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Thoughts about Another Evangelical Controversy

Thoughts about Another Evangelical Controversy March 12, 2012

Thoughts about Another Evangelical Theological Controversy

Somehow I missed this one for a long time. Apparently, a new controversy is breaking out among evangelical theologians. Actually, it’s been going on for some time—apparently largely in the pages of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (a publication to which I don’t subscribe and which I rarely read).

Recently InterVarsity Press asked me to preview a forthcoming book by Australian evangelical theologian Kevin Giles who has written at least two books about the controversy over the subordination of the Son of God to the Father. We’ve discussed that here before. I agree with Giles’ scholarship and argument on that one—that the Son is equal with the Father in terms of deity and authority. And I agree with him about the new controversy.

The forthcoming book is The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology. According to Giles, several influential evangelical theologians have argued over the past several years that the Nicene Creed is wrong to say that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. He lists among them Wayne Grudem, Bruce Ware, Millard Erickson, Paul Helm, William Lane Craig and Mark Driscoll. (Is Mark Driscoll and theologian?) Apparently this is not an entirely new idea. Some scholars argue that the Old Princeton theologians Charles and A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield also questioned the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son.

Giles mentions among supporters of the eternal generation of the Son Andreas Kostenberger, Robert Letham (who writes the Foreword to Giles’ book) and Keith Johnson. Giles claims that his book is the first “extended countercase” to the denial of the eternal generation of the Son.

Revealing to me about myself is my initial reaction to the controversy. My first inclination is to give the benefit of the doubt to the Nicene Creed! So much so that I am opposed to the filioque clause that was added to the Latin version of the Creed sometime in the seventh or eighth centuries. (Please don’t jump in and claim to know exactly when; I’ve read many books on the subject and nobody knows for sure. My historical theology professor in my Ph.D. work was an expert on the subject and rattle off the top of his head several possible scenarios of when and where it was added and why.)

However, I have argued for a long time, and probably always believed, that Scripture trumps tradition. Therefore, if someone could prove to me that Scripture contradicts the Creed’s affirmation of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father I would deny that affirmation.

My conclusion from reading Giles’ book is that he makes a very strong case for keeping the clause in the Creed and for believing in the eternal generation of the Son. I have argued for it here before—when we discussed the controversy over subordination of the Son to the Father. As Giles rightly points out, these are separate issues. The fact that the Son is generated by the Father, meaning that he derives his deity from the Father, has absolutely nothing to do with hierarchy of authority within the Trinity.

An interesting side bar that Giles doesn’t mention is that this same controversy over the eternal generation of the Son cropped up around Arminius in the first decade of the seventeenth century. In his Sentiments he spends a great deal of time defending himself against a charge of Christological heresy. Critics claimed that he denied the deity of the Son of God by saying that he derives his deity from the Father. Of course, his critics were apparently ignorant of the fact that the Nicene Creed says as much when it affirms the generation of the Son from the Father.

Giles goes into great detail demonstrating the biblical support for eternal generation. But he admits that nowhere does Scripture explicitly say it. It is rather a necessary deduction from what Scripture says about the Son’s relationship with the Father. John 1:14, of course, would seem to be a proof text for it. But Giles does not rely on any proof text or string of them. Instead, he examines why the early church came to pronounce it in the Nicene Creed of 381. It was to counter Arianism and semi-Arianism. The Arians were arguing that John 1:14, together with some verses in Proverbs about “Wisdom,” proves that the Son of God was created by the Father. Athanasius and the Cappadocians, especially, argued that the Son’s “begottenness” is not in time but eternal. Otherwise, Athanasius argued in De Incarnatione, the Father would have become Father with the creation of the Son.

I’m not interested here in revealing all the ins and outs of Giles’ argument which I find convincing. Rather, I’m interested in making two observations.

First, I find it interesting that some of the opponents of eternal generation of the Son are the very people who are the quickest to criticize any evangelical who dares to tamper with tradition. Who’s a postconservative now?

Second, a real strength of Giles’ book is his section on “’Doing’ Evangelical Theology” (Chapter 2). There the Australian theologian makes an excellent case for a more profound method of evangelical theology that one finds in, for example, Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grudem and many other conservative evangelicals seem to think that theology is just a matter of collating Bible verses. That is, gather all the Scripture passages dealing with a particular subject and synthesize them and voila! you have your doctrine. Giles rightly emphasizes the importance of hermeneutics including theological hermeneutics—listening to the voices of tradition and paying attention to why a certain consensus developed.

The fact that the “eternal generation of the Son” is nowhere explicitly stated in Scripture is a poor reason to jettison it, is Giles’ point. We should not and cannot simply jump from the twenty-first century to the Bible paying no attention to all that happened in between. Especially the church fathers command our attention even if they are not infallible like Scripture itself.

This is similar to my response to my Calvinist critics who keep coming at me with the accusation that I do not engage in “exegesis” to defend my rejection of Calvinism. To me, the burden of proof is on them, not me or other non-Calvinists because full blown Calvinism, TULIP, is unheard of before Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva (as principal of the Genevan Academy). Sure, some elements of Calvinism’s distinctive scheme can be found as far back as Augustine, but before Beza the only theologian I know of who taught limited atonement, for example, was the monk Gottschalk (d. about 868) who spent much of his adult life in prison for it. I don’t know anyone who even dares to claim that any Christian theologian before Augustine believed in double predestination.

So, for historical reasons, I judge that the burden of proof is on the Calvinists and I do not think they have come even close enough to supporting their high Calvinism from Scripture to feel the need to counter it with “exegesis.” Their own “exegesis” is so twisted and convoluted that I find it almost laughable. And non-Calvinists have sufficiently provided Scriptural support for the traditional view that I feel no need to repeat it. (For you Calvinists, just go to www.evangelicalarminians.org if you really want to find detailed Arminian exegesis undermining Calvinist “exegesis.”)

My point here is that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians has to be decided by theology and not by counting proof texts. That means taking into account Scripture, tradition, reason and experience and not just catenas of proof texts. It means taking into account the good and necessary consequences of beliefs as well.

Giles argues that denial of the eternal generation of the Son has the good and necessary consequence of making it difficult to distinguish the Father and the Son. That is, it leads to modalism.

Now, personally, I don’t find this to be an extremely important controversy. I’m not quite sure why it stirs up so much heat except for those who are confessionally committed the Nicene Creed as authoritative. But I hope they would be consistent and cut out of the Western versions the filioque clause which clearly was not there at Constantinople in 381.

Nevertheless, I will stick with the eternal generation of the Son for both biblical and traditional reasons. I think it makes the best sense of John 1:14. In fact, I can’t think of an alternative reading of that verse because, of course, Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Therefore the reference to him being the only begotten of the Father cannot refer to his earthly beginning. But more importantly, I see no reason to throw out the considered theological conclusions of the fifth century church fathers about something so central to their project of defeating the Arians.


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