Theology and Exegesis: an example

To pick up on the theme of my earlier post on the place of theology in exegesis, Justin Taylor has a blog post up today on the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, which serves as an ideal example of what I was talking about.

Justin frames the question by asking ‘is [eternal generation] really a Biblical idea?’ He notes that the idea has been seriously challenged in contemporary theology, but suggests that, although he lacks space in the post, a ‘full exegetical defense’ could indeed be offered. (‘Eternal generation’ is the doctrine that the Father’s begetting of the Son is an eternal act; it is a necessary doctrine in classical Trinitarianism.)

If ‘biblical idea’ means ‘a doctrine that could be derived by exegesis,’ then I don’t think eternal generation is a Biblical idea – although I have nothing invested in this opinion, and would be happy to be proven wrong. I am fairly sure that no-one in the fourth century thought they could read eternal generation off the pages of Scripture – indeed, it was more often an idea defended in the face of apparently-clear exegesis: Prov. 8:22, a central text in the debates, seemingly teaches a creation in time of Wisdom/the Son (pretty much everyone agreed that Wisdom here is to be understood as the Son – they were apparently less worried about the Bible using feminine pronouns for persons of the godhead than we are). I do, however, think eternal generation is (very close to) a necessary idea, in that we need to believe it (or something extraordinarily similar to it) to have any chance of understanding the Bible. It is one of those ideas that I described in the previous post as ‘imagining what must be the case for everything in the Bible to be true’.

(Why the parenthetical hesitations? On the one hand, I feel compelled to assume Рfor theological reasons; see my Listening to the Past Рthat the Trinitarian settlement reached at Constantinople was a wholly successful doctrinal development; on the other, as an evangelical, I have to accept the possibility, at least, of a different conceptual development that was similarly adequate to naming the God we meet in Scripture Рone based, perhaps, on Chinese or African philosophy rather than Greek. Such a development, though, would have to affirm that the Father-Son relation always is, and that it is a relation of origin, so would have some doctrine very like eternal generation.)


  1. Chris E
    Mar 22, 2012

    I believe the reason this issue is being brought up at this particular time is linked to the fairly recent publication of a book by Driscoll/Breshears which rejected the doctrine of eternal generation. Martin Downes has commented on this here:

    On a side note – since you changed theme only a preview of each post appears in the RSS feed. Would it be possible for you to change this back please?

  2. Ben Fulford
    Mar 22, 2012

    Thanks for this Steve – and for the blog, which I’m greatly enjoying!

    On the 4th century Fathers (or even Origen): I wonder if it’s worth also underscoring the complexity of the reasoning that result in the conclusion that the Son is begotten eternally by the Father. In effect, as you say, they ask what must be true if the economy of salvation attested in Scripture is as we know and experience it do be, and God is as different from creatures as we believe God to be, and so on – what Dan Hardy called the ‘operating conditions’ of God’s action toward us.

    That reasoning involves drawing on Scripture in myriad ways for the many ‘givens’ about God, Christ, salvation etc. from which the Fathers reason to this conclusion. Each given involves usually a judgment based on a number of texts in a variety of ways, whether the observation of certain patterns, or logical inference, etc. And those judgments also involve other principles, like whole accounts of theological language, for example, and the doctrine of God’s nature, which themselves appeal to Scripture in similarly complex ways. Such accounts inform, further, the disciplined use of logic. And then they draw on liturgical, contemplative, ascetical and sacramental experience…

    All of which makes describing how Scripture might be said to be authoritative in the generation of doctrines like the eternal generation of the Son less straightforward a task than the rhetoric of ‘biblical ideas/biblical theology’ indicates… (David Kelsey’s approach in The Uses of Scripture would be useful for starters)

    • Steve H
      Mar 22, 2012

      Hi Ben, hope all is well with you, and thanks for stopping by.
      Yes to everything you say…

  3. daveeadie
    Mar 27, 2012

    Well here I go exposing my ignorance, I understand about 35% of this, it reads extremely fascinating and looks awfully important, but Steve along the way you loose me completely.

    As I say this looks fascinating but how does it help us better understand whom we worship through Christ?


  1. Is the Eternal Generation of the Son a Biblical Idea? – Justin Taylor - [...] thereafter Steve Holmes linked to my brief piece, suggesting that my framing of the issue as an exegetical one…

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