Let’s Go Back to ‘Only Begotten’

We have good reason to restore one of the scriptural supports for the belief that the Son is begotten of the Father, as the church fathers taught and as the church confesses in the Nicene Creed.

In recent times, however, many evangelical theologians have doubted whether the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is indeed taught in Scripture. A principal source of doubt has been the 20th-century scholarly consensus that the Greek word monogenēs does not mean “only begotten.” Scholars have argued that the compound Greek adjective is not derived from monos (“only”) + gennao (“beget”) but from monos (“only”) + genos (“kind”). Thus, they argue, the term shouldn’t be translated “only begotten” but “only one of his kind” or “unique.”[1] Reflecting the scholarly consensus, most modern English versions have adopted this new understanding and translate the five Johannine uses of monogenēs as “only” (CEV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, RSV) or “one and only” (HCSB/CSB, NIV, NLT). Only a few retain “only begotten” (NKJV, MEV, NASB).

 

The classical doctrine of the Trinity affirms that within the one, undivided being of God there are three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It also affirms that what distinguishes the three persons are their relations of origin: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is eternally begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The second point is referred to as the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. This doctrine has traditionally been grounded in a number of scriptural proof texts, one set of which is the five Johannine verses that, according to the Vulgate and the King James Version, affirm the Son is the “only begotten” Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9).

In recent times, however, many evangelical theologians have doubted whether the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is indeed taught in Scripture. A principal source of doubt has been the 20th-century scholarly consensus that the Greek word monogenēs does not mean “only begotten.” Scholars have argued that the compound Greek adjective is not derived from monos (“only”) + gennao (“beget”) but from monos (“only”) + genos (“kind”). Thus, they argue, the term shouldn’t be translated “only begotten” but “only one of his kind” or “unique.”[1] Reflecting the scholarly consensus, most modern English versions have adopted this new understanding and translate the five Johannine uses of monogenēs as “only” (CEV, ESV, NAB, NRSV, RSV) or “one and only” (HCSB/CSB, NIV, NLT). Only a few retain “only begotten” (NKJV, MEV, NASB).

This shift in the scholarly understanding of the term effectively removed a crucial scriptural underpinning for the doctrine that the Son is begotten of the Father. In theory, other proof texts could still be appealed to, but once this brick was removed, for some it seemed the whole wall was ready to fall.

In this article, I would like to offer a brief defense of the traditional translation “only begotten.”

Examining the Linguistic Data

First, a search of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae[2]—a comprehensive database of ancient, Koine, and medieval Greek—reveals that the word monogenēs is used most basically and frequently in contexts having to do with biological offspring. Its fundamental meaning is “only begotten” or “only child” in the sense of having no siblings. For example, Plato describes the primitive population of the mythical island of Atlantis as follows:

Thereon dwelt one of the natives originally sprung from the earth, Evenor by name, with his wife Leucippe; and they had for offspring an only begotten daughter, Cleito. (Critias 113d; LCL)

This biological usage can be seen in the instances of monogenēs in non-Christological contexts in the New Testament. Three times, Luke uses monogenēs to describe various “only begottens” whom Jesus healed: “the only son” of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:12); the “only daughter” of Jairus (Luke 8:42); and the demon-oppressed boy whose father pleaded, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child” (Luke 9:38 ESV).

It must be acknowledged that there are indeed instances where a translation such as “only,” “only one of its kind,” or “unique” is required by the context. For example, Clement calls the phoenix, a creature he thought really existed, “unique” (1 Clement 25:1). An ancient treatise describes trees that exist in “only one kind.” But these are uniformly metaphorical extensions of the basic meaning, “only begotten” or “only child.” Context determines which usage is in view, and the five Johannine uses are in the context of sonship, not botany.

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