The Only-Begotten Son of God…Begotten, not Made

Ligonier Ministries and its founder, R. C. Sproul, and at least one of its contributing writers have some explaining to do. The May 16, 2016 edition of Tabletalk, published by Ligonier ministries is devoted to John 3:16 which is quoted on the front cover of the issue.

FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD, THAT HE GAVE HIS ONLY SON, THAT WHOSOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM SHOULD NOT PERISH BUT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE.

The word begotten is missing. No explanation is given why this translation of John 3:16 that omits the word was chosen. Writer Scott Swain, appointed to write about the portion of the text that refers to Jesus as God’s Son, entitled his article “His Only Son” instead of “His Only-Begotten Son.” Swain also makes no mention of the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father in the body of his article. Again no explanation is given for this omission. But the omission of begotten may not go unnoticed or unexplained. Those who would elide begotten from John 3:16 (or any of the other passages that traditionally include the word) need to answer the following questions.

  • Why do they translate only one part of a Greek word that has two parts?

The translation of the Bible that the May issues of Tabletalk used for John 3:16 translates the Greek word monogenes as ‘only.’ The first part of the word, mono, indeed means ‘only.’ But the second part of the word, genes, is derived from the Greek verb that means ‘to beget.’ The only way to translate monogenes accurately is to render it as ‘only begotten.’

  • How can the meaning of John 3:16, namely the greatness of God’s love, be understood without identifying God’s gift as his only-begotten Son?

In John 3:16 the greatness of God’s love corresponds to the greatness of the gift he has given for the salvation of his people. The greatness of the gift is not adequately expressed as God’s giving of his “only Son.” Swain tries to explain God’s gift of Jesus as a great gift without referring to his begetting by the Father. He mentions “Jesus’ filial relationship to the Father as the second person of the Trinity.” He describes the relationship between the Father and Son as “eternal” and says “the only Son’s relationship to the Father is a relationship of equality.” That the Son is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father is true. But one cannot say that John 3:16 teaches us these truths if it merely says Jesus is the “only Son” of God. He does not have to be co-eternal and co-equal with God to be his only Son. An only Son could be a mere creature. And if God’s gift is merely a unique creature, then his gift is not as great as John 3:16 intends to teach, and his love is also minimized. One might say that comparing John 3:16 to other parts of scripture confirms that Jesus is not merely a unique creature. This is true. But John 3:16 itself teaches God’s great love is displayed in the great gift of one who is himself God by using the word begotten. Leaving begotten out attacks the teaching of scripture in John 3:16 about the greatness of God’s love and gift in the giving of Jesus Christ.

  • Why do they choose a translation that obscures one of the ways that scriptures teaches the divinity of the Son?

This question is similar to the one above, but it deserves separate attention. Satan loves to attack the truth that Jesus is God. Under his direction the enemies of the truth of the Trinity attack the term begotten. They hate the idea that the Son is of the same essence as the Father because he is eternally generated by the Father. So they favor the idea that the Son was created or made by the Father as the first creature. Since the truth that the Son is begotten by the Father and therefore co-equal and co-essential with the Father and the Spirit, why would anyone who professes to believe in the doctrine of the Trinity want to give up the term?

  • Why do they choose a translation that threatens the threeness of God?

The church of Jesus Christ confesses one God who is three in person. The Belgic Confession explains it this way in Article 8, “we believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct, according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” The Article goes on to teach us what some of the incommunicable properties of the three Persons are. The Son is the Word. The Father and the Spirit are not the Word. The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Father and the Son do not proceed from any of the other persons of the Godhead. Article 10 speaks of the personal property of the Son that he is “begotten from eternity, not made nor created.” Article 11 teaches that the Holy Spirit “from eternity proceeds from the Father and Son; and therefore is not made, created, nor begotten, but only proceedeth from both.” That the Father alone begets and that the Son alone is begotten is one of the important ways that the three Persons of the Godhead are distinguished from each other. To deny that the Son is begotten by the Father raises the question of how the Father and Son actually differ from each other. If the Arians are on one side rooting against the idea that the Son is begotten so as to deny his divinity, the Sabellians are on the other side rooting against the term to erase the distinction between the Father and the Son. For the sake of maintaining the truth that God is three in person it is necessary to confess that the Son’s personal incommunicable attribute is that he is begotten by the Father.

  • Why do they choose to translate John 3:16 in a way that makes an incorrect statement, when the traditional translation accurately and clearly teaches the truth?

Jesus is not the only son of God. Swain understands this. He explains that the relationship of the Son to the Father is “unique” in comparison to the relationship that saved sinners have with God. He is the only “natural” Son of God while they are “adopted” sons. But the translation Swain uses of John 3:16 does not indicate that this is the difference between Jesus and others who are also the children of God. The translation he uses unnecessarily teaches that God has no other children besides Jesus. And it will not help to change the word only to “unique.” That does not help us to understand what the difference between Jesus and the other children of God is. There is one term that helps us understand that the difference is indeed between a natural Son and adopted sons—BEGOTTEN. Calling Jesus the only-begotten Son is not only completely true but it is also comforting. That Jesus is the only-begotten Son does not give saved sinners any reason to doubt that they are also the children of God.

  • Why do they not feel compelled by the Church’s Creeds to interpret scripture as teaching that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God?

That Ligonier, Sproul, and Swain have some explaining to do does not mean they need to explain themselves to me or to any other individual. They must explain themselves to the church of Jesus Christ. Begotten is part of the church’s vocabulary in her creeds. The apostolic church has officially interpreted scripture to teach that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God. The Nicene Creed is especially of importance regarding this truth. The church confesses to believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds…begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Theologians may not treat begotten as if it is one of their own words to accept or reject as they wish. It is not a term they may choose to criticize in or ignore in their writings. If they believe the term needs to be rejected, they need to bring their sentiments to the church, and until they do so they may not write or teach anything contrary to the church’s confession.  

 

Appendix

Creed

Statement of Faith

Nicene Creed

And in one Lord JESUS CHRIST, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds…begotten not made.

The Symbol of Chalcedon

We, then, following the holy fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect Godhead and also perfect in manhood…begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead.

The Athanasian Creed

The Son is of the Father alone: not made, nor created: but begotten.

Luther’s Small Catechism

I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity…is my Lord.

2nd Helvetic Confession

“…we believe…the Father has begotten the Son from eternity, the Son is begotten by an ineffable generation.”

The Heidelberg Catechism

Question 33. Why is he called God’s only-begotten Son, since we are also the children of God? Answer. Because Christ alone is the natural Son of God; but we are children of God by adoption through grace for his sake.

Belgic Confession

We believe that Jesus Christ, according to his divine nature, is the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from eternity, not made nor created.

Westminster Confession of Faith

The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

 

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This post was written by Rev. Clayton Spronk, pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.

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