In the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, in the article discussing “the true God,” the text says: “in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; equal in every divine perfection, and executing distinct and harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.”
I’ll focus on that last phrase in this article. How do you tell Father, Son, and Spirit from one another? There are two ways to answer this question. I’ll begin with the older, more established option and close with the second, which I believe is more helpful.
Option 1—Distinguish by Eternal Generation and Procession
This option uses a framework that might be unfamiliar to you, and if so it might not make too much sense. If I’m wrong, then more power to you!
The Church’s classical position is that all three Persons are “the same substance,” which doesn’t mean they share the same nature of “Godness” the way you and I share “humanness.” No; the classical position says Father, Son, and Spirit are literally the same essence. They act together and have the same singular will and consciousness. One theologian explained this by way of a telling analogy: “I prefer to speak of one space with three dimensions – height, length and depth.”1 Do you see? According to this analogy, God is a space, and each Person is a different aspect of that space. Without some modification, there are no distinctions between Persons at all. Some theologians have even gone so far as to suggest any member of the Godhead could have become incarnate and died for the sins of the world, because they are each the same essence.2
So, this classical position on the Trinity heavily emphasizes the “oneness,” perhaps to the point of collapsing the Persons into one another like a shapeless Jell-O blob … which is why the Church has employed the doctrines of eternal generation of the Son, and eternal procession of the Spirit. These doctrines are the Church’s traditional answer to “how do you tell ‘em apart?” Note that this “collapsing into a Jell-O blob” model of oneness is different from an alternative “single society of persons” model.
- the Son’s Person (not the essence) was generated by the Father,
- in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”5),
- and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”6),
- in a manner we can’t ever understand,
- but this timeless (i.e. eternal) generation does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created
This doctrine is crucial to its advocates, because it’s their best way to distinguish the Persons—they distinguish them by their mutual relations to one another:
- the Father begets
- the Son is begotten
- the Spirit proceeds forth
Yahweh’s nature is singular and identical (the “same substance”), but the relations of the Persons are the key. Without eternal generation and procession, the idea goes, you’re left with a monad; a generic “oneness” without a way to distinguish Persons.
This doctrine is confusing because:
- we have no category for understanding Christ’s Person being generated in a non-physical, timeless manner,
- advocates cannot even describe what this means,7 and
- the notion of derivation (timeless or otherwise) seems to imply a subordination—the very thing the Church designed the Nicene Creed to combat.
Indeed, when an advocate of eternal generation attempts to explain the doctrine, he often:
- appeals to mystery,
- declares we must believe it on faith,8 and
- becomes icy when pressed to explain how derivation doesn’t imply subordination.
Gregory of Nazianzus, a famous Eastern theologian from 4th century Constantinople, explained that Jesus stems from the Father in a unique, non-physical way,9 and that the Father is, in some sense, Jesus’ parent or originator.10 He then frostily criticized those who suggested this made little sense.11 John of Damascus, a 9th century Syrian Christian, explains in unguarded terms that the Father “is the cause of the Son,” is the Son’s “origin,” and is “greater than the Son.” He employs an analogy of fire and light—the fire produces the light, but they are the same essence. The light is the fire’s natural force, just as the Son is to the Father.12 Hugh of St. Victor, a 12th century French Christian, declared the Son is divine because the Father “begat” Him, and the offspring always has the characteristics of the parent.13 Augustine declared Jesus is “from the Father,” in that He was “born in eternity.”14
The Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas explained this non-physical derivation by comparing Jesus to an “intelligible emanation” which proceeds from the intellect, like a spoken word reflecting an idea in the speaker’s mind—it remains inside him and yet proceeds out at the same time.15 An object of the intellect, Thomas declared, is a likeness of the object conceived,16 and Christ’s eternal generation from the Father is the same.
The biblical support for this doctrine is weak. Advocates offer three main arguments:
- The word “begotten.”17 They point to passages which say Jesus was “begotten,” and then reason (1) begotten means derivation, (2) but Christ is eternally divine, (3) so this can’t be a physical or timeless derivation, or else this would be heresy, so (4) this “begetting” or “generation” must be timeless and non-physical. However, the word which older translations rendered “begotten” actually means something like “unique” or “one and only—special.” This is why no contemporary English translation, except the NKJV or the NASB (1995), render it as “begotten” at John 1:14.18
- Jesus as Son.19 What else can “Son” mean, in conjunction with the “begotten” concept, if not some kind of derivation of Personhood from an “originator?”20 Hilary, a 4th century French theologian, explained the Father is the source of the Son’s life—“it is through the living Father that He has life in Himself.”21 God gave life to the Son as a gift.22 Each of these remarks implies Jesus is somehow inferior to the Father—no amount of caveats will wish that implication away.
- John 5:26.23 In this passage, Jesus is explaining about judgment. If people believe in Him, whom the Father sent, they will pass from death to life (John 5:24). The “dead” (i.e. the spiritually dead) will hear the Son’s voice (the Gospel) and live (John 5:25). How is this so? Because, just as the Father has “life in Himself” as a fountainhead to dispense to others, so He has given the Son the same gift: “Just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself,” (John 5:26). But, some disagree. They say John 5:26 is really about eternal generation—the Father gave life to the Son eternally.24 Context shows this is absurd. In reality, it simply means that Jesus, as the representative person during the incarnation, received power to grant life to people—the same power the Father has always had.25
The scripture passages advocates offer in support of these three arguments say absolutely nothing about eternal generation and give no hint of the complicated doctrine I summarized, above. Where is a derivation of Person, but not essence? Where is any hint that Christ’s divine Person originated anywhere? Where is an eternal birth and grant of life from the Father? Search the scriptures in vain, for you won’t find answers.
Some conservative theologians today are keen to suggest this is the only orthodox framework one can hold in order to rightly distinguish the Persons from one another. That is wrong.26 What’s behind that claim is a dogged allegiance to a framework hammered out in a very different culture, using categories that are little known and perhaps unhelpful today. That framework insists on beginning with a very strong, almost unitary “oneness,” which requires them to depict the Father as a divine fountainhead or source of eternal, timeless life to Son and Spirit. If you come from a church tradition which affirms this framework for distinguishing the Persons, and you find it helpful and understandable, then that’s lovely.
But, there is a simpler way.
Option 2—Distinguish by Highlighting Different Roles27
The Apostle Paul said, “We both have access to the Father through Christ by the one Spirit,” (Ephesians 2:18). This suggests:
- Believers want access to the Father—but how?
- They have it through Christ in His incarnation, death, and resurrection for sinners—but by what means?
- By the Spirit, who applies the Gospel to our hearts and minds, and then connects us to the Father through the Son.
In other words, we “see” the Trinity in the Person’s “distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.”
In another place, the Apostle Paul closed one letter by writing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all,” (2 Corinthians 13:13). What does this mean?
- Jesus has grace in that He emptied Himself and left heaven to take the form of a servant, to be obedient to the incarnate Father’s will—even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
- God has love, in that He loved the world so much that He surrendered His only Son—His precious Son—so that every person who trusts in the Son won’t die, but will have eternal life (John 3:16; my translation).
- The Spirit provides fellowship, in that He’s the One who changes our hearts and adopts us into God’s family.
Again, “distinct but harmonious” jobs. In another place, the Apostle John wrote that Jesus showed him the Book of Revelation, because the Father had given it to the Son to show everyone what would soon happen to the world (Revelation 1:1)! John then declared that Jesus would soon come on the clouds to return to earth (Revelation 1:7), a reference to the strange human-divine figure from Daniel 7:13-14 who receives an eternal kingdom from the ancient of days (i.e. the Father). Again, different but harmonious roles.
The Apostle Peter explained, “God the Father chose you because of what he knew beforehand. He chose you through the Holy Spirit’s work of making you holy and because of the faithful obedience and sacrifice of Jesus Christ,” (1 Peter 1:2). This means:
- The Father chooses individual for salvation before they believe,
- and so the Holy Spirit purifies us, makes us holy, sets us apart as belonging to Him,
- and all this can happen because of Jesus Christ’s faithful sacrifice.
Jude, at the beginning of his short letter, addressed it to: “those who are called, loved by God the Father and kept safe by Jesus Christ,” (Jude 1).
- The Holy Spirit calls individuals to faith
- God loves them, which is why He rescued them
- And the Son keeps them safe, because no one can pluck His sheep out of His Father’s hands (John 10:29).
Distinct but harmonious offices in the great work of redemption!
Because God is a single society of Persons, knit together by love and showing an inexhaustible unity, they do everything together. This is why, in one place Moses can write “God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), and in another place one New Testament letter can clarify that the Father created the world through the Son (Hebrews 1:2), while Moses can also write that God’s wind or Spirit swept over the waters of the shapeless raw creation (Genesis 1:1). Jesus said the Comforter (i.e. the Holy Spirit) would come to believers (John 14:16-17), then immediately promised they wouldn’t be orphans, because “I will come to you,” (John 14:18). Then, Jesus explained He and the Father would both come along and “make our home” with believers (John 14:23). Apparently, when the Spirit comes, Father and Son come along with Him. Unity in action, not just unity in existence.
God, as this single society of Persons, acts in union and together. Scripture, as though holding a jewel aloft to the sun, simply turns the gem this way and that so our eyes can catch the differentiated facets. So, we “see” the Trinity in the way Scripture highlights each Person’s contributions in service of the one “team’s” mission28—the great work of redemption.
1 Donald Bloesch, God the Almighty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995), p. 186.
2 The doctrine of divine simplicity is behind this insistence. I don’t have space to explain that doctrine in the body of this article. Suffice it to say that simplicity says (1) God is not composed of parts, and (2) he is the living unity of all His attributes (see Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), pp. 130-132). Matthew Barrett writes, “In the purest sense, God is one; he is singular perfection,” (None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), p. 76).
There are divergent flavors of simplicity. For example, Henry is more moderate the Barrett, who so emphasizes the otherness of God that one could perhaps accuse Him of painting a picture of extreme impersonalism.
Millard Erickson has suggested this is unhelpful: “Much of the discussion has been carried on in terms of a substance metaphysic, in which reality is a substance possessing certain attributes. A better way of thinking may be to conceive of reality as fundamentally personal rather than impersonal. Thus, God is a subject, a person— and a very complex person at that. He is what he is, and is unique. If he did not possess the essential attributes we have discussed in this volume, he would not be the person he is. The attributes, then, are not qualities added to this nature. They are facets of his complex and rich nature.
It does not seem necessary, in order to preserve these values, to follow the full traditional meaning of simplicity with its attendant problems, such as God having but one attribute and being equivalent to that attribute, with the paradoxical conclusion that each attribute of God is the same as each of the others. The doctrine of divine simplicity need not involve all of the details it has sometimes borne,” (God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 230-231).
3 This is an intentional pun. Only the Trinity nerds who read this will truly understand …
4 See especially Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), pp. 114-121, for a good explanation. This excerpt from WCF 2.3 reads, “… The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.”
Millard Erickson explains, “The traditional doctrine is that the Father is in some sense eternally the basis or the source of the life or at least the distinct personal subsistence of the Son. This, however, is not in any sense to be confused with the doctrine of creation by the Father, as the Arians held,” (Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?: An Assessment of the Subordination Debate [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009; Kindle ed.], KL 1846-1847.
5 See the Nicean-Constantinople Creed of 381.
7 Ambrose is representative when he exclaims: “Dost thou ask me how He is a Son, if He have not a Father existing before Him? I ask of thee, in turn, when, or how, thinkest thou that the Son was begotten. For me the knowledge of the mystery of His generation is more than I can attain to,2—the mind fails, the voice is dumb—ay, and not mine alone, but the angels’ also. It is above Powers, above Angels, above Cherubim, Seraphim, and all that has feeling and thought … Do thou, then (like the angels), cover thy face with thy hands,4 for it is not given thee to look into surpassing mysteries! We are suffered to know that the Son is begotten, not to dispute upon the manner of His begetting. I cannot deny the one; the other I fear to search into …” (Exposition of the Christian Faith, 1.10.64, 65, in NPNF2, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), p. 212.
Peter Lombard, in his Sentences, quoted this excerpt from Ambrose approvingly, influencing generations of medieval theologians (The Sentences, 9.3.1, vol. 1, trans. Giulio Silano (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2007, p. 53). It’s difficult to overstate the impact Lombard had on the Church’s thought.
8 Letham, Systematic, p. 119. “It is a matter of faith. This poses no problem, or else faith would be based on our own capacities.”
9 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 30.20,” in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Yonkers: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002). “I take the view that he is called ‘Son’ because he is not simply identical in substance with the Father, but stems from him. He is ‘Only-begotten’ not just because he alone stems uniquely from what is unique, but because he does so in a unique fashion unlike things corporeal.”
10 Ibid, Oration 29.2. “In a serene, non-temporal, incorporeal way, the Father is parent of the ‘offspring’ and originator of the ‘emanation’—or whatever name one can apply when one has entirely extrapolated from things visible.”
11 Ibid, Oration 29.4. “You are incapable of understanding that one who has a distinctive fleshly birth—what other case of a Virgin Mother of God do you know?—has a different spiritual birth, or rather, one whose being is not the same as ours has a different way of begetting as well.”
12 John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 1.7, in NPNF 2:9, ed. Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 9.
13 Hugh of Saint Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, §1.3.23, rev. ed., trans. Roy Deferrari (Ex Fontibus, 2016), pp. 52-53. “… the Father was named in the Trinity because from Him was the Son, who was of His substance. For he who begets and begets of his own substance, begets that which he himself is. And so He from whom He was and He who was with Him are the same as He himself was. He was called Father because the Son was from him.”
14 Augustine, The Trinity, 2.1.3, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1991), p. 99.
15 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.27.1.co.
16 Ibid, I.27.2.co.
17 The 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith (Article 2.3) point to John 1:14, 18 on this point.
18 My point here is highly disputed by eternal generation advocates, such as Charles L. Irons, “A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten,’ in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2007), pp. 98-116. If I may be so bold, Irons’ arguments are unconvincing and have more to do with retrieving a venerable doctrine than with lexical reality. I’ve catalogued every instance of μονογενοῦς in the LXX (including the Apocrypha), the New Testament, and the Apostolic Fathers. The sense of μονογενοῦς = eternal generation just ain’t there. In every instance, a more plausible interpretation is something like “one and only—special” or “unique.”
19 The Westminster Confession cites Hebrews 1:2-3, Colossians 1:15 for this point (Article 2.3).
20 “‘Son’ language tied to ‘Father’ language is one of the unavoidable hints that the relationship between the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’ is rightly conceived of in terms of generation—indeed, of eternal generation,” (D.A. Carson, “John 5:26: Crux Interpretum for Eternal Generation,” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, p. 87).
21 Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity 7.27, in NPNF1, vol. 9, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. E.W. Watson and L. Pullan (reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 130.
22 Ibid. “And, moreover, when He said, ‘For as the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son also to have life in Himself,’ He bore witness that life, to the fullest extent, is His gift from the living God.”
23 No less a New Testament scholar than D.A. Carson calls this verse the “crux interpretum for Eternal Generation,” (this is the title of Carson’s article in Reclaiming Eternal Generation, pp. 79-97). If this is the best text this doctrine can offer, then it is pretty weak indeed.
24 See Augustine, The Trinity, 1.5.26; 2.1.3. See also Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith, 3.16.133, in NPNF2, vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin, and H. T. F. Duckworth (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1896), p. 261.
25 See Alvah Hovey, Gospel of John, pp. 138-139. In his article, Carson lists three potential solutions to John 5:26, and opts for eternal generation. He does not mention Hovey’s solution, which is too bad, because it’s simpler, clearer, and more logical than any of the three Carson offers.
Henry Alford offers the same interpretation as Hovey: “The Father hath given Him to have life in Himself, as He is THE SON OF GOD. We have none of us life in ourselves: in Him we live and move and have our being. But He, as the Father is, is the source of Life. Then again the Father hath given Him power to pass judgment, because He is THE SON OF MAN; man is to be judged by Man …” (The New Testament for English Readers: A Critical and Explanatory Commentary, New Edition, vol. 1 (London; Oxford; Cambridge: Rivingtons; Deighton, Bell and Co., 1872), p. 508).
26 See anything Matthew Barrett and Craig Carter write on Twitter. Carl F.H. Henry warned, “While revelation supplies hints for solving philosophical difficulties, it does not provide a fully developed metaphysical system to which we can accord revelational status. Christians must therefore avoid claiming supernatural authority for one or another interpretation that seems to resolve the problem of persons and essence in the Trinity,” (God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 5 (Waco: Word, 1982), p. 210).
27 I could be accused here of focusing on the Trinity ad extra at the expense of the ad intra. Perhaps I deserve some of that critique. However, Scripture does give us passages like Phil 2:5-11 which shows an ad intra distinction of Persons before the incarnation. Phil 2:6 even suggests discrete wills within the one God, because ad intra the Son distinguishes Himself from the Father by not reckoning His status of equality as something to desperately hold on to. Before the incarnation, the Son makes a distinct self-reflection and assessment of His own status as compared to the Father’s, and then acts accordingly. I don’t discuss that passage here, but I simply mention it to say that Scripture shows us “distinct but harmonious offices” ad intra and ad extra. So, I contend we don’t need the doctrine of eternal generation to distinguish the Son.
28 Lutheran theologian Carl Beckwith has written, “If the essential attributes, like the external acts of the Trinity, belong equally and indivisibly to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as the church rightly confesses, why do Scripture and our creeds sometime assign them more particularly to one person? The explanation given by the Fathers and reformers has been that the external acts and essential attributes of God may be appropriated or attributed more particularly to one person in order to more fully disclose the persons of the Trinity to our creaturely ways of thinking. This doctrine of appropriation assists us conceptually and aims to focus our prayers and worship on the divine persons,” (The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics (Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 9433-9447).