What does “only-begotten” even mean?

What does “only-begotten” even mean?

Older English translations used the phrase “only-begotten” at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9. Newer translations don’t use that. Don’t take my word for it; just look at your bible of choice. Newer translations use “unique,” “one and only” or “only,” (etc.) depending on the context.

The phrase “only-begotten” is tied up with the doctrine of eternal generation. Eternal generation is built on a conceptual framework that tries to explain how Father and Son can be distinct from one another, and yet have the very same essence/being. It is perhaps a great misunderstanding of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed to interpret it to mean Jesus and the Father each share the essence of “god like-ness.” That isn’t what it means. It says Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” or “the same essence as the Father” (ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί).

Eternal generation says that:

  1. the Son was generated by the Father,
  2. in a non-physical way (“begotten, not made”)
  3. and in a timeless way (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”)
  4. in a way we can’t ever understand
  5. but this does not imply subordinationism, temporal priority or that the Son was created

This doctrine is confusing to many non-confessional Christians. It’s likely most of these have never heard of the doctrine. It’s also quite likely few non-confessional seminary professors and even fewer seminary-trained pastors could coherently explain it. For proof, ask your pastor, “what does it mean that Jesus is the only-begotten Son? Does this mean Jesus came into being after the Father?” If your pastor does not reply by describing eternal generation, then he does not understand the doctrine. This doesn’t mean your pastor is a terrible person! It does mean he likely did not receive training in classical theology proper. I certainly did not!

Be that as it may … I say all that to tell you that the translations of John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 are inseparably bound up with this doctrine. It’s a third rail. The past several years have seen extraordinary pushback from certain theologians advocating a return to “Nicene orthodoxy.” Specifically, to the “same essence” doctrine that Nicea taught. Jesus and the Father do not simply share the same essence, like you and I share “humanness.” No, they share the same, identical essence. They are the identical, same being. Part of this pushback is a quest to re-capture “only-begotten” as a valid rendering at John 1:14, 18; 3:16 and 1 John 4:9.

Are they right? How should the passages be rendered? What does μονογενὴς mean? Let’s see …

Lexicons

The lexicons conclude μονογενὴς has a range of meanings that do not require one to posit a timeless, non-physical derivation of divine essence from the Father to the Son.

  • BDAG: (1) “the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” or (2) “the only one of its kind or class, unique[1]
  • Abbott-Smith: only, only-begotten; of sone and daughters and of Christ[2]
  • Moulton and Milligan: “is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique,’ not ‘only-begotten’ … the emphasis is on the thought that, as the ‘only’ Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father.”[3]
  • Louw-Nida: “pertaining to what is unique in the sense of being the only one of the same kind or class—‘unique, only.”[4]
  • LEH LXX: “the only member of a kin, only-begotten, only (of children) Jgs 11,34; id. (of God) Od 14,13; alone in its kind, one only Wis 7,22[5]

Septuagint Usage[6]

Here, I survey every use of the word in the LXX.[7] The basic sense in the LXX is special, unique, one and only. These are very close synonyms for one another, but they convey the same force. The one outlier is Psalm 24:16, which gives the sense of alone or lonely.

Judges 11:34: And Jephthah went to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter was going out to meet him with drums and dancing. She was his only begotten; there was not another son or daughter to him.

The sense here is “unique, one and only.” The girl is Jephthah’s precious daughter, which makes the consequences of his vow more serious.

Psalm 21:21: Rescue my soul from the sword, and my unique one from the hand of a dog.

Again, the sense is “unique, special, one and only.”

Psalm 24:16: Look upon me and have pity on me, because I am alone and poor

The sense here is different; more like monos than monogenes.

Psalm 34:17: O Lord, how long will you observe? Restore my life from their wrongdoing, my unique life from lions.

Unique, one and only, special.

Wisdom 7:22: … for the artisan of all teaches me wisdom. For in her is a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, gentle, movable, clear, undefiled, distinctive, invulnerable, loving goodness, sharp, unhindered, beneficent …

Unique, one of a kind. This is in the midst of Solomon’s recounting of his ordinary origins, and the blessing of wisdom he received because he sought higher things than earthly accolades (Wisdom 7:6-7).

Tobit 3:15: … and neither have I defiled my name nor my father’s name in this land of my captivity. I am an only child to my father, and neither is there to him a young child who will become his heir, nor a close relative.

One and only. Sarah, the woman whom Tobit’s son eventually marries, is lamenting her misfortune. An evil demon has, in turn, killed her seven successive husbands and she is now without any hope.

Tobit 8:17: Blessed are you because you have shown mercy on two only-begotten children! Show them mercy, O Master, fulfill their life in health with gladness and mercy!”

One and only. Sarah’s father gives God praise because Sarah and Tobit’s son, her new husband, have lived through the night. The demon has been defeated!

Psalm of Solomon 18:4: and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the children of Israel. Your childhood is upon us like a firstborn unique son

One and only, special, precious.

New Testament Usage

The usage here tracks with the evidence from the Septuagint. There are no surprises.

Luke 7:12: 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

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 8:42: And there came a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue. And falling at Jesus’ feet, he implored him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Luke 9:37-38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child!

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Hebrews 11:17-18: By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

One of a kind, as in “an only child.”

Usage Related to Jesus

With this foundation in place, from the LXX and every citation in the New Testament, we’re in a good place to determine how to take the word in reference to Jesus. Basically, the usage here fits perfectly with what we’ve seen in the LXX and the remainder of the New Testament.

John 1:14: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth

The sense is uniqueness, a special “one of a kind-ness.” Jesus has a very special glory, a glory that can only come from someone in the closest possible relationship with the Father (v. 18). They share the same glory. To find implications about an eternal generation here are speculative and depend on an a priori determination to “find” the doctrine in the passage.

John 1:18: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

Again, context suggests uniqueness, one of a kind-ness. Jesus, as the one “in the bosum of the Father,” has the closest possible relationship with Him. Thus only Jesus, the very special, one and only God (or “Son,” if you prefer the variant reading) can truly make the Father known to the world.

John 3:14-16: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes fin him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life

The force of the passage is God’s love. He has so much love that He sent His unique, special, one and only Son to die for His people’s sins. Abraham’s would-be sacrifice (the emotional force of giving your only son’s life) prefigures this event. Again, finding eternal generation here is eisegesis.

1 John 4:9: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him

See the comments at John 3:16 (above).

Apostolic Father’s Usage[8]

There are no new surprises here.

1 Clement 25:2: For there is a bird which is called the Phoenix. This bird, being the one and only of its kind, lives five hundred years

Self-explanatory

Martyrdom of Polycarp 20:2: And to him who is able to bring us all in his grace and gift, to his heavenly kingdom, by his one and only child, Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and majesty ⌊forever⌋. Greet all the holy ones

One and only. Older translation used “only-begotten” (e.g. Lake), but there is no need for this. A theological presupposition about eternal generation would have to drive this interpretation.

Diognetus 10:2: For God loved humankind, for whom he made the world, to whom he subjected all things, the things in the earth, to whom he gave reason, to whom he gave mind, to whom alone he allowed to look above to him, whom he made in his own image, to whom he sent his one and only son, to whom he promised the kingdom in heaven and will give it to those who love him.

This is an allusion to John’s usage (John 1:14, 18, 3:16; 1 Jn 4:9), and the same comments apply here.

So, What’s It Mean?

Charles Irons argues there is a “directional flow” in the lexical evidence to see the meaning of μονογενὴς expanding in “ever-increasing” figurative ways … ways that allow one to interpret it to imply Jesus’ metaphysical derivation from the Father (“A Lexical Defense of the Johannine ‘Only-Begotten,'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), p. 111). Indeed, Irons contends it is a human metaphor to express an eternal timeless, non-physical derivation from Father to Son (Ibid, p. 115). He states “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated,” (Ibid, p. 116).

Irons is arguing for interpretation, not pure translation. In fact, if one took his approach to its logical implication for bible translation, the result would be a dynamic equivalent rendering so interpretive it might make even Eugene Peterson blush. Only an a priori commitment to the doctrine of eternal generation would make you render μονογενὴς as “only-begotten. This doesn’t mean eternal generation isn’t real. It just means the word should not be translated as “only-begotten.”

It would be as if I, when encountering Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο at John 1:14, rendered it as “and the Word kept His divine nature and added a human nature, and thus became fully God and fully man.” I smuggled a whole host of good stuff in there, but it isn’t what John wrote. He actually wrote “and the Word became flesh.”

In the same way, John did not write that Jesus is “only-begotten” in the sense that He derives His essence from the Father in a timeless, eternal manner. “Only-begotten” means nothing, in and of itself, when it comes to Jesus. It only engenders confusion. You may wish to guard the sanctity of eternal generation. Have at it, but support a rendering that communicates more than it confuses. Talk about the doctrine in exposition. Don’t smuggle it crudely into your translations.

The controversy about the meaning of μονογενὴς isn’t as difficult as some would like you to believe. Set aside the lexical essays. Just look at every usage of the word in the literature for yourself. It isn’t difficult. But, like so much else, it’s become difficult because of the freight the various interpretations pull with it.


[1] BDAG, p. 658.

[2] Abbott-Smith, p. 296. 

[3] Moulton and Milligan, pp. 416-417. 

[4] Louw-Nida, §58.52.

[5] Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).

[6] The LXX citations here are from Rick Brannan et al., eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

[7] I do not include Ode 14, because it is clearly a Christian composition of some maturity. It is not properly a citation from before the time of Christ.

[8] My citations here are from Rick Brannan, tran., The Apostolic Fathers in English (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012).

Redefining the faith? Leonardo Boff on eternal generation and procession

Redefining the faith? Leonardo Boff on eternal generation and procession

I’ve been reading Leonardo Boff’s work Trinity and Society. Boff is a Roman Catholic liberation theologian who may or may not be a Marxist. This is perhaps the most thought-provoking book on the Trinity I’ve yet read; right up there with Jurgen Moltmann’s Trinity and the Kingdom. Both these gentlemen are social trinitarians. They had a formative influence on Millard Erickson’s own monograph on the Trinity, which is excellent.

One interesting thing Boff does is re-conceptualize eternal generation and procession. Some readers may not know what these doctrines are. They’ve been pillars of Christian orthodoxy for centuries, but the turn towards social trinitarianism in the latter half of the 20th century has muted their impact in many evangelical churches. Some conservative theologians today downplay them.

What are eternal generation and procession?

Well, Christians believe Father, Son and Spirit are the same being. Not that they merely share the same nature (like you and I share a human nature), but they are the exact same being. But, if this be the case, then are we not collapsing all three Persons into one Jello-O mold, without distinction? How is this not modalism?

It’s clear the main conceptual problem is how to distinguish the Persons if they are, in fact, the same Being. The Church has done this by highlighting incommunicable, unique characteristics each Person has that the others do not. John of Damascus explains:

For in these hypostatic or personal properties alone do the three holy subsistences differ from each other, being indivisibly divided not by essence but by the distinguishing mark of their proper and peculiar subsistence.

John of Damascus, “Orthodox Faith,” 2.8.

These distinctions are:

  • Paternity. The Father begat the Son.
  • Sonship. The Son is eternally begotten in an incorporeal, non-physical (“begotten, not made”) and timeless manner (“begotten of the Father before all worlds”) in a way we can’t ever understand. But, this does not imply that the Son is somehow not equal to the Father, that there was ever a time He didn’t exist, or that the Son was created.
  • Procession. The Holy Spirit is sent forth from both the Father and the Son.

How can you distinguish the Persons, then? By these unique characteristics. The Son doesn’t beget; the Father does. The Spirit isn’t begotten; the Son is. The Father doesn’t eternally proceed from the Spirit; the reverse is true. This is how the classical position avoids the charge of modalism. For more on classical trinitarianism and divine Personhood, see my article, “Modalism Redux? The Concept of ‘Person’ in Classical Trinitarianism.” For an excellent, short explanation of eternal generation, see Charles Irons’ article, “The Only Begotten God: Eternal Generation in the Nicene Creed.”

Many contemporary theologians are not satisfied with this. They see it as an abstract idea that’s nearly impossible to understand. This is likely why many conservative Christians have never heard of them; because their pastors probably don’t understand these doctrines, either.

Instead, a more social, relational model of the Trinity has made significant headway in the last few decades. Classical advocates do not appreciate this social, relational model. Carl Beckwith is representative when he writes:

When we apply this modern notion of person to the Trinity, we end up with three distinct subjectivities, three authentic and self-determining persons, who freely and willingly coexist in unity. We end up with sophisticated sounding tritheism.

Carl Beckwith, The Holy Trinity (Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 10098-10100.

See my article “On Divine Personhood and Three-headed Dogs” for a discussion of social trinitarianism and divine Personhood. This perspective often goes hand in hand with a rejection of eternal generation and procession. It is fair to say, then, that Leonardo Boff’s comments along this line would not be welcomed by classical trinitarians.

What Boff does with eternal generation and procession

Boff is a social trinitarian. He does not jettison the doctrines, but re-frames them so completely that he might as well have done. The classical model distinguishes the Persons by causality, but hastens to add this causality is timeless and non-physical (see above). Nonetheless, there is an order in the Trinitarian relationships.

Boff demurs, and suggests this ordering “is rather a descriptive device to indicate the differences and simultaneous reciprocity between the divine co-eternal Persons,” (140). It’s analogical language; terms of word art struggling to express the inexpressible. There is no real order in the Trinity; no real causality at all.

For Boff, ultimate reality begins with the three Persons already together; not “the solitude of One but in the co-existence and communion of Three,” (139). This union, this knot of relationships that define the Persons, is eternal; “it is not something that comes after them, but is simultaneous with them, since they are always with the others and in the others,” (138-139).

So, Boff suggests we dismiss terms that imply causation (like, say, “generation” and “procession”) and “use the biblical terminology of revelation and recognition: the three Persons reveal themselves to themselves and to each other,” (142).

This implies – and this is my basic thesis – that the three divine Persons are simultaneous in origin and co-exist eternally in communion and interpenetration. Each is distinct from the others in personal characteristics and in the communion established by that Person in everlasting relationship with the others, each revealing that Person’s self to itself and the self of the others to them

Boff, Trinity and Society, 142.

This is fairly standard for social trinitarianism, but Boff truly goes his own way by claiming the Church intended language about generation and procession to be analogical, not real:

Talk of ‘processions’ should not be understood as a genesis in God or as a theogonic process, as though God were subject to the principle of causality. the idea of different processions is used to emphasize at once the difference between the Persons and their reciprocal respectiveness or communion.

Boff, Trinity and Society, 144.

The classical model has always been careful to explain that generation and procession do not imply temporality; that Son and Spirit ever “came into being.” Yet, there has always been an insistence that they’re somehow real and causal; just in a way we can’t ever understand.

These explanations have always been more guardrails boxing the problem in rather than explaining them. Boff explodes these categories by making them entirely analogical; entirely words of art to express reciprocity in eternal relationship. Having dropped this artillery shell, he then backpedals a bit by assuring readers he will still use the classical terms, but will “do so with an appreciation of their specifically trinitarian application; they do not indicate any theogony, any result of an intra-divine production process, any causal dependence,” (146).

For, to Boff, this knit-together relationship of Father, Son and Spirit is the starting point. Not for him a solitary Father who, before time began, begat the Son in an incorporeal way, and together the Spirit proceeds from them both. Rather, it’s the eternal relationship that constitutes God as triune.

Their relationship is one of reciprocal participation rather than hypostatic derivation, of correlation and communion rather than production and procession. What is produced and proceeds is intra-trinitarian and interpersonal revelation. One Person is the condition for the revelation of the others, in an infinite dynamism like a series of mirrors endlessly reflecting the image of the Three.

Boff, Trinity and Society, 146.

Some thoughts

Boff is thought-provoking because the social model has a very strong pull in contemporary society, and has many implications for understanding the scriptures. For example, if the imago dei is structural (there’s something about our nature and make-up that reflects God’s nature and make-up), and the social model be true, then the “image of God” may well be substantive in that we are hardwired to long for relationship and community; “that set of qualities that is required for these relationships and this function to take place,” (Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed., 471).

This would have obvious explanatory power for God’s motives regarding salvation, the need for church membership, and the reason why God wants Christians to be holy:

  1. God saves His people because He wants relationship with them; to invite them into His family and be in communion with them. To adopt them.
  2. Church membership is about brotherly love; about a loving commitment to a particular community of brothers and sisters. Father, Son and Spirit are united to one another by love; so Christians must do the same in their faith communities … to image God Himself to the world.
  3. God wants Christians to be holy so these now-restored vertical and horizontal relationships are strengthened and refurbished ever more. We grow closer to one another in the family of God, as we grow closer to Him.

Of course, many theologians do not agree with the social model. They also don’t believe we should extrapolate out from God’s intra-trinitarian relationships to find a model for human relationships:

Boff’s re-conceptualizations of eternal generation and procession are novel and intriguing. I don’t believe they were what Christian have meant by the terms throughout the centuries. That doesn’t necessarily mean Boff is wrong to focus on relationship, instead of an eternal causality. I’m looking forward to finishing the book.