Last Monday I looked at “‘Begotten’ in Baptist Confessions.” In the background of this is a modern debate over the meaning of the Greek word monogenes. The popular and promoted view among scholars today is that it means “only” or “unique.” While I neither berate nor dismiss scholarship, the awakened mind must realize that they tend to “follow fads” and “ride bandwagons” just like the rest of us.
The Greek adjective monogenes (μονογενής) is found nine times in the New Testament (three in Luke’s gospel, 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; five in John’s writings, John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18, 1 John 4:9; and once in Hebrews 11:17). Three times monogenes is translated “only. ”Six times monogenes is translated “only begotten.”[i] Here are the verses:
Luke 7:12 – Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow: and much people of the city was with her.
Luke 8:42 – for he had one only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she lay a dying. But as he went the people thronged him.
Luke 9:38 – And, behold, a man of the company cried out, saying, Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son: for he is mine only child.
John 1:14, 18 – And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth... No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
John 3:16, 18 – 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...He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
1 John 4:9 – In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
Hebrews 11:17 – By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
For centuries, Christians understood monogenes to mean “only begotten.” Greek writers used the word with that obvious sense. The Latin translation of the Scriptures used a Latin word with that sense, and later the Luther Bible, the Spanish Reina-Valera, and English translations up into the last century used words with that corresponding meaning.[ii] That common practice began to change about the middle of the twentieth century, and has continued mostly unabated to the present.[iii] Greek scholars previously said that monogenes derived from “mono” (meaning one) and “gennao” (meaning beget). Greek scholars moved away from this idea to assert that monogenes comes from “mono” (meaning one) and “genos” (meaning kind). Under this idea, the support for monogenes meaning “only begotten” went to “only,” “one of its kind,” or “unique.”[iv] Most recent English Bible translations now use words in that range of meaning. Does might make right? Is the majority unimpeachable? Most agree that monogenes can mean “only.” The King James translators recognize that sense in the passages in Luke (see above). Some recent debaters have gone so far to claim that monogenes cannot mean “only begotten.” Others have argued that the “only begotten” sense is brought over in other languages from the Latin unigenitus.
It is without doubt that Latin had great influence on the English language, and that the Latin Bible had strong influence on early English Bibles. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to show that Greek speakers used the word monogenes with the sense begotten – before a Bible in Latin was in common use.[v] The influence is first Greek to Latin, before the Latin influenced other languages.
Early Christian writers who spoke the Greek language indulge in the “only begotten” use of monogenes. It is not necessary that one agree with all their theology in order to comprehend how they were using the word.[vi] Athanasius uncontrovertibly connects monogenes with birth and begetting, and ties monogenes with the Son’s generation from the Father. Note his Discourse 2 Against the Arians, written circa A D 360 (bold emphasis mine).
62. But if He is also called ‘First-born of the creation,’ still this is not as if He were levelled to the creatures, and only first of them in point of time (for how should that be, since He is ‘Only-begotten?’), but it is because of the Word’s condescension to the creatures, according to which He has become the ‘Brother’ of ‘many.’ For the term ‘Only-begotten’ is used where there are no brethren, but ‘First-born ‘ because of brethren. Accordingly it is nowhere written in the Scriptures, ‘the first-born of God,’ nor ‘the creature of God;’ but ‘Only-begotten’ and ‘Son’ and ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom,’ refer to Him as proper to the Father. Thus, ‘We have seen His glory, the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father John 1:14;’ and ‘God sent His Only-begotten Son 1 John 4:9’ and ‘O Lord, Your Word endures for ever ;’ and ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God;’ and ‘Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God 1 Corinthians 1:24;’ and ‘This is My beloved Son.’ and ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’But ‘first-born’ implied the descent to the creation; for of it has He been called first-born; and ‘He created’ implies His grace towards the works, for for them is He created. If then He is Only-begotten, as indeed He is, ‘First-born’ needs some explanation; but if He be really First-born, then He is not Only-begotten. For the same cannot be both Only-begotten and First-born, except in different relations;—that is, Only-begotten, because of His generation from the Father, as has been said; and First-born, because of His condescension to the creation and His making the many His brethren. Certainly, those two terms being inconsistent with each other, one should say that the attribute of being Only-begotten has justly the preference in the instance of the Word, in that there is no other Word, or other Wisdom, but He alone is very Son of the Father. Moreover , as was before said, not in connection with any reason, but absolutely it is said of Him, ‘The Only-begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father John 1:18;’ but the word ‘First-born’ has again the creation as a reason in connection with it, which Paul proceeds to say, ‘for in Him all things were created Colossians 1:16.’ But if all the creatures were created in Him, He is other than the creatures, and is not a creature, but the Creator of the creatures.
From the same period as Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of the “Son eternally begotten by an inscrutable and incomprehensive generation” in his Catechetical Lecture 11.
4. Again, I say, on hearing of a Son, understand it not merely in an improper sense, but as a Son in truth, a Son by nature, without beginning; not as having come out of bondage into a higher state of adoption, but a Son eternally begotten by an inscrutable and incomprehensible generation.
The Council of Nicaea adopted what is known as “The Nicene Creed” at a meeting in the city of Nicaea in 325. The Nicene Creed is a statement of faith; it was originally written in the Greek language, uses monogenes to relate to the begotten-ness of the Son from the Father.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the 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.
καὶ εἰςἕνα ΚύριονἸησοῦνΧριστόντὸνΥἱὸντοῦΘεοῦτὸνμονογενῆ, τὸνἐκτοῦ Πατρὸςγεννηθέντα, τοὐτέστινἐκτῆςοὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός, ΘεὸνἐκΘεοῦ, ΦῶςἐκΦωτός, ΘεὸνἀληθινὸνἐκΘεοῦἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιοντῷ Πατρί, δι' οὗτὰ πάντα ἐγένετο, τάτεἐντῷοὐρανῷ καὶ τὰἐντῇγῇ[vii]
Even earlier, Justin Martyr and Tertullian speak in these terms. Probably before AD 208, Tertullian wrote Against Praxeas.[viii] In Chapter 7 we find:
“The Lord created or formed me as the beginning of His ways;” then afterward begotten, to carry all into effect – “When He prepared the heaven, I was present with Him.” Thus does He make Him equal to Him: for by proceeding from Himself He became His first-begotten Son, because begotten before all things; and His only-begotten also, because alone begotten of God, m a way peculiar to Himself, from the womb of His own heart – even as the Father Himself testifies: “My heart,” says He, “has emitted my most excellent Word.” The father took pleasure evermore in Him, who equally rejoiced with a reciprocal gladness in the Father’s presence: “You art my Son, today have I begotten You;” even before the morning star did I beget You. The Son likewise acknowledges the Father, speaking in His own person, under the name of Wisdom: “The Lord formed Me as the beginning of His ways, with a view to His own works; before all the hills did He beget Me.”...He became also the Son of God, and was begotten when He proceeded forth from Him.
Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, inasmuch as He who begets is one, and He who is begotten is another;
Now the Word of life became flesh, and was heard, and was seen, and was handled, because He was flesh who, before He came in the flesh, was the “Word in the beginning with God” the Father, and not the Father with the Word. For although the Word was God, yet was He with God, because He is God of God; and being joined to the Father, is with the Father. “And we have seen His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father;” that is, of course, (the glory) of the Son, even Him who was visible, and was glorified by the invisible Father. And therefore, inasmuch as he had said that the Word of God was God, in order that he might give no help to the presumption of the adversary, (which pretended) that he had seen the Father Himself and in order to draw a distinction between the invisible Father and the visible Son, he makes the additional assertion, ex abundanti as it were: “No man has seen God at any time.” What God does he mean? The Word? But he has already said: “Him we have seen and heard, and our hands have handled the Word of life.” Well, (I must again ask,) what God does he mean? It is of course the Father, with whom was the Word, the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, and has Himself declared Him.
In His address to Nicodemus He says: “So God loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And again: “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believes in Him is not condemned; but he that does not believes is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God.” Moreover, when John (the Baptist) was asked what he happened to know of Jesus, he said: “The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. He that believes on the Son has everlasting life; and he that does not believes the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
Justin Martyr writes circa AD 160, “...and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power...” – which demonstrates that he understood the begotten aspect as part of the term monogenes.[ix]
These excerpts from early Christian writings demonstrate their knowledge and use of monogenes in relation to begetting rather than just being “unique” or “only.” Their manner of writing should help us with understanding this word, seeing how they used it in context with birth.
The use of “only begotten” has been attacked at the point of Hebrews 11:17. Whether one argues for “only begotten” or “only” one must explain its use here. If you say monogenes simply means “only,” you must wrestle with the same fact that Isaac was not literally the only son that Abraham had. Isaac was, however, the only uniquely begotten son of Abraham, through the miraculous intervention of God. This corresponds with the “only begotten” sense of monogenes (and in which Isaac may be considered a type of Christ). Hebrews 11:19 conveys that the writer is speaking in a figure, and we are definitely supposed to grasp the typology in reference to the Lord Jesus Christ.
The biblical author John, the apostle, consistently uses the term monogenes in contexts in which he uses the term gennao to refer to the “new birth” (see the texts above, John 1:14, 18 with 1:13; John 3:16, 18 with 3:3-8; 1 John 4:9 with 4:7). The interaction between the words compares and contrasts our new birth experience and God the Son’s unique begotten-ness from the Father.
A majority of modern New Testament scholars dismiss the “only begotten” sense of monogenes. Like sheep, they follow one another and they all go astray. A consensus seems to agree that they are following Dale Moody, from his article in the Journal of Biblical Literature in December 1953. However, modern scholars are not the only scholars! Further, at least a small subset of modern scholars have emboldened themselves to challenge the status quo. Wayne Grudem intends to revise his Systematic Theology to reflect that monogenesmeans “only begotten”[x]
In “The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered,” John V. Dahms concludes that both external and internal evidence supports “only begotten.”
“We have examined all of the evidence which has come to our attention concerning the meaning of monogenēs in the Johannine writings and have found that the majority view of modern scholarship has very little to support it. On the other hand, the external evidence, especially that from Philo, Justin, Tertullian, and the internal evidence from the context of its occurrences, makes clear that ‘only begotten’ is the most accurate translation after all.”
I write this in hope that we are nearing that better day.
Links to articles on monogenes and “only begotten”
- An Inductive Study of the Use of Monogenes in the New Testament by Doug Kutilek
- Büschel on μονογενής, Hermann Martin Friedrich Büchsel
- Deep in the Weeds on MONOGENES and Eternal Generation by Denny Burk
- Eternal Generation, the “Only Begotten” Son, and Monogenes: A Summary of the Conversation by Brandon D. Smith
- “God’s Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version,” Dale Moody, Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Dec., 1953), pp. 213-219
- John 1:18 - What Does Μονογενὴς Mean? by James Snapp, Jr.
- Lee Irons has posted a summary of his unpublished paper on MONOGENES by Denny Burk
- Let’s Go Back to ‘Only Begotten’ by Charles Lee Irons
- Μονογενής = ‘only begotten’? by Daniel Wallace
- On the μουνογενες in Parmenides by John R. Wilson
- On the Sonship of Christ by Andrew Fuller
- The Johannine Use of Monogenēs Reconsidered by John V. Dahms
- The Only Begotten Son (ο μονογενης υιος) by Michael Marlowe
- What Does It Mean That Jesus is Begotten? By David Tue
[i] These numbers correspond to the King James Version translation.
[ii] German (eingeborenen), Spanish (unigenito), and English (only begotten).
[iv] Denny Burk describes this view as currently “entrenched.”
[v] Jerome was commissioned to the work of the Latin Bible in AD 382. We do not ascribe inspiration to Jerome, but he was very competent in the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin languages. In his understanding of the languages, he saw a correspondence between the Greek monogenes and the Latin unigenitus.
[vi] For example, some of these writers wrote of eternal generation. Some theologians who accept the “only begotten” terminology reject the idea of eternal generation, applying “only-begottenness” to the incarnation/virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Others accept eternal generation while arguing monogenes means “only” or “unique.”
[vii]Doug Kutilek has a right to disagree. Nevertheless, he charges those who spoke Greek as their native tongue with making up nonsense: “It also makes the Nicene Creed’s affirmation that Christ was ‘begotten but not made’ (gennethenta, oupoiethenta) so much verbal nonsense.” To me it is greater “nonsense” to think we understand their language and they did not! Doug Kutilek is especially antagonistic toward the King James Version of the Bible. His attacks on “only begotten” fit well within his overall attacks against the King James Bible.
[x]In Denny Burk’s postings on the subject, he wrote about the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in 2016. Wayne Grudem (among others) presented on this subject. According to Burk, Grudem said he would revise his Systematic Theology to reflect that he now believes monogenesmeans “only begotten” (in the Johannine context).