The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is a central feature of orthodox Christian teaching. In this doctrine, the church confesses not simply that the second person of the Trinity is the one true and living God but how he is the one true and living God: as the Son eternally begotten by the Father who thereby shares the Father’s self-same being, attributes, works, and worship.
The church confesses the doctrine of eternal generation on the basis of Holy Scripture. But it is precisely at this point that many contemporary Christians–who may otherwise sympathize with the importance of sharing the church’s universal confession–nevertheless stumble. Is the doctrine of eternal generation really a biblical doctrine? Does it truly possess the only force it could possess to command the assent of the faithful, i.e., the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture?
There are plenty of reasons for answering this question in the affirmative. Some reasons follow from the ways Scripture “names” the second person of the Trinity. Other reasons follow from the ways Scripture portrays the second person of the Trinity in his actions of creating, saving, and consummating all things. Still, many contemporary Christians continue to find these lines of argument unconvincing. Part of the problem doubtless stems from the hermeneutical culture in which they were trained, which tends toward atomism in exegesis or, when it does consider larger canonical patterns of meaning, tends to focus on “horizontal” redemptive-historical patterns to the exclusion of “vertical” analogical patterns of meaning.
There is a place for criticizing these hermeneutical cultures and for repairing them as need be (the latter is, as a matter of fact, my full-time job). But it is the responsibility of the church’s teachers also to address church doctrine to its members within the hermeneutical space that they actually inhabit, not simply in the ideal space that teachers believe they should inhabit. That’s part of faithful shepherding: leading God’s people from where they actually are to where they should be.
Now to the (pretentious) title of my post: What is “the greatest prooftext for the doctrine of eternal generation”? I hope it is clear, gentle reader, that I am not insinuating that there is one great prooftext for the doctrine that stands above all others. The doctrine of eternal generation is the teaching of the whole counsel of God read as a whole. What my title means to suggest is that there may be one particularly instructive, particularly helpful prooftext for leading those sympathetic to but still unsure about the doctrine to the place of more confident affirmation. That text, I suggest, is John 8.
In John 8, Jesus roots his actions of revealing God’s words and accomplishing God’s saving purpose, the very actions that reveal Jesus’ identity as the one true and living God (Jn 8:24, 28: “that I am”), in his origin, his being “from above,” his being from “the Father” (Jn 8:23, 27). Jesus acts the way he does because of where (or better: whom) he is from. Moreover, it is precisely in contrasting the analogy between Jesus’ origin and actions and his opponents’ origin and actions that Jesus confirms the deep biblical logic of the doctrine of eternal generation.
Jesus introduces the link between action and origin in John 5, basing his authority to work on the Sabbath (a prerogative unique to God) in his status as God’s natural-born Son. As one who shares his Father’s nature, he also shares his Father’s self-existence, performs his Father’s works, and is worthy of receiving his Father’s worship (see here and here). Jesus takes up this theme again in John 8 and elaborates on it by contrasting his origin and action with his opponents’ origin and action. “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world” (Jn 8:23). “I speak what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father” (Jn 8:38).
Anyone familiar with modern commentaries on the Gospel of John will know that contemporary commentators tend to read Jesus’ claims about his origin as claims about his mission. Jesus is from above as one who is sent by the Father into the world. There are a number of reasons for this kind of reading, including a kind of evangelical exegetical Occam’s razor, which tends toward minimalism in exegetical observation. For present purposes, I’ll refrain from addressing the broader hermeneutical context for this kind of reading. But I am convinced it is wrong: not because it includes Jesus’ status as the Father’s “sent Son” within the scope of Jesus’ claims about his origin (see Jn 8:42) but because it reduces Jesus’ claims about his origin to a claim about his status as “sent Son.” As we will see below, that sort of reduction just doesn’t work in John 8 (or in the rest of the Gospel as a whole). It isn’t simply the Father’s status as Jesus’ sender that explains the latter’s origin story. That status by itself cannot distinguish Jesus from John the Baptist (Jn 1:6). It’s God’s status as Jesus’ Father that alone ultimately accounts for Jesus’ unique and transcendent origin and therefore for his unique and transcendent action.
The manner in which Jesus contrasts his origin and action with his opponents’ origin and action confirms the point. According to Jesus, his opponents do what they do because of where (or whom) they are from: their actions follow from their origin. More specifically, the paternal origin of his opponents determines the character of their actions. “Like father, like son” is the logic of Jesus’ argument. They do not receive Jesus’ words, they do not rejoice in Jesus’ coming, instead they seek to kill Jesus, because they are offspring of their father the devil (Jn 8:39-47). Conversely, if they were truly spiritual heirs of Abraham, and not merely his physical descendants (Jn 8:37), they would do what their father Abraham did when he saw Jesus’ day: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (Jn 8:56).
Jesus is greater than their father Abraham because he is the great “I am,” the one who eternally is “before” Abraham was (Jn 8:53, 58). This is what Jesus’ divine words, and supremely his divine work of dying on the cross, reveal: “when you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing from myself, but speak just as the Father taught me” (Jn 8:28, trans. mine).
What John 8 drives home, by way of contrast with the negative example of Jesus’ opponents, is that Jesus’ divine being and divine action are a function of Jesus’ divine origin. “I am from above” (Jn 8:23), Jesus claims, and his mode of being “from above” is preeminently a matter of his mode of being from “the Father” (Jn 8:27, 38). “Like Father, like Son” is the logic of Jesus’ argument.
Jesus’ filial mode of being and acting, his being from the Father, his seeing, hearing, speaking, and acting from the Father, sometimes trips us up. We sometimes conclude that Jesus’ being and acting from the Father is a sign that he is different from, less than the Father. But the logic of the analogy played out in John 8 runs in the opposite direction. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents are children of their father the devil that they act just like their father the devil. If only they had been true spiritual heirs of their father Abraham, they would have acted like their father Abraham. In similar fashion, it is precisely because Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16) that he is what the Father is, that he does what the Father does, and that he is worthy of receiving the honor that the Father receives.
There is certainly a disanalogy between Jesus’ filiation and his opponents’ filiation: his filiation is from above, theirs is from below (Jn 8:23); his filiation is eternal (Jn 8:58), theirs (though spiritual in nature–their father is “the devil”!) is (nevertheless) temporal (cf. Jn 8:44: “from the beginning”). Indeed, part of his opponents’ problem is that they are seeking to judge Jesus’ filial claims based on appearances (Jn 7:24). They are attempting to judge heavenly things by the measure of earthly things (Jn 3:12). But his (eternal) generation from the Father is not to be judged by the measure of their (evil) generation from their father the devil (Jn 8:43-44).
The measure of Jesus’ eternal generation is greater, immeasurably greater than theirs, in the way that eternal things are greater than temporal things, in the way that things above are greater than things below (cf. Jn 1:15, 30; 3:31). Nevertheless, for all the disanalogy that necessarily obtains, the point of the comparison holds: the reason Jesus acts the way he does, the reason Jesus is worthy of the worship he receives, is that Jesus’ origin is what it is: he is the eternal Son of the eternal Father, the heavenly Son of the heavenly Father, the only-begotten Son who is from above, not from below, whose filiation is not of this world.
Which is precisely what the church confesses, on the basis of Holy Scripture, about the second person of the Trinity: that he is “begotten, not made.”