In the fourth century, debates raged between leading bishops of the Roman Empire about the precise nature of Jesus Christ; questions concerning his origin, his nature, his sonship, and the precise nature of his relation to the Father stood as the central questions of these fierce controversies. Today, Arians, semi-Arians, Trinitarians, and others, still clash over these questions. We may observe that what was historically at the heart of the disagreement between Trinitarians and Arians was the question of the precise nature of Jesus’s origin; in what manner was he caused by the Father? Trinitarians, holding that the Son is eternally generated from the Father, answered that the Son is timelessly and eternally caused by the Father; others objected that there was a difference in time between the Father and Son, and that the Son was created by God out of nothing. Was the Son generated or created? Of the same nature as the Father, or another? Was he begotten ex nihilo (out of nothing) or from the essence of the Father? These are the questions that occupied some of the greatest minds of the time, and the way one answered could mark one as either a champion of orthodoxy or a vile heretic, depending on which emperor was in power at the time.
Today, trinitarians still value these questions, and suggest that their answers alone satisfactorily fit with the biblical data, informing us that only through the doctrine of eternal generation can we rightly understand the nature of Jesus, His origin, His relation to the Father, and the true nature of His sonship. But is this true?
We must admit that these are all understandable questions being asked. The Bible presents Jesus Christ as being at the center of God’s plan to save humanity, establish His kingdom on earth, and restore the fallen world. And so it is no wonder that the Bible’s teachings about Jesus have always made those who would be his disciples wonder about these things; after all, they have great bearing on how we view the Lord Jesus at even the most fundamental level, and what sort of being we believe him to be. And so it’s no wonder that theologians have tried to piece together answers to these questions; although never spelled out, trinitarians believe that we can follow a veritable trail of bread-crumbs throughout the Bible which eventually lead to their conclusions. Although no one single passage ever defines the relation of the Son to the Father in the terms they do, they are convinced (often in large part by extra-biblical tradition) that clues from many obscure passages around the Bible can be pieced together into a collage that reveals eternal generation as the answer to these questions. Equipped with the right set of philosophical presuppositions about God, metaphysics, and the nature of time, combined with the traditional patristic readings of various passages, anyone can find eternal generation hidden deep within the white spaces of their Bibles.
But is that really the best that we have? Has God left us to figure out the answers to these important questions in such a difficult way? Why does the Bible not tell us such important things in a straightforward fashion? I suggest that, contra both Trinitarian and Arian speculation, it actually does just that.
Here are the questions that these theories seek to answer, and the answers the Bible gives:
1.) Was Jesus Christ caused to live by the Father, or is he uncaused?
Jesus said, “I live because of the Father” (John 6:57). Jesus expressly affirms that the Father is the cause of His life. Historically trinitarianism has agreed with this and said that Jesus is atemporally caused in eternal generation; today’s trinitarians, forgetting their creeds, frequently deny the clear teaching of this passage that Jesus is caused by another. But the truth here is unavoidable.
2.) What is the origin of Jesus Christ?
Matthew 1:18 tells us, “Now the origin of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” What follows is a brief account of the miraculous conception and subsequent virgin birth of Christ. Although it is often translated falsely, as either ‘generation’ or ‘birth’, the word used here in verse 18 is the Greek word ‘genesis’, meaning, as in English, ‘origin’. The author of Matthew was familiar with both the Greek word for birth (‘tikto’) and generation (‘gennao’), using both of these terms in the description of Jesus’s miraculous conception and subsequent virgin birth in the passage that follows, but used neither term here; instead, the word for ‘origin’ was specifically chosen by the author. The Bible straightforwardly tells us what the origin of Jesus Christ is then: his miraculous generation by God in Mary, via the agency of the Holy Spirit, and subsequent virgin birth.
3.) Why is Jesus called the Son of God?
Luke answers: “The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35 NASB)
Here we are very clearly told the basis upon which Mary’s child, Jesus Christ, will be called the Son of God; it is because he was miraculously begotten by God in Mary’s womb through the Holy Spirit. Of course, we may rightly see ‘Son of God’ as a Messianic title as well; and we may rightly note that this title is connected by the Bible not only with this miraculous birth from Mary, but also later with Jesus’s new identity as “the Firstborn of the dead” upon having been resurrected by God. It’s a title full of significance for multiple reasons. But before Jesus had been anointed as Christ at his baptism, and before he had been raised from the dead, he was already the Son of God in a special way- even “the only-begotten Son of God” (Jn 3:16). Why? When was he begotten by God? The Bible couldn’t be clearer in telling us: it’s because of his miraculous generation by God in the womb of the virgin Mary.
4.) What kind of being is Jesus; what is his nature?
John records the words of Christ: “But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.” (John 8:40 NASB). Paul also clearly declares: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5 NASB). Note well, the answer is not shrouded in mystery: according to Jesus and the apostles, Jesus Christ was and is a human being. That’s what kind of being Jesus is: a human. What’s his nature? Human. That’s just what the Bible says; and we may note well that the Bible doesn’t qualify it, add to it, take away from it, or otherwise alter it. There’s no mention of dual natures, no mention of an incarnate divinity; just a simple teaching that Jesus is human.
5.) What was the relation of the Son to the Father before the foundation of the world?
Peter writes: “For He [Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:20-21 NASB).
So much blood has been shed, and so many men labeled and punished as heretics, over the finest details of the Son’s relationship to the Father before the creation of the world; yet here we are told clearly and simply by the Bible the answer to these great questions: before creation, Jesus Christ was foreknown by God. That’s it; while Peter was on the topic of the relation of the Son to the Father before the ages, he didn’t think to mention anything else. Nothing on if the Son was begotten or created, whether the Son was of the Father’s essence or ex nihilo, or if his generation was temporal or eternal, or if the Son is homoi, homoiousias, or homoousias with the Father; how could Peter miss the chance? He gives us none of this, but rather brushes all these theories aside by telling us that before creation, God foreknew His Son.
We must carefully consider the nature of foreknowledge; nothing which is foreknown is present while it is foreknown; an event foreknown is known when it has not yet occurred, and a person foreknown is known when they do not yet exist. If then God is said to have foreknown, not merely known, Christ, then Christ was not yet present with the Father; Christ did not yet exist. For if Christ were not still future, but had been present with the Father, he would have simply been ‘known’, not ‘foreknown’; and if Christ was co-eternal with the Father, then it would have been impossible for the Father to have foreknown him, seeing as there never would have been a ‘before Christ’ in which to have foreknown him. Peter does here provide the an answer for some of the fourth century’s toughest questions- if only we are willing to listen.
Of course, it’s noteworthy that semi-arians in the fourth century did make exactly these same observations about this passage, when they sought to disprove the nicene notion of co-eternality. But for them this passage proves a challenge as well; for there is no mention of Christ first having been foreknown before coming into existence, and then being created by God before the ages, but simply that he was foreknown before creation, full stop, with no indication that this state of affairs changed at some point before creation. There is no mention here or anywhere of God having begotten or created Jesus before the foundation of the world, to in turn subsequently use him as an instrument in creating the universe. The Arian position, like trinitarianism, must supply a great deal that the Bible does not give us.
Here we see then, perhaps to the surprise of some, that the Bible itself does give us answers to all these questions. In a straightforward manner, we are told the origin of Jesus, the reason he is the Son of God, his nature, and even what his relation was to God before the foundation of the world.
Now of course, in addition to these very clear passages, there are a relatively small number of other passages, the meaning of which has been hotly disputed since the very early church, which are purported to answer these questions differently. Although none do so directly or approach the clarity of the passages listed above, some have argued that we ought to be reading the above passages through a lens of human doctrine inferred from these difficult passages. My question to trinitarians is simple: we have two sets of passages, one which clearly and easily answers these questions, of which those quoted above belong, and another set of passages which have been and continue to be difficult for even the greatest minds to understand the meaning of; why not interpret the unclear through the clear? Why not interpret the difficult passages in a way consistent with the clear picture given throughout the Bible, that Jesus is a man, a human being, the Son of God who took his origin from being miraculously begotten in Mary via the Holy Spirit. The difficult passages, those alleged in favor of eternal generation, can all be interpreted in a way consistent with the Biblical Unitarianism here described; so why interpret them such a way to make them conflict with these clear teachings?
Eternal generation sets out to answer anew a set of questions that the Bible has already answered; what need is there for it? As a theory, it lacks any value in explanatory scope for all these important questions, because, as we have seen, these questions have already been answered, in a much simpler and clearer way. Rather, all eternal generation does is introduce myriad complexities and mysteries to answer otherwise simple questions; it creates more questions than it answers, and causes more problems than it solves. It turns the old axiom of ‘interpret the unclear by the clear’ on its head, insisting that we should either ignore or give extremely strained alternative interpretations to the clear passages given above, so that we may read them through the lens of unclear and difficult to interpret passages being read through a very particular set of traditions and philosophical assumptions.
The point of all this being this: we don’t need to answer again questions we already have the answer to. For instance there’s no reason to look for something more to explain Jesus’s sonship beyond Luke 1:35; there’s no reason to scour Old and New Testament for some hint that Jesus is actually God’s Son on the basis of something mysterious in eternity past, never clearly described anywhere in the Bible, and so obscure and difficult that even it’s defenders often fail to grasp what precisely they are saying, when we have a very clear answer given to us plainly in the New Testament. There’s no reason to keep looking, no unaccounted-for data, and no mystery of why the authors of scripture didn’t bother leaving us with a clear account of the answers to these questions- because they did. They gave us an account of Jesus’s origin, and an explanation of his sonship, but neither have anything to do with a generation in eternity past. If we are willing to accept these clear answers the Bible gives us, we’ll quickly find there is simply no room for either eternal generation, or literal pre-existence of any flavor.