How Can Jesus Be “Begotten?”
One of the most popular verses in the Bible, John 3:16, says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only (fill in the blank) Son…” Many of us are used to saying “begotten” because of the influence the King James translation has had on our thinking; but, what does it mean that Jesus is “begotten?” Does this mean that Jesus is created? Does it mean something else? The debate centers on the meaning of a Greek word, monogenes, and how that term should be rendered.
A Brief History
For most of church history the term, monogenes, has been translated as “begotten.” This is due to thinking that monogenes was a conflation of two Greek words, monos (meaning “only”) and gennao (meaning “begotten”).
The reason this word is tricky is because when we think of someone being “begotten” we tend think of someone who previously didn’t exist coming into being—like a baby being born.
However, that is not what it means when it is applied to Jesus. When you look at the early creeds of the church that say that Jesus was “begotten,” what is amazing is that, even though they used the word “begotten,” they still knew that (whatever the word meant) it did not mean “created!” The Bible is clear that Jesus has always existed: He was in the beginning (John 1:1). Nothing was brought into being apart from him (John 1:3). He is “before all things” (Col. 1:17). He is called “everlasting” (Isa. 9:6), he is called the “…Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:12), he is before Abraham (John 8:58), and he existed before anything was made (John 17:5). This doesn’t even include all the passages that call Jesus “God” which implies eternality. In fact the creeds said that Jesus was “begotten, not made” just to clarify that, whatever “begotten” meant, it did not mean that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, ever came into being.
So, if it didn’t mean “created,” then what did the early church mean by saying Jesus was “begotten?”
A Little Theology
Well, here is the problem. If each member of the Trinity shares in all the attributes of God (goodness, love, omnipotence, justice, etc.) then what makes the members of the Trinity different from one another? That’s a pretty good question when you think about it. You can’t say that only the Father is powerful because the Son and the Spirit are equally powerful. You can’t say that only the Son is loving because the Father and the Spirit are equally loving. If they share all the same attributes, what makes one member of the trinity different than the other? The church’s answer: taxis or what are called modes of subsistence.
These fancy theological terms are just ways of saying that what distinguishes the Son from the Father and the Spirit is that he is eternally begotten. What distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and the Son is that he eternally proceeds. So, what makes the members of the Trinity different from each other? The son is “begotten” and the Spirit “proceeds.”
What the early church meant by calling Jesus “begotten” is that he is eternally the “Son” of the Father. He is “eternally begotten.” He eternally is the Son who is of the same nature as the Father yet distinct in person. They did not use the term “begotten” to mean “brought into being” but rather just to mean he is eternally the Son of God.
In Modern Times
However, though all Christians agree that Jesus is eternal, some have challenged whether “begotten” is the true meaning of the Greek word “monogenes.” What they say is that the Greek word that often gets translated as “begotten” comes from misinterpreting the word. It is not a conflation of monos (meaning “only”) and gennao (meaning “begotten”). Rather, it is a conflation of two, monos (meaning “only”) and genos (meaning “class” or “kind”). This is why almost all modern translations say things like, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” or “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…”
But, at the same time, some scholars have presented a myriad of Greek texts where monogenesis used of one’s offspring to defend the traditional position which is gaining ground again in New Testament scholarship.
If that wasn’t complicated enough, there is a third position that thinks that these other two positions are focusing on the wrong issue. This third position believes that the term should be translated as “begotten” but that it is not a references to Jesus’ “eternal begottenness” but just a reference to Jesus’ incarnation. Jesus is God’s “begotten” Son because he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4). Though the second person of the Trinity has always existed his humanity was received through Mary at the time of his incarnation. In this sense, Jesus has always had his eternal divine nature and took on his humanity at his incarnation. This is actually a pretty good argument in context because John is constantly referring to incarnation language when he talks about Jesus; Jesus is begotten of Mary because she is the vehicle through whom he is born into the world.
Why does it matter?
Why is this important? Isn’t this just a bunch of theological hair splitting?
Any discussion like this can seem a bit abstract and dry. However, so long as the conversation centers on the very nature of God, it is undoubtedly important. So we aim to affirm two necessary things regardless of the direction of the discussion:
1. Whatever “begotten” means, it does not mean created. Jesus is eternal.
2. We have to know that, though there is only one God and all the persons of the Trinity share the same attributes, the members of the Trinity are also distinct. “Begotten” is one way in which the Son is distinguished.
In all this we are reminded that the one true God, the one who has saved us from our sins is Father, Son, and Spirit. One God in three persons. And we praise Him for who He is and all He has done.
I know this can sound a bit complex. And no blog post or book is ever going to be completely exhaustive. But there are a few resources for those who would like to keep reading and learn more: