Matthew 1:18-25King James Version (KJV)
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.
20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.
22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
24 Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.
This teaching is about the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. The doctrine of eternal generation has been called into question in the interests of maintaining the Son’s absolute, ontological equality with the Father. Yet, ironically, it was this same concern that moved the church fathers to stress the doctrine in the first place. Hilary of Poitiers, commenting on the term “consubstantial” (homoousion) in the Nicene creed, writes: Is not the meaning here of the word consubstantial that the Son is produced of the Father’s nature, the essence of the Son having no other origin, and that both, therefore, have one unvarying essence? As the Son’s essence has no other origin, we may rightly believe that both are of one essence, since the Son could be begotten with no substance but that derived from the Father’s nature which was its source.
What was the exegetical basis of the Early Church doctrine that the Son’s nature is derived from the Father? Were the fathers correct in their handling of the biblical data? How should we conceptualize this eternal generation – as a communication of essence, or merely of personal properties?
Traditionally, the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son was supported by an appeal to the five Johannine texts in which Christ is identified as being the only one of His kind (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; I Jn 4:9). As early as Jerome’s Vulgate, this word was understood in the sense of “only begotten” (unigenitus), and the tradition was continued by the KJV Version.
After searching my estimate is that there are approximately 120 such words in the Greek vocabulary. A mere 11% involve meanings related to “kind” (e.g., homogenes means “of the same genus”). The sheer preponderance of the evidence would indicate that being the only one of His kind in the Johannine literature could very well mean “only begotten.” At least, it cannot be ruled out on the basis of etymology.
If this meaning is now considered a very live possibility, then an inspection of some of the Johannine texts will render that possibility all the more likely. Being the only one of His kind is used as a substantive: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). The NIV completely misses the point (“God the One and Only … has made him known”), for it is not the fact that the Son is the only God (as opposed to another god) but the fact that he is begotten of God (and thus truly God) which enables him to make God known. On balance these passages provide strong support for the interpretation “only begotten.”
Further support may be marshaled from I John 5:18, which, though it does not use the word, shows that John taught that the Son is begotten of God: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who is born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.” It seems reasonable to suppose that “the one who is born of God” is the Son of God. It seems likely that John is pointing to the similarity between two sonships – that of the believer and that of Christ. Christ, of course, is the Son by nature, and we are sons by grace. But the point is that the ontological Son of God will protect the adopted sons of God from the evil one
Some have felt that the New Testament interpretation of Psalm 2:7 (“You are my Son; today I have begotten you” – a traditional proof-text) requires that the begetting of the Son be seen as occurring in time – at his resurrection (cp. Acts 13:33; Heb. 1:5; 5:5). However, I would suggest that the historical begetting of the Son (at the resurrection) is organically related to and, in fact, founded upon the eternal begetting. If we take it as a given that the Son was always the Son even before his incarnation, then those passages which speak of the resurrection as the moment when he was “designated (or appointed) the Son of God in power” (Rom. 1:4) cannot be pressed into the service of a conclusion which would contradict the eternality of his sonship.
What do these passages mean, then? My suggested solution is to take note of the request of Christ to his Father: “And now glorify me, Father, in your presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was” (Jn 17:5). There is continuity between the primeval, pre-incarnate glory of the Son and his redemptive historical, resurrection glory.
Having thus seen some of the biblical data which compels us to affirm the eternal generation of the Son, let us examine more carefully what we mean by it. First, it should be obvious that we are using an analogy from human experience to describe something about the eternal, immutable God. Clearly, then, the manner in which a human father begets a son differs significantly from the manner in which the Father begets the Son. For one thing, in human begetting, there is a time when the son does not exist; but in the divine original of which the human begetting is but a pale reflection, there never was a time when the Son did not exist. Furthermore, human begetting involves a mother and a father, whereas the Son is begotten of the Father alone. And a human father’s begetting is a free and voluntary act, while the Son’s begetting is an eternal and necessary act.
Nor is the Son’s generation like a man’s from his parent, involving His coming into existence after the Father. Rather He is God’s offspring, and since God is eternal and He belongs to God as Son, He exists from all eternity. It is characteristic of men, because of the imperfections of their nature, to beget in time; but God’s offspring is eternal, His nature being always perfect.
So with all of these vast differences between human and divine begetting, wherein lies the point? Just as a human father communicates his essence (humanity) to the son, so the Father communicates his essence (deity) to the Son
But is it really? In John 8 (Jesus’ claim to that divine name), we read this interesting statement: “So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM. And I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for Jesus expounds I always do what pleases him.'” (vv. 28f). Self-existence and family subordination are compatible, for Jesus seem to expound “I AM” in terms of his being taught of, sent by, and pleasing to his Father? It is clearly his relationship of dependence upon his Father that Christ wishes to highlight.
Origin of essence is not essential to the concept of sonship. Thus, the title “Son of God” and the claim “I and my Father are one” seem to mean the same thing. There is an ontological and not a merely social (or relational) element in Christ’s claim to be the Son of God.
Although the Son is from the Father, nevertheless he may be called God-of-himself (autotheos), not with respect to his person, but essence; not relatively as Son (for thus he is from the Father), but absolutely as God inasmuch as he has the divine essence existing from itself and not divided or produced from another essence.
In a word, the generation of the Son, and procession of the Spirit, however mysterious, are unavoidable consequences from two facts. The essence of the Godhead is one; the persons are three. If these are both true, there must be some way, in which the Godhead multiplies its personal modes of subsistence, without multiplying its substance.
This involves something of a paradox: the notion of derived deity. Although this may be perceived as a problem for the view maintained here, several comments can be made to help alleviate the tension. First, let us not forget that this is a paradox embraced within the Nicene Creed itself. The Son’s divine essence is from the Father, as the Nicene Creed says,
Second, such language is unavoidable in any sound doctrine of the Trinity. For we do not maintain that there are three divine beings, but one God in three persons. We cannot argue that the three persons of the Godhead each had its own divine essence independently of the other two. The divine essence in which all three share must be underived, if it is to be truly divine.
It is a paradoxical notion that a divine person whose derived deity partakes of the quality of being underived! The Son’s divine essence is not from himself, yet that essence is not from another essence but from the Father, such that the Son’s essence is from the Father at the same time. Hence, the Son derives the divine attribute of (aseity) refering to the property by which a being exists in and of itself, from itself from the Father! “Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26).
Having looked at the exegetical and theological justification of the doctrine of eternal generation, we return to the thought with which we began. Eternal generation, far from detracting from the Son’s l equality with the Father, actually provides its most profound logical ground. The original Creed of Nicea (325) appeals to the Johannine being the only one of His kind in support of the Son’s being the only one with the Father:
And [I believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only begotten, that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father …
The fathers of the Nicaea Creed understood this generation of the Son to involve a communication of the divine essence, for the very next clause reads, “that is, of the ousia of the Father, God of God, etc.” Therefore, the fathers of Nicea seem to have believed that the biblical teaching regarding the generation of the Son (pertaining to being the only one of His kind) was powerful evidence that he is of one being with the Father!
John 1:18, which speaks of Christ as “the only begotten God,” strongly supports the Nicene position that the Son’s being begotten of the Father demonstrates his co-equality and consubstantiality with the Father. Note the context: “No one has ever seen God, but the only begotten God, who is in the Father’s bosom, has made him known.” How is the incarnate Word able to make the invisible God known? Because he is essentially God (cp. Jn 14:7). John expresses the essential, ontological identity of the Father and the Son by calling the Son “the only begotten God.”
And so God Only-begotten (monogenes theos- pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind” ), containing in Himself the form and image of the invisible God, in all things which are properties of God the Father is equal to Him by virtue of the fulness of the true Godhead in Himself.
To conclude, the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, understood as involving the communication of the divine essence, is not only the historic position of the church, but it is a biblical doctrine essential to an orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.