January 27, 2021

The Council

Proclaiming the truth to the world.


There was a good exchange on the issue of eternal generation between Jimmy Stephens and Chris Matthews. Chris himself has a transcript of the conversation with definitions and helpful footnotes. So, I wish to share it because it advances the issues forward:

Chris Matthew:

I wonder: if you don’t believe in eternal generation, what do you make of the biblical passages that describe creation, grace, etc. coming from the Father and through the Son? And why do the apostles use language like “God sent His Son” or “God put His Spirit in our hearts”? Why is one person singled out as God, and why are the Son and Spirit said to belong to God?

Jimmy Stephens:

I do not hold a staunch position in answer. However, I take it there is hierarchy in God’s covenant dispensation. The way God relates to man is covenant and the three Persons are ever present at every work of God in that covenant, but the roles do not appear egalitarian.

I don’t think that’s a major difference between personalist Trinitarians and EG. I think the difference is that EG goes a step further and flattens the ontological Trinity into the economic, so that whatever is true of the latter holds for the former. Since the latter involves hierarchy, there must be hierarchy in God on EG, contra the personalists.

I think the hierarchy reflects the distinct loves of the Members, not their ontic status.

Chris Matthew:

If the roles are not egalitarian, what are they based on?

If there are no causal relationships within the Trinity, then it seems the Father could be the Son of the Son
And the Son could send the Father into the world and the Father could be incarnate.

Jimmy Stephens:

The dilemma has to do with the revelatory nature of the economic Trinity.

Pole 1: The economic Trinity reveals little to nothing about God essentially. We cannot make inferences from the economic Trinity to the ontological. The problem with this end of the spectrum is obvious: you end up in theistic skepticism or, at best, something like WLC’s view of three mere persons.

Pole 2: The economic Trinity is the ontological. There is no major difference between God’s essence and His covenant presence. The problem with this view is that God is reduced to creational categories and so becomes a creature. So we need a view of God and a corresponding hermeneutic that defies theistic skepticism on the one hand and reductionism on the other.

My contention against EG is multifarious, but amounts to saying that it ends up in the second pole. It reduces God to a creature.

1.) The Bible does not define the Son (or the Spirit) in causal terms. “God sent His Son,” is not language that defines the Son qua Son but language that defines the Son’s messianic role. It presupposes a distinct person to be sent rather than defining the person by the sending.

The person presupposed is always defined by Sonship, not causality. The text treats these names/titles – Father, Son, Spirit – as explanatorily sufficient for the Trinity, contra EG’s categories.

2.) Insofar as the Son and Spirit are identified with Yahweh, they are identified with non-causality, since God defies dependence and causality presupposes dependence. 3.) The hermeneutic of EG either revokes God’s transcendence altogether or makes it impossible to distinguish in the text where God’s essence is being described vs His condescension.

Okay, so what of constructing a positive alternative?
My conviction is that the covenant roles of the Members portray the distinct love they eternally possess for each other. The Son’s role as sent by the Father does not define His personhood but rather facilitates our knowledge of the Son’s love for the Father and Spirit. That presupposes rather than defines the Son as a distinct hypostasis of God.

So the Father cannot be sent by the Son because that would be for the Father to mask His Fatherly love for the Son with the Son’s love for the Father. It would be like writing a letter to someone under a pseudonym.

What has been substituted for generation is personal relationship. The social network of the Trinity, revealed in the covenant, is what grounds its hierarchy.

That leaves open whether ESS holds. It does not appear to follow necessarily. The subordination of the Son in covenant could be an exegency of the fall and/or creatureliness.
On my view, it is the latter.
That is, the Godhead is essentially egalitarian, but human nature is not. Since God deigns to take on human categories for our sake, the Trinity has counseled to take on hierarchical roles.

In my estimation, our choices are ESS or personalism (e.g., Frame). EG is not on the table because it’s hermeneutic undermines systematics, it contradicts aseity, and it’s entirely unnecessary.

Quite honestly, you don’t even need all this overdose. When you read passages about the Son, this is my question. Is the Son defined by sonship or something else? Assuming we agree sonship, is sonship defined by generation? No, not even remotely. Sonship is a familial relation.

Chris Matthew:

Here’s for some pushback:

It seems to me that there are only two forms of sonship; natural and adoptive. You are either begotten from a father, or you are adopted by a father. There is no middle category. If you reject eternal generation, then you have to believe in some form of eternal adoptionism, which is what you’re describing sounds like.

The question still arises: why could the Son not have adopted the Father? There is no conceivable reason why their roles could not be reversed if there is no underlying reason why they have those roles. On EG, the Father has fatherly love for the Son because He begets the Son, and the Son has filial love for the Father because He is begotten of the Father.

There’s also the fact that EG is based on a lot more than just the Father-Son language. Jesus is identified as the only-begotten Son of God in the Gospel of John. Although not conclusive, consider how all of the native Greek-speaking church fathers recognized this as referring to generation. 1 John 5:1 refers to the Son as “Him who is begotten of [God]”

Now, it is not as if we have not discussed EG before. You will likely raise the issue of aseity again. Following further armchair thought, I think we can speak of the Son and Spirit as having aseity in virtue of the fact that there is no potentiality in God. The Father, Son, and Spirit are each infinitely actual. What I mean is that the Son and Spirit do not have potentialities they can only reach through some external cause, like a child’s potential to become an adult if he has access to food so he can grow. There is nothing they can be that they are not already. Contrast this with created beings, who have infinite potential and will never have infinite actuality, because we will always be growing and never reach infinite actuality like the Trinity possesses. This is why we are contingent, unlike the Trinity, which is a se.

Jimmy Stephens:

There’s a lot here. Let’s start with the simpler challenge I presented and your response. I objected that EG is not necessary to account for sonship. You retort that sonship is either adoptive or creative.

Two things. First of all, it appears you are unintentionally smuggling in the very third category you deny. True, human children are born or adopted, but you’re not saying the Son is born. You’re saying he’s eternally caused. That isn’t birth, and so presents a third category.

I suspect the strategy you take is to say generation and birth have something essentially in common. Namely, they both involve the higher category of cause. Fair, but that runs into underdetermination. You see, I was playing that game too.

Human children are adopted or born. What do both share in common as a higher category? A specific social order, a relation called sonship. So why would we take generation over sonship, when the former is unnecessary?

The second point is just to say, if God can have a special kind of causality that doesn’t require contingency, why can’t He have a special kind of Sonship that doesn’t require birth or adoption?

(Apologies for putting aside the Biblical citations and question of aseity for the moment.)

Chris Matthew:

i.) It’s an eternal birth.

ii.) They’re the same thing, really. It’s just bringing forth a hypostasis from one’s own essence.

iii.) They may share a “higher category,” but the point is that there are only two ways for something to attain to that higher category. You haven’t resolved the objection.

iv.) Well, the kind of causality that doesn’t require contingency is observable (to some extent) in created nature. A flame causes its light and heat, but its light and heat are non-contingent; it isn’t as though the flame could exist without them. I’m not positing a unique type of cause that is fundamentally different from any other type of cause that we are familiar with.

Jimmy Stephens:

If the birth involves contingency, then we’re saying contingency is a property of the Son. The eternal predicate becomes irrelevant. Temporal or timeless, birth is still a type of creation.

What would make the birth significant is if it’s special such that it doesn’t involve contingency.

I would reject the flame analogy. Heat and light are just components of flame the way sides are of a square. Yes, sides of a square aren’t strictly contingent, but that’s because the whole square is. Same with the flame.

Maybe you mean flame as a chemical process, but in that case, the analogy mixes up in a different way. The fact that a chemical process necessitates xyz effects does not make xyz non-contingent.

Two quick counter analogies.

Chris Matthew:

First, birth doesn’t entail contingency. It just entails that one hypostasis is derived from another hypostasis. That can take on contingent or non-contingent expressions.
As to the analogy, I don’t think light is a component of flame

Maybe you mean flame as a chemical process, but in that case the analogy mixes up in a different way. The fact that a chemical process necessitates xyz effects does not make xyz non-contingent.

X can cause Y in such a way that X cannot exist without Y

Jimmy Stephens:

This is very interesting. I’m flabbergasted and wonder how you reconcile that with the common line from Bahnsen that universals are non-spatiotemporal reflections of God’s thoughts, but that would take us too far afield.

Yes, I agree. What I anticipate is that our analogies aren’t going to work. To me, time is evidently timeless, and I find that to be a Biblical idea – e.g., Genesis recording the natural laws God legislated on the cosmos. But that’s unpersuasive to you for background reasons.

Meanwhile, every analogy you’ve adduced so far is contingency in my estimation. Yes, a river’s flow is absolutely contingent. Rays of light: contingent. Tree branches: contingent. What’s funny to me is that each of these concepts seem to parce out as part-whole relations. You may disagree, but I suspect we agree whole-part relations are useless in speaking of the Trinity.

Can you define what you mean by “derived from another x” in such a way as to avoid the concept of contingency?

Oh, also, I do not agree that adoption and birth are the only species of sonship. I suspect there is a third for someone clever enough with passages of covenant and who has insight into sociology. But regardless, it us a non-sequitur to say that “class x of humans must be identical to class x of God.” As we seemed to agree, God is so generis with respect to causality. Okay, why not also with respect to sonship?

Chris Matthew:

Just to clarify, I’m not merely saying the Son is coeternal with the Father, but that the Son must exist in virtue of the kind of being that the Father is. (An argument the Nicenes used against the Arians is that light cannot exist without its radiance. God is light, and Jesus Christ is the radiance of God’s glory.)

If you’re defining contingency as causal dependence, which is what it looks like, then obviously these analogies aren’t going to work as examples of non-contingency.

When I say that X is contingent, I mean it is possible that X could not have existed. The universe is contingent, because God could have willed not to create it. The Son and Spirit are not contingent, because they must exist; God could not not beget the Son and spirate the Spirit.

Oh, also, I do not agree that adoption and birth are the only species of sonship. I suspect there is a third for someone clever enough with passages of covenant and who has insight into sociology. But regardless, it us a non-sequitar to say that “class x of humans must be identical to class x of God.” As we seemed to agree, God is so generis with respect to causality. Okay, why not also with respect to sonship?

And I don’t know what a non-causal Father-Son relationship would look like if it isn’t adoptive. I mean, I suppose you could classify Paul being the spiritual father of Timothy and Timothy being the spiritual son of Paul as a third type of fatherhood/sonship. But that still seems to boil down to a kind of adoption.

Jimmy Stephens:

Okay, so contingency for the purpose of this discussion is a modal predicate. That which is contingent could fail to exist without contradiction. Is that right?

I see a problem here, but I want to make sure I’m not straw-manning. The idea of contingency you put forth is that modality is “open” to a given item’s nonexistence.

The trouble is that these predicates are determined in virtue of laws more ultimate than the entities described by them. For example, suns and rays relate non-contingently in virtue of nomological laws. Same for rivers and flames. Even geometric objects fall under the domain of mathematical universals, conceptual laws of quantity that govern them.

Such predicates are then relative, not absolute. For example, rays are necessary relative to suns, but they are not necessary simpliciter. Sides are necessary to a square, but squares are not necessary in themselves.

So if the Son is comparable to suns, rivers, trees, and so forther – their rays, flows, branches, whatever – then the Son is only necessary to the Father in virtue of some overarching law that combines them in such fashion. This is unintentional Neoplatonism.

The One emanates the lesser chains of being, and certainly those are necessary, not contingent. But nevertheless, they reduce to a singular monad.

Minimally, I contend that you’d have to give up the idea of God’s self-containment. God produces things by necessity, but that just means God is subject to laws of necessitation or that those laws just are the essential attributes, in which case the Unity of God precedes and grounds the Trinity.

Chris Matthews:

The problem with your argument is that God isn’t necessarily producing things external to Himself.
We both agree God is the Trinity. I’m saying that the Father necessarily causes the Son and Spirit, and the Trinity is the one God.
It’s equivalent to saying God exists by necessity. You wouldn’t deny that. God cannot choose to exist or not. He just is.

Jimmy Stephens:

The Son is not the Father, so there is a sense of externality here, is there not?
We can grant perichoresis, but that’s consistent with the idea that the Father is a distinct hypostasis. If one hypostasis causes the other, what are the causal laws relating them? If the essence, then the objection lands: the Unity of God is basic, the Second and Third person non-basic.

I don’t think this is really causality, strictly speaking. It’s an emanation, I think. Cause presupposes contingency, even as you’ve defined it.

Chris Matthew:

The word translated “cause” in Greek is aitia, which is not as strong as the way we typically use the word cause You might translate it as font, source, principle, etc.

And there is externality, in the sense that the Son is not the Father. But the significant point it’s an externality within God.

So it doesn’t require me to “give up the idea of God’s self-containment,” as you suggested above.

Jimmy Stephens:

The problem is that conceptually, I see all those as synonyms of creation. So I don’t think the etymology helps resolve the dispute.

I readily confirm your Trinitarianism and that you believe the birth or causality or generation or “aitia” is internal. However, the objection is that it cannot be given that the causal connection between Father and Son must be grounded in something.

If the Father, the Father is more ultimate than Son and Spirit (Unitarianism). If the Godhead, then all three Members are external with respect to the more basic monad emanating them (Neoplatonism). It can’t be neither, since that deposits the ground in something beyond God altogether (Platonism). Options one and two are effectively the same – just different kinds of monism.

I don’t think you commit to any of the three, but I do think that inevitably follows a consistent EG.

For contrast, the personalist account uses a relation that presupposes the person’s involved. In other words, one person is not “deriving” from another because the Person’s are non-derivative in the first place, as the one God us non-derivative. Instead, each Person is a necessary entity in one self-contained system of interrelation.

The tree is useful here. Cut of the branches, you still have the stump/roots. Branches naturally occur, but they are secondary, non-essential.

The personalist account of the Trinity is that the Father is as dependent on the Son as the Son is on the Father since they are both essential poles of a Father-Son relationship.

Chris Matthews:

Concerning the first segment.
The hypostases are not more ultimate than the essence, and the essence is not more ultimate than the hypostases. But when we’re thinking about the hypostases themselves, the Father could be considered “more ultimate.”

Jimmy Stephens:

Ultimate here can be restated non-contingent. Sorry for the unclear language. If the Father is not contingent on the Son and Spirit, then He can exist without them.

But if they’re contingent on each other, better said coequal, then there’s no need to posit a causal relation.

Just to reiterate, apologies for the adding here –

But you have said no. Saying no requires the external laws. It requires that something beyond the hypostases is unifying them. So surely it must be sui generis. But that puts us right back at the beginning. Why posit sui generis generation over sui generis sonship?

Chris Matthew:

I’ll answer your points in a few minutes, but we should try to incorporate some Scripture here.

Maybe in the meantime you could think of some responses to the passages I quoted toward the beginning of our conversations.

You might say they are dependent (“contingent” as you expressed it) on one another, but they are not dependent on one another in the same sense. Light is “dependent” on its radiance, because it cannot exist without its radiance shining forth from itself. And radiance cannot exist without light, because light is the cause of its existence. Neither cannot exist without the other, and so both are “dependent” on the other. But they are dependent on each other in different ways.

So your conclusion that, “if they’re contingent on one another, … then there’s no need to posit a causal relation” doesn’t follow.

As for your final reiterations, I doubt it would be profitable to continue discussing that. The question you asked at the end gets to the heart of the issue: “Why posit sui generis generation over sui generis sonship?”

I posit sui generis generation because the Bible does.

The kind of sonship the son has is that “of an only-begotten son of a father” (Jn 1:14).

It isn’t based merely on love (which wouldn’t make sense because, as I have mentioned before, there must be a basis for these different types of love).

I think John 1:14, in particular, is important because it refutes the idea that monogenes in John’s gospel means “unique” as opposed to only-begotten.

Jimmy Stephens:

I agree we should look at some Scripture. However, my original question is hermeneutically aimed. The Scriptures themselves never make the comparison of the Son to rays as of the Father to the sun. That is strictly a machination of the church fathers. Strangely, comparisons like that are found in Plato.

My contention remains that insofar as you want to appeal to the sun’s contingency on rays, you need extrinsic law. Insofar as you want to say God is the exception to that need, I have already made the same move toward filial love from the same Biblical data. Which is to say, my reading doesn’t require extrabiblical analogies but is made experientially apprehensible through family dynamics outside but in strict consistency with Scripture’s descriptions.

John 1:14 is preceded by the Johannine Prologue. Do you take the somewhat less popular view that John’s “prologue” isn’t really an introduction at all or are we basically on the same page that the first five verses of John are a lense for the rest of the text?

Chris Matthew:

1) The Scriptures conspicuously identify the Son as the radiance of God’s glory in Hebrews 1:3. It’s light shining from a source, so I don’t see how this is really different from the sun-ray analogy.

2) There isn’t an extrinsic law that explains why the Father to beget the Son. Even under your view you must accept something like this, because you confess that God is a Trinity and it cannot be otherwise. And yet you do not think there is some extrinsic lawmaking that the case.

3) I think the prologue (verses 1-18) are the lens for the rest of the Gospel, but you could say that that the first five verses are the lens for the rest of the prologue.

Jimmy Stephens:

2. Sui Generis

I don’t think my objection is being understood. My objection about extrinsic laws arose as a result of your objection that God cannot be a son without birth or adoption. Your objection is application of the following principle: God cannot be creaturely x without creaturely definitives of x y. Fine, but then that applies just as well to your sun-ray analogy. Since we both agree that principle is false, God can exhibit creaturely analogs sui generis, and He need not abide by creaturely categories, then your objection that sonship requires birth or adoption loses its foundation.

1. Hebrews Hebrews 1:3 does not cash out radiance as a causal, generative, or source relation. The verse goes on to clarify “radiance” with the exact representation of His nature, and if there were any doubt in our minds about the acausality being attributed here, look no further: upholds all things by the word of His power. The uncreatedness of the Son is conspicuously present where His radiance is indicated.

3. John

Cool, we’re on the same page. It is tremendously conspicuous (I like your term) that John does not open with any remark about causation, derivation, generation
– or any such concept about the Word. Instead, the ideas presented at the forefront are:
– Identification with the Genesis Creator (“In the beginning” & “He was in the beginning with God”)
– Face-to-face-ness (“with God” twice) – Identification with God simpliciter (“and the Word was God”)
– Identification as ground of all creation (v. 3)
– Identification as Principle/Mediator of divine revelation (v. 4/5) Most fascinating to me is the “with” of the Word. The Father and Son share counsel equality in the Godhead further clarified in the next verse as ontological equality as the one and only Creator of all things.

Quick clarification regarding the Johannine prologue: Out of those opening five identities, four apply to the Father and Spirit as much as the Son. Only one is unique, and another is nuanced. The Son alone is the Mediator and the Son is uniquely instrumental in the special creation process. Those are the only differences.

Chris Matthew:

1) Radiance is by definition a causal/source relation; there is no such thing as a radiance that does not radiate from something. For X to be the radiance of Y means that X comes from Y in some way. Your only evidence for this not being a causal relation is the fact that Paul says Christ upholds all things by the word of His power. But “all things” obviously refers to creation. This demonstrates that He is the Sustainer of all things, and as such He is not created, but this does not prove He is uncaused in every respect whatever. I think Paul is expressing three ideas in this one verse:

– the Son is generated from the Father (“radiance of His glory”)
– the Son is consubstantial with the Father (“impress of His substance”)
– the Son is the Sustainer of all things (“upholds all things”)

It is a theologically dense verse. Paul shows that the Son is derived from the Father, yet ontologically equal to the Father, and that His mode of existence is non-contingent as the Upholder of all things.

2. Fair enough. Perhaps you can explain this to me: if what distinguishes the persons of the Trinity as Father, Son, and Spirit is their relations of love and not their causal relations, then on what are those relations of love based? I have asked this before, but you did not address the issue. Things act according to what they are: the Father loves as a father because He is a father. The Son loves as a son because He is a son. If you deny any causality in the Trinity, then there is no underlying basis for these relationships.

3. I think the juxtaposition of God and His Logos presupposes derivation (compare John’s identification of Jesus Christ as “the Word of God” in Revelation 19:13). A word is derived from the one who utters it. It’s an alternative way to express the concept that the Son is begotten from the Father, which is mentioned explicitly in verses 14 and 18 of the prologue.

Jimmy Stephens:

1) Hebrews

Radiance is by definition a causal/source relation. . .For X to be the radiance of Y means that X comes from Y in some way.

Three remarks: A) We find ourselves running into the sui generis dilemma I raised per (2). (Creaturely) “radiance is by definition” determined by extraneous causal laws. Since we agree God (the Son) is not determined by extraneous causal laws, Paul must have in mind a non-creaturely radiance. Hence the dilemma. If God must be subjected to creaturely categories of radiance, then the radiance is causal but God is also a creature. If God is not a creature, then the radiance need not be creaturely, therefore need not be causal.

B) “Comes from” is ambiguous. It need not be causal. A proposition about a cat on the mat is not caused by the cat on the mat. Neither does the true proposition cause the cat on the mat (truthmaker). There is a sense in which the proposition or its truth “comes from” its reference. Yet, the truth-maker cannot exist without the truth-bearer. Agreed, both radiance and representation, emission and impress, “come from” something. However, exact representation is definitively non-causal. It is the true reflection of God which is no more caused by God than it is causing God – the reflection, He, just is God. That is, after all, the verse’s point.

C) As hinted at here at the end of (B), I am not assuming the author of Hebrews means the radiance of the Father, as opposed to the radiance of God, in general. That is a common assumption of EG proponents that too often goes undefended.

– the Son is generated from the Father (“radiance of His glory”) – the Son is consubstantial with the Father (“impress of His substance”) – the Son is the Sustainer of all things (“upholds all things”)

My counter is that consubstantial and sustainer provide an explanation for radiance empty of a generation concept, and in fact, preclude that concept.

Paul shows that the Son is derived from the Father, yet ontologically equal to the Father, and that His mode of existence is non-contingent as the Upholder of all things.

I disagree. I think Paul is identifying the Son as God’s glory revealed (distinction), equal to God in nature and Creator role (identity). This is compatible with a Father reading, but doesn’t require it either.

2.) Differentiating the Persons

To answer this question, I think we first need some prolegomena about the subject. To start, our options are not EG or personalism.

It seems to me EG proponets start in the wrong place by assuming (sometimes with non-trinitarians) that the Trinity needs some explicit theory of identity. Why? It is perfectly reasonable to affirm orthodox Trinitarianism and concede that we simply do not know what makes the Father not the Son (et al), just that they are necessarily distinct, necessarily one God, and necessarily Father, Son, Spirit. That, not EG, is the default position.

At the outset, therefore, even supposing I could not answer your question, can we agree that would not get us any closer to affirming EG? And if both EG and the personalist account are defeated, Trinitarian orthodoxy remains, invincible as the word from which it comes.

3) John

A word is derived from the one who utters it.

Here, again, we run into the sui generis dilemma. However, I think you overlook the other side of John’s striking analogy. When speaking, the one who utters the word must first discover that word which most clearly represents his idea. John’s diction plays to both sides of the coin. On the one side, the Son is the Speech of God, the Father’s Utterance. He presupposes He about whom to speak. On the other side, the Father is the Idea of God, the Son’s Referent. The Father presupposes a Language to describe Himself.

Poythress’ logic book is fantastic for discussions of Logos theology. He uses the analogy of language, which has a trifold reality: semantics, grammar, and phonetics. Meaning, a system for its transfer, and the medium for doing so. This is an uncanny parallel to the Father, Son, and Spirit as conceived in Logos categories.