The Eternal Generation of The Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology

August 8, 2012 — Leave a comment

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In the midst of all the book reviews I’ve been offering you related to biblical interpretation, I thought it might be nice for a break and revive another longstanding interest. Going back to my second semester in seminary, I’ve had a fairly strong interest in Trinitarian studies. I mean, I’m no Nick Norelli, but still.

My introduction to Kevin Giles was through my Trinitarianism professor at Dallas, Scott Horrell. I think, if I remember rightly, they have sparred a bit back and forth in journal articles, or at least Giles quoted my prof somewhat unfavorably in an earlier work. Regardless, I knew before seeing this book released that Giles was a serious Trinitarian scholar and Australian, and so thought this might be a good introduction to his writing (I tend to favor Australians on theology for some reason).

Overview

Giles is writing to defend something very specific:

It is in defense of the doctrine of the eternal begetting or generation of the Son, so central to the doctrine of the Trinity, that I write; indeed, this is what the entire book is about. In it, I seek to outline the biblical support for this doctrine, how this doctrine developed, what it teaches and why it is so important. The biblical language of “begetting” is integral to the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, but the doctrine and this one word should not be confused. The doctrine and the term certainly overlap, but one can imply or speak about the doctrine without using the word begetting (17).

The rest of the introduction sketches how this doctrine and its accompanying language emerged, before Giles frames the problem he is confronting. In short, many evangelicals are calling to abandon the doctrine. Giles gives the sources for all the names he names and then gives reasons why several more notable authors are making this call. He summarizes the objections as follows (36-37):

  • The doctrine has no biblical warrant
  • It reflects Neo-Platonic thinking
  • It makes no sense
  • Nothing theologically important is lost if it is abandoned
  • There are better ways to eternally differentiate the Father and the Son
  • It implies or necessarily involves the eternal subordination of the Son, even the Arian heresy

The rest of the book addresses each of these objections in one way or another. Giles begins with a chapter on evangelical theological method. Much of what he says here is valuable even outside this debate. Though not worth the price of the book alone, to me it was the most valuable chapter since it has import into all theological discussions.

After talking about method, Giles turns to the “lack of warrant” objection since as he previously noted, it is the most prevalent and seemingly most important to those that hold it. The evidence he brings to the table is rather exhaustive, and given what he has said about theological method, does mitigate against the lack of biblical warrant objection. I found it rather convincing myself whereas I might have been partial to holding something like what John Frame does concerning the doctrine (a “certain amount of reverent agnosticism” as Giles quotes him, but see below).

For those not satisfied with Giles’ biblical evidence, there is much more to the argument he is building. The bulk of the book (chapters 4-7) gives a historical overview of the doctrine starting with the early church, and then moving to chapters on the Cappadocian Fathers/Nicene Creed, Augustine/Aquinas, and finally the Reformation and post-Reformation tradition. In short, after working through these chapters, you should be easily convinced of the pedigree this doctrine has.

The final three chapters are where things get a bit interesting. In the first of these, Giles address the issue of whether or not the eternal generation of the Son implies or necessitates the eternal subordination of the Son in an ontological sense (which is a condemned heresy – Arianism). As to the latter, there are evangelicals who hold to a non-ontological, so not eternal, subordination (without being Arians), but Giles is not one of them. Giles thinks that people who equate these two concepts do not grasp the nature of the issue, and what’s more that such a view is actually perverse (in the dictionary sense that Giles explains he means). After reading through his historical survey, it is not hard to see his point.

The next chapter turns to whether or not there are better ways to ground the eternal distinctions between Father and Son than using begotten or generation. It is here that Giles gets into the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate concerning the roles of men and women in relationship. Giles is a staunch egalitarian and interestingly enough, several of the authors he takes most offense to concerning their position on the Trinitarian doctrinal issue also happen to complementarians. I’ll come back to this below, but in the meantime you can use your imagination to see what I might criticize about this.

Finally, Giles closes out with a chapter first on the landscape of contemporary theology when it comes to discussing the eternal generation of the Son. He highlights some bright spots (like T. F. Torrance) but on the whole he notes that “the trend today is not to see the importance of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son” (244). He then discusses briefly some alternate models for affirming divine eternal self-differentiation before offering a final salvo summarizing his argument.

Strengths/Weaknesses

Clearly a strength in all of this is Giles’ tenacity, as well as his thorough approach to a theological discussion. In some ways (and not others, keep reading) whether or not you’re super interested in this discussion, this book does provide a good model for how to deal with a theological issue. First, examine the relevant biblical texts in detail, then look at the history of Christian thought, and then contemporary alternatives. While not every discussion needs to be as exhaustive as Giles is, it does present a good path to follow.

However, Giles does overlook at least one important theologian’s contributions, and gets a little too sidetracked in a tangential discussion. Taking the latter first, it is hard to not feel like there was a bone to pick with Wayne Grudem and Mark Driscoll who are both outspoken complementarians. It is true that both relate their complementarianism to their doctrine of the Trinity, but more weight is put on the opening chapters of Genesis (and other exegetical arguments) when it comes to men and women’s roles in relationships. Showing that they may be wrong about abandoning the eternal generation of the Son as a doctrine does not defeat their other exegetical arguments for complementarianism, but I think Giles thinks it does (or at least severely wounds them). Either way, it is more of a side discussion, and when Giles insists on taking Grudem and Driscoll to task, it is hard not to see it stemming from a different beef he has with them.

As to overlooking other theologian’s contributions, consider how Giles interacts with John Frame. He is quoted once, but his argument that goes with that quote is ignored, and is actually in favor of what Giles is arguing for doctrinally. Frame, like Driscoll and Grudem is complementarian, but unlike them he is not so outspoken about it. Also unlike them, he wrote a 800pg book on the doctrine of God and not a bite sized systematic (Driscoll) or treated the issue in Appendix 6 of his more lengthy systematic (Grudem). In other words, the space devoted to interacting with Grudem is disproportional to the space Grudem devotes to talking about the subject himself, while Frame is more or less ignored. Ironically, Frame has a much more lengthy discussion, and while presented as a detractor, he actually isn’t and just above the “reverent agnosticism” quote I mentioned earlier, affirms that we have biblical grounds for holding the eternal generation of the Son. Frame’s point though is that if we confess the Son, like the Father, is eternal, then “generation” does not add anything that is not already inherent in the name “Son.” So, by confessing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as eternal God, one in nature, three in person, you are already affirming the Son’s eternal generation and the Spirit’s eternal procession, whether or not you use that language.

Why Giles chose to only quote Frame’s negative statement and then ignore the argument he presented leading up to it in favor of dealing with Grudem and Driscoll is hard to say. Certainly some of it is popular appeal (more people have probably read Grudem than Frame), but Grudem chose to treat the topic of Giles’ book in an appendix, so it doesn’t seem like he should feature prominently in the discussion even if he is more popular. In that popularity though, I bet more people know Grudem is a complementarian than know he questions the eternal generation of the Son (and even that mostly in terms of language used).

Conclusion

In short, I have somewhat mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it is a great presentation of rigorous theological method and defends a doctrine I think we should all agree on. On the other hand, Giles gets sidetracked by an issue, that though related to the topic, seems like a soap box issue and colors the choice of sparring partners used in the book. I would like to see what Giles says to someone like Frame rather than see him spend so much time on Grudem and Driscoll, who though have far more reach than Frame, are not making the kind of sophisticated arguments an author like Frame does.

For you, this book could either be a great addition to your library or something you want to pass on. If you read widely on the Trinity, do not hesitate to pick this up. My reservations notwithstanding, Giles’ historical chapters and chapter on theological method are excellent. His presentation of biblical warrant for eternal generation is also stellar. Even if you disagree with how Giles brings another issue into the discussion (like I have) there is still much to benefit from reading his arguments.

Book Details

  • Author: Kevin N. Giles
  • Title: The Eternal Generation of The Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology
  • Publisher: IVP Academic (May 7, 2012)
  • Paperback: 270pgs
  • Reading Level: Bible School
  • Audience Appeal: Anyone interested in digging deeper into Trinitarian doctrine
  • Gratis Review Copy: Yes (courtesy of IVP Academic)

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Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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