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It seems to me that "eternal generation" is an oxymoron:

"a combination of contradictory or incongruous words (as cruel kindness); broadly : something (as a concept) that is made up of contradictory or incongruous elements"

It seems to me that "generation" requires at least a single step:

a : the action or process of producing offspring : procreation b : the process of coming or bringing into being c : origination by a generating process : production; especially : formation of a geometric figure by motion of another

Do they say:

  • God and Jesus both existed eternally with Jesus "describable" as a son, begotten, etc. but with no actual, literal birthing having occurred?

  • the begetting of Jesus occurred so long ago as to be for all intents and purposes to still be considered "eternally so"?

  • it is a "mystery beyond human comprehension" (as the Trinity in general is often described)?

Or do they simply use the term without explanation of the contradiction?

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    I would say that the generation of the Son from the Father is an ontological generation, not a temporal one. The Son's being is derived from and dependent on the Father; the Son is the "Word" (or intellectual act) of the Father. But that derivation was not in time ; that is, it is not the case that at some time the Son did not yet exist. In fact, time is an aspect of the created world, and the Trinity exists quite apart from time. (Unfortunately, I'm too busy to look up references and, if necessary, correct this formulation; that's why it's a comment and not an answer.) – Andreas Blass Jan 3 '17 at 1:49
  • @AndreasBlass There is an answer that describes some of Augustine's points on time that may be helpful. – KorvinStarmast Jan 5 '17 at 5:04
  • No contradiction once one frames it in terms of eternity/infinity. – KorvinStarmast Jan 5 '17 at 5:08
  • @KorvinStarmast Thanks for the pointer to Augustine's explanation. – Andreas Blass Jan 5 '17 at 14:24
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Saint Thomas Aquinas discusses the question in his Summa Theologica, under the headings "Whether there is procession in God?" and "Whether any procession in God can be called generation?" (First Part, Question 27, Articles 1 and 2)

"Procession" is Aquinas' description of "origin"—the introduction to Question 27 states:

Because the divine Persons are distinguished from each other according to the relations of origin, the order of the doctrine leads us to consider firstly, the question of origin or procession...

Thus, Aquinas begins by asking whether any members of the Trinity can be said to "originate from" the others. He considers the objection that procession or origination seems to imply change (a "before", when Christ was not generated, and an "after", when He was). This, he says, is not the case for God: God is sufficiently unlike us that our best approximations to His activity fall short. But insofar as we can draw analogies to him, they should come from the realm of intellectual things (which Aquinas, following Aristotle, viewed as "higher" than physical objects).

We should understand what is said of God, not according to the mode of the lowest creatures, namely bodies, but from the similitude of the highest creatures, the intellectual substances; while even the similitudes derived from these fall short in the representation of divine objects.

In his search for an analogy drawn from intellectual objects, Aquinas takes the example of a thought that we have upon understanding something in the real world.

Whenever we understand, by the very fact of understanding there proceeds something within us, which is a conception of the object understood, a conception issuing from our intellectual power and proceeding from our knowledge of that object. This conception is signified by the spoken word; and it is called the word of the heart signified by the word of the voice. ... Procession ... is to be understood by way of an intelligible emanation, for example, of the intelligible word which proceeds from the speaker, yet remains in him. In that sense the Catholic Faith understands procession as existing in God.

(the preceding quotes are from Article 1)

Having proved to his satisfaction that members of the Trinity can be said to proceed, or originate, from others, Aquinas next considers whether any such procession/origination can be called "generation". Again, he considers a couple of objections:

It would seem that no procession in God can be called generation. For generation is change from non-existence to existence, and is opposed to corruption; while matter is the subject of both. Nothing of all this belongs to God. Therefore generation cannot exist in God. ...

Further, anything that is generated derives existence from its generator. Therefore such existence is a derived existence. But no derived existence can be a self-subsistence. Therefore, since the divine existence is self-subsisting, it follows that no generated existence can be the divine existence. Therefore there is no generation in God.

He observes, however, that "generation has a twofold meaning". In one sense it simply means the creation of one thing from another (for example of smoke from a piece of burning wood). In this example, smoke changes from "potential smoke" to "actual smoke" when the wood is burned. In another sense, though, it specifically applies to living beings, who proceed one from another like it: "the origin of a living being from a conjoined living principle ... by way of similitude". And generation in living beings—having offspring—includes both these senses, because we are contingent beings: we are constantly changing, moving from potential to actuality.

With God, however, there is no potential, only actuality. (This is because of the Catholic description of God; the essence of God is to actually exist.) Thus, the first sense of "generation" can't apply to God. But the second can, and does.

In this manner the procession of the Word in God is generation; for He proceeds by way of intelligible action, which is a vital operation:---from a conjoined principle (as above described):---by way of similitude, inasmuch as the concept of the intellect is a likeness of the object conceived:---and exists in the same nature, because in God the act of understanding and His existence are the same, as shown above (Q[14], A[4]). Hence the procession of the Word in God is called generation; and the Word Himself proceeding is called the Son.

(preceding quotes from Article 2)

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The English word “generation” is derived from the Latin word generatio, which is used in the Latin Vulgate to translate the Greek word γένεσις that occurs in the Greek New Testament.

For example, in Matt. 1:1–2, it is written,

1 The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; KJV, 1769

Α Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, υἱοῦ Δαβὶδ, υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ Β Ἀβραὰμ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰσαάκ Ἰσαὰκ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰακώβ Ἰακὼβ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰούδαν καὶ τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς αὐτοῦ TR, 1550

Not only did I embolden generation and γενέσεως, but also begat and ἐγέννησεν. One must note that ἐγέννησεν, a conjugation of the lemma γεννῶ (contraction of γεννάω), is related to the noun γένεσις (and thus the genitive case, singular number declension γενέσεως) by the stem γεν-. While the KJV translates ἐγέννησεν as “begat,” it could also be translated as “engendered,” thus retaining the gen- stem in English.

To beget or engender someone is simply to father them. We understand this temporal generation according to our own human nature. During human generation and subsequent birth, a human is made and comes into existence.

In endeavoring to understand the eternal generation of God the Son, some erroneously transfer those same human processes to the Holy Trinity. They reason that, if we were made and came into existence by our own generation by our own parents, then God the Son must have also been made and come into existence by his eternal generation by God the Father.

The problem with this reasoning is that our parents, being human, are mutable creatures, while God the Father is the immutable Creator. Whenever human parents conceive a fetus, the fetus can never be an exact image and representation of its parents—a perfect clone, if you will. Not only are there two parents, and the fetus cannot receive the entire genetic material of each parent, but each parent’s genetic material has endured decay and mutation during the parent’s lifetime. It is absolutely impossible (zero probability) for a child to be an exact “twin” (clone) of its parents.

On the other hand, God the Son is “the image of the invisible God.”1 This is not merely analogous to someone taking a photograph of someone else and looking at the photograph saying, “This is really a nice photo of you!” First, the photograph is not living. Secondly, it is corruptible and can be destroyed. On the other hand, God the Son who is the image of the invisible God is eternal and immutable, “the same yesterday, today, and forever.”2 Only God is immutable since He alone is uncreated. All else that is created is mutable.

In Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr wrote,3

For those things which exist after God, or shall exist at some time, these have a corruptible nature, and are such as may be both utterly destroyed and no longer exist; for God alone is unoriginated and incorruptible, and therefore, He is God, but all other things after Him are originated and corruptible.

ὅσα γάρ ἐστι μετὰ τὸν θεὸν ἢ ἔσται ποτέ, ταῦτα φύσιν φθαρτὴν ἔχειν, καὶ οἷά τε ἐξαφανισθῆναι καὶ μὴ εἶναι ἔτι· μόνος γὰρ ἀγέννητος καὶ ἄφθαρτος ὁ θεὸς καὶ διὰ τοῦτο θεός ἐστι, τὰ δὲ λοιπὰ πάντα μετὰ τοῦτον γεννητὰ καὶ φθαρτά.

The eternal generation of the Lord Jesus Christ is alluded to in scripture in John 8:42, wherein the Lord Jesus Christ states, «ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐξῆλθον»—“I came out of God.” This particular phrase consisting of the verb ἐξέρχομαι in combination with the preposition ἐκ suggests being born or generated.4

Henry Alford wrote,5

ἥκω conveys the result of ἐξῆλθον, as Meyer; who also remarks that mere sending will not exhaust ἐξῆλθον, which must be taken metaphysically, of the proceeding forth of the Eternal Son from the essence of the Father.

As far as how this eternal generation and procession occurred in eternity, there is no possible way for any human to conceive of such thoughts. It is beyond our understanding, for as we do not even understand the complex physiological processes and operations of our own bodies, how could we possibly understand something supernatural and extraordinary as the eternal generation?

The best means we have of understanding the eternal generation is limited to analogies.6 As we do not truly comprehend the very essence or existence of God, we certainly cannot comprehend His operations, including the creation of the universe, and especially, the eternal generation of His Son.


References

Alford, Henry. The Greek Testament. Vol. 1. Boston: Lee, 1878.

S. Justinus Philosophus et Martyr. Πρὸς Τρύφωνα Ἰουδαῖον Διάλογος (“Dialogue with Trypho the Jew”). Patrologiæ Cursus Completus: Series Græca. Ed. Migne, Jacques Paul. Vol. 6. Petit-Montrouge: Imprimerie Catholique, 1857.

Footnotes

1 Col. 1:15
2 Heb. 13:8
3 Ch. V, p. 488
4 cp. Gen. 15:4, 35:11
5 p. 797
6 Justin Martyr used the analogy of a fire kindling another fire yet not being diminished in intensity. See his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Ch. LXI and CXXVIII.

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    @WoundedEgo Your use of the term "contradictory" does not fit very well here. Hard to understand and contradictory are not synonyms. I find it hard to understand n-dimensional space, but that does not make it contradictory to the three dimensional models of space that I do understand. – KorvinStarmast Jan 5 '17 at 5:12
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    @WoundedEgo In your first comment on this answer, you seem to pull from thin air the claim that the Catholic description is contradictory. It's not clear to me what exactly the alleged contradiction is. The law of non-contradiction says that a statement "A" and the contrary "not A" cannot both be true. Are you claiming that there is an unambiguous statement "A" about which Catholicism asserts both "A" and "not A"? If so, could you please specify what that statement "A" is? – Andreas Blass Jan 5 '17 at 14:29
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    @WoundedEgo You keep using that word. {contradiction} I do not think it means what you think it means If you presume that God is bound by mortal limitations, then we aren't even talking about the same subject. – KorvinStarmast Jan 5 '17 at 14:48
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    @WoundedEgo As far as I know, the A in your latest comment agrees with Catholic belief (at least if "God" here means God the Father) but only half of B does. "Jesus always existed" is correct, but "and did not originate from anyone/anything else" is not. – Andreas Blass Jan 5 '17 at 21:51
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    @WoundedEgo Jesus's miraculous birth does not explain (to me) John 17:5, where Jesus speaks to the Father about "the glory which I had with thee before the world was." – Andreas Blass Jan 5 '17 at 22:52

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