Some reflection on Sanders and Swain’s “Retrieving Eternal Generation”

I didn’t realise we needed to retrieve this doctrine until I picked up this book, despite all the blogosphere hullabaloo in 2016 about trinitarian doctrine and complementarian theologies in evangelical circles. And yet, as the editors, Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, put forward in their introduction, the doctrine has suffered neglect in recent years, and in some cases, been rejected.

The book falls into three parts, treating biblical, historical, and systematic concerns. In this review I offer reflections, and some engagement, chapter by chapter.

Part 1

Chapter 1 (Scott R. Swain) offers us a lucid treatment of how divine names (and especially Father-Son) treated in light of analogical relations (creature-creature, Creator-creature, and Divine Father-Divine Son) properly attenuated, illumine the dynamic of the Father-Son relationship, by establishing a pattern of “(1) two relatives, (2) the activity of one relative that defines the relationship between the two relatives, and (3) a similarity that obtains between the two relatives” (40-41). In doing so, Swain offers a sharp and perceptive entrée into the rest of the volume.

Chapter 2 (Matthew Y. Emerson) revisits the biblical locus of Proverbs 8, the venerable site of so much conflict in the fourth and fifth century debates. His treatment gives a solid overview of patristic interpretation, though it perhaps suggests more uniformity than is strictly accurate by highlighting commonalities and failing to explore differences. For example, we lack any mention of Chrysostom, who seems to take a non-Christological reading. Or, perhaps more forcefully, despite relying on DelCogliano’s important article on Basil’s understanding, one could be left thinking that Basil was more definitive on the passage than he actually is. Nonetheless, Emerson rightfully leads us on to consider the very different shape of modern interpretations, before moving into systematic considerations. It is this interplay of systematic that seems to lead Emerson back to arguing that the patristic reading of Proverbs 8 ought to be (at least partly) normative. Stronger, though, is Emerson’s pointed barb that modern denials of eternal generation as ‘lacking biblical warrant’ tend to evince a hermeneutic more akin to Arius and his ilk, than the pro-Nicenes.

Chapter 3 (Mark S. Gignilliat) leads us in a similar vein to Micah 5.2, considering to some extent ancient and modern interpretation, but this time setting our historical compass for the engagement between John Owen and the Socinian John Biddle.

Chapter 4 (Don Carson) reflects a careful consideration of Jn 5.26 and its exegetical options. Carson’s intimate knowledge of the 4th gospel shines through, and he deftly leads the reader into both the interpretive options proposed, and the contextual concerns that must guide a decision. Carson’s argument is that “life in himself” refers to self-existent life, which the Son has by an eternal grant.

Carson engages somewhat with Irons’ contribution, though (awkwardly?) with its pre-published version in digital forms, on monogenes. It seems to me that Carson, like Irons, continues to be unclear about “only-begotten” vs. “only” (with a referent), and wants to maintain “only” for passages such as the Lucan occurrences. More on this below.

Carson is mostly right to recognise that Arians were happy to call the Son monogenes, but with different outcomes, and that monogenes does not in itself ground the doctrine of eternal generation. I say “mostly”, because I think the claim that “both Arians and the orthodox appealed to the ‘only begotten’ understanding of μονογενής…” is not quite a right understanding of μονογενής or ‘only-begotten’.

Thirdly, Carson critiques Irons for understanding Heb 11.17 as ‘only-begotten’ as not making good sense. This is because, as I argue, ‘only begotten’ as a translation unjustly throws emphasis on ‘begetting’, where ‘only child’ as the meaning of μονογενής does not.

The final section of Carson’s chapter is “Further Evidence and Reflections”, which seems to provide Carson with room for a somewhat scattered group of general thoughts connected loosely with his treatment of Jn 5.26. These are valuable, but some tighter organisational thinking might be desired.

Chapter 5 (Charles Lee Irons) on μονογενής I dealt with at length in a separate post, so I’ll refer you to that. In short, I agree with Irons that μονογενής does not mean ‘only’ in John, but I disagree that ‘only-begotten’ is a useful translation, as I remain unconvinced that μονογενής foregrounds the concept of ‘begetting’ as much as Irons does, and I don’t think ‘only-begotten’ conveys any real meaning in contemporary English. Nor do I agree that the word carries as much theological weight in fourth century discussions as Irons suggests.

Chapter 6 (Madison N. Pierce) continues the same “take a verse and show how you can still hold its value for EGS” line, turning to Hebrew 1:5 and the use of Psalm 2:7. Pierce’s argument depends partly on reading Hebrews as reading Psalm 2 Christologically, partly upon creating temporal tension between decree and inheritance, and lastly upon the use of ‘today’ in Hebrews 3-4 to support an “eternal” reading of the “today” language.

The seventh and final chapter in the first section of the book (R. Kendal Soulen), discusses the patterns of speech used to discussion eternal generation, ironically raising to prominence Latin terminology so beloved of systematicians. It forms a nice inclusio with Swain’s opening chapter by discussing naming conventions for God in the Scriptures. By identifying three kinds of names (proper, kinship, and common), Soulen turns to examine how these categories function in discussing EGS, in terms of Wisdom theology, Father-Son correlation, and the divine name in John (especially Jn 17). Soulen sees these three categories as complementing and ‘solving’ each other’s problems, particularly in that the gift of the divine name resolves issues inherent in the first two categories.

Soulen’s reflections are themselves generative, and helpfully so. They invite consideration on why the Scripture’s utilise three different modes of speech in this way, and how the Spirit (named with common nouns, not kinship terms) relates into the mix, and lastly how all three might be necessary in our conceptions of the Trinity.

Part 2

As we move into the second part of the book, attention moves to the historical.

Chapter 8 (Lewis Ayres) provides an extra-evangelical voice, and a weighty patristics one at that. Ayres takes us skilfully into the origin of the doctrine, with Origen himself, and places the development of that doctrine within the “constellation of scriptural texts” (150) on which Origen draws. The chapter serves as a probing meditation not only upon Origen’s doctrine, but how Origen does exegesis, and in the broader context of this volume, Origen’s exegesis invites us to reflect upon the narrow Biblicism of some evangelicals which denies EGS, but also the way the first half of the volume pre-occupies itself with a narrow defence of those same alleged ‘proof-texts’.

Pertinent to my own work is the first of conclusion, that “the title μονογενής is, for Origen, not by itself the source of the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation”. But it is the third that is perhaps most interesting – that while 4th century pro-Nicenes will find things to fault, and let go of, in Origen, they do not let go of the principles that pushed Origen to formulate EGS in the first place.

Chapter 9 (Keith E. Johnson) takes us to the other end of antiquity, with Augustine. Johnson rather helpfully (not least in his generally accessible writing style) takes us into both Augustine’s theo-logic but also his exegetical treatment. This include John 5.26 (though it seems unfortunate that Johnson has to quote Carson, at length from 1999 on the topic, rather than refer to Carson’s own essay on the subject in this very book), as well as illuminating two exegetical principles in play. The first is what I would term “partitive exegesis”, though Johnson formulates it primarily in terms of the form of God, form of a slave language (p167-8), which is common throughout the Latin tradition for this principle. The second he terms the “from another” rule, which governs those passages which do not fall into the first, but reflects an ordering of things from the Father and through the Son.

Chapter 10 (Chad Van Dixhoorn) takes me beyond any area of my expertise, in examining the debates of the Westminster Assembly. It is, I must sadly note, the first chapter in which I noted a number of typographical errors. That besides, Van Dixhoorn relates the most fascinating incident of an anonymous visitor knocking on Thomas Gataker’s door in the late of night to make an underhanded shibboleth test concerning divine eternal relations. What a different world they lived in!

Setting that anecdote aside (which does play an important role in Van Dixhoorn’s argument), this chapter is a useful, and enlightening, sortie into real, live debates about how eternal generation functioned both in theological argument in the 17th century, but also teasing out the nuances of alternate positions within post-reformation protestants. The nuancing of a ‘tradition A’ that “the essence of divinity of the Godhead needed to reside in one of the persons of the Trinity (the Father) because if it did not, then it became a fourth thing” vs a Tradition B, that “any one of the three persons is that Being […] essence or divine nature” (187), is a technical, but important, distinction.

As I moved into the later portions of the book, and more and more away from my ‘comfort zones’ academically, I confess that I found sections less interesting. That’s to be expected in an edited volume covering so much material.

Chapter 11 (Christina N. Larsen) takes us to Jonathan Edwards, the most notable American theologian, without doubt. While this chapter may be of particular interest to systematicians or Edwards’ scholars, I found it difficult to relate to, since the psychological model of Trinity and generation that Edwards operated with seems relatively removed from both biblical and patristic concerns, and modern dogmatic ones. Nonetheless, Larsen does an engaging job in showing a genuine mismatch between different phases of Edwards’ writings, and the apparent (and real) disconnect between his earlier “Discourse on the Trinity”, Miscellany 1062, and Religious Affections.

Chapter 12 (Michael Allen) suffers some of the same affliction – a detailed and engaged treatment of EGS in relation to Barth, which is difficult to follow if you are not familiar with Barth or Barthian scholarship and post-Barthian developments. Allen’s chapter is at its most accessible when he moves beyond his two preliminary issues, to connect EGS with theologia and oikonomia in Barth, and particularly with the connection between the two.

Reflecting back on the first two sections at this point, it seems to me that the first section is dominated by a concern to individually ‘retrieve’ certain texts that have been seen as (a) traditional supports for EGS, and (b) under attack as not supporting EGS, so that section 1 is still dominated by the agenda of Biblicist opponents, that stripe of evangelicals whose rejection of EGS is that “it’s not found in Scripture”. This is unfortunate, both for them, but also for this book, because it still seems to play partly to that agenda. To which I would reply (perhaps echoing Ayres’ beat them over the head with a catechism approach), that EGS doesn’t arise from proof-texting any more than the Trinity does, but to a doctrinal synthesis that emerges from the Scope of Scripture as a whole and the ‘grammar’ of Scripture’s discussion of the Triune God.

The second section wrestles with a common issue of edited volumes like this – a broad collection of historical/systemic chapters, each of which may engage deeply with its subfield, but may struggle to connect to the other chapters in the collection. While I, personally, feel that about Edwards and Barth, I suspect others might have felt that about Origen.

Part 3

Moving into the third section, chapter 13 (Mark Makin) demonstrates how to do philosophical theology in a lucid and accessible manner. He presents three ‘models’ of EGS that ought to answer philosophical objections to it. Those three are causal, grounding, and essential dependence. While it’s clear that there are significant, and nuanced, philosophical debates in the background of this contribution, these are not foregrounded, and Makin presents these models and their viability with a considerable degree of accessibility (though, again, I ought to confess the bias of having trained in philosophy and perhaps other readers will not find it so).

Chapter 14 (Fred Sanders) offers a beautiful triadic structure in which Sanders connects EGS with Soteriology. In doing so, he demonstrates something of the ‘fittingness’ of EGS as part of a richer Trinitarian theology in connection with a rich doctrine of salvation. He also demonstrates, I believe, what it looks like to write systematic theology that remains accessible without being shallow. His treatment of soteriology as a ‘supporting witness’ to EGS is also appropriately cautioned and restrained, especially in foregrounding that its basis must be scriptural first, not doctrinal.

Sander’s point that “If we are to believe in the Trinity, we ought to do so on the same grounds as the church fathers did: because it is a biblical doctrine, not because it is a patristic doctrine” (265) echoes my fundamental interest in the intersection of biblical exegesis and doctrinal developments in the patristic era. It is no good, as many contemporary protestants do, to jettison patristic exegesis and hold on to patristic confessions (the creeds, for instance). A confessional Christianity that undermines the basis of its own confessions is not conciliar, nor does it have any anchor against a troubling liberalism. And, to return to my earlier point, a biblical defence that plays on the same ground as a narrow Biblicism is doomed to failure precisely because it ignores the possibility that patristic theologians read their Bibles well.

Getting back to Sanders, though, of his three connecting themes, it is the discussion on 266-7 that I found most engaging, where he considers to proposal of some to accept ‘mere sonship’, though genuine sonship at that, but let go of generation. Though Sanders considers that debate in a different historical framework (19th and 20th century), I would say that the Nicene Father wouldn’t have a bar of that. For them, Sonship and Fatherhood become, no longer genuine, but purely metaphorical, and no longer ‘purified’ of unfitting earthly conceptions, but stripped of any conceptions, if you have a Son that is not begotten from a Father.

Equally enlightening, and perhaps more connected to soteriology per se, is Sander’s discussion of the connection between eternal processions, and temporal missions, on 268-9. This alone, in his chapter, is worth the price of admission.

The last chapter, 15 (Josh Malone) forms a nice conclusion to the volume. This is not least because, for a book on EGS, it’s the first that explicitly attempts to trace the pattern of pro-Nicene logic that undergirded EGS in the 4th century (which for a book entitled ‘Retrieving…’ seemed a curious absence so far). Moreover, the meditation that leads Malone from ad intra relations to ad extra works and how God’s processions are seen in his economic acts, forms an important, and rich, dogmatic insight and resource.

To reflect, then, on the volume as a whole. I am not quite convinced that this book does offer us a ‘retrieval’, so much as a commendable compilation of forays into EGS and associated topics. In terms of the intra-evangelical debates, the biblical section is a welcome, indeed refreshing, set of approaches, though with my earlier caveats about simply defending isolated verses. The historical section, while a collection of fine essays, suffers a little from lacking integration into the sweep of the book, and at times locating their material within their own historiographical conversations to the detriment of an uninitiated reader. The return to broader dogmatic, and contemporary, concerns is well executed, in a non-polemical tone.

An important contribution to ongoing conversations.