From a Trinitarian perspective, does the term 'only begotten Son' make sense outside of the concept of the incarnation? If so, how? If not, why not?

The Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed states (in part):

We believe...in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds... (emphasis added)

My question in extended form: Is the 'begotten-ness' eternal if and only if the incarnation is viewed from an eternal perspective as well (our sense of what begotten means would consequentially be inextricably linked to the incarnation) or is there some logic in conceiving that somehow a temporal locus of the incarnation imparts a distinction between it and 'eternally begotten'?

I imagine this is the sort of issue Thomas Aquinas would have considered - if so can someone direct me to how he addresses the issue.

I am also interested in the views of any other relevant trinitarian theologians as well.

This question: Is there any proof from the Bible that the second Person of the Trinity was the Only-begotten Son of the Father before His incarnation? is related but distinct.

  • That's an interesting question. We know that Jesus has always been "I am". He an un-created being. To me, that creed is using worlds in the plural which is odd to me. unless they mean planets? In the old testament there is always "The Angel of the Lord" that appears, and also "Malchiezedek" who had no beginning of days. Those are two interesting things to look up, neither are mentioned in the NT after Jesus comes.
    – JREAM
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 19:15
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    "Worlds" is (for odd historical reasons) an alternate translation for the Latin "saecula" (as in "secular"), which is more typically translated "age" (as in "age of the world"). The translation used in the Catholic Church's revised Roman Missal says "born of the Father before all ages". Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 19:22
  • @JREAM Actually, Melchizedek is referred to more in the NT than in the OT: biblegateway.com/quicksearch/… Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 19:23
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    There are at least two (edit - at least FOUR OR FIVE!!! - questions in the Summa which seem to apply; I'm trying to put them together into an answer but it's getting very long (especially since Thomas is so wordy). Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 19:50
  • I do not understand the question. The incarnation is when “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). There is some Biblical support, although slim, for the view that the Son was begotten in past eternity (John 3:16; 1 John 4:9). Nevertheless, the question assumes that the Nicene Creed is true, and, in the creed, the Son was begotten in past eternity. The Son, therefore, was begotten in past eternity but was incarnated 2000 years ago. Why does the question ask whether there is a difference between these two concepts? Are they not obviously different?
    – Andries
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 6:04

4 Answers 4


Aquinas addresses the question from different angles a number of places in the Summa Theologica, in various parts of the "Treatise on the Most Holy Trinity" (First Part, Questions 27–43).

The fundamental question is answered more or less directly in Question 27, "The Procession of the Divine Persons". Article 2 of this question, "Whether any procession in God can be called generation?", talks about what it might mean to say that the Son "is begotten by" the Father. Thomas' answer is:

... We must observe that generation has a twofold meaning: one common to everything subject to generation and corruption; in which sense generation is nothing but change from non-existence to existence. In another sense it is proper and belongs to living things; in which sense it signifies the origin of a living being from a conjoined living principle; and this is properly called birth.

Not everything of that kind, however, is called begotten; but, strictly speaking, only what proceeds by way of similitude. ... the procession of the Word in God is generation; for He proceeds by way of intelligible action, which is a vital operation:—from a conjoined principle (as above described):—by way of similitude, inasmuch as the concept of the intellect is a likeness of the object conceived:—and exists in the same nature, because in God the act of understanding and His existence are the same, as shown above. Hence the procession of the Word in God is called generation; and the Word Himself proceeding is called the Son.

The Son, in other words, is "begotten" not in virtue of the Incarnation, but because the Son is the Word of God proceeding from, and in that sense "begotten by" (one could say "generated by"), the Father.

There are a few other places where Aquinas discusses different aspects of the question (such as "Is it appropriate to call the Father 'unbegotten'?"), but this is the clearest exposition of Aquinas' actual position, and it appears from his discussions as a whole to be a standard Trinitarian answer.

  • Long time no speak. Provide the link First Part (Prima Pars) for the access to Summa Theologica, in various parts of the "Treatise on the Most Holy Trinity" (First Part, Questions 27–43)?
    – user13992
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 23:35
  • Thanks! seen it and acted. Thanks for a new source for material.
    – user13992
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 0:17
  • This is in the ball-park, but I don't think you've hit a home run with it (maybe about 2nd base?) - the quote doesn't explicitly reference the incarnation (and there is neither an implication of distinction between incarnation and an eternal begotten-ness), so I think your line is "The Son, in other words, is "begotten" not in virtue of the Incarnation etc." is over-reach if not non-sequitur. Maybe he just doesn't address the issue explicitly enough after all to definitively answer my question. Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 16:02
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    Although it would be tackling the argument at one remove, of particular relevance would be Thomas's view on the nature of time and how it relates to God's eternity. Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 17:28
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    Thomas tackles eternity in general: "Whether eternity differs from time?" His answer: "Eternity is simultaneously whole [i.e. it cannot be divided into 'now', 'before', and 'after']. But time has a 'before' and an 'after.' Therefore time and eternity are not the same thing." Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 17:39

Begetting ( present participle of the verb "beget") - To procreate an offspring. To beget is to make someone have one's nature.

The purpose of begetting is to pass on genome ( whole nature) to the offspring.

Elements of Divine Begetting

1) Male ( John 1:14,18)

2) Womb ( Ps. 110:3, John 1:18)

53) Divine nature (John 1:1,18)

Elements of Human Begetting

1) Male

2) Female

3) Intercourse

4) Womb

5) Human nature (genome)

As we can clearly see, the divine begetting is an inscrutable mystery because there is no Biblical information about How the Father produced the Son.

Anyway, the 'how' of the divine begetting is not what's important but rather, what's important is its essence (the meaning it conveys) which is co-equality of the Father and the Son in one nature.

The Scriptures only speaks of an analogy from psychology in regards to the Son's begetting from the Father.

Word from Mind ( Psalm 45:1, John 1:1,14,18).

Wisdom from Mind ( Proverbs 8:22, John 1:1,14,18).

The Mind of God the Father eternally exists as rational and wise.Therefore, the Son of God the Father eternally exists.

Only begotten from the Father (Psalm 109:3, John 1:14).

The psychological analogy fails to explain how the Son ( a person) is produced by the Father ( a person). The psychological analogy only shows that the production is necessary and eternally exists.In fact, this analogy has its own inscrutable mystery too because we do not know How God produced both Word and Wisdom from His mind without a beginning of its existence.

Produced not from nothing but from the Father

Word = produced ( Ps. 45:1 LXX)

Wisdom = produced ( Prov. 8:22 LXX)

Son = produced ( John 1:14)

Eternal ( Without beginning or ending)

Word = eternal ( John 1:1)

Wisdom = eternal ( 1 Timothy 1:17)

Son = eternal ( Micah 5:2, John 1:1,18, Colossians 2:9)

The Scriptures do not reveal how these were produced. The fact that these are eternally existent and simultaneously productions of God, is a mind blowing reality.

If any one, therefore, says to us, How then was the Son produced by the Father? we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begot, and the Son who was begotten (Against Heresies 2.28.6)

  • If, how the Father begat His Son is a mystery, how do we know that it means that the Son has the same essence as the Father and is co-equal with the Father? That is the conclusion in the Nicene Creed, but do we have any Biblical evidence?
    – Andries
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 5:31
  • @Andries what does 'mystery' mean?
    – R. Brown
    Commented Nov 18, 2021 at 19:42
  • In my view, a mystery is something which we know is true but we cannot explain it. Like the huge amount of data on my memory stick. A mystery is not something which human logic is able to show to involve a contradiction and, therefore, to be false.
    – Andries
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 5:53
  • Modern Bible translations render monogenes as "unique," but if we interpret monogenes as that God begat His Son, we agree that it does not mean the same as human begetting. In Tertullian's analogy, God is the sun and the Son is a ray from the sun, but "one undivided substance." In my view, what "begotten" means is a mystery and we must not interpret it too literally. Since the Bible does not explain it, I propose that we give meaning to the term by analyzing what the Bible elsewhere says of the relationship between the Father and the Son. E.g. “image of,” “are one,” etc.
    – Andries
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 7:15

One other possibility to consider, and for me this is the preferred options, is that “begotten” is not really the right word to use at all.

The Greek word we are discussing here is “monogenes” [μονογενεσ]. Of course this is a compound word, and the first half is easy, “mono" meaning “one”. The problem comes in the second half, as there is no Greek word exactly “genes”, so originally translators decided it must be a form of the word “gennao”, which means to “beget", “bear" or "give birth to".

However, it appears “genes” might not be a derivative of the verb “gennao” but rather the noun “genos”, which means “kind", “class" or “ family". It’s where we get the words "gene" and "genre" from. Thus “monogenes” means “one of a kind”, “unique” or “the only one in it’s class”. You could say a Platypus is “monogenes”, it’s the only one of it’s kind, there’s nothing else like it.

We get further confirmation for this in Hebrews 11:17 where Isaac is called Abraham's "monogenes" son. We know that Isaac was not the “only begotten" son of Abraham, there was the older Ishmael as well as six other sons by a concubine named Keturah. But Isaac was the only "son of promise", so in that way he was a unique, one of a kind son.

You may have noticed that most of the modern translations have moved away from “begotten” in John 3:16. The NIV and HCSB render it "one and only Son" and the ESV and CEV say "only Son".

What is also interesting to me is that the creed writers seemed to be uncomfortable with the word "begotten" because they almost immediately feel the need to further define it by saying "begotten, not made".

  • Sorry Nathaniel, I am kind of new here and still trying to learn the ropes. I guess I interpreted the question a little differently than you did. I understood it to be asking about the general Christian term "only begotten son" and how that concept relates to Jesus outside of the incarnation, and not specifically the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed. I I supposed, perhaps incorrectly, that Bruised Reed was only using the Creed as an example. Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 15:25
  • However, I do want to point out that the Creed was originally written in Greek, and says, as best as we can tell, "τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ [monogenes]. So we are still stuck with the same problem, does "μονογενῆ" [monogenes] mean "begotten" or "unique"? Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 15:29
  • Thanks for pointing out my mistake; you are of course right that both versions of the Nicene Creed were originally in Greek. My only remaining quibble would be that it would be good to show that some trinitarian theologians understand this the same way you do. Thanks! Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 15:37

The Old Roman Creed hints of a perspective that might address your question:

I BELIEVE in God almighty, the Father almighty and in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried and the third day rose from the dead who ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of the Father whence he cometh to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, the life everlasting.

Notice that Jesus incarnate was born of the Holy Spirit and Mary, the Son of God (only begotten)and the "Son of Man" born of the overshadowing presence of the Holy Spirit with Mary.

The Moravians & Count Zinzendorf prior to the Reformation held that the Holy Spirit was God the Mother. In this the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from God the Father bearing His eternal will. The manifest will of the Father born by the Holy Spirit then is Eternally Begotten. Jesus Christ then is the manifest will of God the Father born of the Holy Spirit. This in extension would also hold that the Holy Spirit bear's out Christ in the believer’s life.

A differentiation between the Holy Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son’s sending of the Holy Spirit must be made. The sending by the son is as a result of His finished work on the cross.

In this case Jesus is the Eternally Begotten!

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    Your claim that Jesus Christ is then manifest will of the Father born by the Holy Spirit is confirmed by Father Zakaria[youtube: Father Zakaria, Message of Grace (7) Father Zakaria's Mission(23 min. 23 sec.)] that Jesus is "mind of God". Also: word(gr. logos) was made flesh(john.1:14). So here "word", who is Jesus means divine reason/mind or reason/mind of God. logos: Heraclitus used the term Logos around 600 B.C. to designate the divine reason or plan[Thayer's Greek Lexicon, 3056(Strongs code) -> raamattu.uskonkirjat.net/servlet/….
    – alvoutila
    Commented Aug 31, 2014 at 18:57
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    Separating the Son of God from the Son of Man sounds dangerously like Nestorianism. If that is not what you meant then you should edit this to clarify.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Oct 26, 2016 at 3:11
  • @curiousdannii Jesus self identified as the "son of man" and the "son of God". As the manifest will of the Father He is actually unified as one not separated
    – Rick
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 13:19
  • @Rick Yes but Chalcedonian Christianity would want to say that he was born from the Holy Spirit both Son of Man and Son of God, and he was born from Mary both Son of Man and Son of God.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 13:27
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    @curiousdannii, made edits, hope they are to your point. thank you
    – Rick
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 12:28

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