Monogenes – Only Begotten?
Oneness advocates rely heavily on certain passages to assert that the Son refers exclusively to the flesh or the humanity of Jesus and not to a distinct person in the essence of God. The only thing divine about the Son is that the Father was in him. According to Oneness theology, generally the Son refers to the flesh while the Father refers to the divine and they can relate to one another as a human relates to the divine. Yet, what made the Son unique was that he was divine in that the Father was actually in the Son, according to Oneness theology.
David Bernard states:
The term Father refers to God Himself – God in all His deity. When we speak of the eternal Spirit of God, we mean God Himself, the Father. God the Father, therefore, is a perfectly acceptable biblical phrase to use for God…. However, the Bible does not use the term “God the Son” even one time. It is not a correct term because the Son of God refers to the humanity of Jesus Christ. The Bible defines the Son of God as the child born of Mary, not as the eternal Spirit of God (Luke 1:35). Son of God may refer solely to the human nature or it may refer to God manifested in flesh – that is, deity in the human nature.[i]
Let’s look at a several verses (from the King James Version):
John 1:14 – 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.
John 1:18 – No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he had declared him.
John 3:16 – 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.
John 3:18 – 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.
Bernard and Oneness advocates argue based that begotten means to procreate, to father or to sire and denotes a definite point in time that the Father must have come before the Son and then begotten the Son.[ii] Bernard asserts that because the Son of God refers to humanity or deity as manifest in humanity, the idea of an eternal Son is incomprehensible. The Son of God had a beginning.[iii] If the Son is begotten how can he be eternal?
In citing to verses that speak to the coming of the Messiah, such as Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6, Bernard argues that these passages are “looking forward to the day when the Son of God would be begotten.”[iv] Further, he argues, “From all these verses, it is easy to see that the Son is not eternal, but was begotten by God almost 2000 years ago. Many theologians who have not fully accepted the great truth of the oneness of God have still rejected the doctrine of the “eternal Son” as self-contradictory, unscriptural, and false.”[v] Unfortunately, this final statement is not supported by any references as to who those “many theologians” may be to appropriatly weigh this claim. Certainly, there has been dispute as to the eternal nature of the Son but those who do not hold to this view would not be considered orthodox Trinitarians and would need to provide an alternate exegesis of John 1 as well as the other passages that point to the Son having pre-existed the incarnation, at a minimum.
It is in looking at these “begotten” passages it becomes evident that the modalism of Oneness theology, it can be argued, is somehow denying the deity of Jesus Christ as Jesus was a man born of a woman in who was the Father. Clearly, the Son is not divine in Oneness theology because the Son simply refers to the human being born of Mary 2000 years ago. Yet to avoid the claim of falling into the heresy of Arius, Bernard and Oneness advocates will side-step this objection by stating that the Son can also refer to the deity and humanity together as they exist in the one person of Christ.[vi]
The translation “only begotten” appears in the KJV (a favorite translation among Oneness Pentecostals) and some other translations. The term “only begotten” is the translation of the Greek term monogenes. The origin of the word is monos (one) and genos (kind or class) and is understood to simply mean one of a kind or single of its kind. Monogenes is said to be a relational term but not one that has anything to do with origin or derivation. Thus, when the scripture states that Jesus was the monogenes of the Father, the emphasis in not so much on Jesus being “sired” by the Father but is speaking of his being the one and only, the unique Son. While I don’t believe that we can deny the fact that this term points to origination but that origination is in a relational sense – in the fact that the Son bears the nature of the Father – but the emphasis is not, as Oneness adherents argue origination in terms of pointing specifically to birth. The use of the term intends to convey nothing about his origin with respect to time but everything concerning the Son’s uniqueness and his sharing the qualities and nature of the Father.
Most modern translations tend to rely on the earlier and oldest Greek manuscripts to arrive at a translation of John 1:18 as follows:
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (NIV)
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (ESV)
No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (NASB)
No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known. (NET)
Bernard acknowledges that there are variant readings of John 1:18 pitting later manuscripts against earlier manuscripts of John’s gospel. James White states that “there is every reason to accept the reading of the earliest manuscripts, and to see the later emendation as a natural mistake made by scribes who were accustomed to the phraseology ‘only begotten son.’”[vii] Bernard simply dismisses the variant readings by stating, “We do not believe these variant readings are correct.”[viii] He provides no further context for the dismissal, especially concerning the fact that he is dismissing variant readings from earlier manuscripts of John in favor of later manuscripts containing what textual critics would see as a variant resulting from scribal revisions rather than being what was originally written by John.
Looking further at the Oneness idea of “only begotten” to mean that the Father sired the Son we should consider again what was being conveyed in the Greek. Bernard makes no further argument other than to state that monogenes is properly translated as only begotten showing that the Son is not eternal but was born and begotten by the Father, reading the English into the meaning of the text. Yet, Bernard again seems to be ignoring the Greek. Genos is derived from the Greek word gignesthai or gignomai whereas the Greek word gennao, which pertains or means to birth or to become the father of, is derived from the word gennasthai. Whereas the term gennao and the words from which it derives pertain to birth and offspring, genos pertains only be being a member of kin or of a kind. While the distinction may be subtle, the distinction is significant.
John is not stating that the Son was the offspring of the Father (gennao) but was affirming that the Son is of the kind or class or member of kin of the Father (genos). Monogenes is not referring to a begetting of the Son by the Father but is referring to the Son’s existence. This understanding is supported by the context of John as well as the use of monogenes elsewhere in scripture.
First, let’s consider Abraham and Isaac. Matthew 1:2 tells us that Abraham was the Father of Issac (gennao). Abraham became of the father of Isaac or he sired him. Abraham was Isaac’s father as a result of Isaac’s birth. In Hebrews 11:17 we read, “By faith Abraham, when he was being tested, offered up Isaac; yes, he who had received promises was offering his only son.” Clearly, Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. Isaac was, in fact, not Abraham’s first born son. Here the writer of Hebrews uses monogenes to describe Isaac in terms of his relationship with Abraham. Isaac was not Abraham’s only son but he was the unique son or his one of a kind son in that Isaac was the son of promise, the son of Abraham in whom God’s covenant was to be established. Thus, monogenes is not emphasizing the fact that Abraham fathered Isaac but the uniqueness of Isaac himself in relation to his father and God. He was the unique son, the only and only son of promise.
John 1:18 – No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
When we turn back to John 1:18, we see similarly, based on the context, that there is no emphasis on birth, origin or derivation of the human Son from the Father. To the contrary, the emphasis is on the uniqueness of the Son. The prologue to John begins with an affirmation of the eternality of the Word, the personhood of the Word in being in relationship with God and deity of the Word as to his nature. In verse 18 we find the closing to this prologue with John stating that no one has seen God at any time and we see that he is referring to the Father. As we continue, we see that the monogenes has made the Father known or has explained him. With the use the term Father, it seems only natural that we would see the Son as being the one to exegete the Father – the only, unique Son has made the Father known. Yet, it is not simply the humanity that has made the Father known but the “monogenes theos” or “the only God who is at the Father’s side or bosom” has explained him. The monogenes is divine as to his nature just as was asserted by John in the first verse of this chapter.
The prologue to John demonstrates that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, that he is the eternal creator of all things and that he is the only Son who is God. He is distinct from and yet in relationship with the Father.
The reading of “only begotten” appears to be inconsistent with the original Greek and the Oneness reliance on the terms “only begotten” results in reading into the scripture meaning that was never originally intended by John. Instead of looking to the original understanding of monogenes and attempting to derive our understanding of the meaning of the text from what was originally written (earlier, more reliable manuscripts) and its intended meaning, Oneness advocates will stick with their KJV rendering of “only begotten” and will read their understanding of those English terms back into the text in an attempt to support their contention that the Son is merely referring to the humanity of Jesus. These contortions deny the plain teaching of the text as to the Son’s pre-existence as the Word, his role in creation, his relationship with the Father, and his sharing in the divine nature.
[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God, at 98-99
[ii] Id. at 103.
[iii] Id. at 104.
[iv] Id. at 105.
[v] Id. at 105.
[vi] Id. at 100.
[vii] James White, The Forgotten Trinity, at 62.
[viii] Bernard at 100.