How Evangelical Theologians Are Tackling the Doctrine of the Trinity

The Trinity is a hot topic right now—because of its relationship to discussions about gender (see 1 Cor 11:3) and its place in the perennial back-and-forth between more confessionalist and more biblicist strains of evangelical faith.

Recently I attended the annual Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, and I felt that if I was going to have a responsible view in these important debates, I needed to listen to people who’d studied the Trinity far more carefully than I have. You may feel the same way.

Let me give you a little introduction to one aspect of the discussion; it may help you enter a conversation that you’ve heard only snippets of before. And I’ll make a deal with readers: if you sit through some difficult discussion, I’ll give you at the end the biggest payoff I got out of Trinity papers at the 2017 ETS. It came from a Q&A session, so you won’t be able to read it in any place that I know of but here!

Calvin on the aseity of the Son

One paper I attended was delivered by Faithlife’s own Brannon Ellis, the head of our publishing arm, Lexham Press. I was curious to hear some of the fruit of his careful and extensive work on the Trinity. He focused on the views of John Calvin about “eternal generation,” the idea that the Son of God has always been the Son—that though he is equal with God the Father, he stands in a relationship of “generatedness” to the Father, and he always has. This language comes ultimately from passages such as John 3:16, in which Christ is called the “only begotten” Son of the Father.

Ellis noted that we tend to assume that the Reformers were mainly concerned about salvation, the church, and Scripture, that they weren’t so interested in “theology proper”—the doctrine of God. But Calvin, Ellis said, spent a great deal of time “wrangling” with others about the Trinity. He clearly felt it was important.

Calvin was especially dedicated to arguing for the Son’s “aseity”—his self-existence, his “from-himself-ness.” The most explicit Bible passage teaching divine aseity is probably Paul’s stirring statement in Romans 11: “for of him, and through him, and to him are all things.” We’re accustomed to saying this of God the Father—but can it be said of the Son? Calvin said yes. “He always possessed it of himself that he is.” (Calvin often appealed to Colossians 2:9, “In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”)

Calvin wasn’t trying to be an innovator; he relied continually on patristic sources, especially Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine. One of the Reformers’ major concerns was to show that their work was one of theological retrieval and not revolution.

But Calvin’s opponents were quite sure that he was a revolutionary—they felt that by affirming Christ’s aseity, he was denying Christ’s eternal generation (his “begottenness”). Calvin’s opponents on this issue were often fellow trinitarians.

One of them, Ellis said, was Pierre Caroli. Caroli converted to Protestantism and back to Catholicism—at least twice. Caroli charged Calvin with the mutually exclusive heresies of Arianism (Christ is not the one true God) and Sabellianism (Christ is one manifestation of the true God). But Caroli was no slouch: he was professionally trained at the Sorbonne. When Calvin said that Christ possessed the attribute of aseity, Caroli heard a denial of eternal generation.

The value and risk of eternal generation

Ellis raised the question: Why does this doctrine of eternal generation matter? What role does eternal generation play in mature trinitarian theology? What does it do?

Traditionally, it has simply been a way of using biblical terminology as much as possible to distinguish Father and Son while underscoring their unity (in the one God) and equality (each person of the Trinity is fully God).

But the question naturally arises: how can the Son be generated from the Father without somehow being less of a God than God? This may be the “fundamental problem of trinitarian logic,” Ellis said; thus one of the key functions of classical trinitarianism has been to secure the unity of the Son with the Father.

It’s heretics—Arians mostly—who are always tripping on the paradox that the Son is from the Father and yet the same God. And you could basically map out trinitarian heresies according to the different ways they got this wrong.

Calvin seemed genuinely shocked that other trinitarians weren’t willing to ascribe one of the divine attributes—namely aseity, “from-himself-ness”—to the Son. Calvin didn’t want to put an asterisk on the Nicene assertion that Christ is “very God of very God.” Calvin was comfortable with the mystery his position created; in fact he saw it as healthy.

Ellis’ basic argument is that Calvin wanted to avoid over-explaining the Trinity, to be able to go as far as the Bible takes us and no further. And it turns out that the Bible takes us quite a long way down the mysterious path of the knowledge of the Trinity. The Son is equal with the Father even though he is “ordered to” the Father (“whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise,” John 5:19) and personally “derived from” the Father (“only begotten of the Father,” John 1:14).

A helpful trinitarian takeaway

Some talk about the Trinity does get rather abstruse. And I personally tend toward the biblicist rather than the confessional. Sometimes I’m tempted to stop exerting the mental energy necessary to follow the systematic theologians.

So it was particularly helpful for me when Ellis, during the Q&A after his paper, made a comment that I wish I had gotten down verbatim. He pointed out that a lot of the jargon surrounding the Trinity is simply a restatement of the fundamental analogy God makes when he chooses the words “Father” and “Son.” “Filiation,” for example, is just a fancy way of saying “Son-ness”; “generation” is a fancy way of saying “begottenness.”

That clicked immediately with me—and I hope it helps you. It justifies a great deal of the wrangling systematic theologians do: when doing their jobs, they are trying to faithfully “systematize” statements of Scripture without overruling or undermining any. Their major technical terms are—when they’re doing their jobs—demonstrably sourced in Scripture.

I won’t say that “Father” and “Son” are merely analogies to human experience; I tend to think rather that the fatherhood and sonship we know from our daily observations under the sun are themselves reflections of the prior reality of God’s “eternal begetting” of the Son (could this be what Ephesians 3:15 is saying?). But one way to keep my trinitarianism sound is to work to limit my speech about the Godhead to the only authoritative source we have for saying anything about God: his own words in Scripture—including words like “Father” and “Son.” Calvin attempted to do this, and though he was (rightly) not content to leave Scripture unsystematized, he was content to bow before the ineffable when he got there, rather than trying to peer behind it.

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Logos carries some helpful and important books on the Trinity, including Father, Son, and Spirit: the Trinity and John’s Gospel by Scott Swain and Andreas Koestenberger, Traces of the Trinity by Peter Leithart, God the Holy Trinity by Timothy George (ed.), and the books in the Crossway Studies on the Trinitarian God collection.


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).

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