Westminster Confession 2.3 states that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son.
1. How do we differentiate between “begotten” and “proceeding”?
2. “Eternally begotten” is counterproductive, because from the point of reference a creature knows, one can be begotten only once. Why is it important the Son be “eternally begotten” vs. a once-for-all begetting act?
Let’s tackle your question regarding the eternal begottenness of the Son along with your contention that the phrase “eternally begotten is unhelpful,” and then we’ll address the procession of the Spirit. First, however, we should recognize that when we speak about the “eternal generation” of the Son (which was a phrase first used by Origen), we are using human language to describe something about the inner relationships of the eternal, immutable and infinite God. Therefore, we must remember that the way in which we naturally think of human generation, or human begetting differs substantially from divine begetting. For example, in human begetting, there is a time in which the son did not exist, but that cannot be said about the second person of the Trinity. Also, human begetting involves a father and a mother, whereas in divine begetting the Son is begotten by the Father alone. Finally, human begetting is something that is a free and voluntary act, while the Son’s generation is an eternal and necessary act. Here’s the point: when we speak about begetting/generation (and eternal procession as well), we are speaking analogously, meaning there are ways in which divine begetting is like human begetting, but there are also substantial differences.
So, with these differences in mind, where is the point of analogy (similarity, or the “point of reference” as you described it) regarding the begetting/eternal generation of the Son?
The doctrine of eternal generation can simply (hopefully not simplistically) be stated like this: just as a human father communicates his essence (his humanity) to his son, so the Father communicates his essence (deity) to his Son. This is what the Nicene Creed is getting at when it claims that Jesus is “God of God; Light of Light, very God of very God.” This also touches on your second question, because this begetting does not mean (and cannot mean) that the Son was begotten from the essence of the Father out of nothing (a once-for-all begetting). This would be creation, not generation. The Son is not a creation, however, but “God over all, forever praised” (Rom. 9:5). Again, this is why the Nicene Creed makes the important point that the Son was “begotten not made” [emphasis mine]. If this were a once-for-all begetting in time, then we would have to maintain with the Arian heresy that there was a time when the Son did not exist. So, describing the Son as eternally begotten guards against such false teaching. We also believe in the eternal generation of the Son, based on the eternality of the Father and the Son. In other words, because the Father and the Son are both eternal, the generation of the Son must, necessarily, be so as well. So, though the phrase “eternally begotten” at first may strike us as counterproductive, it is necessary to guard against a false understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son.
Again, we must admit that we are using human language to describe the relationship between two persons of the Trinity, both who are infinite, immutable and incomprehensible. And so our language will fail to fully describe the truth of this relationship, but it is enough for us to truly know it.
This same caution should guide us when talking about the eternal procession of the Spirit. Setting aside the question as to whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from just the Father (procession), or the Father and the Son (double procession), let’s look (very briefly) at the doctrine. As the word “begotten” or the phrase “eternal generation” is used to describe the inner relationship between the Father and the Son, the word “procession” has been used to describe the inner relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son. Like the Son, the Scriptures teach that the Holy Spirit is both a person (not a power) and divine, yet the inner relationship between the Holy Spirit and Father and Son is one of proceeding from them. The doctrine of procession seeks to do justice to Jesus’ statement in John that Christ will send the Holy Spirit “from the Father.” This “procession” tells us something about the inner relationship between the Holy Spirit and the Father and Son without sacrificing the deity or personality of the Holy Spirit, yet we must admit that this inner relationship is no doubt shrouded in mystery (even more so than the eternal generation of the Son). As Sinclair Ferguson says in his book on the Holy Spirit, “If we ask further what the procession of the Spirit means, and how it is distinguished from the Son’s relationship to the Father, we may well be incapable of a wholly satisfactory (and certainly of a comprehensive) answer.... His relationship [to the Father and the Son] is distinct; yet both experience the Spirit in common in mutual union and communion.... The mystery of the Spirit’s union thus points to the glory of the Christian communion with God. Our fellowship in the Spirit is with the Father and the Son...” (Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, (p. 77).
I must admit that “laymanese” is difficult to accomplish with these teachings, for they are teachings which seek to capture truths which stretch language itself to its limits.
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