The One Time I Disagreed with Mr. Forlines

By Benjamin G. Campbell

If you are a Free Will Baptist, then Leroy Forlines is a name that you will know and love. If you are a Free Will Baptist and you went to Welch College (or FWBBC), then you will also know and love not just a name, but a person. Leroy Forlines (alongside Robert Picirilli) was essentially the Reformed Arminian front-running theologian since the 1970s. He was our guy – sort of like the Calvin of Calvinism but for our movement. He published his first book, Biblical Ethics, in 1973 thus starting his journey of publishing works in order to help Free Will Baptists truly understand the nature of our doctrine and practice.

Forlines was, in many ways, a renaissance theologian. In saying this, I simply mean that he was more than just a systematician who systematizes doctrine throughout Scripture, but he was also a biblical theologian, an ethicist, and an expositor. Forlines was interested in staying true to the text of Scripture while he theologized, even when publishing his different works.[1] Until now, I really have not found an area in which I disagreed with Forlines – other than the contextual situation of Romans 7. However, since reading The Quest for Truth, his magnum opus of systematic theology, I have found at least one more disagreement, as well, that will be the content of this post.

My Disagreement

When you truly consider these words like disagreement, it takes quite the guts to write a post like this, which is why I haven’t until now. In January of this year, I wrote a post on the Trinity and specifically about why it was necessary for Christians today to recover and renew a classical understanding of the Trinity. In that post, I referenced some major terminology that is present in the creeds and confessions of the early church which can be helpful in understanding the nature of the Trinity altogether. One of these terms is the disagreement I reference today, the doctrine of eternal generation.

A Helpful Aside: What is Eternal Generation?

Eternal Generation is a doctrine that simply states that the Son’s eternal relation of origin (another necessary term to learn) is what is known as filiation. Simply put, this means that the Son is eternally begotten from the Father’s essence. In other words, he is not a different person, nor does he possess a different essence or set of attributes. Eternal Generation guarantees the sonship of the Son. The Athanasian Creed is helpful here in defining the eternal relations of origin. It states:

    The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten from anyone.
    The Son was neither made nor created;
    he was begotten from the Father alone.

    The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten;
    he proceeds from the Father and the Son.

In short, eternal generation explains, according to Matthew Barrett, that the Son being generated “from the Father refers to the Son’s origin in eternity, apart from creation. Generation is between Father and Son, an eternal act, and not between the Trinity and creation, as if it were a temporal act. As we will learn, generation is internal to the triune God—ad intra, as we like to say in Latin, as opposed to external, ad extra.”[2] Simply put, it is the way in which the Son is the Son.

Back to Forlines

In Quest, Forlines mentions minimally the term, but what he does say regarding the term is quite helpful in understanding his thought process. In other words, he understands the nature of eternal generation, though he disagrees. He writes that “those who hold to this view consider the generation of the Son by the Father to be the basis of the names Father and Son.”[3] He also quotes Buswell who notes that “the Bible has nothing whatsoever to say about ‘begetting’ as an eternal relationship between the Father and the Son.”[4]

By saying the Bible says nothing about eternal begetting, Buswell is correct to a degree. He is correct that the Bible never explicitly states that the Son is eternally begotten from the Father. However, he is incorrect that the Bible “has nothing to say whatsoever” regarding this belief. John’s gospel mentions Christ as the “only begotten” Son of God (John 1:14, 18: 3:16, 18). (While John uses “only” instead of “eternally,” John’s gospel contextualizes that the only begotten Son was eternally begotten.)

But Christians also helpfully use creeds and confessions to express and affirm and confess what we believe. The Nicene Creed expresses, “We believe in…one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father before all time.” You can also reference my previous mentioning of the Athanasian Creed declaring that Christ was “neither made nor created” but was “begotten from the Father alone.”

Nonetheless, Forlines mentions Buswell because he partially sides with him, but not fully. Forlines believes the terminology is rather unhelpful, and ultimately believes that the Son and Spirit functionally subordinate themselves to the Father in the economy of redemption. “To me the expression ‘eternal generation,’” he writes, “is self-contradictory. Generation implies a process that has a beginning. Eternal denies the idea of beginning.”[5] In short, you can take his comments and summarize that he is not convinced biblically of this idea’s terminology.

Was Forlines Wrong?

To be fair and honest, I do not believe someone is necessarily believing incorrect doctrine simply because they do not affirm the terminology of eternal generation. However, I do have a disagreement with Forlines’s approach to the Trinity.[6] Forlines’s Trinitarian approach digresses from classical Trinitarianism in that he assumes a functional subordination of both the Son and the Spirit.

On the contrary, I believe eternal generation is a helpful, biblical (and historical!) way to understand what we can about the nature of the Trinity. Terms like eternal generation and the eternal relations of origin help us to signify and shore up the distinctions of a God who describes Himself as One but also Three. Specifically, eternal generation helps us to understand how the Son is the Son. Fred Sanders is helpful here: “Its fundamental value is that it tells the truth about who God the Son is according to Scripture. Even if it were a truth with no further practical implications, that would be enough, because confessing the Son’s eternal generation would help us keep our balance not just in christology but in everything we say about God the Son.”[7]

Conclusion

Again – I am not fond of the disagreement I take with Forlines because of the impact he had on my life and the impact he will continue to have as I read and reread his published works. However, I do believe that this is a disagreement worth having. Sadly, I was unable to take classes with him because he had already retired by the time I was in college – though he did sit in a few times to guest lecture.

The eternal generation of the Son matters because it distinguishes the Son from the Father (the same with the spiration of the Spirit). And by the way, it is generation alone that distinguishes the Son from the Father. It is not a functional submission, because this can lead to a hierarchy in the Godhead that is not found anywhere in Scripture. The Triune God exists as three persons who are coeternal and coequal and exists with one will and one essence. The Son’s essence is the Father’s essence – specifically because the Son is generated from the Father from all eternity.

I leave you with a final quote from Sanders again: “There is a linked chain of sonship that is joined to God on one side and our salvation on the other. The only-begotten Son becomes the incarnate Son and brings about fellowship with adopted sons. The more clearly and surely we confess the eternal begetting of God the Son, the more deeply we will understand our regeneration as adopted sons.”[8]


[1] One can look at the extent of Forlines’s publishing career to see just how flexible he was regarding theology. Forlines was one who seriously considered the text of Scripture and how it applied to life.

[2] Matthew Barrett, “What Is Eternal Generation” Tabletalk, accessed June 13, 2022, https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/what-is-eternal-generation/.

[3] F. Leroy Forlines. The Quest For Truth: Theology for Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 91.

[4] See note 8 of chapter 6 in Quest.

[5] Forlines, Quest, 91.

[6] It seems Forlines leans more toward the belief of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS), which can be problematic if not held at bay. He says, “…there is some voluntary functional subordination in some developments in the economy of redemption. There is a voluntary subordination of the Son to the Father. That the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son implies some functional subordination.” See Quest, 92.

[7] Fred Sanders, “Forever and Always the Son: Why We Treasure Eternal Generation” Desiring God, accessed June 13, 2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/forever-and-always-the-son.

[8] Ibid.

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