Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Making a Case for an Essential Dependence Model in the Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son

Making a Case for an Essential Dependence Model in the Doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son.

Contra Causal dependence, Counterfactual dependence, and Modal dependence models.

Why Eternal Generation Matters:

1. Ensures equality, unity and distinctness.
  • Equality: Like Father, like Son.
  • Unity: Bound together by eternal relations of origin.
  • Distinctness: Unbegotten Father, begotten Son.

2. Affirmed by the Church for 1700 years e.g. Justin Martyr, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, John Owen etc.

3. Underlies the Gospel.

“Behind the missions of the Son and the Spirit stand their eternal processions, and when they enter the history of salvation, they are here as the ones who, by virtue of who they eternally are, have these specific relations to the Father. For this reason, the Trinity is not just what God is at home in himself, but the same Trinity is also what God is among us for our salvation.” Fred Sanders.

Poor models of Eternal Generation

Philosophically, how should we understand the doctrine of eternal generation? In what sense does the Son depend on the Father for his existence?

Causal Dependence Model

The Son causally depends on the Father.

X causally depends on Y Y causes X

Necessarily, the Father causes the Son to exist.


Causation is diachronic. The cause always precedes the effect in time. This implies Arianism – there was a time when the Son was not.

Causation relates events (including events involving persons), but not persons.

Modal Dependence Modal

The Son modally depends on the Father.

X modally depends on Y Necessarily, X exists only if Y exists

Not asymmetric: The Father also modally depends on the Son. We do not want this as the Father is unbegotten, and only the Son is begotten. If modal dependence is true, we will have eternal generation going both ways, that is, the Father eternally begets the Son, and vice versa.

Unwanted dependence occurs: For example, if modal dependence is true, the Son modally depends on Universals like the Number 2 as Universals exist eternally.

The Trinity has 3 persons. Hence, the modal dependence model would require modal dependence upon the numbers 1, 2 and 3, with the Son being the second person of the Trinity. This would also imply that the Son is eternally begotten from the Number 2.

Counterfactual Dependence Model

Not applicable in our discussion since God is a necessary being existing in every possible world. Both the Father and the Son necessarily exist in every possible world, and counterfactuals of non-existence of a necessary being do not exist.

We need a model of Eternal Generation with the following features:

  1. ·       Not diachronic
  2. ·       Can relate persons
  3. ·       Asymmetric
  4. ·       Precludes unwanted dependence

Essential Dependence Model


1) The Essence of something, X, is what X is, or what it is to be X.

2) Essential Definition: An essential definition specifies the essence of a thing, what it is to be that very thing.

Example of an essential definition:

To be a human being is to be a rational (differentia) animal (genus).

3) Essential Dependence

X essentially depends on Y Y is part of the essential definition of X

Example: The singleton set {Socrates} essentially depends on Socrates. To be {Socrates} is to be the set that contains only Socrates as a member.

Essential Dependence Model of Eternal Generation: Eternal generation is a form of essential dependence.

To say that the Son is eternally begotten of the Father is to say that the Son essentially depends on the Father. The Father is part of the essential definition of the Son, but not vice versa. Or more formally:

Essential Dependence Model:

The Son is eternally begotten of the Father The Father is a constituent of a real definition of the Son, and the Son exists eternally.

According to the essential dependence model, the essence of the Son involves the Father. The Father is part of what the Son is, or what it is to be the Son.

Essential definition of the Son

To be the Son is to be the divine person who is the image of the Father. (Heb 1:3, 2 Cor 4:4, Col 1:15, Phil 2:6).

Essential definition of the Father

To be the Father is to be the divine person who is the ultimate source of all things (or, on whom all things ultimately depend). (Heb 2:10, Ro 11:36, 1 Cor 8:6).

Benefits of Essential Dependence.

Not diachronic: The Son and the Father exist simultaneously.

Can relate persons: Essential dependence can relate anything (not just events like Causal dependence).

Asymmetric: The Son essentially depends upon the Father, but not vice versa.

Precludes unwanted dependence: The Son does not essentially depend on abstract universals like the Number 2, for instance (as in Modal dependence).

Avoids Subordinationism within the Godhead:

1) Necessary existence: Essential dependence is compatible with necessary existence. There never was a time when the Son was not (contra Arius). The Son exists necessarily, and yet is essentially dependent upon the Father.

2) Self-Existence (Aseity): Essential dependence is not a form of causation. In no way does it imply that the Father causes the Son’s existence. Thus, the Son possesses aseity.

Causation also implies succession in time; if the Father causes the Son’s existence, then the Father is chronologically prior to the Son (Arianism).

Possible objections:

Aseity = existing without being caused by anything else; Or
Aseity = existing without depending on anything else.

Reply: The Son is self-existing with respect to the divine essence, but not with respect to his person. Hence, we make a distinction between ousia and hupostasis (Calvin).

“Therefore we say that deity in an absolute sense exists of itself; whence likewise we confess that the Son since he is God, exists of himself, but not in respect of his Person; indeed, since he is the Son, we say that he exists from the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning; while the beginning of his person is God himself.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 154.)


Makin, Mark. "God from God: the Essential Dependence Model of Eternal Generation." Metaphysics of the Trinity: New Direction 54, no. 3 (2019). 377-394.