Eternal Generation and Spiration
These two concepts essentially address the same issue, with the former speaking of the relation between God the Father and God the Son, and the latter speaking of that between God the Father and God the Spirit. We’ll leave the filioque to the side for the moment. Also, I’ll be primarily speaking of the eternal generation, but know that I could also add to everything I say, “And it works the same way for spiration of the Spirit…” I’m just conserving space here.
What is meant by this doctrine is also what is meant by the “monarchia” of the Father. That is, trinitarian ordering begins with the Father and then moves to the Son and the Spirit. As the Creed says, I believe in one God the Father Almighty. Paul routinely “starts with” the Father, referring to “one God, the Father” (1 Cor. 8:6) and “one God and Father” (Eph. 4:6). Don’t let the JW’s get you spooked on this. All of the early church theologians, both those combating Sabellianism and those combating Arianism, spoke this way. This God then begets and breathes out (“spiration” means to breath out), but that which He begets and breaths out is also God. God begets of Himself (as opposed to “of nothing”) and thus that which He begets is also eternal, infinite, etc.
Now, this doctrine is controversial among many folks today because it seems to imply some sort of subordination. If God the Father is “first” and the other persons of the Trinity “come from Him,” are they not then subordinate to Him?
To answer this (and the answer is “No!”), we need to point back to what we’ve already said about monotheism, eternity, and simplicity. There is only one God. He exists outside of space and time. And His nature is wholly simple and infinite. Thus when we speak of eternal generation and spiration there actually isn’t any “before” in the equation. There was no time when “He was not” because God is not in time. Eternal generation is a concept that is itself outside of time. There’s also no space. There wasn’t anything outside of or inbetween God in the generation and spiration. God beget God. The infinite and simple divine substance begets of itself and thus it gives all of itself.
To put it in simpler terms, the Son isn’t less than the Father because the Father gave Him infinity and eternity when He gave Him being. And again, the being is simple and thus there are no parts to divide up or give priority to. All of God is all of God. If this isn’t rationally satisfying then you need to review the doctrine of incomprehensibility. It is beyond us. But the confession is necessary.
Some folks say that Calvin changed this way of thinking. He said that the Son was autotheos, and that is supposedly in contradiction with the idea of the Son having His being generated by the Father. To the contrary, Calvin himself speaks of the Father as “the beginning and fountainhead of the whole of divinity” (Inst. 1.13.25). Calvin’s comments about the Son’s autotheos, ingenerancy, in himself, and divine in an absolute sense, all have to do with the Son as compared to creatures. The reason the Son is all of those things is because He possesses the whole of the divine nature. He is God and the other things are not-God. Whenever he relates the Son to the person of the Father, however, Calvin retains the traditional ordering. This is because it’s how the traditional person/nature distinction works in the discussion of eternal generation.
Calvin isn’t even being progressive on this point. Augustine had said that the Son is sent by the Father and the Son sends Himself (de trinitate 2.5.8-9). The action is simultaneous because the operation is identical. Anselm had explained this in more detail in Monologion 44, “To say that one is the essence of the other is not to point away from the truth, but to point up to the supreme unity and simplicity of their common nature.” He continues:
The Father is wholly the supreme essence, and the Son is wholly the supreme essence. So Father and Son, each exists as a whole through himself, just as each is wise through himself. Now the Son is essence and wisdom born from the Father’s essence and wisdom. But this does not mean he is any less wholly essence and wisdom. (He would be less perfectly essence and wisdom, if he did not exist, and be wise, through himself.) The Son exists through himself and has his existence from the Father. This is not a contradiction.
The Son is coeternal with the eternal Father, and owes his existence to the Father–but only one essence results, not two. So then the Father is the Son’s essence, and the Son is the Father’s. Yet this cannot be taken to mean that the one can only exist through the other, and not through himself. Instead this is what it is appropriate and possible to say and understand with respect to the supreme simple and supremely unique essence that they have in common: each is identical. Now, for both, to have an essence is to be an essence. It is just as true, therefore, that each is the other’s essence, i.e. for one to exist is the same as for the other to exist.
Peter Lombard also continued this way of speaking. In fact, he got into trouble for saying that there is a “certain supreme reality” in the godhead “that neither begets nor is begotten nor does it proceed.” Taken in isolation that would be a problem, but in context Lombard was getting at the description of divinity in relation to all non-divinity. He was defended by the 4th Lateran council. Calvin is clearly echoing his terminology, as noticed by Wendel and Muller. There is nothing new or revolutionary in this, but rather a consistent development in the theological conversation.
Now, the folks who still take issue with all of this will invariably resort to speaking of God in univocal terms, unwittingly relying on categories bound by space and time. That’s the only way their protests make sense. If one accepts simplicity and infinity, then the consistency is plain. Lewis Ayres noted that eternal generation, paired with simplicity and identity of operations, was the primary intellectual construction used by the pro-Nicenes to defend the Trinity. The Arians, as well as the modalists and modern-day social Trinitarians, end up denying one or all of those commitments.