specific title “Son of God” always refers to Christ’s eternal deity – not just to His economic role or activity.[7] Other arguments could be advanced, but even this brief discussion is sufficient to demonstrate that the biblical case for eternal generation is not nearly as weak as Craig claims.[8]

Craig’s Historical/Philosophical Critique

Craig makes the historical argument that the doctrine of eternal generation is a philosophical intrusion into Christian theology and not a teaching which is drawn from the Bible itself. The previous discussion should at least give pause to the assertion that eternal generation wasn’t drawn from the Scriptures, but what about his account of the history? Craig points to early advocates of eternal generation (such as Justin Martyr, Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Tertullian, and Irenaeus) who seem to couch the doctrine in subordinationist language.[9] He concludes that the doctrine of eternal generation is inextricably linked with the error of subordinationism. 

Craig is right to note a subordinationist tendency in ante-Nicene reflection on the Trinity. However, there were also significant voices who stressed the equality and consubstantiality of the Father and the Son prior to Nicaea. [10] And crucially, ante-Nicene writers cannot be read anachronistically on the basis of post-Nicene (or post-Constantinopolitan) terminology and categorization. It took time for the language to be clarified and codified and the linguistic and culture distinctions between the Latin West and the Greek East only made this task more difficult.[11]

The fact that some early advocates of eternal generation failed to properly guard against subordinationist language does not mean that eternal generation necessarily leads to subordinationism. In other words, the fact that eternal generation sometimes accompanied subordinationism does not mean that eternal generation always produced subordinationism. The truth of this statement can be seen in the fact that the theologians who developed the doctrine of eternal generation most fully (such as Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers) were adamant in rejecting subordinationism as heresy.[12] Indeed, it was their Arian opponents who advocated for subordination between the persons![13]

Craig’s Theological Critique

Craig argues that while the Nicene Fathers may have formally rejected subordinationism, the fact that they retained eternal generation in their Trinitarian theology requires them to view the Son as less than the Father.[14] As Craig argues:

“This doctrine of the generation of the Logos from the Father cannot, despite assurances to the contrary, but diminish the status of the Son because He becomes an effect contingent upon the Father.”[15]

What Craig misses, however, is that the Son is not receiving His divinity or His essence from the Father but is instead receiving his mode of existence (or what some theologians prefer to call the mode of “subsistence”).[16] As Calvin stressed in his treatment of this doctrine, the Nicene statement about the Son’s being begotten of the Father should in no way be read as suggesting that only the Father possesses aseity – rather, aseity is something which is shared by the Son as well.[17] Orthodox theologians were able to maintain these distinctions by stressing two points: 1) Christians should use the langue of “begotten” and “generation” because it reflects the teaching of the Bible, and 2) Divine generation must be sharply distinguished as radically different from human generation.[18]

When these points are carefully articulated, it allows for distinction between the members of the Trinity without division or derivation. Eternal generation does not produce subordinationism, rather it guards against it.[19]

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

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

[3] As Letham argues: “the older idea of monogenes has never been eclipsed. Although B.F. Westcott, B.B. Warfield, and most other twentieth-century exegetes abandoned it, the idea that it means ‘only-begotten’ has continued support from, inter alia, F. Büchsel, J.V. Dahms, C.H. Dodd, M.-J. Lagrange, F.F. Bruce, John Frame, and Roger Beckwith.” Letham, The Holy Trinity, 194. Of particular interest is the extensive argument advanced in Charles Lee Irons, “A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten,’” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 98-116. 

[4] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 193-194

[5] Some sample passages include: Matthew 11:27; 16:27; 24:36; 28:19, John 1:14; 3:35; 5:20-21; 10:36; 17:1-3, Hebrews 1:5, 2 Peter 1:17, 1 John 2:22-24; 4:14, 2 John 3, 9. 

[6] Fred Sanders offers a helpful list of texts (and captures the proper meaning of those texts well) in discussing the second person of the Trinity: “who was this person before he took on the nature of humanity, the name of Jesus, and the title of Christ? He was the Son of God. When the biblical authors say that God sent his Son into the world (John 20:21; Galatians 4:4; 1 John 4:14), gave his Son for the world’s salvation (John 3:16; 1 John 4:10), or spoke definitively through his Son (Heb. 1:1), they are presupposing that the Son was already in existence as the Son, a person present with God the Father from eternity. He did not become the Son when he became incarnate; God did not so love the world that he gave somebody who became his Son in the act of being given. God, already having a Son, sent him into the world to become incarnate and to be a propitiation for our sins.” Fred Sanders, The Deep things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 91-92. (Emphasis added.)

[7] This argument is ably summarized in John MacArthur, “Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ,” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 6, no. 1 (2001): 21-23, and extensively discussed in D.A. Carson, Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), and Michael F. Bird, Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2017). The title of “Son of God” appears 43 times in the New Testament as a whole and 26 times in the Gospels alone. One scholar captures its meaning this way: “With the use of ‘Son of God’ we thus encounter a title in which the relation of Jesus to God is especially prominent and in which the concept of deity is present.” I. Howard Marshall, The Origins of New Testament Christology, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 123.

[8] For a broad ranging defense of the doctrine of eternal generation on exegetical and Scriptural grounds, see the seven chapters which make up Part One of Sanders and Swain, Retrieving Eternal Generation, 29-148.

[9] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 22-24.

[10] The ins-and-outs of this history are covered in Douglas F. Kelly, Systematic Theology - Volume One: Ground in Holy Scripture and Understood in the Light of the Church, (Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2008), 529-540; and Letham, The Holy Trinity, 87-130, and Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 15-27.

[11] Craig neglects this in his treatment of the early Fathers. For one example, his assessment of Tertullian’s Against Praxeas fails to place the work in its historical context. (Craig discusses Tertullian in Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 23-24.) Tertullian was writing in response to an early form of Modalism, which explains the strong language and striking analogies used to distinguish the members of the Trinity from one another. Craig makes much of Tertullian’s statement that: “the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole,” however, Tertullian balances such statements with comments which stress the unity of the persons as well. (c.f. Schaff, ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers, 3:603-604.) For a positive example of how the developing of orthodox theology can be traced through the Fathers, see Robert Letham, “Eternal Generation in the Church Fathers” in ed. Bruce A. Ware & John Starke, One God in Three Personal: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 109-125. 

[12] For primary sources, see the writings of these Fathers (particularly the seminal Theological Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus) in ed. Edward R. Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers, (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1954). For a fascinating exploration of Gregory’s Trinitarian thought, see Christopher A. Beeley, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). 

[13] Letham, Eternal Generation in the Church Fathers, 122. “Origen, Arius and Eunomius certainly taught that the Father ‘caused’ the Son by an act of will and that the Son was begotten contingently, dependent for his existence on the Father, lacking in aseity and thus subordinated God. He was God in second degree. This understanding of the Son of God is exactly what the Nicene fathers opposed. What Athanasius argued against more than anything else was the consistent Arian argument that the Father’s begetting of the Son is to be understood as a creative act of the divine will that produced a Son different in being from the Father and subordinate to the Father.” (Emphasis original.) Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 215.

[14] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 27-29.

[15] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 27. Kevin Giles interacts specifically with Craig’s claims in his excellent chapter: “Does Eternal Generation Imply Eternal Subordination?” in Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, 205-219.

[16] Muller has a particularly enlightening discussion of the terminology developed by the Reformed Orthodox theologians in Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 – Vol. 4: The Triunity of God, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 199-214. As James Dolezal notes: “the real distinction is not between the persons and the divine essence, but only among the persons themselves. The one God just is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” James E. Dolezal, All That is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 119.

[17] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 293-312.

[18] Kevin Giles argues that those who assume that human generation is the pattern for divine generation: “not only disclose a profound ignorance of doctrinal history but also a profound misunderstanding of what theology is and how all theological language works. They assume that the meaning of words used of God must be derived from their use in everyday speech, referring to created realities, particularly words related to human birth. For the Nicene fathers […] giving meaning to words used of God in this way only leads to error and heresy.” Giles, The Eternal Subordination of the Son, 214. 

[19] To quote Giles once more: “Rather than the received doctrine of the eternal generation implying or necessitating the eternal subordination of the Son, it excludes this very idea while at the same time affirming eternal divine self-differentiation.” Giles, The Eternal Subordination of the Son, 218.