The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology, by Kevin Giles. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012. 270 pages.
Kevin Giles (Th.D. Australian College of Theology) is an ordained Anglican minister who was in parish ministry for 40 years. Giles has contributed numerous articles to scholarly journals and among his books are What on Earth Is the Church? and Patterns of Ministry Among the First Christians.
Debate over the doctrine of the Trinity has gone on for centuries. Fully comprehending three persons in one God goes beyond any human understanding. Trying to explain every detail will lead some into saying too much and creating false doctrine. Trying not to say anything at all will leave things too vague and leave one open for false doctrine as well. Kevin Giles focuses specifically on one aspect of the Trinity, the eternal generation of the Son. With many in evangelical circles choosing to deny that aspect of the Trinity, he seeks to show the importance of holding on to that teaching because it is Scriptural and also critical to avoid heretical positions on the Trinity.
Giles cites six objections to the doctrine that he seeks to address throughout the book: 1) It has no “biblical warrant.” 2) It reflects Neo-Platonic thinking about God more than Christian thinking. 3) It makes no sense. 4) Nothing theologically important is lost if it is abandoned. 5) There are better ways to eternally differentiate the Father and the Son. 6) It implies or necessarily involves the eternal subordination of the Son, even the Arian heresy (36-37).
He begins his defense by examining the Scriptural basis for the teaching. He discusses the church fathers’ use of Psalm 2:7 and Proverbs 8:25 as proof texts, along with the New Testament verses of John that use the word monogenes (John 1:14,18; 3:16,18; 1 John 4:9) and the use of prototokos in Colossians 1:15. But for Giles, the greatest proof lies in the use of the names Father and Son. “Those who have thought the deepest about the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son clearly recognize that this doctrine is rooted primarily in the revealed and correlated names ‘Father’ and ‘Son'” (77).
Giles then goes into an extensive discussion of church history over four chapters, tracing the opinions of the church fathers on the doctrine, particularly those who were in support. Chapter 4 covers the apologists, including among others Justin Martyr, Origen and Athanasius in particular, in their dealing with the monarchical modalists and Arius, resulting in the Creed of Nicaea of 325 AD. Chapter 5 looks at the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus) dealing with Eunomius, resulting in the Nicene Creed of 381 AD. Chapter 6 focuses primarily on Augustine and the lead up to the Athanasian Creed as well as Thomas Aquinas. Chapter 7 looks to the time of the Reformation with a brief look at Luther and more extensive examination of Calvin. It then goes through various post-Reformation theologians in Reformed and Evangelical circles from the 17th to 20th centuries.
In chapters 8 and 9, Giles seeks to address specifically the last two objections cited above, namely that generation implies subordination and that there are better ways to differentiate the members of the Trinity. Without going into the many details of those alternative positions here, Giles summarily rejects both ideas because they are unscriptural and depart from the traditional teaching of the church fathers, creating more problems than they solve.
In his final chapter, Giles sums up his case in defense of the doctrine of eternal generation with two main points. The first is that there is good biblical warrant for the doctrine as attested to by the church for 2000 years (256, 260). The second is that the doctrine is of huge theological importance because it grounds the differentiation of the persons in eternity and not in their work in this world, it affirms that the three persons are of one divine essence, it differentiates without subordinating, and does not seek to define the divine with human terms and relationships (258-59).
From an overall perspective, Giles’ arguments and conclusions do work to support the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. The hesitancy to give full support to his line of thinking stems from his method. In chapter 2, he defines what it means to be “doing” evangelical theology. That implies an organic nature to theology (50) where Scripture is the starting point from which the church over time builds its teachings. Scripture is not so much the source (fons) of theology as a foundation to be built upon (50). “None of the magisterial Reformers took the slogan sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) to literally mean solo Scriptura (“Scripture only”)” (53). Although Scripture is primary, the tradition of the church plays a role in forming theology. Acknowledging the deficiencies in a purely historical-critical method of interpretation, Giles recommends in addition a theological interpretation (56), namely how the church has defined its doctrine through its history.
Putting the best construction on such a method of “doing” theology, Giles is trying to defend against the literal biblicists of the Evangelical community which would, for example, simply deny the eternal generation of the Son because that phrase is not literally used in Scripture. And although he arrives at the right conclusions on this doctrine, other examples stated on election and justification (43-44) show the weakness of such a method and the resulting faulty conclusions. Such a method leaves the door open for changing doctrine because perhaps today the church has a better understanding of what was originally meant. Confessional Lutherans will certainly study the church fathers along with their creeds and confessions, not with the intent of building on their conclusions, but to see that our theology which is based on the interpretation of Scripture alone as the only source for doctrine agrees with theirs.
This book gives an in-depth look at the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son and serves as a good basis for the reader to think through its importance to the doctrine of the Trinity. The historical summaries are valuable to show the importance of this doctrine to the church fathers and continued importance of the Nicene and Athanasian creeds for the contemporary church. With its evangelical methodology this book should not be seen as the definitive volume on this topic for the shelf of every confessional Lutheran pastor (unless a better option does not exist). But even this weakness has value as it helps the reader to think through the correct hermeneutics of studying Scripture in contrast to the approaches that other theologians are using today.