Posted by: stpowen | December 13, 2013

Only Begotten, Unique or Only Son?

John 3:16, A.V. and NKJV. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…….’
John 3:16, NIV. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son……..’
John 3:16, NASB margin. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his unique son……’
John 3:16, ESV and NRSV. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…….’

A discussion with a colleague over the meaning of the Greek word monogenes has led me to consider the question more deeply. Is the Lord Jesus the ‘Only begotten,’ the ‘Unique’ or just the ‘only’ Son of God?

For hundreds of years, there was no discussion about the matter. All the English translations from Tyndale through to the Authorized (King James) Version render monogenes as ‘Only begotten.’ The assumption has been that the word is made up of monos, meaning ‘only’ and genao, meaning ‘to beget.’ So far so simple; more recently, however, scholars have been suggesting that, rather than genao, the word is derived from genea, meaning a ‘kind’ or ‘type.’ Hence monogenes should be translated ‘One-of-a-kind’ or ‘unique.’ The New American Standard Bible, although it has kept ‘only begotten’ in the text, gives a marginal reading of ‘unique’ and the NIV gives the reading of ‘one and only,’ which does not really mean quite the same as ‘unique’ but perhaps puts an emphasis of ‘specialness’ on the word. The Gideons in Great Britain were so unhappy with this translation that when they adopted the NIV for use in their Bibles and New Testaments, they negotiated to have the term ‘only begotten’ substituted.

In recent times, however, the American writer Don Carson has written a book {1} in which he suggests that monogenes has no special meaning but can be translated simply as ‘only.’ The problem with this is that Jesus is not the only son of God. ‘For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:26). Every Christian has been adopted into God’s family and is, male or female (!), His son (Gal. 4:4-7). Yet this has not prevented the ESV, under Carson’s influence, from translating monogenes as ‘only.’

The first thing to say as we come to look at this matter in some detail is that monogenes is not a divine title as some of the KJV-only supporters claim. The word is used three times by Luke to describe the children of ordinary folk (Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38). However it is only used in reference to people, which seems significant; the word monos, the regular word for ‘only’ or ‘alone’ is used many times in the N.T. for both people and things, so it seems to me that monogenes must have a usage that distinguishes it from ‘only.’

Luke 7:12. ‘And when He came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only [Greek: monogenes] son of his mother.’
Luke 8:42. ‘…..For he had an only [Greek: monogenes] daughter about twelve years of age.’
Luke 9:38. ‘Suddenly a man from the multitude cried out, saying, “Teacher, I implore You, look upon my son, for he is my only [Greek monogenes] child.’

In these verses, ‘unique’ doesn’t seem to fit the bill, but ‘only’ does, and so the NKJV has translated. But why does Luke not simply use monos instead of monogenes? I think the reason is that adoption was very popular in the ancient Roman world. A wealthy Roman or Greek who had no son, or a sickly one who might not survive, would often adopt a young relative to keep his lineage and inheritance intact, even if, in some cases, the youngster’s parents were still living. The most famous examples of this are Julius Caesar, who adopted his great-nephew Octavian who later became the Emperor Augustus, and Augustus himself who adopted his step-son, Tiberius. It seems likely that Luke uses the term monogenes to make it clear that the children spoken of were natural sons or daughters, the only begotten of their respective parents.

Hebrews 11:17. ‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten [Greek: monogenes] son.’

There is the obvious problem here that Isaac was not the only son of whom Abraham was the natural father. At that time he was also the father of Ishmael, and later he had various other children through Keturah (Gen. 25:1-4). So ‘only’ will obviously not really do as a translation, Gen. 22:2 notwithstanding. ‘Unique’ or ‘one-of-a-kind’ might be OK, since Isaac was unique in that he was the heir, both of God (Gen. 17:19) and of Abraham (Gen. 25:5). But for that very reason, I think that ‘only begotten’ works better since Isaac was Abraham’s legitimate son. “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac’ (Gen. 17:19). Moreover, in the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1, Keturah is described as a concubine (v.32) and only Isaac is described as being ‘begotten’ of Abraham (v.34). Nowhere in the Bible that I can see is Ishmael described as being ‘begotten.’ The term seems to be reserved, in the O.T. at least, for a legitimate heir.

I was proposing to look also at the use of monogenes in the Septuagint, the early Church Fathers and in other Greek literature. However, the work has been done very well for me by Michael Marlowe in this article. I will only add, as Marlowe does, that the early creeds, especially the Nicene and Athanasian, establish the doctrine of the Trinity on the Son being begotten in eternity by the Father.

Here is the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one substance, (homoousion) with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. But those who say: ‘There was once when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or, ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’—they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

From what we have seen, it is surely clear that to translate monogenes as ‘only’ is both inaccurate and reductionist. To translate it as ‘unique’ is somewhat better, but does not really fit in all cases. Moreover, the Lord Jesus Christ is the unique Son precisely because He is the Only begotten. We are sons of God by adoption and by second birth. Our Lord was begotten of the Father before time was.

In my view, there is a real danger of the doctrine of the Trinity being lost if the Church abandons its understanding of Christ being the Only begotten. I accept that ‘begotten’ is not a word in common English usage today, and if another can be found that means the same thing I am not opposed to using it. However, I cannot think of such a word, and therefore believe that we must stick with ‘only begotten’ and teach people what it means. ‘Test all things. Hold fast to that which is good’ (1 Thes. 5:21).


{1} Exegetical Fallacies by Don Carson (Baker, 1984).



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