I have heard various people mention Origen as being the one who “invented” eternal generation. Often those saying this are opponents of the doctrine, and the design is to discredit the doctrine on the merits of its founder. But I have even seen those seemingly defending eternal generation seeming to give credence to the notion that Origen was the first to articulate the doctrine.
One example of this point being brought up as a negative is Walter R. Martin in The Kingdom of the Cults, in the chapter on the “Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower”, where he says:
“Arius derived many of his ideas from his teacher, Lucian of Antioch, who in turn borrowed them from Origen, who himself introduced the term “eternal generation” or the concept that God from all eternity generates a second person like Himself, ergo the “eternal Son.” Arius of course rejected this as illogical and unreasonable, which it is, and taking the other horn of dilemma squarely between his teeth reduced the eternal Word of God to the rank of a creation! It is a significant fact, however, that in the earliest writings of the church fathers doting from the first century to the year 230 the term “eternal generation” was never used, but it has been this dogma later adopted by Roman Catholic theology, which has fed the Arian heresy through the centuries and today continues to feed the Christology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” (pp. 101, 102—1977; pp. 115, 116—1985 rev. ed.; p. 168—1997 rev., updated, expanded anniversary ed., Hank Hanegraaff, general editor; pp. 137, 138—2003 rev., updated, expanded ed., Ravi Zacharias, general editor. (my source for this quote: Articuli Fidei))
This simply is not true, and it is somewhat amazing that it is necessary to point out. Are people on both sides of the debate so illiterate respecting the theology of the early church that they are unaware of earlier articulations of the doctrine of eternal generation? Or is the general understanding of the doctrine so shallow that it is only recognized when called by its name, and invisible when mentioned without the label “eternal generation”?
Of first importance is the question of whether eternal generation is demonstrable from the holy scriptures, for the answer to that question only will let us know if the doctrine is true and worthy of being believed. For my treatment of that subject, see Eternal Generation Proved from the Scriptures. For our purposes in this post, I will seek to demonstrate from the writings of those fathers who taught prior to Origen that he can by no means be fairly deemed to have “invented” the doctrine.
Since the label “eternal generation” is not used commonly, it is important to be able to recognize the doctrine in substance in the following quotes. The doctrine in a nutshell is that prior to creation, and therefore, prior to time itself, the Son was begotten from the Father in such a manner that He has both His person and essence from the Father. The important implications of this doctrine are that the Son is genuinely a distinct person from the Father, caused by Him, of the same divine nature as Him, and co-eternal with Him, inasmuch as there can be no difference between the Father and Son in time or chronology caused by an event which occurred outside of time. The Nicene Creed sums up the doctrine nicely as follows, when it declares that the Son is “begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made”. That in mind, lets examine several instances of this doctrine being taught prior to Origen.
Ignatius of Antioch.
Ignatius of Antioch is a noteworthy church father of the generation following the apostles. The man probably interacted personally with Paul, and perhaps with other apostles as well. There are seven letters of his that are considered by scholars to perhaps be authentic, but issues with interpolations abound. There are also additional letters ascribed to him widely agreed to be spurious. Scholars disagree over the validity and purity of the potentially-authentic seven letters. With that in mind, it is difficult to cite anything found in his letters as genuine proof of a given doctrine having been taught by him. However, treating the seven letters as potentially being authentic, let us examine a few quotes in Ignatius’s letters which clearly speak of eternal generation:
“But our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began,57 but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For “the Word was made flesh.””(Chapter VII, Epistle to the Ephesians, Longer Version)
“For the Son of God, who was begotten before time began,131 and established all things according to the will of the Father, He was conceived in the womb of Mary, according to the appointment of God, of the seed of David, and by the Holy Ghost.” (Chapter XVIII, Epistle to the Ephesians, Longer Version)
“…your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ. He, being begotten by the Father before the beginning of time,192 was God the Word, the only-begotten Son, and remains the same for ever; for “of His kingdom there shall be no end,”193 says Daniel the prophet.” (Chapter VI, Epistle to the Magnesians, Longer Version)
“On this account also they were persecuted, being inspired by grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, the Almighty, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word, not spoken, but essential. For He is not the voice of an articulate utterance, but a substance begotten by divine power, who has in all things pleased Him that sent Him.”(Chapter VIII, Epistle to the Magnesians, Longer Version)
“These things [I address to you], my beloved, not that I know any of you to be in such a state;228 but, as less than any of you, I desire to guard you beforehand, that ye fall not upon the hooks of vain doctrine, but that you may rather attain to a full assurance in Christ, who was begotten by the Father before all ages, but was afterwards born of the Virgin Mary…” (Chapter XI,Epistle to the Magnesians, Longer Version)
“How could such a one be a mere man, receiving the beginning of His existence from Mary, and not rather God the Word, and the only-begottenSon? For “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,722 and the Word was God.”723 And in another place, “The Lord created Me, the beginning of His ways, for His ways, for His works. Before the world did He found Me, and before all the hills did He beget Me.”724” (Chapter VI, Epistle to the Tarsians)
Justin Martyr’s writings are ripe with explicit references to the Son’s eternal generation from the Father. What’s more, Justin, acting in the role of an apologist for Christianity at large, can fairly be said to represent not only his own personal beliefs but the beliefs of the church at large in his time, in the following statements:
“And that you will not succeed is declared by the Word, than whom, after God who begat Him, we know there is no ruler more kingly and just.” (Chapter XII, First Apology)
“And that this may now become evident to you—(firstly50) that whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed; that we claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things: and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to 171 His will…” (Chapter XXIII, First Apology)
“For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God. And of old He appeared in the shape of fire and in the likeness of an angel to Moses and to the other prophets; but now in the times of your reign,140 having, as we before said, become Man by a virgin, according to the counsel of the Father, for the salvation of those who believe on Him, He endured both to be set at nought and to suffer, that by dying and rising againHe might conquer death.” (Chapter LXIII, First Apology)
““I shall give you another testimony, my friends,” said I, “from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning,403 [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the HolySpirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will;404 just as we see405 happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word406 [which remains] in us, when we give it out: and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled. The Word ofWisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things, andWord, and Wisdom, and Power, and the Glory of the Begetter, will bear evidence to me, when He speaks by Solomon the following:
‘If I shall declare to you what happens daily, I shall call to mind events from everlasting, and228 review them. The Lord made me the beginning of His ways for His works. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He had made the earth, and before He had made the deeps, before the springs of the waters had issued forth, before the mountains had been established. Before all the hills He begets me. God made the country, and the desert, and the highest inhabited places under the sky. When He made ready the heavens, I was along with Him, and when He set up His throne on the winds: when He made the high clouds strong, and the springs of the deep safe, when He made the foundations of the earth, I was with Him arranging. I was that in which He rejoiced; daily and at all times I delighted in His countenance, because He delighted in the finishing of the habitable world, and delighted in the sons of men. Now, therefore, O son, hear me. Blessed is the man who shall listen tome, and the mortal who shall keep my ways, watching407 daily at my doors, observing the posts of my in goings. For my outgoings are the outgoings of life, and [my] will has been prepared by the Lord. But they who sin against me, trespass against their own souls; and they who hate me love death.’” (Chapter LXI, Dialogue With Trypho)
“But this Offspring, which was truly brought forth from the Father, was with the Father before all the creatures, and the Father communed withHim; even as the Scripture by Solomon has made clear, that He whomSolomon calls Wisdom, was begotten as a Beginning before all His creatures and as Offspring by God, who has also declared this same thing in the revelation made by Joshua the son of Nave (Nun).” (Chapter LXII, DialogueWith Trypho)
“For I have already proved that He was the only-begotten of the Father of all things, being begotten in a peculiar manner Word and Power byHim, and having afterwards become man through the Virgin, as we have learned from the memoirs.” (Chapter CV, Dialogue With Trypho)
“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun, but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same. “And now I shall again recite the words which I have spoken in proof of this point. When Scripture says,‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and ofHis being Lord and God. Again, when the Scripture records that God said in the beginning, ‘Behold, Adam has become like one of Us,’692 this phrase, ‘like one of Us,’ is also indicative of number; and the words do not admit of a figurative meaning, as the sophists endeavour to affix on them, who are able neither to tell nor to understand the truth. And it is written in the book of Wisdom: ‘If I should tell you daily events, I would be mindful to enumerate them from the beginning. The Lord created me the beginning of His ways forHis works. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He formed the earth, and before He made the depths, and before the springs of waters came forth, before the mountains were settled; He begets me before all the hills.’ ” 693 When I repeated these words, I added: “You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.”” (Chapters CXXVIII and CXXIX, Dialogue With Trypho)
Irenaeus of Lyons.
Second-century church father Irenaeus of Lyons is another witness to the fact that the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation was a doctrine already taught and believed by the church prior to Origen:
“If any one, therefore, says to us, “How then was the Son produced by the Father?” we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begat, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.” (Chapter XXVIII, Against Heresies, Book II)
“So then the Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God.” (The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)
We see then, that there is no reasonable way to argue that the doctrine has its origin in Origen. The testimony of two of the most influential church fathers of the second century, Justin Marytr and Irenaeus, serves sufficiently to put this odd historical inaccuracy to rest. And if any of the quotes provided from Ignatius be regarded as genuine, one will be hard pressed to argue there is a single generation prior to Origen that we do not see the church’s belief in the doctrine of eternal generation stated in some historical document or another.