A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Is, or Was, Forever Generated


Augustine raises the question in a couple of places:1 Is it better to say that the Son was eternally generated, or is eternally generated? Hilary of Poitiers also raises the same question.2

It draws the attention of Peter Lombard, who gives it an entire chapter in his Sentences,3 where he resolves it in dialogue with Augustine and Hilary, but also Gregory the Great, Chrysostom, and Origen. The treatment is typically Lombardian, concerned to read Scripture accurately and also to reconcile apparent contradictions in what has been said “among the doctors.”

Lombard’s summary view: “Let us say that the Son was born from the Father before all time, and is forever being born from the Father, but more fittingly, is forever born.” (p. 57) “Was born” has the advantage of using the past tense to indicate a perfectly accomplished eternal act; “is forever being born” has the advantage of recognizing how fully alive everything in God always is; but “is forever born” treats the eternal generatedness as a relational reality “located” in the Son, that distinguishes Father from Son. “Foreverborn” is a kind of title of the second person.

How interesting is this? That’s up to you, reader: how interested in it are you? It’s pretty interesting. And ‘foreverborn’ is a helpful takeaway.

But how important is this question to the structure of teaching on the Trinity? Not very important. It specifies something about eternal generation in relation to categories of time, or at least how we should think and speak of something eternal by using temporal words. It may influence your thoughts about the nature or character of eternal generation, but probably not metaphysically; really just at the level of what kind of background picture informs your concepts. It shouldn’t set off an avalanche of interconnected implications, it seems to me.

In medieval theology, once something was in Lombard’s Sentences, it was very likely to draw the attention of commentators. This is partly because of implicit trust in Lombard’s good judgement (especially his judgement about what matters in systematizing Augustine), but also partly because Lombard was the dominant textbook, and commentating on it was the expected project. So this question about temporal terms for generatedness got a lot of ink. Pick a Sentences commentary and dive in.

But where it does not get a lot of ink is in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. It’s treated concisely in Prima Pars, question 42, article 2: “Whether the person proceeding is co-eternal with His principle.” It’s not even the main point of the article, but something that emerges in the objection-reply back and forth. In answering it, Aquinas agrees with Lombard and shows familiarity with the authorities cited by him (I haven’t looked into Aquinas’ own Sentences commentary to see what he does with it there). But he dispatches the issue pretty quickly, and I’m tempted to say he buries it in a section of the treatise on the Trinity wherein details are being considered, terminological cleanup moves are being undertaken, but major structural moves are not being made.

I think this is a great way to do justice to the issue without exaggerating its significance.

Elsewhere in medieval theology, the issue will draw more attention. Mystics will register the poetic nature of eternal generation as an eternally ongoing streaming-forth. By focusing on the ever-continuing, fully alive aspect of it, they will be drawn to the idea of the trinitarian relation as a kind of waterfall: always there, but always moving past; always still but always in motion; always present but always new. Or better, as light streaming forth from the sun continually, rather than having-completed-its-streaming-forth at some past time. At some point the beatific vision will be characterized as beholding some manifestation of this procession itself, of being transformed by seeing the Son streaming forth from the Father. (I’ll see if I can come back and add some examples here later.)

That kind of lush, rushing gushiness will of course evoke a reaction, partly on the grounds that it lacks doctrinal sobriety, and partly on the grounds that it yields purple prose of dubious aesthetic quality. Notice that a new kind of error then becomes possible: people who reject the streaming-waterfall-eternal-process presentation of eternal generation are in danger of thinking they reject eternal generation itself. There have been some problems of this nature in the tradition downstream from Calvin. (Again, lemme get back to you sometime with the examples.) This reaction may be part of the history of early modern timidity about the doctrine of eternal generation.


1Enarrat. Psalmos 2:7; De Trin V:5-6. See also the 37th question in his Miscellany of Eighty-Three Questions (in Responses to Miscellaneous Questions (New City Press, 2008), 54). I checked the Latin in PL 40, column 27: Melior est semper natus, quam qui semper nascitur. Quia qui semper nascitur, nondum est natus; et nunquam natus est aut natus erit, si semper nascitur. Aliud est enim nasci, aliud natum esse. Ac per hoc nunquam filius, si nunquam natus; filius autem quia natus, est semper filius: semper igitur natus.

2 De Trin book 7, at 27; also book 9 at 54.

3 Distinction IX, Ch. 4 (32). PIMS edition, 54-57.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

Explore Blog Categories