A reader emailed to ask me what I thought about the classic patristic doctrine of “eternal begetting
When this reader objected to someone that any process of begetting must be temporal, with a before and an after, he was told that this was an illicit use of “finite logic.”
A few thoughts in response:
- People who talk of “finite logic” generally don’t know what a logic is. I think what they mean to say is rather something about our finite, human intellectual powers, e.g. to think, believe, know, understand.
- Of course, we can only use the powers we have! There’s no way to get around them. Anyone who thinks he’s not using them, is of course, thereby using them. “Infinite logic” would be God’s noetic abilities. We don’t have those. Nor does trusting what God tells us give us those. Rather, in so trusting, we are exercising our finite abilities.
- It’s an interesting question how to figure in the work of God’s power given to believers here. God enables believers to do what they otherwise could not do; and yet, it is still the human who does it – whether we’re talking about healing the sick, or believing that Jesus is the Son of God. (This does not obviously exclude God from also being an agent of such actions too.)
- Is it obvious that the cause must temporally precede the effect? Some philosophers would say that claim is false. Think of the table leg causing the table top to remain where it is. Are not the cause (table leg being down here) and the effect (table top staying up there) simultaneous? So if causation is a relation between two states, or between two events, then perhaps cause and effect and can be simultaneous. Myself, I don’t find this example compelling – for it could be that the leg’s being there at time t causes the top’s being there at time t + 1 on down the line… Nothing we know rules this out.
- In any case, the generation of Son by Father is supposed to be agent causation – production/causation of something by a self (not by a state, fact, or event). And some of the Fathers stoutly assert that this causation is by the Father’s will – it is something he eternally, freely chooses to do. It is an intentional action. Typically, in cases like this, the cause exists before the effect does. And arguably, the act of will precedes the effect as well.
- But it is necessarily so? It is not obvious. That is, it is not obvious that there could not be a simultaneous agent-cause and effect. What would make it obvious, would be finding a contradiction in the scenario – this is how we prove something to be impossible. This is why guys as smart as Origen and Swinburne can speculate on the subject.
- I think it may depend on how we think of willing.
- If willing is just desiring, then I see no contradiction in the picture of the Father eternally desiring a Son, and because of this, the Son eternally existing. Maybe if you’re an omnipotent being, and you absolutely, all-things-considered desire something, that implies that that thing occurs.
- On the other hand, suppose that willing is choosing, that is, choosing between alternatives. This, I think, requires a before and an after. First, there are multiple, incompatible possibilities. Then, all but one of these are foreclosed – willing is choosing something for a reason.
- Yet this last is controversial. Some think willing is just here-and-now-intending, and why need there be any alternative, any that-rather-than-this?
- Some influential “fathers” would strongly insist that “generation” is almost completely opaque to us, that we have basically no grasp of it. Given this obfuscation, it’s hard to see how one could get any objection going, to the effect that their doctrine – whatever it is – is self-inconsistent. Hence, they’d say “generating” isn’t really like either desiring or choosing. (Probably inconsistently with this, some insist that the Father generates by his will.)
- In sum, I do not see any way to press a philosophical objection against eternal generation, on the grounds that it is incoherent. It is not demonstrably incoherent, even if it is coherent.
- The more important questions, I think, are (1) are there good grounds for this mysterious doctrine in the scriptures, and (2) is the doctrine theologically objectionable for any other reason (e.g. is it compatible with the “full deity” of Christ)?