The Unorginate Father and the Begotten Son

For over 1,500 years the Church has spoken of the Father as “unorginate”, the Son as “begotten”, and the Holy Spirit as “proceeding” from the Father.

The meaning and use of these terms to describe the persons of the Trinity recently came up in an online class called “The Practice of Ministry” that I am teaching for Grace Communion Seminary. The questions about these terms came from our use of the book Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service by Stephen Seamands. In the book Seamands uses these terms to talk about who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and what that has to do with our ministries.

I thought many of you might be interested in peeking into our class discussion, so I decided to post some of what I had to say in today’s blog post.

Perhaps it will even whet your appetite to take one of the classes. For the spring semester, starting this January, I will be teaching Church History from 70 A.D. – 1054 A.D.

To understand how theology uses these words such as “unorginate” and “begotten” we have to go back to the early Church’s effort to remain faithful to the Bible and the teaching of the apostles regarding who Jesus is. The Bible describes Jesus as the “Word” who is God and was in the beginning with God (John 1:1-2) now living in the flesh as a man (John 1:14). The teaching of the apostles, handed down along with the Biblical books, established that this language means that the Son (the Word) has no beginning in time. He is fully God and therefore eternal, without beginning or end.

This means that the Son has always been the Father’s Son.

The Father did not exist first and then bring the Son into existence. God has eternally, without a beginning point in time, been Triune. This was the issue that was settled at the Council of Nicea in 325.

The early Christians were searching for language to describe this eternal relationship between the persons of the Triune God. In their struggle they settled on the words “unorginate” and “begotten.” Perhaps we can even have faith to say that the Holy Spirit helped them choose these words.

To understand how these words were used we might think of this analogy:

Suppose three books are sitting on my desk: Book A, Book B, and Book C. If I wanted to I could describe the position of each book based on where it is in relation to the other two books. I could say “Book A is to the left of Book B.” Or I could say “Book B is between Book A and Book C.”

In describing who the persons of the Trinity are, the early Church took an approach that is similar to what I have just described with the books. They chose to describe each person of the Trinity in terms of who he is in relationship to the other persons. Why? Because there is nothing outside of, greater than, or other than God by which we can describe him. Since God is loving relationship as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the best way to describe each of the three persons is by describing who they are in relationship to each other.

So, who is God the Father? He is the person of God from whom the Son is beggotten and the Holy Spirit proceeds. Since the Father is not begotten of another person of the Trinity, nor does he proceed from another person of the Trinity, we can also describe him as the person of God who is “unbegotten” or “unoriginate.” Who is God the Son? He is the person of God who is begotten of the Father and through whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. Who is God the Holy Spirit? He is the person of God who proceeds from the Father through the Son. As Semands points out (p. 119), these two words (begotten and proceed) were taken by the early Christians directly from the Bible (John 1:14, 18, 15:26.)

Can you also see how these descriptions of the persons of the Trinity are relational?

The definition of the Father is based on his relationship to the Son and Spirit. The Son is defined in terms of his relationship to the Father and Spirit and the Spirit is defined in terms of his relationship the Father and Son.

In the same way that I might describe Book B based on its relationship to Book A by saying “Book B is to the right of Book A” so also I define the Son based on his relationship to the Father and the Spirit by saying that “the Son is begotten of the Father and the one through whom the Holy Spirit proceeds.”

But there is one very important difference between my analogy of the books and the Trinity.

We all know that there was a time when Books A, B, and C were not next to one another. First came the desk, then I acquired the books, and then I placed them on the desk in the order A, B, C. With regard to the Trinity there is no point in time in which the three persons began to relate to each other in the way they do. They have always been in this relationship with each other.

The Son has always, without a beginning in time, been begotten of the Father. The Father has always been the unbegotten one who begets the Son and the unorginate one from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds. Understanding this “timelessness” is vital to understanding what the early Church meant when they said the Son is begotten and the Father is unbegotten. Orginally, in Greek, the word for “begotten” just meant “born at a particular time” the way a baby is born. But when the early Church took the word “begotten” and began to use it in theology to describe the Son they gave it a particular, technical, theological meaning. In Trinitarian theology “begotten” means “always born of the Father without a beginning point in time.”

So, when theologians use the word “begotten” they are not saying “the Father pre-existed the Son.” They are using the term in its theological sense. They are saying “the Son has always been the begotten Son of the Father and the Father has always been the one who has no begetter, that is, the Father has always been the unbegotten one or the unorginate one.” The Father and Son have always existed in a relationship with each other in which the Father begets the Son. And the Holy Spirit has always existed in a relationship in which he proceeds from the Father through the Son.

At this point you may be thinking “who cares?”

Well, if there was a time when the Father existed and then he brought the Son and Spirit into existence then the Son and Spirit are not fully God. They are creations of God. But the Bible makes it clear that the Son and Spirit are God. Also, if we say that there is no difference between the Father, Son, and Spirit – if we say, for example, that those are just three different ways God acts – then that is not Biblical either because the Bible says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are distinct. For example, the Son is distinctly and uniquely the one begotten of the Father and the Spirit is distinctly and uniquely the one who proceeds from the Father through the Son. These distinct differences must be taken into account in our description of God just as much as the communion that the three persons have as One God.

So, to have a Biblical description of God we need a description that says that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all One God together without losing the distinctive nature of each person of God. God is One because the Father, Son, and Spirit, never exist apart from each other. In fact, you cannot define who they are apart from each other. The only way we know the Father’s identity is by defining him in relationship to the Son and the Spirit. But the Oneness of God does not destroy the distinct character of the Three persons. The Father is not Son because the Son is begotten and the Father is unbegotten. So, the three persons of God live in an inseparable communion as One God. Yet there is no loss of distinction in this communion because each person still remains distinctly himself.

For the last 1,700 years Christians have accepted that the Holy Spirit inspired the early Christians to choose correctly which books would be in the Bible. In a similar way we have accepted that the Holy Spirit inspired the early Christians to take words from the Bible like “begotten” and “proceed,” give those words technical definitions in the context of theology, and correctly hand those words on to us as the best way for our human language to talk about God’s Triune Life.

Knowing the theological use of these words helps us understand who the Trinity is.

The Trinity is the unorginate Father who begets the Son, and the Son who is begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father through the Son. The Trinity is these three persons living in their eternal relationship to each other as One God.

~ Jonathan Stepp

9 comments so far

  1. boydmerriman on

    Thanks for that extra clarification. I have explained to someone once who used us having different roles to different people to define God. I can be a brother, a son and a father (and uncle, etc). But I explained that I cannot be that to the same person. Jesus is son only to the Father, not to himself. Thats like being my own grandfather! 😉

    Now where I think some may be having trouble with your comment is where the term “begotten” is. Being eternally begotten as the Nicene Creed states, is a bit of a stretch for me right now. Jesus was with God forever, that I understand. I see Jesus as being the Word who was begotten. I see him as eternally the Word (and still is).

    I would like some more clarification of that word begotten when he was not created and was always with the Father and the holy spirit.

    Boyd

  2. Pastor Jonathan on

    Hey Boyd, thanks for the comments. As I said in the post, I think the key to understanding “begotten” is that it is timeless. The Father has always been begetting the Son and the Son has always been the one being begotten by the Father. In the context of the Trinity “begotten” refers to the nature of the relationship between two persons, the Father and the Son, not to a moment in time when something began to happen.

  3. Benjamin on

    Something that’s helpful for to remember when I think of Jesus as eternally begotten of the Father is that it describes his relationship, not an origin in time.

    Some people seem to think if we remove “coming into being” or “being born” from the meaning of “begotten” we are left with no meaning at all. Actually we are left with a VERY meaningful description of the relationship God has had with the Son in eternity. Even if I leave out “born” or “brought into existence” I can still find a lot to talk about in regard to my begotten.

    My begotten share in my human nature (down even to their DNA). My begotten behave in ways similar to their father. My begotten speak with similar vocabulary, grammar, and accent to me. My begotten are the object of my love and faithfulness. My begotten can speak on my behalf in many situations.

    The Son or Logos is described as eternally begotten for many reasons including: The Son eternally shares in the nature and being of the Father. The Son eternally expresses the exact Word of the Father. The eternally acts in unity with the Father (even though allowing for distinction with the unity). The Son eternally gives and receives love with the Father (and the Spirit). The Son shares eternally in the authority of the Father.

    I hope this helps others as much as it has helped me!

  4. Pastor Jonathan on

    Thanks, Ben, I find your comments very helpful! Thanks for sharing them.

  5. Roy on

    Nice post above.

    Curious about your thoughts as to “begotten” (monogenas) meaning “unique” or “one and only”. Although you seem sympathetic to eternal generation which is fine by me — it’s a compromise term to taken into account the Father’s “primary” and yet the Son’s eternality. Also, any suggested books on the “Son of God” title of Jesus? Or books on the concept of begotten/eternal generation? Seems to be hard to find good orthodox books.

    Thanks.

    • Pastor Jonathan on

      Translating monogenas as “unique” or “one and only” might be helpful for us in English because it gets us away from our sense that “begotten” has to have a point in time, however, I find it simpler to take “begotten” as a special theological term when used to speak of the Son and accept the special theological meaning that it has been given through Christian history. As far as books go, I would highly recommend “The Trinitarian Faith” by T.F. Torrance. He goes line by line through the Nicene Creed and shows how the Church Fathers interpreted the Bible to the write the Creed. In doing so he explains the Biblical basis and theological significance of God’s internal relationship as Father and Son. It is one of my favorite theology books of all time.

  6. Noir Thinker on

    With respect, this makes no sense. Begotten, in any other context seems to suggest ‘to be created’. Very confusing subject matter.

  7. T Lyngdoh Mawleh on

    I still confuse with the word “begotten” of the Son and “proceeds” of the Holy Spirit. I would like to get more explanation on this

  8. T Lyngdoh Mawlieh on

    Mawlieh not Mawleh


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