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Robert Reymond on the Eternal Generation of the Son

Robert Reymond on the Eternal Generation of the Son

There has been a recent rash of "Trinitarian Controversy" among evangelicals. Reformed Forum has a great brief summary for those who are unfamiliar. I am not inclined to actually enter the fray. I've been reading from the sidelines and recall an interesting portion of Robert Reymond's Systematic Theology. So I have decided to re-read that portion this evening.

As one of the first full systematic theologies that I received, it stands out in my memory. It took me quite a time to read it, but a particular section on the eternal generation of the Son has always stood out. I'd like to merely put into writing some of the interesting quotes and the lines of thought that they evoke. He starts provocatively,

"The titles 'Father' and 'Son' must not be freighted respectively with the occidental ideas of source of being and essential superiority on the one hand and of subordination and dependency on the other. Rather, they should be viewed in the biblical sense as denoting, first, sameness of nature and, in Jesus' case, equality with the Father with respect to his deity...and second, infinite reciprocal affection." (324-325)

One of Reymond's clear intents is to assure the reader of the Son's own unique self-divinity. Along these lines, Reymond thinks Nicene Fathers went too far in their clarification of different "distinguishing properties." Perhaps against the consensus of the current controversy, he states,

"Regardless of their commendable intention to distance the church from Sabellianism by it, suggested the Son's subordination to the Father not only in modes of operation but also in a kind of essential subordinationism in that he is not God of himself. And this became by and large the doctrine of the church and it went unchallenged for well over a thousand years" (326)

Though Reymond will eventually affirm that there is no essential subordinationism, he does feel the Nicene Creed leads theology in that direction. His next section though contains a laundry list of quotations about qualifications to this doctrine during the Reformation. Starting with John Calvin, Reymond claims that Calvin shifted the point of emphasis on what the Father "generated" for the Son,

"What Calvin affirms here is that the Son with reference to himself is God of himself, but in relation to his Father, he derives his hypostatic identity from his relation to the Father...Calvin espoused the doctrine of the Son's eternal generation as being true with respect to his hypostatic identity, that is, with respect to his Sonship." (327)

Moving ahead to more modern authors, Reymond starts with Charles Hodge — a name that has been mentioned more than one in the recent controversy. He summarizes Hodge as,

"Declar[ing] that exception must be taken, not to the facts themselves of both the subordination of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father and the nature of the Son's eternal generation, but to the Niecene Fathers' explanations of them." (329)

Reymond quotes Hodge as saying "the fathers who framed [the Nicene] creed, and those by whom it was defended, did go beyond [the] facts" (329; Hodge, Systematic Theology, I:465). With this in hand, Reymond quotes B.B. Warfield reflecting on Calvin and the creedal tradition,

"It has been found necessary...from time to time, vigorously to reassert the principle of equalization, over against a tendency unduly to emphasize the elements of subordinationism which still hold a place this in the traditional language in which the church states its doctrine of the Trinity." (331; Warefield, "The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity," Works, II:170-171)

It seems to Reymond that Calvin was ready to ditch the Nicene Creed in order to affirm the equal divinity of the Trinity. He quotes Warfield, "he was ready not only to subordinate, but even to sacrifice, if need be, the entire body of Nicene speculation" (332; Warfield, "Calvin's Doctrine of the Trinity," Works, V:257-258). He concludes his section on Warfield quoting how this theology of Calvin impacted the Reformed Church,

"In the doctrine of the Trinity they laid the stress upon the equality of the Persons sharing the same essence, and thus set themselves with more or less absoluteness against all subordinationism in the explanation of the relations of the Persons to one another." (333; Warfield, "Calvin's Doctrine of the Trinity," Works, V:251)

Perhaps this whole view of Calvin and the Reformed church has not been present in the recent discussion. Calvin seemed eager to subvert Nicene orthodoxy for the full self-sustaining deity of the Persons of the Trinity. Reymond here quotes John Murray,

"Calvin was too much of a student of Scripture to be content to follow the lines of what had been regarded as Nicene orthodoxy on this particular issue. He was too jealous for the implications of the homoousion clause...Hence the indictments leveled against him." (335; Murray, "Systematc Theology," Collected Writings, 4:8)

In conclusion, Reymond sees in the Reformed tradition a concern that Nicene theology subverts the full expressed deity of Jesus Christ. Though not discarding the concept of "eternal generation," he works with John Calvin to redefine the meaning in a way that affirms "no essential subordination of the Son to the Father within the Godhead" (335). This all seems entirely consistent with Louis Berkhof's summary in Systematic Theology,

"The Arminians, Episcopius, Curellaeus, and Limborgh, revived the doctrine of subordination, chiefly again, so it seems, to maintain the unity of the Godhead. They ascribed to the Father a certain pre-eminence over the other persons, in order, dignity, and power." (83)

It seems at least to me, that Reformed Theology has always bucked the misuse of the phrase "subordination" — even in some cases against certain understanding and expositions of Nicene theology.

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