Responding to Craig’s Proposals

Having responded to Craig’s critique, it remains to respond to his two-fold proposal, which involves 1) rejecting eternal generation, and 2) embracing social trinitarianism. Each of these will be considered in turn.

Responding to Craig’s First Proposal: Rejecting Eternal Generation

Craig is clear that he finds the doctrine of eternal generation exegetically unsupported, historically and philosophically suspect, and theologically problematic.  However, the previous discussion should at least show that the situation is not as one-sided as his presentation might suggest.  However, even more can be said on this point. Specifically, it is worth asking the question: if Christians accept Craig’s first proposal, what might be lost?  Briefly, three things come immediately to mind.

First, a rejection of eternal generation would cause the church to lose the categories and vocabulary necessary to make sense of the Bible.  As the exegetical discussion above suggests, the language of Father and Son (together with the frequent use of words like μονογενής and divine titles such as “the Son of God”) indicate that the fundamental distinction which exists between the first and second persons of the Trinity is to be understood in terms of their eternal relation as Father and Son.  While the generation of the Son must be carefully distinguished from its human analogy (which is why the adjective “eternal” is so important to include at this point), it is scarcely possible to make sense of the way Jesus describes His relationship to the Father without it.

Second, a rejection of eternal generation would cause the church to lose important safeguards against error.  In reflecting the language of the Bible, the doctrine of eternal generation acts as a bulwark against Unitarianism and Modalism (which stress the one at the expense of the three) and of Subordinationism and Tritheism (which stress the three at the expense of the one).  Despite claims to the contrary, the doctrine of eternal generation is the most biblically faithful and theologically sound way of distinguishing between the members of the Trinity without dividing them.

Third, a rejection of eternal generation would cause the church to lose important grounds of communion with God.  If the biblical language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is only referring to the titles and roles which the members of the economic trinity take on for our redemption, then they tell us nothing about the ontological trinity.  We cannot know God as He is, we can only know Him by what He does.  This is one of the most troubling implications of Craig’s proposal.  It draws a veil between God as He is in Himself and God as He is for us.[1]  While the economic and ontological trinity must of course be distinguished, Craig runs the risk of dividing them so sharply that the revelation of God which is given in Christ is reduced to revealing what God does and not who God is (1 John 5:20).[2]  The cost of rejecting eternal generation, then, is high.  It robs the church of the theological vocabulary necessary to make sense of the bible, opens the door for various heresies and errors, and impedes the communion of believers with the Triune God. 

Responding to Craig’s Second Proposal: Rejecting Social Trinitarianism

This final point already suggests that Christians should be slow to exchange the historic Nicene doctrine of the Trinity for modern social trinitarianism.  There are, however, a number of further comments and critiques that can be made about the dangers of Craig’s social trinitarianism.[3]

First, Craig’s model of social Trinitarianism falls short in explaining what it means that God is three.  In part, this is because Craig grounds his social understanding of the Trinity in human analogies and reason.[4]  Craig states this explicitly when he says: “According to the model offered [in his writings on social trinitarianism], we are to think of God on the analogy of the human soul.”[5]  Since a human soul, Craig argues, is “equipped with rational faculties of intellect and volition which enable it to be a self-reflective agent capable of self-determination” we can look for the analogy of this in God.[6]  This leads Craig to distinguish the persons of the Trinity, not on the basis of eternal relations, but rather by their possession of, “three centers of self-consciousness, intentionality, and volition, as social Trinitarians maintain.”[7]

This approach seems exactly backwards, as it reasons not from God to man but from man to God.  Because Craig tries to project human experience back onto Divine being, a number of problems emerge.  His formulation is built on the assumption that the soul gives rise to (or at least involves) personhood. This statement is a radical (and somewhat shocking) departure from historic theological ways of speaking about God and it raises a series of troubling questions regarding Christ’s incarnation.  Does Christ have a human soul?  If so, then is He two persons (one divine person from His divine soul and the other human person from his human soul)?  If He does not have a human soul, was He truly man?  And if He didn’t possess a human soul, how could it have been possible for Christ to have redeemed our souls along with our bodies?  These problems emerge because the biblical language of distinction (Father, Son, and Spirit) have been replaced with Craig’s philosophical language of distinction (three distinct centers of consciousness, intentionality, and volition). 

Second, Craig’s model of social Trinitarianism falls short of explaining what it means that God is one.  The challenge is obvious: how can three persons (each of whom has a distinct center of consciousness, intention, and volition) be one?  Craig frames the question this way: “All of this still leaves us wondering, however, how three persons could be parts of the same being, rather than be three separate beings.  What is the salient difference between three divine persons who are each a being and three divine persons who are together one being?”[8]  He answers this question by using the analogy of the mythical Cerberus – the three-headed dog of Greco-Roman lore.  Though each head has its own mind, will, and consciousness it remained part of the one animal known as the Cerberus.  No one head could be identified with the Cerberus, and yet each head was necessary to the creature as a whole.  To suggest that each member of the Trinity is a “part” of God is the classic definition of Partialism and has been roundly rejected by the church through the centuries.[9]  Because his model of social trinitarianism leads him to sharply distinguish between the members of the trinity, he is left with insufficient grounds to explain the unity of the Triune God.


Craig concludes his paper with a restatement of his thesis that the doctrine of eternal generation should be replaced with a model of social trinitarianism which distinguishes the members of the trinity by their possession of distinct centers of consciousness, intentionality, and volition (instead of eternal modes of relation as Father, Son, and Spirit).[10]  However, Craig’s claim that eternal generation should be rejected on exegetical, historical/philosophical, and theological grounds is itself open to challenge and debate. Furthermore, the alternative of social trinitarianism creates more problems than it solves.  In the end, the Nicene doctrine of eternal generation should not be quickly abandoned by Christians.  Properly understood, it most faithfully reflects the teaching of Scripture, guards against theological error, and gives confidence and shape to the Church’s theology and worship. 

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] Beeke and Smalley echo this concern: “If we sever the knowledge of God’s nature from the knowledge of his works, then in the end we may be able to describe our experiences of God’s effects in our lives, but God himself will remain hidden in a cloud of impenetrable mystery. […] Therefore, the relations of the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to each other in their external works reveal their inter-Trinitarian relations.” Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology – Vol. 1: Revelation and God, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 938-939.

[2] Had the church adopted Craig’s proposals, one wonders if a rich work of trinitarian devotion such as Owen’s book on communion with God could have ever been written. See John Owen, Communion with the Triune God, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007).

[3] It must, of course, be remembered that social trinitarianism is a broad approach to trinitarianism and is far from monolithic.  A helpful overview and critique of social trinitarianism can be found in Karen Kilby, “Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity” New Blackfriars 81, no. 957 (November, 2000): 432-445.

[4] This is ironic, considering Craig faults the classic doctrine of eternal generation as being more philosophical than biblical. Kilby highlights this as a persistent problem in all social models of the Trinity. Kilby, Perichoresis and Projection, 438-445.

[5] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 25.  Craig takes this statement a step further when he adds: “Now God is very much like an unembodied soul; indeed, as a mental substance God just seems to be a soul.” Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 26. 

[6] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 25-26.

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

[8] Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 593.

[9] Indeed, Craig makes an even stronger statement when he writes: “we could think of the persons of the Trinity as divine because they are parts of the Trinity, that is, parts of God. […] Far from downgrading the divinity of the persons, such an account can be very illuminating of their contribution to the divine nature.  For parts can possess properties which the whole does not, and the whole can have a property because some part has it.” Craig and Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 591.

[10] Craig, Is God the Son Begotten in His Divine Nature?, 30-31.

Further Reading

Ayres, Lewis. Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Anatolios, Khaled. Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.

Beeke, Joel R. and Paul M. Smalley. Reformed Systematic Theology – Vol. 1: Revelation and God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019.

Beeley, Christopher A. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Bird, Michael F. Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2017.

Butner D. Glenn Jr. The Son Who Learned Obedience: A Theological Case Against the Eternal Submission of the Son. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2018.

Carson, D.A. Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Charles Lee Irons. “A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten.’” In Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, 98-116. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.

Craig, William Lane. “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.

Dolezal, James E. All That is in God: Evangelical Theology and the Challenge of Classical Christian Theism. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.

Giles, Kevin. The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Hanson, R.P.C. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381. Edinburgh: T&T Clarke, 1988.

Hardy, Edward R. Christology of the Later Fathers. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1954.

Karen Kilby. “Perichoresis and Projection: Problems with Social Doctrines of the Trinity.” New Blackfriars 81, no. 957 (November, 2000): 432-445.

Kelly, Douglas F. Systematic Theology - Volume One: Ground in Holy Scripture and Understood in the Light of the Church. Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2008.

Letham, Robert. “Eternal Generation in the Church Fathers.” In One God in Three Personal: Unity of Essence, Distinction of Persons, Implications for Life, ed. Bruce A. Ware & John Starke, 109-125. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015.

Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2019.

MacArthur, John. “Reexamining the Eternal Sonship of Christ.” Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood 6, no. 1 (2001): 21-23.

Marshall, I. Howard. The Origins of New Testament Christology. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990.

Moreland, J.P. and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 2nd and revised edition. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2017.

Muller, Richard A. 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.

Owen, John. Communion with the Triune God. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007.

Sanders, Fred. The Deep things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 2nd ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017.

Sanders, Fred and Scott R. Swain ed. Retrieving Eternal Generation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.

Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace. A Select Library of Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Venture. The Trinity Psalter Hymnal. Willow Grove, PA: Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Venture, 2018.

Ware, Bruce. Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2005.