The Only Begotten Son (ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός) by Michael Marlowe

20120808-093505.jpgAn article by Michael Marlowe on the term “only begotten” (Gr. μονογενὴς monogenes)

“My purpose here is to discuss the meaning of the word μονογενής (monogenes) as used in the New Testament, the Septuagint, and in other ancient writings. I am especially interested in its use by the Apostle John in his Gospel and in his first Epistle, and its use in the Nicene Creed of A.D. 325. I will argue that the rendering “one and only” is semantically reductionistic and theologically inadequate.

“The Greek word μονογενής is an adjective compounded of μονος “only” and γενος “species, race, family, offspring, kind.” In usage, with few exceptions it refers to an only son or daughter. When used in reference to a son, it cannot mean “one of a kind,” because the parent is also of the same kind. The meaning is, the son is the only offspring of the parent, not the only existing person of his kind. And so in the Greek translation of the book of Tobit, when Raguel praises God for having mercy on δυο μονογενεις (8:17), he does not mean that his daughter Sara and Tobias were two “unique” persons; he means that they were both only-begotten children of their fathers. In Luke’s Gospel, the word is used in reference to an only child in 7:12, 8:42, and 9:38. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, it is said that when Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac he was offering up τον μονογενή, “his only-begotten” (11:17), because although Abraham had another son, God had said that only in Isaac shall Abraham’s seed (σπερμα) be named. … 1 When the word μονογενής is used in reference to a son or daughter, it always means “only-begotten.”

… In four of the five places the word is used as an adjective modifying “Son,” and in one of these (1:18) the Son is said to be “in the bosom of the Father.” In the one place where it occurs as a substantive (1:14), it is followed by the prepositional phrase “from the Father,” which implies sonship. And so we see that in every occurrence John is using the word as a biological metaphor, in which Christ is the “Only Begotten Son” of the Father.

Is there any doctrinal importance in this? Yes, there is. The biological metaphor, in which the Son (and only the Son) shares the genus of the Father, conveys the idea that Jesus Christ is a true genetic Son, having the same divine nature or essence as the Father. The meaning of the word μονογενὴς here is not just “only” or “one and only,” as in the RSV, NIV, and ESV translations. John is not saying that the Son is “one of a kind.” He is saying that Christ is the second of a kind, uniquely sharing the genus of the Father because he is the only begotten Son of the Father, as in the KJV, ERV, and NASB. In the early centuries of Christianity, this point of exegesis acquired great importance. During the fourth century a teaching known as the Arian heresy (which maintained that the Son was a created being) threatened the Church, and in response to it the orthodox Fathers emphasized that the Scripture speaks of a begetting of the Son, not a creation. On that Scriptural basis they maintained that the Son must be understood to be of the same essence as the Father (ὁμοούσιος τῷ πατρί). They further explained that when Scripture speaks of this “begetting” it refers to something taking place in eternity, not within time, and so there were never a time when the Father was without the Son. The orthodox teaching on this subject was set forth in the Creed adopted by the Council of Nicæa in A.D. 325: …

The truth is, those who do not acknowledge this meaning of the word μονογενής in the Johannine writings are themselves dogmatically motivated. Their preferred translation—“only”—is an undertranslation which hides from view a Scriptural datum that supports the Christology of the ancient Creed but which happens to be unpopular with modern theologians.

There is a tendency among modern theologians to “divide the Substance” of the Godhead (cf. the warning against this in the Athanasian Creed) by positing such independence and equality of the Persons of the Trinity that we can no longer conceive of them as being one God. Some modern theologians have little use for the term ὁμοούσιος (“one essence”), and they cannot abide the idea that there is any ontological priority of the Father in the Trinity, because this is too “hierarchical” and “patriarchal” for our egalitarian age. The Son and the Spirit must be made totally equal to the Father in all respects, even if it means making them into three Gods. This trend is largely driven by liberal theologians who favor the new “social Trinity” concept (Moltmann being prominent among them), which imagines the Trinity to be like a voluntary society of persons who are not ontologically connected.

Among the more conservative thinkers there are also some who have criticized the Nicene Creed because they refuse any explanation of the relationship between Father and Son which describes the Son as being secondary to the Father in his “mode of subsistence.” In their view, it “detracts from the glory of the Son,” as Robert Reymond puts it. This appears to be an over-reaction to modern Unitarianism. Reymond claims that John Calvin was also opposed to the “eternally begotten” teaching of the Nicene Creed for this reason, but he has misinterpreted Calvin. We see a good motive here, because Reymond wishes to defend the divinity of Christ, but he is still wrong. Tritheism is no less heretical than Unitarianism.

One often encounters in liberal writers some statement to the effect that the Nicene doctrine of eternal generation derives from the emanationist metaphysics of ancient pagan philosophy, rather than from the Bible. Not that they care what the Bible says—they only wish to discredit the Nicene Creed in the eyes of those who do care what the Bible teaches. Unfortunately, in recent years this idea has been picked up by some relatively conservative theologians also, such as Paul Helm. In lectures and articles he has repeated this canard, alleging that the Nicene teachings concerning the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit “derive not from the New Testament but from pagan philosophy, from Neoplatonism.” But anyone who is really familiar with Neo-Platonism will readily see how implausible it is to maintain that the Nicene Fathers borrowed any element of their Christology from this pagan philosophy.  …

Finally, it must not be supposed that all translators who have preferred “only” over “only begotten” are deliberately undertranslating the word μονογενής for theological reasons. Many translators simply wish to keep their translations simple and idiomatic, and the word “begotten” does not commend itself to those who are trying to translate the text into a familiar and contemporary style of English. It may also be that some translators prefer to leave out the “begotten” because they fear that laymen will misinterpret this to mean that the Son had a beginning in time. Unfortunately, by failing to convey the “begotten” component of meaning in the word μονογενής they are in effect discarding centuries of careful theological exegesis, and it seems that we can hardly afford this loss in our generation. We need more theological literacy in the churches today, and it is not helpful when translators strip theologically important words from the text of the English Bible. The rendering “only begotten,” or some other equivalent expression, should at least be indicated in the footnotes of English versions, and it is the duty of pastors to explain what this means.”

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3 responses to “The Only Begotten Son (ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός) by Michael Marlowe

  1. I like this and think it is a very important subject today. I despise the trinity doctrine and think it is a doctrine of the devil to confuse the simplicity in Christ. The scripture is very simple to understand on this matter. God his father is superior to Jesus and is head over him and everything else.
    John 14:28 Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.
    1 Corinthians 11:3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
    Acts 10:38 How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.
    God gave him his power and his spirit, God gave him everything. The only power is God the Almighty.
    Epistle to Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
    This also cannot be refuted. If Jesus was equal with God these and many other scriptures would be a lie. Can God Lie? NO!
    Acts 2:22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did through him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:
    God does all the works he is the only one with power. This is why Jesus says in John that he of himself could do nothing. He couldnt if God was not with him. Jesus is the Lamb Of God. He is our atonement for sin a sweet sacrifice to God for all of us. Jesus is the Son Of God.
    Jesus is not the God of the old testament. He is the only begotten son of the God of the old testament!
    You have touched on a subject that is very important and I believe it is one of the most important doctrine deceptions in christianity today.

    • Hi Marcus,

      I appreciate your comment. I was formerly a non-Trinitarian (for about 20 years) so understand your point of view. I have been on both sides of this debate, and have seen churches and families split over this issue. I wish to treat you with respect, knowing how deep these questions can be. I hope to be of some help to you.

      I have seen the fruits of questioning or rejecting the full deity of Jesus, and the doctrinal views that result from it. History records those who rejected the Trinity, and their lives or movements never bore fruit. Champions of the gospel have universally believed and defended the full deity of the Son. For an example, do a search for John Newton and his debate with clergyman Thomas Scott. Thomas Scott saw his error through dialogue with John Newton, and renounced his non-Trinitarian views and was born again.

      There are extreme views of the trinitarian doctrine which deny any distinction between the persons of the Godhead, a view which I believe destroys (or at least diminishes) the possibility of knowing and experiencing God, and understanding the gospel. Michael Marlowe, the author of the article quoted in this blog, is Reformed and a Trinitarian. It seems from his article that he rejects tritheistic egalitarian trinitarianism (three completely self originating Gods in unity). This idea of complete co-equality refuses to recognize or acknowledge any priority of the Father within the Godhead, and seems to be the favoured model of politically correct churches and radical feminism. It is not taught in Scripture, and was not the dominant view of the early Church.

      A simple analogy for this divine relationship is reflected in the human father-son relationship, which is used to describe God. A father is no more human than his son. There is no superiority of nature of a father over his son. Yet, there are certainly ways in which a father has priority within the relationship, for example, in authority.

      When the Son says that his Father is greater than Him, it is not in reference to His divine nature, for he is one with his Father’s in this regard. However, the Son is subject to the Father in authority. This theological concept is known as ontological equality, and functional or economic subordination. This was the key that opened my eyes to reconcile many conflicting ideas from Scripture that I had been unable to resolve. I had only been taught the egalitarian trinity, and rejected it on Scriptural grounds, as it seems you have done.

      I highly recommend the book by Michael Reeves, “Delighting in the Trinity”. Please read this. I hope to do a review of the book on this blog in the future. He is a solid Trinitarian scholar, and yet writes most beautifully about the relationship between the Father and Son.

      I also encourage you to read the other articles on my blog that deal with the deity of Christ, and the eternal generation of the son. The Son is “of” and from the Father, but not created, or coming into existence in point of time. This has always been held in truly orthodox Christianity. The Nicene creed affirms belief in:

      “one Lord Jesus Christ,
      the only begotten Son of God,
      begotten of his Father before all worlds,
      God of God, Light of Light,
      very God of very God,
      begotten, not made,
      being of one substance with the Father;
      by whom all things were made …”

      This earliest trinitarian creed expresses that the Father is the source of the Son, while holding the highest nature of deity of the Son, in whom dwells the fulness of the Godhead bodily.

      The Trinitarian doctrine was meant to protect the essential deity and dignity of the Son, against those who would view Him as the noblest of God’s creation. Anything less than infinite, is infinitely less. If the Son is less than infinite, then clearly He is unlike his Father. If the Son is unlike his Father, then God is a solitary God. To view God as a singularity has more in common with the Muslim deity than the God revealed in the Bible.

      The Christian God always exists in relationship. It is his nature to give and receive. His creation pours forth from this eternal desire and reveals him as a loving, giving God. Allah exists by himself, and does everything for his own pleasure. He is a deity who has collapsed on his own infinite attributes, for he has no other to share in them. The God of the Bible exists as three, and shares these attributes in a joyous, reciprocal relationship.

      The Christian God creates and redeems. When we say “God created the heavens and the earth”, who do we (as Christians) mean? Was it not the Father, through the Son, with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters?

      When we say “God saves”, is it not the Father who plans and sends the Son (Jesus/Yeshua = “salvation”) into the world and draws us to Him, who in turn sends the Holy Spirit to apply and impart this salvation to those who believe?

      It is impossible to remove Father, or Son, or Spirit, from the work of creation, or the work of redemption. In these points, they are one, united and indivisible; and no other beings participate with them in these events. Yet, we do see that everything originates with the Father, is accomplished in and by the Son, and proceeds forth through the Spirit.

      Keep searching,

      Leif

  2. Thank you for sharing that article from Marlowe! My Bible Study group just finished studying the deity of Christ and there was some discussion about the meaning of “only begotten,” that perhaps it conveys a beginning. We thought that the newer translations were hoping to diminish the analogy of “birth” in order to avoid the possible misunderstanding that the second Person of the Trinity had a beginning. For example, Jehovah Witnesses teach “…He is also God’s ‘only-begotten’ Son, in that he is the only one directly created by Jehovah God; all other things came into existence through him as God’s Chief Agent.” So, it was especially enlightening to understand that the phrase “only-begotten” actually reinforces the idea of deity, rather than confusing it.
    OBTW, could you please contact me?

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