Eternal Generation of the Son

A while back I came across the term “eternal generation of the Son”. While I am in agreement and familiar with many of the concepts surrounding this trinitarian theology, I was more than surprised to learn that:

“To…be from the Father does not refer to the incarnation, to Christ as Mediator; being sent by the Father to save may reflect eternal generation, but it in no way constitutes eternal generation. Instead, to be from the Father refers to the Son’s origin in eternity, apart from creation. Generation is between Father and Son, an eternal act, and not between the Trinity and creation, as if it were a temporal act…The Father’s sending His Son into the world on mission for the world reflects the Son’s eternal origin from the Father (generation), but that mission in no way constitutes His eternal relation of origin…It is the immanent Trinity that is in view, not the economic.” (Matthew Barrett, “What is Eternal Generation?”, Tabletalk Magazine, May 10, 2021)

I have always assumed that from the Father referred (only) to the incarnation of the Son. Even with my “conservadox” upbringing (as my Jewish friends would call it) and familiarity with the Nicene Creed, I completely missed it. It makes me wonder what else I am missing because of my assumptions.

For those of you who grew up exposed to or are currently in more conservative / orthodox churches, are you familiar with this term? Has Matthew Barrett’s explanation been your understanding as well?

Thank you and I look forward to your input.


Hi @mary, I’m greatly intrigued by this issue that you’ve raised. I’m not really sure how I would describe my church upbringing - certainly the recitation of creeds were not part of it - so it’s only been in recent years that I’ve taken time to look at the theology behind what I believe. Having explored various creeds around our faith, I would say that I also made the assumption that the Son coming ‘from the Father’ was a reference to his taking on human form for the purpose of salvation.

This takes on an added element for me, as I’ve spent time studying the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses about the person of Jesus, and they are firm in interpreting the phrase ‘firstborn of creation’ in Colossians 1:15 by explaining that He came from the Father because he was the first creation of the Father. I find that this cannot be supported by scripture, but I wonder if the idea of ‘eternal generation’ is so hard to grapple with that this becomes a convenient explanation. Barrett’s explanation certainly expands the concept for me, but not necessarily clarifies it.

It makes me wonder what the Holy Spirit’s role is in eternal generation - if any? But then, as a Trinity, wouldn’t the Holy Spirit be part of this as part of God’s nature? Am i confusing the different functions of the Trinity?

I really like the explanation given on the CARM webiste:

the term is not in reference to causation but to nature and relationship

I think this is where erroneous teachings confuse the reference of ‘generation’. Would it be simplistic to say that we describe Jesus as the Son because the Father is the Father? In other words, if the Father was not the Father, then Jesus couldn’t be the Son: his status as the Son is generated because of the status of the Father. And since the Father is eternal, the status of the son must also be eternal.

I really look forward to seeing how others respond - I find this a fascinating subject, and it always removes God from the box that my mind seems to put Him in all too often, which is great for reminding me of his greatness beyond comprehension.


Hello @Mary,

Thanks for starting this discussion on the concept of Trinity. Its so difficult to wrap our minds around this concept, but each time I come back to it, study a little and think about the issue, I make small incremental gains in my learning. My best understanding of Trinity before being introduced to the idea of eternal generation of the Son from the Father from Fred Sanders book on Triune God a couple years ago was that Jesus was begotten in creation but not in eternity and existed in relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. I would always wonder however in what sense they were one? From the gospels, I only gathered that God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in essence, with personal distinctions, and united in function in creation.

The concept of eternal generation helped me have a better appreciation for Trinity. It helps me visualize how God even apart from creation, is eternally personal and relational and calls us into that marvelous eternal love (John 17:26). I am amazed at this love that is available to us! It helps me understand how ontologically God is united and the importance of begotteness in eternity. Once we associate the begotteness of the Son to a temporal event, then its difficult to make the distinction between the nature of Father and Son in eternity. The argument by Athanasius, “if the Son is not eternally the Son, then the Father is not eternally the Father” explains the problem succinctly. Also, if the Son has a beginning, the idea that Jesus is fully equal to God can become murky as eternal nature is a key attribute of God. This concept helps see how Son and Father are not the same person, but yet are equally divine and eternal.

One question that was raised is the role of the Holy Spirit in eternal generation of the Son. Interesting question! The concept of eternal procession was introduced in the Nicene Creed to affirm the deity of the Holy Spirit: “We believe . . . in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.” Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father but if He plays a role in generation of the Son is not something I have found an answer for. John 15:26 and 1 Cor 8:6 were especially helpful for me in seeing that Jesus and Holy Spirit come from the Father. It also seems Jesus may have a role in sending Holy Spirit in creation but whether its true in eternal procession is unclear (John 16:7). We also know Holy Spirit put Jesus at the right hand of God after resurrection but once again His role in eternal generation is unclear (Rom. 8:11). There may be other viewpoints on these verses.

Through discussions on Fred Sanders book I also learnt that the doctrine of eternal generation protected the early church from deviating into the heresies such as Arianism (Jesus is a finite created being with some divine attributes, but He is not eternal and not divine in and of Himself), Nestorianism (the doctrine that Jesus existed as two persons, the man Jesus and the divine Son of God, or Logos, rather than as a unified person), Sabellianism (the belief that God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Spirit are three modes or aspects of God) and several other heresies.

Another thought from Fred’s book which was intriguing was that missions or the sending of Son and the Holy Spirit reveal and make known the eternal generation in God. The revelation is in parts but is of the one unified God. Its interesting how mankind experienced the revelation of God the Father in the old testament times, then we get a clearer picture of the Son who was from the beginning and the Holy Spirit later in time though He too was at the beginning. The Son and the Holy Spirit would have always been Son and the Spirit independent of revelation in history. In other words, God’s identity is independent of creation. I think this thought is again in favor of eternal generation of the Son and Spirit from the Father.

So to sum it all, the idea of eternal generation has been helpful to the extent I understand this concept as of now. Perhaps I will have other questions on it as I learn more.


There are many key points Matthew Barrett brings up in his 3-part article. The following quotes have help me gain a better understanding of what is meant by eternal generation.

[F]or the Son to be begotten from the Father means that God is begotten from God, which is why the [Nicene] creed confesses the Son to be “true God from true God.”

He is…consubstantial with the Father. Consubstantial means the Son is equal to the Father in every way, from the same essence or substance as the Father, no less divine the Father.

[G]eneration alone is what distinguishes the Son as Son. There is not some other concept or function or activity in the Trinity that distinguishes the person of the Son from the person of the Father. Generation alone can, for it alone conveys the nucleus of sonship.

In his second article in the series, Dr. Barrett tells us what eternal generation it is not. If any of these are incorporated into this theology, it can easily lead to heresy. We see this with cults that claim to be Christian. They veer from the scripture’s teachings about the Trinity and the Person and work of Jesus.

Eternal Generation is not:

Division of nature - because the Father alone is ungenerated, there is no multiplication or division of the divine essence in generation. Division “would sacrifice the full deity of the Son” (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity) Side note: Arians claim that in order for the Son to come from the Father’s essence, the Father must divide Himself or give up some of who He is. They believe Jesus was made out of nothing like the rest of creation. The Jehovah’s Witness teachings about Christ are, at it’s core, from the teachings of Arianism.

Multiplication of essence - if the Father’s essence was multiplied, He could not exist as One and we know that God is One.

Priority and posteriority - To be either would make the Son nonconsubstaintial or not of the “self-same divine essence”. According to Dr. Barrett, if “[t]he Son’s generation …did involve priority or posteriority of any kind, then the Son would be inferior to the Father.” I take this to mean that both priority and posteriority here qualify as a position of rank, coming after as opposed to “from” or “with” the Father, therefore making Jesus less than equal to God.

Cessation from operation

The last 5 things on the list involve change as it relates to the nature of God and we know that God does not change. Malachi 3.6

Since the Son is begotten of the Father’s essence, there is 'no partition, or withdrawing, or lessening, or efflux, or extension, or suffering of change, but the birth of living nature from living nature." (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity 6.35 NPNF2 9:111)

In his last article in the series, Undivided Trinity, he quotes Gregory of Nazianzus:

“[Son and Spirit] are from him [Father] though not after him. Being unoriginate necessarily implies being eternal but being eternal does not entail being unoriginated as long as the Father is referred to as origin…so because they [Son and Spirit] have a cause they are not unoriginated. But clearly a cause is not necessarily prior to its effect-the Sun is not prior to its light.” (Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ 3.29.3, p 71)

“In sum, the Father is the principle in the Godhead-the principle who alone is without principle.”

They do not have degrees of being God or degrees of priority over or against one another. They are not sundered in will or divided in power. You cannot find there any of the properties inherent in things divisible. The Godhead exists undivided." ( Gregory of Nazianzus, 4.31.14, p.127)

That is a great question. The only thing I know to say about that is:

We see in John 14.25-26 where Jesus says His Father will send the Holy Spirit
We see in Luke 24.49 where Jesus said He is sending what my Father promised.
And in John 15.26, Jesus says He will send the Advocate Who goes out from the Father.

The Greek word for firstborn is “prototokos” and can mean what it says. In the case of Jesus, however, it means priority to all creation and sovereignty over everything. (, Prototokos: It’s Meaning and Usage in the New Testament). When speaking with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you can point out that just because something is firstborn does not automatically imply that it was first created.

I commend you for continuing to witness to these precious people. I know you have been doing this for a while.

I am also interested in what others have to say and if you think anything that has been shared is off target.


Hi @mary ,

Thank you for the well written and thorough reply.

Relating the idea of Trinity with the immutable nature of God is a great point you brought up to consider. If Jesus is begotten of God in our temporal world, this same relationship must have existed in eternity in accordance with His immutability, and was revealed for our benefit in time. If Jesus was already with the Father as Jesus said in John 17:5, being ‘begotten’ in the sense of ‘eternal generation’ helps define that relationship. The definition of Prototokos as ‘sovereignty over all creation’ is very helpful too to support this idea of eternal generation. Thanks for sharing that!

Appreciate you starting this discussion. Concepts tend to become clearer in my mind as we discuss.


Ps 2:7 and Heb 1:5, 5:5 “I have begotten You” - but also Ps 110:4 reiterated many times in Heb “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek”.

The creating of us, and the adopting of us hand in hand with displaying His holy modus operandi among us, were in mind when He was begetting Him.

Holy Trinity models space (room) for the other other. By other other I mean the widows and orphans. Thus God is not a huddle or a clique (as in the thinking of Buber or Scheler), closed unto Themselves where we aren’t to get a “look-in” (be adopted).

We know of Jesus with Holy Spirit three times: eternal Word with God the Holy Spirit; then from conception in Mary’s womb; then at Jordan.

In parallel, we are to be with Holy Spirit three times: accompanied unbeknownst as we are prepared and moved to enquire and draw near to placing belief in Jesus and Scripture (like the disciples’ three years); then our initial regeneration (affirmed in His breathing on them in the Upper Room); then our equipping for ministry in His absence which started at Ascension not Pentecost (we are meant to tarry and minister at the same time).

Thus nothing about Holy Spirit makes sense without Jesus and “vice-versa”.

Providential perseverance which Father has planned for us is to safeguard the integrity of our and others’ faculties in and for whatever we shall face. His intention towards us is what shows God’s holiness.

What crown we crowned those around us with (in the effectiveness of our prayers) we shall be crowned with (that is mentioned by St Paul a lot). As I see it, this stems from what “value added” we gave to others’ spiritual lives as we participated in discipling them whether from near or far (and they in ours): usually in as simple a way as just praying for their ongoing growth, and God’s providential protection towards them.

We cannot achieve this in fleshly / worldly strength but in Holy Spirit strength, because Jesus ascended so He would send us Another Comforter: He ascended and distributed diverse gifts.

Teaching newcomers and enquirers everything Jesus told them (Mt 28) is to help them count the good cost (I wasn’t told the good cost for example). This is my phrase for being told more about how the walk in the strength of Another Comforter (since Ascension) will help us know how to benefit other Christians - and anyone else - in circumstances that will be difficult for both us and them.

To trade in the gifts with each other so that fruits will benefit others’ lives, I see that as what is meant in I Tim 1:4 by economy / edification / administration. IMO Prov 21:10-31 give a picture of God’s Kingdom at its ongoing work.

Thus the worship of God according to Old and New Testaments is to not stunt the growth - in food and exercise - of our fellow adopted widows and orphans in Father’s firm (Jesus spoke lots of parables like this, and the feedings of the thousands illustrate it too).

The praise of God (Fred Sanders’ point) is to show Him we know He is the One to go shopping from without price (Is 55, 58, 61, James) for the needs of the saints, the fruitfulness of the saints, and just quality of government (non sectarian and non-ad hominem) in our countries.

Trying to manoeuvre us or the public, and legalism, are worldly, and works of the flesh. Only what is in the strength of Another Comforter precisely because Jesus ascended to send Him at Ascension, will endure.

The reminders about Arianism etc which lead to legalism and worldliness, are so valuable.

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Hi @michael

This is really great to think about. It’s quite something to consider that God had us in mind since before the foundations of the earth, whilst He formed the plan of salvation.

I imagine a few others reading this may be like me and not know who Buber or Scheler are, or their works/theories. I’d be grateful if you could explain different viewpoints that they hold on God as trinity being a clique. Are there any resources to which you can direct me to find out more?

Buber and Scheler promoted the “I and Thou” mutual exchange concept between two individuals, and one or two fashionable church leaders followed suit in the 1980s (Scheler was cited by a pope of the time for example), as a supposed antidote to selfishness, whereas Holy Trinity is more outgoing, is open to more life, to the widows and orphans, to us and the people we want to reach with the Good News. “Paying it forward” is a better motto for teaching on Holy Trinity I think. Added people in the community can potentise each other exponentially.

  • a quick dabble in Stanford or Internet encyclopaedias of philosophy (SEP, IEP) or Wikipedia would impart a rough flavour.

A point that I meant to explain at more length is “shopping”: not in the sense of holding God to our fixed expectations, but piggy backing on the Is 55 metaphor simply as not being ashamed to bring Him a list of needs of those around us. (There was another, laissez faire, trend, fairly recently, to expect God to “make everything all right” without us caring, or addressing Him about needs)

I think salvation is “so great” (a Galatians allusion) because perseverance will be providential and we need to teach enquirers how to count the good cost in this day and age.

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