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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Islam (2)

In the last blog post on this subject we noticed that many Muslims do not understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. This is because their book, the Qur’an either deliberately or ignorantly misrepresents the doctrine. We call this a “straw man” argument—a “straw man fallacy” occurs when a person creates a misrepresentation of his opponent’s position and attacks it instead of the true position of the opponent. Christians must not be guilty of such fallacies. The Ninth Commandment of God’s Law forbids “falsify[ing] any man’s words” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 43).

When the Qur’an presents Christians as worshipping Jesus and His mother “in derogation of Allah” (Surah 5:116) or presents Christians as joining “other gods with Allah” (Surah 5:72-73), the Muslim’s supposedly inspired text grossly misrepresents what Christians believe. The Trinity does not consist of Allah, Jesus and Mary, and the Trinity does not consist of many gods. Consider another text from the Qur’an: “They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except one God” (Surah 5:73).

Two concepts in Islamic theology make it very difficult for the Muslim to understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—in addition, of course, to the natural depravity of the human heart. Those two concepts are tawhid and shirk.

Tawhid is the absolute oneness of Allah—Islam is a religion of absolute, non-negotiable, Unitarian monotheism. Muslims view other religions (except Judaism) as polytheistic. Hinduism, for example, is polytheistic, for Hindus do indeed worship many gods. Christianity, however, is not polytheistic, for Christians worship only one God. However, when Muslims hear that Christians worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or when they imagine that Christians worship Allah, Jesus and Mary!), they conclude wrongly that Christians are polytheistic.

Shirk is the unforgivable sin (in Islam) of associating others with Allah. Muslims fear the sin of shirk above all other transgressions. Allah can forgive adultery, murder and every other sin, but Allah will not under any circumstances forgive one who has died in the sin of shirk: “Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him, but He forgiveth anything else to whom he pleaseth; to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin most heinous indeed” (Surah 4:48). “Whoever joins other gods with Allah—Allah will forbid him the Garden, and the fire will be his abode. There will for the wrongdoers be no one to help” (Surah 5:72).

No wonder that the Muslim is especially prejudiced against Christianity—it has been ingrained into him that Christianity is shirk! What the Christian needs to do, therefore, in witnessing is to demonstrate to the Muslim neighbor that the doctrine of the Trinity has nothing to do with shirk. And the Christian must pray that the Spirit of God might open the heart of the Muslim neighbor to receive the truth. Ultimately, we can only present the truth. We cannot convince anyone of the truth. That is the work of God’s Spirit, who blows where He wills in the hearts of God’s elect (John 3:8).

The word Trinity is not found in the Bible, but that should not disturb us, for every field of knowledge has technical vocabulary and terminology. The word Trinity is shorthand for theological concepts that are found in the Bible. The word Trinity explains who God is—in a certain sense, He is one; and in another sense, He is three. He is one God in three distinct persons. This is basic Christianity, but the Muslim will find it confusing.

The Bible teaches that there is only one God. This is the teaching of the Old Testament. When the Gentiles worshipped many gods, Israel confessed and worshipped only one God. “Before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the LORD, and beside me there is no Saviour” (Isaiah 43:10-11). This is also the teaching of the New Testament—Christians did not jettison their monotheism even when they confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. They continued to confess and worship only one God, the same God as the God of the Old Testament. The Greeks and Romans worshipped many gods, but the church steadfastly remained monotheistic. “There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).

Nevertheless, the Bible does not hesitate to give the name of God, ascribe the attributes of God, attribute the works of God, and present the worship of God to three individuals—to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

The Bible gives the name of God to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. The Bible ascribes the attributes of God to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. The Bible attributes the works of God to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And the Bible presents the worship of God to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

Many texts could be cited to prove the points above, but I forbear for lack of space. The point, however, is this—the Father is called God, the Son is called God, and the Holy Spirit is called God, and yet there is only one God. (Notice, by the way, contrary to the misrepresentation of the Qur’an, that it is not that Allah is called God, Jesus is called God and Mary is called God. Nor is that the Son is called God and joined as a secondary God to Allah. Nor is that others are worshipped as gods alongside Allah. The doctrine of the Trinity means that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equally God).

To explain the truth of the Trinity, the early church needed to use terminology. In what sense is God one, and in what sense is God three? The theological terms on which the church settled were being or essence, and person. Of course, the early church used Greek terms (ousia and hypostasis). These terms became all the more important because of the presence of false teachers in the church. For example, a heretic called Arius (d. 336) agreed to call the Son of God homoiousion, which means of a similar essence or being to the Father, but he baulked at the word homoousion, which means of the same essence or being as the Father. (The astute reader will notice that the difference between those two words, and therefore the difference between heresy and orthodoxy, is one letter—the smallest Greek letter, iota!). These theological debates occurred long before Mohammed’s birth, as I explained in the last blog post on this subject.

The being or essence of something makes it what it is, and distinguishes it from every other being. Everything apart from God is creature. The divine being of God is unique—and one. There are not two, or three beings called God. There is one God, one divine being, or one indivisible Godhead.

A person is a conscious, intelligent, active individual distinct from other persons. The writer of this blog post is a person. The individual reader is another, distinct person. This world has billions of human persons in it.

The difficulty is this—in our human experience, one human being is also one human person. No analogy or illustration exists in which one being is more than one person. Yet that is who God is—He is three distinct persons subsisting in one divine being. To understand something of that, or to grasp that, is to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father is not the same person as the Son or the Holy Spirit, yet He shares the same being as the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son is not the same person as the Father or the Holy Spirit, yet He shares the same being as the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the same person as the Father or the Son, yet He shares the same being as the Father and the Son.

Is that deep and mysterious? Absolutely! Is that illogical, contradictory and impossible to reconcile with human reason? Absolutely not!

There are two more significant truths about the Trinity that we must bear in mind.

First, the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity is one of equality. Christians do not worship one person “in derogation” of the other persons. Christians view the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as coequal in power, glory and majesty—there is no gradation of being or difference of rank. The Father is not more divine than the Son or the Holy Spirit, for example. The Father is not higher, and the Son is not subordinate to the Father in the being of God. Remember the word homoousion—of the same essence. There is also no time in the Trinity—the Trinity is eternal, which means that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-eternal. The Father is not before the Son or before the Spirit.

Second, the relationship between the persons of the Trinity is one of perfect love and fellowship. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not rivals, but holy family. The Father loves the Son in the Holy Spirit, and the Son loves the Father in the Holy Spirit. God, therefore, is not a lonely deity, but He is the living God, full of life, love and fellowship, within Himself, within His own being. It is because of this love of God within the being of God that God is capable of loving the creature.

This God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—is the God of our salvation.

Next time, DV, we will explain what we mean by the Christian confession that Jesus is the Son of God, something about which Muslims have many misconceptions.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (1)

Because of multiculturalism and increased immigration, especially in Europe, Muslims are increasingly common in the post-Christian West. This makes Muslims our neighbors, those whom God has placed on our path. Many Christians view Muslims as their enemies. Nevertheless, the command of Christ is clear—love your neighbor, and even love your enemy.

Part of the love that the Christian owes his Muslim neighbor is to present the gospel to him. Many Christians are ill equipped to do so. In a series of blog posts, I intend to introduce the reader to the doctrines of Islam, so that we can better understand our Muslim neighbor, and so that we can witness to him about Jesus Christ. You might find that the Muslim is more interested in hearing the gospel than the hardened “lapsed Christian.”

One problem in witnessing to Muslims is that Muslims misunderstand what Christianity is. They have wrong notions about the Trinity, the Son of God, and other Christian truths. Not only do they reject them, but their Qur’an misrepresents them. This is a formidable barrier, but it can be overcome when we plainly state the truth.

A good place to begin is with history. The Qur’an was written during the lifetime of Mohammed (c. 570-632 AD). A lot of very significant church history took place before Mohammed’s birth. First, the Christian church defined from the scriptures the doctrine of the Trinity (the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD). Second, the Christian church defined the relationship between the one person and the two natures (human and divine) of Jesus Christ (the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD).

The reason that these dates are significant is simple—the church had defined from the New Testament who God is and who Jesus Christ is over a century before Mohammed’s birth. (We do not mean that the church invented these doctrines, but that the church officially defined them out of the inspired scriptures). Therefore, the Qur’an, which Mohammed allegedly received as divine revelation, should accurately reflect what the church had defined. If the Qur’an shows evidence of ignorance of Christian doctrine or deliberate misrepresentation of it, the Muslim is faced with very serious questions about the authenticity of his “sacred book.”

Consider the following citations from the Qur’an against the Trinity:

 And behold, Allah will say: ‘O Jesus, the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, ‘Worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah?’ He will say: ‘Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, Thou wouldest indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, though I know not what is in Thine. For thou knowest in full all that is hidden’ (Surah 5:116).

O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not Three: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One God: glory be to Him: (far Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs (Surah 4:171).

 They do blaspheme who say: ‘God is Christ the son of Mary.’ But said Christ: ‘O children of Israel! Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.’ Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the Garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrongdoers be no one to help. They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One God. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily, a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them (Surah 5:72-73).

The reader will notice that the writer of the Qur’an views the Trinity very differently from the official statements of the Christian church. “Worship me and my mother in derogation of Allah.” The Qur’an’s “Trinity” is not Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but Allah, Jesus and Mary! Moreover, the Qur’an views the Trinity as “join[ing] other gods with Allah.”

This misrepresentation of the Trinity is inexcusable because the church defined the Trinity as one God in three distinct persons centuries before Mohammed wrote one word of the Qur’an. No Christian has ever defined the Trinity as the Qur’an does. It is, however, easy to imagine how Mohammed could have jumped to such a conclusion. Mohammed observed churches; he saw statues and icons; and he conversed with Christian merchants of various heretical sects. There is no evidence, however, that he was familiar with the Nicene or Chalcedonian creeds. In fact many believe that Mohammed was illiterate.

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made … And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

How could Mohammed have been unaware of a theological controversy that had been resolved in the Christian church two centuries before the Qur’an was written, if he is (as Islam claims) the prophet of God, and if the Qur’an is (as Islam claims) the inspired word of the all knowing, all seeing Allah? For Mohammed to disagree with Christian orthodoxy is one thing; for him to be ignorant of or deliberately to misrepresent it is quite another.

Next time, DV, we will explain what we mean by the Trinity so that we can properly present the truth that Jesus is the Son of God to our Muslim neighbor.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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