Dictionary Evidence

Monogenes - Dictionary of Theological Terms | Greek Strong's Dictionary

Monogenes: “Only Begotten” or “One of a Kind”?

Is Christ the only begotten Son, or a one of a kind Son? This article looks at the etymology of the Greek word monogenes to answer this question. Click Here to see the article.

Source: Trinitarian Bible Society, 2015. 8 pages.

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Term: Monogenes (Only Begotten)

Monogenes (only begotten)

— Greek Strong’s Dictionary

3439. μονογενής monogenes, mon-og-en-ace´; from 3441 and 1096; only-born, i.e. sole: — only (begotten, child).

Greek Strong's Dictionary

Term: Monogenes (Only Begotten)

Monogenes (only begotten)

— Dictionary of Theological Terms

Greek term accurately translated “only begotten” in the AV translation of the NT. The word monogenes appears in the NT in the following places: Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; John 1:14; 1:18; 3:16, 18; Heb. 11:17; 1 John 4:9. In Luke 7:12 the reference is to the son of the widow of Nain, “the only son of his mother.” Luke 8:42 calls Jairus’s daughter his “one only” daughter, while 9:38 records the plea of the man who met Christ corning down from the mount of transfiguration to heal his son, “for he is mine only child.” Hebrews 11:17 calls Isaac Abraham’s “only begotten son.” In all these cases it carries the strict sense of one begotten by or born to an actual, biological parent. All the other uses of monogenes are of the Son of God.

Historically, orthodox interpreters gave the word its full etymological significance and saw in the term “the only begotten Son” a reference to the mystery of the eternal generation* of the Son. However, in modern times only begotten has largely been rejected, because, it is alleged, the word means “only,” “unique,” or beloved” (in Gen. 22:2 the LXX translates the Hebrew word yachid, “only,” as “beloved”).

The basis for this rejection is largely a misapplication of the Heb. 11:17 statement that Isaac was Abraham’s monogenes. The argument is that Abraham already had another son, Ishmael, and therefore Isaac could not be his “only begotten.” The word must mean “only,” in the sense of “unique.” This, it is argued, is as much as we can justifiably read into the word when it is used of the Son of God. This argument is flimsy. Isaac was called Abraham’s monogenes because he was really begotten by him. In terms of God’s covenant, Abraham had no other son.

Some supporters of the restricted meaning of the term allege that to translate monogenes as “only begotten” is a classic example of the fallacy of etymological translation. To translate by etymology alone would be absurd. For example, Luke 23:35 says, “The rulers also … derided him.” The verb ekmukterizo in classical Greek means to have a bloody nose. How it came to mean “mock,” or “deride,” we are left to speculate. But it would be madness to translate Luke 23:5 to say that the Jewish rulers had a nosebleed at the cross!

However, the translation of monogenes as “only begotten” is no such absurdity. The etymology is apparent, and it is obvious that the word came to be used as it was because of its etymological transparency. The following lines of argument establish that “only begotten” is not only a justifiable translation, but the necessary one:

1. There is no evidence of monogenes being used of an adopted son. An adopted son may be an only, or unique son, but not a monogenes. This is precisely because the term can refer only to one actually begotten by his father (or, in the case of the Luke 7:12 reference, born to his mother).

2. In classical Greek usage, monogenes may be used of a number of sons who share the same parent (James Donegan, A New Greek and English Lexicon). In this sense, when it is used of brothers, the prefix mono, “only,” seems to refer to the father: he is their common begetter. This usage does not appear in the NT, not even in Heb. 11:17 (for there the writer is not seeking to establish Ishmael’s equal claim to Abraham’s paternity). However, this classical usage once again emphasizes the fact that the word cannot be used without reference to a true begetting.

3. A variant reading of John 1:18 has the phrase monogenes theos, “only-begotten God,” instead of “the only-begotten Son” of the Received Text. This variant helps us to determine that in the case of the Son of God monogenes means “only begotten.” Though adopted by many textual scholars, the variant has no place in the NT text (see Textual Criticism of the New Testament), but it stands nevertheless as a witness to the significance of the word monogenes in the sub-apostolic age. If it meant “only,” or “one and only,” the reading monogenes theos would be logically and theologically impossible.

The translators of the RSV appear to have felt this difficulty. The Greek text they adopted was the 21st edition of Nestle’s Novum Testamentum Graece, which reads monogenes theos. But the RSV translation reads, “the only Son,” with the footnote, “Other ancient authorities read God.” It would appear that the reason the RSV translators departed from their chosen Greek text was theological, not text-critical: they recognized that it was inconceivable to represent John as having written, “The only God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (as is explained below).

The translators of the NIV faced the same problem, but they did not allow theological considerations—or even a theological absurdity—to keep them back from adopting the variant reading and translating it as “God the One and Only.” This translation is a monstrosity. It raises immense theological difficulties and makes the Bible say something that is entirely foreign to every other statement it makes on the subject of the relationship of the Son to the Father. To say that the Son is “God the One and Only,” in a text that highlights His personal distinction from the Father, is a blatant self-contradiction. Given the fact that “God the One and Only” is in the bosom of the Father, God cannot refer to the divine essence but to the personal subsistence of the Son. Thus, it is impossible to explain the anomaly by expounding the text to mean that the Son shares the one and only divine essence, or nature, that the Father possesses. The NIV translation is tantamount to saying that the Son is the only personal subsistence in the Trinity.* To say, as the NIV does, that God the One and Only is in the Father’s bosom surely invites the absurd conclusion that the Father is not God. Even Moffatt confessed that monogenes theos could not be translated as it stands. He rendered the text, “God has been unfolded by the divine One, the only Son, who lies upon the Father’s breast.” And he added in a footnote, “Although theos (‘the divine one’) is probably more original than the variant huios [son], monogenes (see v. 14) requires some such periphrasis in order to bring out its full meaning.”

The only satisfactory translation of the reading monogenes theos is “only begotten God.” The New English Bible relegates the reading to the footnotes, where it gives this translation (or, paraphrase, to be more precise), “The only one, himself God.” This paraphrase confirms two things. First, the translators see insuperable theological and exegetical difficulties in the plain translation “the only begotten God” in this context. Second, if we translate the text without a paraphrase, the word monogenes cannot be rendered “only,” or “one and only.”

5. Finally, the name “the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18) demands that we understand monogenes as the AV translates it, not merely as “one and only.” Even those who insist most strongly that monogenes means “only” (e.g., Thayer in his widely used lexicon), hold that Son of God carries the idea of the true deity of the Son. Thayer’s position involves a contradiction. He is certain that the only begotten Son or the Son of God always refers to the mediatorial Sonship. But he holds that each is a statement of the Son’s essential deity. Only one of these positions can be true. If the expression “Son of God,” or “only begotten Son of God,” refers solely to Christ’s post-incarnation relationship with the Father, it is clear that the terms themselves cannot prove His eternal deity. But this is a conclusion that no respectable Bible scholar would make. Thus the premise that produces it—i.e., that monogenes theos does not refer to the Son’s eternal and essential relationship with the Father—is plainly an error.

Accepting that both expressions do refer to the true deity of the Son, we must note that in the phrase “Son of God,” God refers to God the Father, not to the trinitarian essence of the Godhead. This must be so, for the Son is the Son of the Father, not the Son of the Trinity (an impossible concept that would make Him, at least in part, the Son of Himself). So we are left with the clear idea that the Son is the Son of God in His eternal relationship with the Father.

That being the case, we must ask the question: what is the significance of the genitive of in the phrase? The genitive has many possible uses. It may at first glance be taken as a genitive of apposition: “the Son who is God.” But this cannot be, for as we have seen, God in this context refers to the Father—and it would be nonsense to say “the Son who is the Father.” There are two other possible ways of understanding the genitive here—indeed, it may have a pregnant sense that includes both. It may denote first, relationship or possession: the Father has a Son; second, source or origin: the Son is said to be para patros, “from the side of the Father” (John 1:14). By genitive of origin, all we mean is that in an ineffable way the Father is the source or cause of the filial relationship His Son has with Him. He is not the source or origin of the Son’s deity. The Son is autotheos;* He has eternal self-existence. But, at least logically—i.e., to convey the mysterious truth of the mtra-trinitarian relations—we can think of paternity only as the source of sonship, not as the result.

This is the force of the clearly parallel idea in Heb. 1:1–3. There the Son is described as “the brightness of [the Father’s] glory, and the express image of his person.” This the closest the NT comes to explaining the force of the divine begetting. As glory may be said to be the source of its brightness, or outshining, so the Father is said to beget the Son from all eternity. There is no thought of superiority and inferiority, of precedence or posteriority as to time, or any such notions that would introduce a species of subordinationism* into the essential relations of the persons in the Trinity. Just as glory and its outshining imply each other—i.e., the existence of each necessitates that of the other—so Father and Son have no meaning apart from each other.

In the light of all this, it is not difficult to see why some respected linguists—including F. F. Bruce (Commentary on John) and F. Biichsel (Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament)—have rejected the trend against attributing the meaning “only begotten” to monogenes.

The theological significance of the proper sense of this word is immense. It touches on the doctrines of the Trinity, eternal generation, and consubstantiality.* Its meaning must not be denied. It means “only begotten” and is a reference to the basis of the eternal filiation of the second person in the Trinity to the first. But its precise significance cannot be further defined than the NT mandates. We must not make the mistake of speculating as many of the church fathers did or of arguing from the analogy of human relationships. We must be satisfied with recognizing that monogenes signifies that the Son has the same divine essence as the Father and has all the glory that is peculiar to that eternal dignity (John 1:14).

Dictionary of Theological Terms

Term: Monogenes (Only Begotten)

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