What does it mean to confess that Christ is “begotten of the Father,” yet is also himself fully God and co-equal with the Father? This may sound like a very fine theological point, and in some ways it is. Yet anytime the Person of Christ is brought up in the setting of a local church, this immediately becomes an issue. How exactly can we say that the Son is equal with the Father? The heretic Arius taught that both of these things cannot be true, and that because Christ is called “the Son,” and “begotten of the Father,” he must necessarily be less than the Father. Arius taught that Christ, though the most glorious of all of God’s creatures and the agent through whom the Father created the world, nevertheless was sill a mere creature at the end of the day.
How should we respond to this? How can we say that Jesus is “begotten of the Father,” yet still his equal? I think William G.T. Shedd is helpful here by offering 5 distinctions that the theologians of Nicea made between the “eternal generation” of the Son, and creation:
The Nicene theologians distinguish eternal generation from creation, by the following particulars:
- Eternal generation is an offspring out of the eternal essence of God; creation is an origination of a new essence from nothing.
- Eternal generation is a communication of an eternal essence; creation is the origination of a temporal essence.
- That which is eternally generated is one of essence with the generator; but that which is created is of another essence from that of the creator. The substance of God the Son is one and identical with that of God the Father; but the substance of a creature is diverse from that of the creator. The Father and the Son are one Nature, and one Being; God and the world are two Natures and two Beings.
- Eternal generation is necessary, but creation is optional. The filiation of the second person in the trinity is grounded in the nature of deity; but the origination of the world depends entirely upon arbitrary will. It is as necessary that there should be Father and Son in the Godhead, as that he Godhead should be eternal, or self-existent; but there is no such necessity for creation.
- Eternal generation is an immanent perpetual activity in an ever-existing essence; creation is an instantaneous act, and supposes no elements of the creature in existence.
William G.T. Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine, Vol I. (1863, reprinted in 2006 by Solid Ground Christian Books, Vestavia Hills, AL), 316-317.