As one stronghold of the opponents of the true and proper Sonship of the blessed Lord consists in the various objections, raised for the most part by carnal reasoning, which have been urged by various preachers and writers against it, and as some of these objections are very subtle and, at first sight, of some weight, we have felt that it might be desirable to notice those of any importance, and, as far as we can, to remove them out of the way, for they are often sad stumbling-blocks even to some who believe and love the truth.
But before we take them up severally one by one, it may be necessary to premise a few observations on the nature of objections generally, for it is a subject often not sufficiently understood either by those who employ them, or by those who are influenced by them. It is a common idea, that if a strong objection be started against a doctrine, and that objection cannot be fully or satisfactorily answered, it is like laying an axe to the root of a tree, which at once effectually and for ever overthrows it. But there cannot be a greater fallacy, as will be in a moment evident from the following considerations: 1. The objection may be capable of an answer, though you may not be able to answer it; or 2. It may arise from the objector misunderstanding or taking a false view of the question; or 3. The whole subject may lie beyond the reach of our reasoning faculties ; or 4. Compared with the weight of testimony in favour of the point in hand, the objection may be absolutely of no real weight. To make our meaning a little plainer, apply these considerations to the subject of miracles, and see how they bear upon the point of objections raised against their truth as narrated in the Old and New Testaments. Infidels, such as Hume and others, have brought the most powerful objections against miracles, as being not only contrary to all our present experience, but as opposed to the very course and fixed laws of nature, as to gravitation, for instance, when the iron axe-head was made to swim (2 Kings vi. 6.), or when the Lord walked upon the water. Now, 1. You might not be able to answer these objections were they put to you personally by a clever infidel. But another person, who had considered the subject more deeply than you, might be able to do what you could not. Or, 2. The infidel objection might arise from the objector taking a false view of the whole subject of miracles as not understanding their necessity to establish revelation, or from his setting aside the power of God who made the laws of nature temporarily to suspend them. Or 3. The explanation how water, for instance, was miraculously turned into wine, or a few barley loaves and fishes at once so multiplied as to feed thousands, may be wholly beyond the reach of our present faculties. Or 4. The objection drawn from natural reasons may not be worth a straw against the weight of the testimony on the other side, say of the five thousand men who ate of the loaves and fishes. Objections, therefore, even if they cannot be fully or satisfactorily answered, so far from cutting the tree down against which they are directed, may not even lop off a bough from the stem. Be not, therefore, discouraged or tempted to give up the truth of Christ’s eternal Sonship because strong objections may be brought against it.
But in addition to the considerations which we have offered upon objections generally, bear in mind as regards heavenly mysteries: 1. That there is not a single truth of revelation against which strong objections may not be raised; 2. That divine truth is a matter of faith, and thus out of the reach and beyond the province of reason, and that we are therefore called upon not to argue, but to believe; 3. That there is no more common device of Satan than to suggest objections against every sacred mystery; and 4. That if these objections be listened to, and obtain any firm hold over the mind, their almost inevitable effect is either to close it altogether against the truth, or to fill it with suspicions, or even infidel suggestions, which may cast it down into the greatest distress and perplexity. Anyone may find this to be the case who has watched the power of objections on his own mind, and felt how they have robbed and spoiled him of his strength and comfort in the hour of temptation.
But let us also bear steadfastly in mind that there is not a single revealed truth against which strong objections may not be alleged. He who denies or is ignorant of this has a very shallow knowledge either of the points themselves, or of the opposition that has been raised in all ages against them. Prophecy, the inspiration of the Scriptures, the resurrection of the body, the Trinity, the incarnation of the Son of God, the doctrines of grace, and numberless other vital truths have ever had to encounter the greatest objections, and objections of such a nature that reason is utterly unable to answer them. I fairly confess for myself, as the result of more than thirty years’ experience of the power of objections on the mind, that if I had listened to them, or rather if they had not been subdued by the Spirit and grace of God, I should long ago have renounced every divine truth, and become a confirmed infidel. Thus I am neither a stranger to objections, nor to the way—the only way—in which they can be met. And I no less plainly see in the case of those unhappy men whose minds are prepossessed with the objections which have been raised against the eternal Sonship of Christ, that they are held so fast in them that they cannot believe it, nor can they receive the strongest and clearest testimonies of Scripture in its favour.
Now, to bring these observations to a head, apply them to the various objections raised against the true, proper and eternal Sonship of our blessed Lord. When brought to the test, they will be found either to be misconceptions, or misrepresentations, or false deductions, or mere natural arguments, and therefore to stand on precisely the same ground as objections to miracles, because they are contrary to certain fixed laws of nature; or to the resurrection, because we see the body reduced to dust, and cannot understand how the same
identical body can rise again; or even to the Bible itself, as containing many statements apparently inconsistent with the discoveries of modern science. It is, then, a most hazardous thing for a person who desires to know and believe the truth savingly for himself to listen to objections against it, and to give them a place in his mind. Let him rather seek the promised teaching of the Spirit, and say to all objections which would wrest the truth out of his hand, Get thee behind me, Satan, for thou savourest not the things which be of God, but those which be of men.’
We must also bear carefully in mind that on such mysterious subjects as that before us it is impossible for us, with our present faculties, to comprehend them, and that therefore carnal reason can always suggest objections to them which cannot be met on similar grounds. What finite intelligence can grasp infinity? ‘Touching the Almighty, we cannot find Him out’ (Job xxxvii. 23). ‘Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth and broader than the sea’ (Job xi. 7—9). May we not, then, truly add, with Zophar, of those who object to divine mysteries because apparently contradictory to human reason, ‘For vain man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass’s colt’ ? (Job xi. 12.)
But let me now address myself to some of the objections which have been made to the true and proper Son-ship of our blessed Lord.
1. The first objection that I shall notice is that ‘we thereby make the Lord Jesus Christ to be a begotten God.’ The irreverence of this expression is quite in keeping with the usual way in which the opponents of truth seek to throw discredit on the views of their adversaries. Not content with drawing their own false deductions from the views which they oppose, they dress up these conclusions in a garb of their own manufacture in order to make them ridiculous or contemptible. Had they common fairness they would not impute to us so degrading, so irreverent a doctrine as a begotten God. The expression implies that we are Tritheists; that is, hold that there are three distinct Gods (not three distinct Persons), and that of these three Gods one is the God who begets, the second the God who is begotten, and the third is the God who proceeds from the two other Gods. But this is not Trinitarianism, nor even Christianity under any form, but Hindooism. We are Trinitarians; that is, we believe there is but one God, who exists in a Trinity of Persons. If we held, as they impute to us, a begotten God, it would make us deny not only the Unity of the divine Essence, but the very self-existence of the only true God. We therefore repel the charge to the utmost of our power, and deny that our doctrine leads to any such conclusion. It is a mere natural deduction of their own. But. do they not know that in heavenly mysteries we cannot, and must not, draw natural conclusions, especially if they clash with or contradict revealed truths? Is not revealed truth altogether cut of the reach and beyond the grasp of the natural mind, and not amenable to logical argument? If reason be allowed to tread heavenly ground, and draw at its pleasure logical conclusions from Scripture truths, we must soon abandon the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the doctrines of grace, for strict logical conclusions would go far to overthrow them all. This is the very stronghold of German rationalism and English infidelity, and cannot be too much reprobated by a believer in revealed truth.
But as this objection was considered at some length in the Review of Mr. Crowther’s sermon (‘Gospel Standard,’ June. 1860), I will content myself with reproducing what was there advanced upon that point.
The adversaries of the eternal Sonship of our blessed Lord often throw into our teeth that we hold what they are pleased to call (for there is a sad want of holy reverence in their language) ‘a begotten God.’ Thus the author of the above sermon says, ‘There is not one particle of evidence from Genesis to Revelation that the Deity of Christ is a derived, a begotten, a generated, and thus an originated and not an original Deity;’ and again (p. 9), ‘However much assertions may be made about ‘eternal Sonship,’ ‘eternal generation,’ or ‘begotten God,’ those assertions being totally at variance with both the letter and the spirit of the word, are not entitled to any weight.’ Mr. Crowther and others may have deduced such a conclusion, but they must be sadly ignorant of divine truth not to know that in such sacred mysteries as the Trinity, and truths of a similar kind, it is not permissible to deduce logical conclusions from given premises, as in mere natural reasoning. But where can they find such an expression as ‘a begotten God’ used by any writer or preacher who advocates the eternal Sonship of the blessed Lord? It is an expression highly derogatory to the blessed Jesus, and intended only to cast contempt on the doctrine of His eternal Sonship. A few words, therefore, upon this point may not be out of place. We draw a distinction, then, between the Essence of God and the subsistence of the Three Persons of the Godhead in that Essence. God ‘is’ (Heb. xi. 6). His great and glorious Name as the one Jehovah is, ‘I AM,’ or ‘I AM that I AM.’ This is His Essence, which is necessarily self-existent; and this self-existent Essence is common to the Three Persons in the Godhead. Were it not so, Jehovah would not be one Lord (Deut. vi. 4). But in this self-existent Essence there are Three Persons, and the Lord Jesus Christ is the Son of the Father, not in His Essence, which is self-existent, but in His Personality, or that by which He subsists as a Person in the Godhead. No writer to our mind has handled this point with greater clearness and ability than Dr. Gill, and as his words will justly and necessarily have more force and weight than any of our own, we will give an extract from his Body of Divinity on the subject. And first let us see what the Doctor says about the Essence of God:—
There is a nature that belongs to every creature which is difficult to understand; and so to God the Creator, which is most difficult of all. That Nature may be predicated of God, is what the apostle suggests where he says, the Galatians before conversion served them who ‘by nature were no gods’ (Gal. iv. 8), which implies that though those they had worshipped were not, yet there was One that was, by nature, GOD; otherwise there would be no impropriety in denying it of them. . . . Essence, which is the same thing with nature, is ascribed to God; He is said to be excellent, in essence (Isa. xxviii. 29), for so the words may be rendered; that is, He has the most excellent Essence or Being. This is contained in His names, Jehovah and I AM THAT I AM, which are expressive of His Essence or Being, as has been observed; and we are required to believe that ‘He is,’ that He has a Being or Essence, and does exist (Heb. xi. 6); and essence is that by which a person or thing is what it is, that is, its nature.
This nature is common to the Three Persons in God, but not communicated from one to another; They each of Them partake of it, and possess it as one undivided nature; They all enjoy it; it is not a part of it that is enjoyed by one, and a part of it by another, but the whole by each; as ‘all the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Christ,’ so in the Holy Spirit; and of the Father there will be no doubt; these equally subsist in the unity of the divine Essence, and that without any derivation or communication of it from one to another. I know it is represented by some who otherwise are sound in the doctrine of the Trinity, that the divine nature is communicated from the Father to the Son and Spirit, and that He is fons Deitatis, ‘the fountain of Deity,’ which I think are unsafe phrases, since they seem to imply a priority in the Father to the other Two Persons; for He that communicates must, at least, in order of nature and according to our conception of things, be prior to whom the communication is made; and that He has a superabundant plenitude of Deity in Him, previous to this communication. It is better to say that They are self-existent, and exist together in the same undivided Essence; and jointly, equally, and as early one as the other, possess the same nature. Body of Divinity, Book I., Chap. iv [There is an excellent summary of the Doctor’s views on these points in the Memoir of Dr. Gill, prefixed to Mr. Doudney’s edition of his Commentary on the Old Testament. vol. i., p. 26.]
The Essence of God, then, as thus ably and clearly explained, is that by which He exists; and as there can be but one God, and He is necessarily self-existent, His Essence is clearly distinct from the modes of subsistence of the Three Persons in the Godhead. The adversaries of the eternal Sonship of our blessed Lord, we will not say designedly, but probably through misconception, would represent our views somewhat in the following light, which, however, we put forward with considerable reluctance, as on a subject so holy and sacred we dare not to think, much more to speak in any way derogatory to the glory of a Triune Jehovah. They would represent us, then, as holding that first there existed the Father alone; that He begat another God, whom we call the Son; and that from the Father and Son there proceeded another God, whom we call the Holy Ghost. But this perversion of truth is not our doctrine, nor can any such conclusion be legitimately deduced from our views. It may serve their purpose to seek to overthrow the scriptural doctrine of the eternal Sonship of the adorable Redeemer, by dressing up our views in a garb of their own manufacturing, or passing off their illegitimate progeny as our true-born offspring; but we refuse the dress which they would put upon their back, and disavow the children which they would lay at our door. It does not follow because the Lord Jesus Christ is the only-begotten Son of God in His divine nature, that He is ‘a begotten God.’
How, then, it may be asked, do we sustain our doctrine of eternal generation and at the same time obviate such a conclusion? We sustain it thus. We have already shown that there is a distinction between the Essence of God, which is one and self-existent, and the Personality of the Three Persons in the Godhead, which is threefold, and thus intercommunicative, and so far dependent. We have to lament the inadequacy of language, or at least of our own language, to set such sublime mysteries forth; but the doctrine of a Trinity in Unity can only be so defended. The Unity of God implies self-existence; the Trinity in Unity implies relationship. Thus as regards the Unity of Essence Christ is self-existent; but as regards the Trinity He is begotten. He is therefore not a begotten God, though He is a begotten Son. This explanation may be called mystical and obscure; but on such deep and incomprehensible subjects all thought fails and all language falters. Yet as we are sometimes called upon to state or defend our views of divine truth, it is desirable to have clear views of what we believe, and to express them as plainly as possible. We believe, then, that there are Three Persons in the Godhead, and that these are distinguished from each other by certain personal relationships, and that these personal relationships are not covenant titles, names, or offices, but are distinctive and eternal modes of existence. We are thus preserved from Sabellianism on the one hand, which holds that there is but one God with three different names; and Tritheism on the other, which makes three distinct Gods. But believing in a Trinity of Persons, in the Unity of the divine Essence, we say that the Father is a Father as begetting; the Son is a Son as begotten; the Holy Ghost is a Spirit as proceeding. If, as imputed to us, we were to say that the Son is ‘a begotten God,’ we should deny Him self-existence in His Essence, as One with the Father and the Holy Ghost; as if we should say that He is a Son by office or by His incarnation, we should deny, as Mr. Crowther does, His true, proper and actual Sonship. To sum up the whole in a few words, it is in His Person, not in His Essence, that He is the only-begotten Son of God. Dr. Gill has opened up this distinction with his usual clearness and ability in the following extract from his Body of Divinity.
When I say it is by necessity of nature, I do not mean that the divine nature, in which the divine Persons subsist, distinguishes Them; for that nature is one and common to Them all. The nature of the Son is the same with that of the Father; and the nature of the Spirit the same with that of the Father and the Son; and this nature, which They in common partake of, is undivided; it is not parted between Them, so that one has one part, and another a second, and another a third; nor that one has a greater and another a lesser part, which might distinguish Them, but the whole fulness of the Godhead is in each.
To come to the point: it is the personal relations or distinctive relative properties which belong to each Person which distinguish Them from one another; as paternity in the First Person, filiation in the Second, and spiration in the Third; or, more plainly, it is begetting (Ps. ii. 7) which peculiarly belongs to the First, and is never ascribed to the Second and Third, which distinguishes Him from Them both, and gives Him, with great propriety, the Name of the Father; and it is being begotten, that is the personal relation, or relative property of the Second Person, hence called ‘the only-begotten of the Father’ (John i. 14), which distinguishes Him from the First and Third, and gives Him the name of the Son; and the relative property, or personal relation of the Third Person is, that He is breathed by the First and Second Persons, hence called the breath of the Almighty, the breath of the mouth of Jehovah the Father, and the breath of the mouth of Christ the Lord, and which is never said of the other Two Persons, and so distinguishes Him from Them, and very pertinently gives Him the name of the Spirit, or breath’ (Job xxxiii. 4; Ps. xxxiii. 6; 2 Thess. ii. 8).—Body of Divinity, Book I., ch. xxviii.
It will be seen from these extracts that a distinction is drawn between Essence and Person; but as some of my readers may feel a difficulty in gathering up the distinction between the two, I submit the following idea as an illustration, but, be it remembered, only as an illustration. Human nature is distinct, or at least distinguishable, from the individual men and women who in common possess that nature. Thus we may say that human nature is common to all men and women, and yet that men and women are distinct from one another as individuals. So, in a high and mysterious sense, the Essence of Deity, which is self-existent, may be distinguished from the Persons in the Deity, who sustain to each other a peculiar and eternal relationship. In Their Essence They are One, in Their Personality They are Three; in Their Essence They are self-existent, in Their Personality They subsist, the Father as Father to the Son, the Son as Son to the Father, the Holy Ghost to both as proceeding from the Father and the Son. Thus we establish a Trinity in Unity. ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.’ There is the Unity of the divine Essence. ‘There are Three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.’ There we have the Trinity of Persons in the divine Essence, for ‘these Three are One’ (1 John v. 7).
2. Another objection brought forward against the eternal Sonship of the blessed Lord is, that it denies His co-eternity and co-equality with the Father. For this is their carnal deduction from the doctrine of Christ’s true and proper Sonship, that as a father necessarily exists before a son, if Christ be the true and proper Son of God, He must have come into being subsequently to the Father, and consequently cannot be co-eternal with Him. But to this we answer: 1. We must not carry ideas borrowed from earth and time into heaven and eternity, and weigh and measure the nature and being of God by the nature and being of man. But, 2, even on natural grounds, so far from a father necessarily existing before a son, it is not true, for though a father exists as a man before he has a son, yet he is not a father before he has a son. Father and son, therefore, even in time, only co-exist at the same instant, for the mutual relationship commences at the same moment. But, 3, the very expression, ‘the eternal Son,’ declares His co-eternity with the Father. For are there two eternities? If the Father exist from all eternity as the Father, and the Son exist from all eternity as the Son, is not this co-eternity? In asserting, therefore. His eternity we assert His co-eternity. So with His coequality. As giving Him all the perfections of Deity, as making Him one with the Father and the Holy Ghost in the Unity of the divine Essence, we assert His equality, and if His equality, His co-equality; for as there are not two eternities, so there are not two equalities. If our blessed Lord is the eternal Son, He is necessarily the co-eternal Son; if He is the equal of the Father, He is His co-equal. Indeed, it is as His Son that He is co-equal with the Father; for as a Son He partakes of His nature, is the brightness of His glory, and the express Image of His Person. He therefore said to Philip, ‘Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known Me, Philip? He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou, then, Show us the Father?’ (John xiv. 9.) And again, ‘I and My Father are One.’ In Deity there can be no inequality, in eternity no priority or posteriority. It is because men will persist in carrying earthly ideas into heavenly things that they thus stumble and fall at the foundation which God has laid in Zion.
3. Another objection made to the eternal Sonship of our blessed Lord is founded on the term, ‘eternal generation,’ which divines have made use of in order to express it. This expression seems especially to move their spleen; and the language which some of the opponents of the true and proper Sonship of Jesus have permitted themselves to use against it is truly awful to a spiritual mind, which has ever seen or felt the blessedness of that heavenly truth. It has been called even lately ‘a piece of twaddle,’ ‘a metaphysical conceit,’ ‘ a self-contradiction,’ ‘an impossibility in the nature of things,’ ‘carnal and contrary to the Scriptures,’ ‘a fable,’ ‘a figment,’ ‘ an error which has seen its day, which is now dying out, becoming effete, waxing old and vanishing away,’ as if the true and proper Sonship of Jesus, as the only-begotten of the Father, were a lying tale, a vain, absurd tradition, which the growing intelligence of the age was fast exploding. Nay, the same writer has gone so far as to declare in print that ‘he solemnly believes the eternal generation doctrine to be from beneath,’ and ‘to be intended by the enemy to lower and lessen the absolute Divinity and Godhead of Christ.’ Whence his ‘solemn belief’ comes it is not for us to pronounce, but we are sure it is not from the same source as the faith which made Peter say, ‘And we believe and are sure that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God’ (John vi. 69). To one who knows and loves the truth it is indeed truly grievous to read such declarations, and to witness the bold effrontery with which men and ministers, of whom better things might have been hoped, thus assail the blessed truth of our Lord’s being ‘the only-begotten of the Father;’ for though they may point their arrows chiefly against the expression, ‘eternal generation,’ yet it is the doctrine proclaimed by the term, not the bare term itself, against which they bend their bow. One of their complaints against the term is that ‘it is not an expression to be found in the Scriptures,’ just as if we were so tied to every exact Bible word as not to be allowed to use any other. The precise language of the Holy Ghost is, beyond all doubt, the very best, and no terms should be used which are not in full accordance with that inspired Word; but we are not so bound to the exact words of Scripture as to be debarred all others. If thus tied to exact Scripture terms, we ought strictly to use no language but the original Greek and Hebrew, or if allowed to employ the words of our English translation, we should always observe their exact order. But if the doctrine be there, what reasonable objection can there be to a term as long as it expresses that doctrine clearly and correctly? It is necessary sometimes to use condensed expressions as conveying in a few words a doctrine or truth which otherwise would require a long sentence fully to express it. Thus we use the words, ‘Trinity,’ ‘the Ordinance,’ as applied to the Lord’s Supper, ‘the doctrines of grace,’ ‘particular redemption,’ ‘effectual calling,’ ‘final perseverance,’ none of which terms are to be found totidem verbis, that is, in so many precise words, in the Scriptures, but are yet all blessed Bible truths, and could not be so well expressed by other terms. If, too, we object to the words ‘eternal generation,’ not only as not being scriptural, but as implying a contradiction, why should we not, on similar grounds, object to the words, ‘eternal union,’ ‘eternal counsels,’ ‘eternal decrees,’ ‘eternal fixtures,’ ‘eternal purposes,’ ‘eternal justification’? And yet these expressions are continually made use of by the very persons who so object to the term, ‘eternal generation.’
But not only is it an unobjectionable term, and one which has been sanctioned by our greatest divines, as Owen, Goodwin, Bunyan, Gill, etc., but it expresses what could not be so well or so clearly conveyed by any other. Those who so strenuously object to it, may not, perhaps, be altogether aware either of the time of its introduction or of the reason why it was first introduced. It is, then, not only one of those concise and convenient expressions which divines in all ages have employed to communicate scriptural truth in a clear, definite form, but was first used for this very purpose by the ancient Fathers. The necessity for the use of clear and definite terms soon arose in the Christian church; for as errors and heresies sprang up at a very early period as so many tares sown by the enemy of souls among the wheat, men of God felt themselves compelled to meet the subtle wiles of the adversaries of truth by proofs drawn from the Word of God. But besides adducing exact scripture language, it was found necessary, as error assumed a bolder front, to adopt specific terms, in order to define the truth more clearly; for it was soon discovered that erroneous men sheltered their heresies under scripture phraseology, assigning to it all the while a meaning of their own distinct from its true and received acceptation. When, then, Anus in the fourth century broached his doctrine of the Son’s being generated of the Father before time, but not from all eternity, and that, therefore, there was a period when the Son was not, [Arius thus speaks, ‘If the Father begat the Son, He that is he-gotten must have a beginning of His existence, from whence it is manifest that there was a time when the Son was not; and therefore it necessarily follows that He had His subsistence from things that are not,’ or was brought out of a state of non-existence into a state of existence.] the ancient Fathers made choice of the term ‘eternal generation,’ to distinguish the proper and eternal filiation of Jesus from His generation in the sense of Anus, who admitted the generation of the Son, but not His eternal generation, and craftily used generation in the sense of making or forming, not begetting. He thus denied that the Son was co-equal, co-eternal and con-substantial (of the same substance) with the Father. It must be either great ignorance or gross disingenuousness to impute to the advocates of the eternal Sonship of Jesus that they deny His co-eternity and co-equality with the Father, when the term, ‘eternal generation’ was first used against the Arians, who held that heresy, and for the very purpose of declaring that as being the eternal Son of the eternal Father, the Son was co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. To oppose, then, this fearful heresy, which was, in fact, a denial of the Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and degrading Him to a mere creature, the early Fathers employed the term ‘eternal generation’ to express concisely what is stated more largely in the Nicene Creed, ‘Begotten of His Father before all worlds,’ ‘begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father’—’begotten before all worlds,’ in opposition to the Arian doctrine of a ‘begetting which was not eternal;’ ‘begotten, not made,’ in opposition to the interpretation of begetting as a being made; and ‘of one substance with the Father,’ in opposition to the Arian heresy that He was not of the same, but only of similar substance. Basil, who was a great champion for the truth against the Arians, about the year A.D. 330, thus expresses himself: ‘As there is one God the Father, always remaining the Father, and who is for ever what He is; so there is one Son, horn by an eternal generation, who is the true Son of God, who always is what He is, God the Word and Lord; and one Holy Spirit, truly the Holy Spirit.’
Having thus seen the origin and reason of the expression, and that it was especially directed against the Arian heresy, let us now examine a little more closely its meaning, for we may be sure that the ancient Fathers meant something by it. The great leaders of the Council of Nice, at which the Arian heresy was condemned, such as Athanasius, etc., knew what they were about, for they had to contend with men of the most daring audacity and the subtlest intellect, backed by an army of adherents all over the then known world, and at one period with the whole temporal power against them. It was, therefore, a common saying at that time, ‘Athanasius against all the world, and all the world against Athanasius.’ Now, if these mighty champions for the truth adopted the term ‘eternal generation, to express the true filiation of Jesus, we may be sure that they had some good grounds for its adoption. By it, therefore, they meant this great and glorious truth, that Jesus is ‘the Son of the Father in truth and love’ (2 John 3); ‘the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father’ (John i. 18); ‘His own Son’ (Rom. viii. 32); ‘His only-begotten Son’ (John iii. 16); that He was this from all eternity; and that, not by virtue of any compact, or covenant, or foreview, or constitution of His complex Person as God-man, but by His very mode of subsistence as a Person in the Trinity. They did not attempt to explain the mystery of His eternal generation, for ‘who shall declare His generation?’ (Isa. liii. 8.) And they might well say to those who would fain bring such a deep, incomprehensible subject to be tried and judged at the bar of human reason, ‘Who hath gathered the wind in His fists? Who hath bound the waters in a garment? Who hath established all the ends of the earth? What is His name, and what is His Son’s name, if thou canst tell?’ (Prov. xxx. 4). Neither His name, nor His Son’s name, that is, neither the being and perfections of the Father, nor the being and perfections of His dear Son, can be comprehended by human intellect any more than a man can gather the winds in his fists, or wrap up the Atlantic in his cloak. They were content to believe and declare the truth, without venturing to comprehend, much less explain the mystery.
Milner, in his Church History, treats this point with great clearness. Speaking of the Council of Nice, he says, ‘ But it soon appeared that, without some explanatory terms, decisively pointing out what the Scriptures had revealed, it was impossible to guard against the subtilties of the Arians. Did the Trinitarians assert that Christ was God? The Arians allowed it, but in the same sense as holy men and angels are styled gods in Scripture. Did they affirm that He was truly God? The others allowed that He was made so by God. Did they affirm that the Son was naturally of God? It was granted, For even we,’ said they, ‘are of God, of whom are all things.’ Was it affirmed that the Son was the power, wisdom and image of the Father? ‘We admit it.’ replied the others; ‘for we also are said to be the image and glory of God.’ Such is the account which Athanasius gives of the disputations. He was at that time deacon of. the church of Alexandria, and supported his bishop with so much accuracy and strength of argument as to lay the foundation of that fame which he afterwards acquired by his zeal in this controversy. What could the Trinitarians do in this situation? To leave the matter undecided was to do nothing; to confine themselves merely to Scripture terms was to suffer the Arians to explain the doctrine in their own way, and to reply nothing. Undoubtedly they had a right to comment according to their own judgment as well as the Arians; and they did so in the following manner. They collected together the passages of Scripture which represent the divinity of the Son of God, and observed that taken together, they amounted to a proof of His being of the same substance with the Father, that creatures were indeed said to be of God, because not existing of themselves, they had their beginning from Him, but that the Son was peculiarly of the Father, being of His substance as begotten of Him.
It behoves every one who is desirous of knowing simply the mind of God from His own Word, to determine for himself how far this interpretation of Scripture was true. The Council, however, was, by the majority before stated, convinced that this was a fair explanation, and that the Arian use of the term, God, true God, and the like, was a mere deception, because they affixed to them ideas which the Scriptures would by no means admit. But to censure the Council for introducing a new term when all that was meant by it was to express their interpretation of the Scriptures, appears unreasonable in the last degree, however fashionable. To say that they ought to have confined themselves to the very words of Scripture, when the Arians had first introduced their own gloss, seems much the same as to say that the Trinitarians had not the same right with the Arians to express their own interpretation of Scripture and in their own language.’—Milner’s Church History, Vol. ii., p. 58.
The Arians might argue that it was ‘a contradiction,’ an ‘impossibility,’ ‘an absurdity,’ for these are not new charges against the true and real Sonship of our blessed Lord, but their strong, yet simple, faith was not moved by such arguments, for it stood not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God, and firmly rested in the sure testimony of God as revealed in the Scriptures, and in the inward witness of the blessed Spirit as sealing that testimony with a divine power upon their heart. This was their sufficient, their only and all-sufficient answer to all the cavilling arguments and subtle reasonings of the adversaries of truth. Milner well says of them, ‘To believe, to suffer, and to love—not to write’ (and we might add, ‘not to argue’)—’was the primitive taste;’ for they were of that martyr band of whom we read that ‘they overcame’ Satan and his accusations ‘by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death ‘ (Rev. xii. 11). ‘Not a few of the Nicene fathers bore on their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus. Paul, bishop of Neocæsarea, on the banks of the Euphrates, had been debilitated by the application of hot iron to both his hands others appeared there deprived of their right eyes, others deprived of their legs. A crowd of martyrs, in truth, were seen collected into one body.’—Milner’s Church History, Vol. ii., p. 61.
Here, and here alone, do I, too, as desiring to walk in these footsteps of the flock, find any rest for my own soul. I have seen and felt an indescribable grace and glory, an inexpressible beauty and blessedness in the true and real Sonship of Jesus, to give up which would be to renounce all my hope of eternal life. Thus, it is not with me a matter of argument, still less of theory and speculation, but a truth on which the whole weight of my soul hangs for eternity. With these views and feelings, then, and in the exercise of this faith, and hope, and love, in which I believe hundreds of the Lord’s family share with me, I may well be excused if I have earnestly contended for a truth which has been made so precious to my soul. I should be sorry if I had contended for it unfairly, bitterly, or angrily, for besides wounding my own conscience by using such unhallowed weapons, I should have injured the cause which lies so near to my heart; for I am bidden to put away ‘all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking’ (Eph. iv. 31); and I am assured by infallible authority that ‘the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God’ (James i. 20). I may not be able, it is true, to answer fully and satisfactorily every objection which carnal reason may urge against it, or explain the mystery of an only-begotten Son. But can I explain how the Creator of the world lay in the Virgin’s womb? Can I solve the mystery how Joshua bade the sun stand still upon Gibeon, and the moon in the valley of Ajalon? (Joshua x. 12), or can I unravel the miracle how the three children were cast into the burning fiery furnace, and yet that the very smell of fire did not pass on them? (Dan. iii. 27.) The Son of God, I read, was with them in the furnace, and I know that He was not there in His complex Person, for He had not then assumed the flesh and blood of the children; but I can no more explain how He was there than I can explain His eternal generation. But I can believe what I cannot comprehend, and realise a sacred blessedness in a mystery which I cannot explain. Nor do I rest my faith upon one or two isolated texts. I see the true and proper Sonship of our blessed Lord shining as with a ray of sacred light all through the New Testament. I see in it the love of God so tenderly and graciously revealed as when realised by faith melts the heart into gratitude and affection. I see in it such an ineffable and eternal relationship, intimacy and intercommunion between the Father and the Son, and between the Son and the Father, of which we get a feeble glimpse in John xvii., as, when felt, penetrates the soul with holy wonder and admiration. I see in it, too, the only title which the saints possess to become ‘sons of God,’ and as such to be made ‘heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom. viii. 17), for if He be no Son, then are they no sons, but because God is His Father, He is, therefore, their Father (John xx. 17). I see also in it a bond of eternal union between the Church and the Son, and through the Son with the Father, as expressed by the blessed Lord Himself (John xvii. 21), which, as apprehended by faith, opens to the believing heart a view which fills it with astonishment and adoration. I see in it a security for the salvation of the elect of God, for it fixes it on the eternal love of the Father to His Son, as loving them with the same love as that wherewith He loved Him (John xvii. 23); and lastly, I see in it that the very state of ultimate and eternal glory to which all the saints of God will be brought is that they may behold that glory which the Father has given to Jesus in that He loved Him as His only-begotten Son before the foundation of the world (John xvii. 24). I see, also, that it is absolutely essential to the maintenance of the Trinity, as, if once we set aside the eternal and intimate intercommunion of the Three Persons in the sacred Trinity, we destroy the Unity of the Godhead, for we make Them three distinct Gods without any such necessary or natural relationship as gives Them that Unity by which, though They are Three distinct Persons, yet They are but One God. How, then, can I give up so choice, so blessed a truth? I had better part with my life, knowing that if I lose my life for Christ’s sake, I shall surely find it; but that if I deny Him, He will as certainly deny me. My opponents may revile and deride me, may call me ‘a pope,’ ‘a fool,’ and ‘an ass,’ as they have already done. They may preach against me their abusive sermons, or write against me their abusive books, and I have already had no small share of both; but I will take them upon my shoulder as my ornament, and bind them as a crown to me (Job xxxi. 35, 36), for I know that such treatment has ever been the lot of those who are ‘valiant for the truth upon the earth.’ It is little to me what those may say and do who fight against the true and proper Sonship of the Lord of life and glory. It is not against us who seek to exalt His worthy Name that they fight, but against Him whom the Father has set as King upon His holy hill of Zion, and to whom He has said, ‘Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee’ (Ps. ii. 6, 7). It would be their mercy if they could obey the heavenly warning ‘Kiss the Son, lest He be angry.’ But whether so or not. ‘Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him’ (Ps. ii. 12).