Why The Eternal Generation of the Son is Important: Thesis 1: “The Holy Trinity is the Absolute Ground and Grammar of All Epistemology, Theology, and Worship.”

The following represents Thesis #1 from our  book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. Foreword by Alasdair Heron. Eugene, OR.: Pickwick Publications, 2012. There are a total of 15 Theses in this particular chapter (which happens to be chapter 15 in the book); and they have been co-written by Dr. Myk Habets and myself — some of them represent more of one us (as author) than the other, and some reflect more of a good blend between the both of us. Myk and I are just finishing up
trinitypaulmolnar1Evangelical Calvinism: Dogmatics&Devotion, Vol. 2; it should be available some time this year, 2016 (I will let you know).

I wanted to share this thesis because of the ongoing debate about so called eternal, functional subordinationism (EFS). I have posted two posts here and here. More importantly though patristic scholars par excellence, Lewis Ayres and Michael Barnes have posted on it here and here. I have links in my first post to the original posts that have set this off online, but since Ayres and Barnes have chimed in the debate should be drawing to a close soon (I doubt that will happen though, since this EFS has apparently gotten a big foothold in many conservative evangelical schools and thought processes. My guess is that most or many will not even pay attention to or have access to this ongoing debate here online). That said, I think our Thesis One offers some good points towards introducing a good pro-Nicene Trinitarianism (with constructive engagement), and at the same time illustrates why the eternal generation of the Son vis-à-vis the Father is so important to maintain. And why any subordination (especially of the ‘eternal’ sort) is so deleterious to who God is, who and what the Gospel is, and how those two are tied inextricably together towards providing grounds for eternal life (for us), and knowledge of God in the eternal Son in Christ as we participate in the Gospel life of the Son who has been eternally by nature or ‘being’ (ousia) one with the Father in eternal felicity by the Holy Spirit’s action within the Divine triad. 

Thesis One

The Holy Trinity is the absolute ground and grammar of all epistemology, theology, and worship.

Athanasius was fond of saying that it is better to “signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.”[1] And he was right. The triune God is known exclusively through the Son of the Father by the Spirit. In Jesus Christ is revealed very God of very God. God is in his own being what he is as God’s revealing Word and saving Act toward us. Through Christ and the Spirit we are given access to God as he is in himself. This access to God is, in part, in the form of knowledge of God as he is in himself, in his internal relations as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The epistemological strength of the homoousios works here with full force for it represents the consubstantial relation between Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, and God himself. As the image of God, identical with his reality, knowledge of the Incarnate Son through the Holy Spirit has a unique and controlling finality in knowledge of God.

To know this God, who both condescends to share all that we are and makes us share in all that he is in Jesus Christ, is to be lifted up in his Spirit to share in God’s own self-knowing and self-loving until we are enabled to apprehend him in some real measure in himself beyond anything that we are capable of in ourselves. It is to be lifted out of ourselves, as it were, into God, until we know him and love him and enjoy him in his eternal Reality as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in such a way that the Trinity enters into the fundamental fabric of our thinking of him and constitutes the basic grammar of our worship and knowledge of the One God.[2]

In order to further explicate such a Trinitarian theology the recent proposal of Thomas Weinandy proves useful. Without denying a biblical sense of the Father’s monarchy, Weinandy argues that a proper understanding of the Trinity can only be attained if all three Persons, logically and ontologically, spring forth in one simultaneous, nonsequential, eternal act in which each person of the Trinity subsistently defines, and equally is subsistently defined, by the other persons.[3] This drives Weinandy to present a thesis that, “may seem subtle, yet [is] one that I believe radically transforms and revolutionizes the Christian understanding of the Trinity.”[4] His thesis is simply that:

The Father begets the Son in or by the Holy Spirit. The Son is begotten by the Father in the Spirit and thus the Spirit simultaneously proceeds from the Father as the one in whom the Son is begotten. The Son, being begotten in the Spirit, simultaneously loves the Father in the same Spirit by which he himself is begotten (is Loved).[5]

This trinitarian construct highlights the Father’s monarchy without any subordinationist tendencies. To do this a mutual coinherence or perichoresis of action within the Trinity must take place whereby the Persons are who they are because of the action of all three. While the Son and the Holy Spirit come forth from the Father this is not some prior ontological action but rather in the coming forth all three persons are who they are, and they are so precisely in reciprocally interacting upon one another, simultaneously fashioning one another as themselves.[6]

It is this God whom we seek to speak of. “In and through the presence of the Holy Spirit supervening upon the revealing and saving events of his incarnate Son, God really does impart himself to us and actually makes himself known to us within the conditions of our creaturely forms of thought and speech, but without any compromise of his sheer Godness or any diminution of the Mystery of his transcendent Being.”[7]

The purpose of life is a transforming relationship with God in which the Spirit calls and enables us to become children of God in and alongside the Son and to join in his self-surrender to the Father. As Clark Pinnock writes, “God has not left us outside the circle of his life. We are invited inside the Trinity as joint heirs together with Christ. By the Spirit we cry ‘Abba’ together with the Son, as we are drawn into the divine filial relationship and begin to participate in God’s life.”[8] McLeod Campbell beautifully describes adoption as “orphans who have found their lost father.”[9] The logic is that believers participate in Christ, the eternal Son of the Father, and so participate in that filial relationship in the Son (John 8:19). It is the intimate relationship between the Father and the Son which is communicated to humanity through the Spirit of the Son (Rom 8:29). It is in this sense that we may define salvation as “sonship.”

Worship then must be defined as epiclesis and paraclesis, the invocation of the Paraclete Spirit and his coming to help us. In our worship the Holy Spirit comes from God, uniting us to the response, obedience, faith/fullness, and worship of Jesus Christ (also our Paraclete), and returns to God, raising us up in Jesus to participate in the worship of heaven and in the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity.[10] As James Torrance explains:

When we see that the worship and mission of the church are the gift of participating through the Holy Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father and the Son’s mission from the Father to the world, that the unique center of the Bible is Jesus Christ, “the apostle and high priest whom we confess” (Heb 3:1), then the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the ministry of the Spirit, Church and sacraments, our understanding of the kingdom, our anthropology and eschatology, all unfold from that center.[11]

Such is the trinitarian vision we have for theology generally, and for the contents of this little book specifically.

To echo the sentiments of many before us, in thinking and speaking of the Trinity we cannot but clap our hands upon our mouth and fall down before the Lord God in worship. The Holy Trinity is infinitely more to be adored than expressed, so that appropriate and faithful thought and speech about it cannot but break off in sheer wonder, reverence, thanksgiving, and praise.[12]


[1] Athanasius, Contra Arianos, 1.34, cited in Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 49, and often elsewhere.

[2] Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology, 155.

[3] Weinandy, The Father’s Spirit of Sonship, 15. Note the affinities with Calvin’s formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. See Warfield, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” 187–284; Torrance, “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Trinity,” 41–76; and Letham, The Holy Trinity, 252–268.

[4] Weinandy, The Father’s Spirit of Sonship, 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See further in Habets, “Filioque? Nein. A Proposal for Coherent Coinherence,” 161–202.

[7] Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God,” 151.

[8] Pinnock, Flame of Love, 153. Pinnock’s entire chapter on “Spirit and Union” (149-183) shows an obvious but unreferenced reliance upon T.F. Torrance’s theology.

[9] Cited in Kettler, “The Vicarious Repentance of Christ,” 540.

[10] Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction, 250.

[11] J.B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, 9.

[12] Charles Partee and Gannon Murphy develop a number of these themes in their respective essays earlier in this volume.

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3 comments

  1. “..sheer wonder, reverence,thanksgiving and praise” Amen. Excellent, thankyou Bobby. I found it understandable,and worshipful, unlike some of the I think overcomplicated and dissecting debates out there. Bless you dear brother

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  2. Forgive me for the way I put that Bobby. I know that as you get deeper into this your posts might be more complex too, but you I seem to be able to understand.So I praise God and thank you for that.I’m sure my lack of total understanding is my deficiency, certainly not of those who can think more deeply than I can……………enough said I guess before I dig an even deeper hole. Blessings to you dear brother 🙂

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  3. Linda,

    Actually there is nothing to forgive you for, I am really glad that the thesis was accessible and understandable; that’s what we hope for when we write things like we did in our book (and here at my blog as well, although here things are much more raw and off the top of my head most of the time). So I’m glad you were able to understand this; that’s a good thing! 🙂

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