Is the Eternal Generation of the Son a Biblical Idea?

Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ is both one with the Father and yet distinct from the Father. The doctrine of the “eternal generation” plays an important role in securing both points. This doctrine teaches that the Father eternally communicates the divine essence to the Son without division or change so that the Son shares an equality of nature with the Father (sharing all the attributes of deity) yet is also eternally distinct from the Father.

Although the eternal generation of the Son is affirmed in early confessions such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed (AD 381) and post-Reformation statements like the Westminster Confession, several prominent evangelical theologians object to this doctrine on the grounds that it lacks biblical support. Evangelicals who reject this doctrine frequently point out that the Greek word monogenes (John 1:18; 3:16) does not mean “only begotten” but rather “unique.” Since the mistranslation of monogenes (allegedly) represents one of key lines of biblical evidence, one should dispense with eternal generation as a theological relic of a bygone era.

In light of this, how should we think about eternal generation?

Examining the Evidence

As a thought experiment, I decided to examine the evidence for eternal generation in the writings of one of the most important trinitarian theologians in the early church—Augustine of Hippo (354-430). I wanted to see how the Latin doctor approached the biblical and theological evidence for eternal generation. The results of my investigation are published in an essay titled “Augustine, Eternal Generation, and Evangelical Trinitarianism” Trinity Journal 32 NS (2011): 141-163.

As I explored his discussion, I discovered that Augustine’s case for eternal generation does not depend on the mistranslation of monogenes but is deeply rooted in the way Scripture portrays the relation of the Son to the Father. I was surprised by the breadth of biblical evidence Augustine marshaled. Although one might assume that Augustine’s commitment to eternal generation is merely rooted in a handful of dubious “proof texts,” nothing could be further from the truth. This doctrine is rooted in a rigorous and comprehensive Trinitarian hermeneutic.

Two hermeneutical assumptions play an essential role in Augustine’s case for eternal generation.

The first assumption concerns three ways Scripture speaks about Jesus Christ. According to Augustine, New Testament references to the person of Christ can be grouped into three categories: (1) texts that refer to Son in the “form of God” (divine nature) in which he is equal to the Father (e.g., Phil 2:6; John 10:30); (2) texts that refer to the Son in the “form of a servant” (human nature) in which he is “less” than the Father (e.g., John 14:28); and (3) texts that suggest that the Son is “from” the Father. This third category is crucial to Augustine’s case for eternal generation. He argues that a distinction between the Son in the “form of God” and the “form of a servant” cannot encompass the rich way that Scripture speaks about the person Christ.

John 5:26 reflects this third category. “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26). This passage teaches that the Father (v. 26a) possess “life in himself” (i.e., self-existence). We are told that the Son possesses a form of “life” identical to that of the Father—“life in himself” (v. 26b). The Father and Son, however, possess “life in himself” in distinct ways. The Son possesses “life in himself” that has been “given” to him while the Father possesses “life in himself” that was given by no one. How, Augustine asks, did the Son receive “life in himself”? His answer is both simple and profound: the Father “begat” the Son. According to Augustine, the phrase “has been given” (v. 26b) is roughly equivalent in meaning to “has been begotten.”

Augustine’s interpretation of the phrase “has been given” as “has been begotten” may strike some readers as a huge leap. It is important to remember that theologians frequently use terms not found in the biblical text (e.g., Trinity, person, essence, nature, and so on) in order to explain what the text affirms. For example, most theologians (including those who reject eternal generation) interpret “life” in v. 26 as referring to God’s essence even though the term essence is not found in John 5:26. Here we see Augustine appealing to eternal generation in order to account for the theological judgment this text renders regarding the relation of the Son to the Father. He writes:

Therefore, the Father remains life, the Son also remains life; the Father, life in himself, not from the Son, the Son, life in himself, but from the Father. [The Son was] begotten by the Father to be life in himself, but the Father [is] life in himself, unbegotten (Tractates on the Gospel of John 19.13).

Reliable Revelation

A second hermeneutical assumption relates to the reliability of God’s self-revelation in Scripture. Augustine (rightly) believes that patterns of divine relation in the economy of salvation echo eternal relations among the divine persons. The economy of salvation (constituted by the missions of the Son and Holy Spirit) is not merely a record of the actions undertaken by God to save us. It is also designed to teach us about God. As Fred Sanders explains in his recent book on the Trinity, “God has given form and order to the history of salvation because he intends not only to save us through it but also to reveal himself through it. The economy is shaped by God’s intention to communicate his identity and character” (The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything [Wheaton: Crossway, 2010], 133). Hence, when the Son and Holy Spirit appear, they behave as they truly are: “their eternal personalities, we might say, are exhibited here in time” (p. 151).

There are at least five areas where Augustine sees patterns in the economy of salvation offering a window into the unique nature of the Son’s eternal relationship to the Father. I develop these in detail in my Trinity Journal article. Here I can only gesture toward them. The first group includes the numerous passages affirming that the Son was “sent” by the Father (e.g., Matt 10:40; Luke 4:43; 10:16; Gal 4:4-6; John 4:34; 5:23-24, 30-47; 6:38-44, 57; 7:16, 28-29, 33; 8:16-18, 26-29, 42; 9:4; 12:44-50; 13:16; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5, 28; 17:3, 18; 20:21). A second line of evidence includes passages that speak of the Father “giving” and the Son “receiving” (e.g., John 5:19, 22, 26, 27, 36; 10:18; 17:2, 8, 11, 22; 18:11). A third group includes passages that reflect an ordered equality that constitutes the working of the Father and Son—the Father works all things through the Son (John 1:1-3, 10; 5:19, 21; 14:6; Rom 5:1, 11; 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph 1:3-14; 2:18; 4:6; Col 1:16; 3:17; Heb 1:1-2; Jude 25). A fourth group of passages includes those that use the names “Father” and “Son” (e.g., Matt 11:27; 24:36-39; 28:18; Gal 4:4-6). A final group of texts supporting the eternal generation of the Son comes from an unlikely source—parallel passages about the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Son and Father (e.g., John 15:26; 16:13-14).

Although critics sometimes present this doctrine as if it depends on a handful of dubious proof texts, the biblical evidence for eternal generation is rooted in broad patterns of scriptural judgment regarding the unique nature of the eternal relationship of the Son to the Father. There is no undisputed proof-text for eternal generation. The question we must ask is, “What must be true of God in order to make sense of all these ‘from another’ passages?”

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  • Dave M.

    Would you then say it is heretical then NOT to believe in eternal generation? Honestly, I have always struggled with this concept – it seems, philosophically at least, that the Son was somehow or other, “created” by the Father. Are we still at the antipodes of Arianism then, as orthodox Christians should be?

  • Sean Wilson

    I haven’t had my mind blown in a while. This was a great read.

    For those who’ve read Mere Christianity (that is, almost every evangelical in the western world), is this (eternal generation) what Lewis was getting at with the books-stacked-on-the-table metaphor?

    • Ryan

      Indeed, that is exactly what Lewis was getting at.

  • Jane

    Indeed a great read! Thank You!

  • Brian Watson

    Unfortunately, this article does not discuss the sonship of Jesus from a biblical theology standpoint. Israel is described as God’s son a few times in the OT. Jesus, true Israel, is the perfectly obedient Son that the nation of Israel never could be. It seems that the Bible shows that Jesus is not in any way generated by the Father (which is to say he is coeternal and coequal). Rather, he is perfectly obedient to the Father. I believe I once read that Jesus is ontologically equivalent and functionally subordinate to the Father. That made more sense to me.

    • Mackman

      The eternal generation of the Son doesn’t affect his coeternality (coequality is trickier, but I’m pretty sure it still works). To be the Father is to generate the Son: To be the Son is to be eternally generated from the Father. Coeternality seems fairly easy to arrive at. There was never a time when the Father was that the Son was not.

  • Darren

    Great read!

    One concept that can help us with eternal generation is the analogy of faith. When we speak of God, we’re always speaking in analogy: always similarity and dissimilarity. After all, he knows and loves as Creator, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, while we are finite, temporal and changing. So eternal generation has similarity with human generation, but dissimilarity; we cannot import the notion of generation from created things wholesale to the Son.

    And the analogy of faith (and the history of heresy) also reminds us that the question, “what makes sense to me” is a dangerous path to do theology. As Augustine said, faith seeks understanding; Anselm wrote, “I do not understand in order that I may believe; I believe in order that I may understand.”

    Another thing to help is to distinguish the categories of divine essence or being, and divine persons.

    So David, it is not Arian, nor was the Son created. And Brian, the Son is not simply ontological equivalent to the Father. In the essence, Father, Son and Spirit are more than equivalent, but One; never “other.” But in persons, the Father is one, the Son is another, the Spirit again another; the Father unbegotten, the Son begotten, and the Spirit proceeding, not be begotten (as per Augustine’s study and that of the other church fathers; and remember, we’re in deep analogy territory here).

    Brian, thanks for bringing up the contribution of Biblical theology. Yes, Jesus is indeed the true Israel, the suffering servant and obedient Son. But do not forget that the “Son of God” and the “Son of Man” is not merely titles of the servant, but tiles of the Lord also! And while in a very important sense, we know God through the man Jesus, we need to be careful not to import wholesale everything about the incarnation into the divine essence. Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. Biblical theology doesn’t contradict classical Trinitarian theology; it supports it.

    On the “functional subordination” of the Son, the author of this piece has a great article here:

  • Thomas Karrer

    Love the article, brother.

    I have always found the contemporary refutations of this doctrine to be uncompelling.

  • Michael

    A lot of issue I think comes from the misunderstanding that the eternal generation creates inequality. It is helpful to remember that the Son proceeds from the being of the Father, not the person of the Father. Sometimes in scripture the Father can refer to the first person of the Trinity, and sometimes it can refer to the one being of God. If we say that the Son is begotten of the person of the Father, the hypostasis, then we get inequality within the Trinity. That is incorrect. But the Son is generated from the essence of the Father, the ousios, which simply means that He shares in the fullness of the divine essence as the Father does.

  • Brian

    Of all the things that are up for debate, Nicene Trinitarianism should never be one of them. If the Son is the Word, then He has is uttered, and uttered by the Father. If He is uttered by the Father, then He is either eternally uttered or temporally uttered by the Father. If He is temporally uttered, then He is a creature (Arianism). If it is confessed that He is the eternal Word of the Father, then it is already confessed that He is eternally generated.

    One could of course counter this by saying that Logos has a range of meanings, one does not have to have the connotation of being “uttered” (i.e. Heraclitus’ Logos). But of course, John was not trying to simply hijack a pagan notion for the Christian cause just because he could, but he rather communicates to us that creation itself as it is spoken into existence is a temporal display of the eternal communion between the Triune persons: The Father eternally utters the Son and the Spirit confirms that Word by that Word. Creation is nothing other than a temporal manifestation and shining forth the majesty of the Triune life by means of divine speaking, by means always already attuned to the life of the Triune God.

    Watson’s point below is rather ad hoc: the Son’s obedience says nothing incompatible about Him being eternally generated.

    • Brian Watson

      “Other” Brian: there was nothing ad hoc about my point. I wasn’t saying the Son’s obedience somehow refuted eternal generation, as if the one idea directly countered the other. Nor did I bring in something out of left field to deny the idea of eternal generation. I was saying that Jesus as Son indicates a relationship to the Father. It does not indicate some begetting or generation. Those terms are confusing at best. Wayne Grudem, referring back to the Nicene Creed and the Council of Constantinople, writes, “However, the nature of that ‘begetting’ has never been defined very clearly, other than to say that it has to do with the relationship between the Father and the Son, and that in some sense the Father has eternally had a primacy in that relationship” (Systematic Theology, p. 244). He goes on to indicate that the primacy is the the way the Father relates to the Son. He uses the terms “ontological equality” and “economic subordination” (p. 251). Being economically or functionally subordinate does not mean being generated. It seems that the passages cited above in this article conform to the idea of economic subordination. That does not mean we have to use “generate” or “begotten.” Once those words are introduced, there has to be a lot of redefining and qualifications, all of which seems needless.

      It seems to me that begotten and generated are confusing and not necessary, since neither is used in the Bible. (Would anyone use begotten if not for a wrong translation of monogenes?)

      That’s what I was trying to indicate.

  • anon

    Perhaps I am slow, but two things are questionable to me:

    1) Why is it that support for eternal generation (whether biblical or not) is based on the interpretations of a man, influential and conscious of God as he may be, whose inherited and developed theology, scripturally-derived as it may be, deals in terms of Greek metaphysics?

    2) Are the opponents of eternal generation opposed to the “generation” or the “eternity” of the generation?

    -How does Jesus predate his human existence? 
    -How is Jesus’ sonship essential to his identity? 
    -What is his identity as expressed in the whole of Scripture? 
    -What is the pre-existent relationship between the Father and Son?

    Since these things are addressed in the New Testament, these are the questions that must be answered before getting to whether eternal generation is biblical or not.

    To answer them out of order,

    1) Every place where Jesus is described as the Son of God is tied to his humanity or to his identity as Messiah. When Jesus describes himself as being one with the Father (being in the Father and the Father in him), he does so by explaining that the Father works through his works and speaks through his speech. This is what marks him as the Father’s Son. Luke 1:32-35 displays this clearly: 

    Jesus as David’s heir is called the Son of the Most High; Jesus as the one who is born by God’s will and power is the Son of God.

    The confessions of the Gospels confirm this by their common refrain, “You are the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of God.” 

    2) Jesus’ identity, therefore, is reckoned not in pre-existence, but in his human existence as the Messiah, the Son of God (both on earth and in heaven)

    3) Those verses that speak clearly of Jesus’ pre-existence state three things:

    – Jesus had glory with the Father before the world existed (John 17:5)
    -God created all authorities and dominions through Jesus (Col 1:16)
    -God created the ages through Jesus (Hebrews 1:2)

    In all these things, Jesus is passive: It is ultimately the Father who is active: He has the glory which He shares, He does the creating through Jesus. The primary question, therefore, is whether he is the Son prior to creation. Yet the New Testament does not produce that assumption. 
    Rather, Jesus is Son precisely in his human existence, as the one who originates from and is sent by and does the works of and reflects the glory of and is pleasing to and was raised by and sits at the right hand of and reigns by the appointment of his God and Father.

    • Brian

      Anon, No.

      That the Son is called the “Son of God” in His Messianic horizon does not indicate that the Person who takes upon human nature did not exist before such an assumption. The Word was with God and the Word was God. It is this Word that has tabernacled among us. It is this Word who is our temple: God with us. If this Person is not divine, of an eternal divinity, then there is nothing significant about this dwelling which was not already present in the Old Testament.

      That the Father so loved the world and therefore is active in sending His Son does not indicate that the Son has no action whatsoever. No, He is obedient to His Father, because He loves His Father and those whom the Father has chosen to redeem. That He is called “the Son of God,” begotten by the Father at His resurrection does indicate that this Divine Person was without Sonship before, though in a peculiar manner: this indicates that He is faithful as the Second Adam, through which He now has become the life-giving spirit at His resurrection by means of that vindicating declaration by the Father. That Jesus is Son in this sense, yes, this is tied to His humanity, but this is not tied specifically to your alluding to John 17:5. Such a prayer makes absolutely no sense unless the Person praying existed before He took upon humanity. Indeed, there can be no talk, as Paul does, of self-humiliation in the act of taking upon the form of the servant, if there is no One prior to the act of taking upon the form of such.

      What then is true of the Word (Logos) is true of the Messiah, but what is true of the Messiah is not necessarily true of the Word (unless you are Barthian!).

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  • anon

    I never denied the pre-existence of Christ. As I stated, the New Testament gives evidence toward this. However, what I do question is how we understand that pre-existence. I made few statements

    1) eternal generation as a concept (philosophical and theological) is irrational. The two terms “eternal” and “generation” do not go together. One implies infinite, immutable existence, while the other implies finite beginning.

    2) The Scriptures give no indication that the title “Son of God” ever applied to Christ as a pre-existent being. In fact, as I pointed out with Luke 1:32-35 and could do so with John 1:12-18, the title specifically refers to Jesus as fully human, both in terms of Messianic identity and as the one who reveals God in human flesh by his words and actions. Can you find a passage that refers to Jesus’ sonship in any other way? Luke and John refer to divine sonship as depending upon spiritual origin: 

    Jesus is conceived and born by the power of God, therefore he is called the Son of God (Luke)
    The sons of God are not born by human will but by God’s will, through the Spirit (John)

    As Jesus speaks in the Gospels, the love he describes between him and the Father is not pre-existent but one of an actual father-son relationship:
    1)the Father loves the Son and shows him all that He says and does; the Son loves the Father and pleases Him in saying and doing what He does
    2)the Father loves the Son and gives him glory, honor, and authority; the Son loves the Father and seeks to bring Him glory and honor by exercising his authority.

    What does this mean? It is significant to me that John does not say, “In the beginning was the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was God.” This would have been clearer if that is what he meant. But he didn’t. 

    Christian tradition and doctrine locates the Father-Son relationship in “eternity past”, but what does the New Testament say? This sort of theology seems to be biblically-deduced but just as “The Father’s Bargain”, in which, according to some Reformation thought, God the Father makes a bargain with God the Son to redeem the world, no such thing is found in the Bible. Rather, the Son is sent by the will of God, the Father, and the Son joyfully embraces and submits himself to this mission, knowing the joy and glory that is to result.

  • anon

    Now as to your usage of Philippians 2

    I am not an expert in Greek (I simply use online resources like, but the first half of the passage states about Jesus,  “who having begun in the *external appearance* of God did not consider robbery in seizing equality with God, but made himself of no reputation, taking the *external appearance* of a slave, arising on the stage in the likeness of humanity. Being found in the *role* of mankind, he humbled himself  and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)”

    This “translation” was gathered from the meaning of the Greek words. The crucial points, not to stray too far from the original topic are these:

    the “form” of God and the “form” of a slave are the same Greek word morphe, meaning external appearance (but likely referring, by the latter phrase, to his behavior and lifestyle)

    the “appearance” or “role” of a man is the Greek word schema, which refers to the entirety of what identifies a person as a human (behavior, physiology, physical characteristics, personality, etc.)

    He could not seize by theft or robbery what belonged to him naturally. If equality with God was his naturally, how could he seize it by theft (as Adam did, note the allusion)?

    Rather Jesus, instead of attempting to seize God’s glory like Adam did, being in the external “appearance” of God as one who was free from all authority, he emptied himself of all such dignity and took the external “appearance” of a slave, as one who was under all, because he had arisen in the world in the likeness of humanity (mortal, liable to death, weak and dependent, in poverty, under the rule of men). And being found as one who was a man, who experienced the feelings and emotions of men, who lived as a man, who by every account was a man, he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on the cross. 

    THEREFORE God highly exalted him. Because he humbled himself rather than seize the glory, God exalted Jesus above every other authority and GAVE him the name that is above every name, so that all others exalt Jesus, to the Father’s glory.

    So does this speak to pre-existence? Perhaps, but it does not refer to humility in Incarnation but in deliberately taking upon the position of a servant and then going to death on the cross, by reason of which he is exalted to the highest place.

    • Mackman

      “Perhaps” this speaks to his preexistence? How else can you possibly take it?

      The vast majority of translations available say he “emptied himself, taking upon the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” or something along the same lines: The King James Version is the only one I found which uses your “made himself of no reputation.” This is a clear reference specifically to the Incarnation: Where he gave up his right of being “in the form of God” in order to take the form of a slave, being found “in human form.”

      There is an easy parallel between these verses and John 17:5: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” Philippians 2 clearly affirms Christ’s preexistence, and just as clearly references the Incarnation as well as his death on the cross.

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