Any student of church history would acknowledge that controversies concerning the nature of Christ are nothing new. From the Arianism of the 3rd and 4th centuries to the Jehovah’s Witnesses of modern times, the divinity and Sonship of Jesus has been the subject of church councils and theological debates throughout the centuries. And as history has shown us, this is no little issue either. What you believe about the nature of Jesus has major consequences for theology.
Today, I am tackling an issue of Christology that many people would not find to be so major: is Jesus begotten from the Father, or is He the unique Son of God? At first glance, this does not seem to be a big deal. They do, after all, seem to represent the same idea regarding Jesus’s sonship. Or is it a more important issue than we surmise?
Without question, the most popular and well-known verse in the church, as well as popular culture, is John 3:16. Countless sermons and commentaries have been poured over this verse, and for those who are un-churched, you’ve probably seen “John 3:16” many times at football games, plastered across signs and eye black. For most of us, we can scan through the verse without comment or thought about its meaning or its implications.
You are probably most familiar with the King James version of this passage, which goes as so:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
In recent years, however, you may have noticed a trend in how this verse is translated:
NIV: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
ESV: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
ISV: For this is how God loved the world: He gave his unique Son so that everyone who believes in him might not be lost but have eternal life.
NRSV: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
NABRE: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.
As noted above, most modern translations drop the word “begotten” from the verse entirely. Oddly enough, this trend is not bound to evangelical circles either. Liberal translations such as the NRSV and Catholic translations like the NABRE also remove “begotten”. As I will argue below, the dropping of one word has big implications for interpretation and theology.
Only or Begotten? What’s the Difference?
In one sense, the terms “only” and “begotten” can be interpreted as interchangeable. One can argue that “only” can carry the same sense as “begotten” because of 1. the word for “begotten” in the Greek text (see below), and 2. the meaning that can be assumed from the text. Surely, if we read our English Bibles, we can understand that Christ is the only unique Son of the Father in the Trinity without having to make unnecessary additions to Scriptures, right?
On closer investigation, “only” in reference to Christ’s relationship to the Father is a poor term to describe the Godhead. One reason for this is the ambiguity that naturally arises concerning Jesus’s divinity. Christ can certainly be called God’s only son without having to affirm the Son as divine. This is what the fourth-century church leader Arius proclaimed, arguing that Jesus was not in of himself divine but was the first and greatest of the Father’s creations. If “begotten” is retained, we then now see that Christ’s begotteness means that Christ shares His Father’s nature, thereby being at one with the Father in divinity (John 10:30).
Another reason against the word “only” for describing Christ’s nature revolves around another Christian doctrine, namely that of adoption. By entering the family of God, we inherit the right to become sons and daughters of God, though not ourselves becoming divine. As the Apostle Paul writes, “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Rom 8:15). Becuase of this, Christ cannot be the only son of God, as the saints themselves are also sons of God. By being “begotten”, Christ stands alone among all the children of God. He is not creaturely or created like the adopted saints, but has and always will be God’s “biological” son, not merely adopted as such.
The Greek word for “begotten” in the text is μονογενη (monogene). It could literally be translated as “unique/one of a kind” (μόνος=only, alone/γένος=family, offspring), and is used several times throughout the New Testament as well as the Septuagint. Almost every time in the Scriptures, μονογενη is used to refer to a biological child:
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.
– Judges 11:34 (LXX)
O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth And roll in ashes; Mourn as for an only son, A lamentation most bitter. For suddenly the destroyer Will come upon us.
– Jeremiah 6:26 (LXX)
As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.’
– Luke 7:12
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son;*
– Hebrews 11:17
There are instances, however, where it may be ambiguous as to whether μονογενη means only biological son or daughter. One of the most cited examples used against the “begotten” translation comes from First Clement, a letter written by the early church father Clement of Rome. In his letter to the Corinthians (not to be confused with Paul’s letters to the Corinthians), Clement describes the mythical creature of the phoenix as an allegory of the resurrection:
Let us consider that wonderful sign [of the resurrection] which takes place in Eastern lands, that is, in Arabia and the countries round about. There is a certain bird which is called a phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and lives five hundred years; and when it reaches the time of its dissolution that it should die, it makes for itself a coffin of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, into which in the fulness of time it enters and then dies. But as the flesh rots, a certain worm is engendered, which is nurtured from the moisture of the dead creature, and puts forth wings. Then when it has grown lusty, it takes up that coffin where are the bones of its parent, and carrying them, it journeys from the country of Arabia even unto Egypt, to the place called the City of the Sun—and in full daylight and in the sight of all, it flies to the altar of the Sun and lays them on it. And this done, it then returns. So the priests examine the registers of the times, and they find that it has come when the five hundredth year is completed.
– First Clement 24
Many scholars, including Christian scholars such as Richard Longnecker (“The One and Only Son”), have used this passage to argue against translating μονογενη as “begotten” because it is not implied that the phoenix is the offspring of anything before it. By this line of reasoning, the phoenix must be considered “one and only” because the phoenix has no biological parent that is the same in nature as its offspring. The argument falls flat, however, because the offspring of the phoenix, the regeneration of itself, can still carry the same meaning of being “begotten”, being both unique as well as arising out of the same nature as its predecessor (Herodotus, Histories 2. 73).
Another example used by some scholars to demonstrate the variety of meaning for μονογενη is by the fifth-century philosopher Parmenides, who writes that Being is “ungenerated [ageneton], imperishable, whole, unique [monogenes], and without end” (Parmenides B.8:4). There are two major problems with this argument, one of which is the ambiguity of the passage. Further research into this fragment of Parmenides’s writing has shown that the wording may had been corrupted, weakening the veracity of using the passage as evidence against its translation. And even if μονογενη had been a part of the original work, too much time had elapsed between Parmenides and the Gospel of John (almost half a millennium!) to ascertain whether or not the word still carried the same meaning as it did for John.
Due to the great weight of the evidence for the traditional rendering of μονογενη and the weak evidence for the “only, unique” translation, it is the opinion of this writer that the Greek word carries the sense of the person/object being the only biological/natural offspring of its parent/descendant. Consequently, there is no strong reason from Scripture to exclude “begotten” from John 3:16 or the other passages in John (1:14, 1:18, 3:18) on lexical or theological grounds. But what has the Church thought about this?
The Begotten Son of God in the Early Church
The concept of Jesus being the only Son of God has been a doctrine historically affirmed by the Church at various times, starting with the Apostles Creed:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son Our Lord
What is meant by being the Son of God, though, was a major point of contention in the early church, and this controversy soon morphed into the major theological conflict of the 3rd and 4th centuries. On the one side were the Arians, named after Arius, the priest of Alexandria. The Arians affirmed that “there was a time when He was not”, that Jesus was the Son of God in that He was the first and greatest of God’s creations, thereby making Him a creature created by the Father and stripping him of any divine claims. On the other side were the orthodox Christians, spearheaded by Alexander of Alexandria and, more famously, Athanasius of Alexandria. The orthodox affirmed the Trinitarian aspects of God, holding that while Jesus was functionally subordinate to the will of the Father, He still was ontologically equal to the Father in divine nature. In other words, Jesus is subordinate to the will of the Father in the Godhead, but in nature He is equal to the Father. This was the position that prevailed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and affirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, a position officially defined in the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Ever since, the Church has affirmed the words of the Nicene Creed with regards to nature of the Son with the Father. Arius has gone down in Christian history as a notorious heretic and branches of Christianity such as the Unitarians have been labeled as heterodox and not within the boundaries of classical Christianity. Today, the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and most Protestant churches have held to the divinity of Christ and His relation to the Father as begotten from Him.
Words can carry a great deal of weight. The removal or addition of even one word can change the entire meaning, and in fewer places is this truer than in the establishment of doctrine. In this case, the dropping of the word “begotten” from Christian translations affects how we see God and how we understand who Jesus is. Most likely, the dropping of the word was not to dismiss the doctrine of Christ’s relationship to the Father. This was probably done out of convenience to the reader in order that the Bible is easier to read. At the same time, there comes a point when we cannot sacrifice important doctrines for convenience, especially on matters of theology and Christology.
*According to Scripture, Abraham had more than one begotten son, as Ishmael was also a son of his body (Gen 16:15). The author of Hebrews of course knew this, but highlighted Issac because he was the son through whom the convenant was to be established, making Issac Abraham’s “true son”.