For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life… Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

(John 3:16, 18)

Here we meet another sobriquet of Jesus: the “only begotten Son”, as some versions render it: the King James, American Standard and Douay-Rheims. The Good News and Contemporary English versions have “only Son”; the New International has “one and only Son”; and the International Standard, most correctly, has “unique Son”.

The foundation of this misconception is the mistranslation of the Greek word monogenēs as “only begotten”. In the late 4th century a scholar named Jerome was commissioned to translate the Bible into Latin. He translated monogenēs as unigenitus (“one sired, begotten”), rather than sui generis (“one class”), “to counter the Arian claim that Jesus was not begotten but made” [1].

Monogenēs means “unique; the only one of its kind”. Isaac was not Abraham’s only son – Abraham also sired Ishmael and six others (Gen. 25:1-2) – but he was Abraham’s unique (monogenēs – Heb. 11:17) son because God intended to fulfil His promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) through Isaac’s offspring.

We don’t know if Jerome understood the Old Testament import of monogenēs, but his choice to translate it to attack Arianism is an instance of allowing our beliefs to bias our interpretation of the Bible [2].

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology states that

monogenēs…is only distantly related to gennaō, beget…. Monogenēs reflects the Heb[rew]. yāḥîd of Isaac (Gen. 22:2, 12, 16) of whom it is used in Heb. 11:16.

[3]

As monogenēs is used of Jesus, it points to Jesus’ uniqueness in His relationship to God the Father. Although Jesus the Word of God has taken a human nature, He still retains his nature as deity: he is ontologically (by nature) equal to God the Father. But Jesus is functionally (by role or relationship) lesser than the Father because He chooses to allow the Father to have the final say: “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39) It is not Jesus’ taking human nature that makes him lesser than the Father; it is his deliberate choice to submit to the Father’s will.

Jesus said that the Father was greater than He was (John 14:28), but He never said that the Father was superior (in nature) to Him. The Greek word for “greater than” is meidzōn; the word for “superior to” is kreittōn or kreissōn. The letter to the Hebrews (1:4) describes Jesus’ nature as superior to (kreittōn) that of the angels’ [4].

By nature, Jesus the Word is equal to the Father; however, by role – through His own choice – He is lesser than the Father. Even if the Incarnation never happened, the Word would still be functionally lesser than the Father because of His choice to submit to the Father’s will. But while the Father is greater than Jesus by virtue of His position in the Trinity and in salvation history, Jesus is not inferior in nature to the Father: if He were, He wouldn’t be “in very nature God” (Phil. 2:5), and “the fullness of deity in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).

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Footnotes

[1] “monogenēs”.

[2] If we allow our bias to influence our interpretation or dealing with the facts, we are being subjective. If we seek to counter the effect of our bias, we are trying to be objective. This search for objectivity is the benefit of the peer review process and the ability to repeat experiments, which characterise scientific methodology.

[3] “monogenēs”. Monogenēs can be divided into monos (only) and genos (kind, race, generation) but when we divide a word like this, we need to beware of falling victim to the etymological fallacy, which is to say that the meaning of a word is a compound of its parts. (An example would be that “nice” really means “ignorant” because that’s what it meant in its original Latin.) Think of such a word rather as an alloy: it becomes a unique word with its own meaning, which must be defined by its context. For more on fallacies of this kind, see James Barr’s The Semantics of Biblical Language and Don Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies.

[4] Although the text says that Jesus “became” superior to the angels, this doesn’t imply that Jesus wasn’t or isn’t full deity. It is probably a reference to Psalm 8 – “you made him [humanity as a single entity] a little lower than the angels” – which the writer of Hebrews later refers to (2:6-8).

copyright Troy Grisgonelle 2007.

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