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Did the early church fathers view "monogenes" as "only" or "only-begotten"?

The following Bible verses have "monogenes" in it:

Verse              KJV                NET
John 1:14      only begotten     the one and only
John 1:18      only begotten     only one
John 3:16      only begotten     one and only
John 3:18      only begotten     one and only
1 John 4:9     only begotten     one and only
Luke 7:12      only              only
Luke 8:42      only one          only
Luke 9:38      only child        only child
Hebrews 11:17  only begotten     only son

With only one exception, the King James Version translates it to specify that the only is a child. However, modern translations, such as the New English Translation, use "one and only" most of the time. How was this word understood by the Church Fathers?

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In Greek mono by itself means "only" so monogenes has to mean something more. As the earliest fathers were writing in Greek, they would have no need to define or translate the term.

Justin Martyr (circa 150 AD) says in his First Apology, chapter 23:

Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power

This demonstrates to me that he saw the begotten aspect as part of the term monogenes.

Tertullian (circa 210) says in Against Praxeas, chapter 7:

"The Lord created or formed me as the beginning of His ways;" then afterward begotten, to carry all into effect--"When He prepared the heaven, I was present with Him." Thus does He make Him equal to Him: for by proceeding from Himself He became His first-begotten Son, because begotten before all things; and His only-begotten also, because alone begotten of God, in a way peculiar to Himself, from the womb of His own heart-even as the Father Himself testifies: "My heart," says He, "hath emitted my most excellent Word."

Also, in the Arian controversy we clearly see they included the concept of begotten in their interpretation rather than deleting it as modern translators tend to do. Otherwise, the Nicene Creed would not say "γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα." That is, "begotten, not made."

I found an interesting article, An Inductive Study of the Use of Monogenes in the New Testament written by a Doug Kutilek, arguing that the real meaning is simply "unique" or "one of a kind." However, he admits that this is clearly not how it was interpreted in the third and fourth centuries. His last paragraph:

Understanding monogenes in its proper sense--one that completely excludes any notion of “begetting” or “begotten”--has strong theological implications for the doctrine of Christ. It renders moot the whole heated theological debate of the third and fourth centuries concerning the so-called “eternal generation of the Son,” a term which always left me with the uncomfortable feeling that if we accepted such terminology at face value, we were admitting de facto that Christ was a created being and not God. It also makes the Nicene Creed’s affirmation that Christ was “begotten but not made” (gennethenta, ou poiethenta) so much verbal nonsense. [21] Likewise, proposed translations of monogenes such as that noted in Arnt and Gingrich’s Greek Lexicon, namely “begotten of the only one” are exposed as wholly ludicrous and unfounded. [22] Christ is the unique Son of God; that is, in the sense in which He is the Son of God, He has no brothers.

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Perhaps the meaning of monogenēs had evolved, or perhaps it was no longer a common word, when the Apologists and later Fathers were writing. It does seem that their emphasis on "begetting" is unfounded.

In the New Testament the word is used simply to refer to an only child. Luke, and the author of Hebrews, used this word about sons, and a daughter, always to emphasise that the person being written about was an only child. The word is not used to emphasise, or refer to, the “begetting” of these children. See Luke 7:12 (the Widow of Nain’s son); Luke 8:42 (Jairus’ daughter); Luke 9:38 (a boy tormented by an evil spirit) and Hebrews 11:17 (Isaac).

John is the only New Testament author to use monogenēs to describe Jesus. John used the word to emphasise the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Like the other New Testament authors, John did not use the word to emphasise, or refer to, “begetting”. (See John 1:14 & 18; 3:16 & 18 and 1 John 4:9.)

Monos means alone or sole; genos has a range of meanings including: offspring, family, relation, lineage, race, kind, species, etc. BDAG defines monogenēs as something “that is the only example of its category.”

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There is a strong evidence that the meaning of monogenes (only one) was turned into monogenetos (only-begotten) by the mainstream Church slowly. Both words have different meanings, and I'm not sure if the early church writers used monogenitus, but they did change it to unigenitus in Latin. Jarome's Vulgate translation played a vital role in this change of official theology.

According to one authority on New Testament Greek “monogenos is literally ‘one of a kind,’ ‘only,’ ‘unique’ (unicus), not ‘only-begotten,’ which would be monogennetos (unigenitus).”(J Moulton, G. Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. pp. 416-417)

This conception of begotten must have started even in the first century pagan or Gentile Churches of heresies. However, we can find the oldest evidence from Justin Martyr of the 2nd century. It seems the mainstream or ruling sect of Christians could never accept the eternal divine coequal nature of Christ, thus they had to turn him into a begotten, formed, temporal creation, like their pagan mythological gods. This is quite the same as the Arian belief that Christ was made. It doesn't make much difference with begotten, since begetting too is a form of bringing forth into existence, though not with the help of raw material as the organisms being created from dust. The only difference between Arius and others was that Arius argued that the Son was created ex nihilo, out of nothing, whereas the leading authorities argued he was created from the substance of the father, i.e. begotten like a creature is begotten with the same substance of the species.

  • Dialogue of Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, with Trypho — Justin Martyr
    "I shall give you another testimony, my friends," said I, "from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning, [2167] [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father's will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; [2168] just as we see [2169] happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word [2170] [which remains] in us, when we give it out: and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled. The Word of Wisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things, and Word, and Wisdom, and Power, and the Glory of the Begetter, will bear evidence to me, when He speaks by Solomon the following: If I shall declare to you what happens daily, I shall call to mind events from everlasting, and review them. The Lord made me the beginning of His ways for His works. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He had made the earth, and before He had made the deeps, before the springs of the waters had issued forth, before the mountains had been established. Before all the hills He begets me. God made the country, and the desert, and the highest inhabited places under the sky.

Not all Church fathers believed in the begotten doctrine. Ignatius wrote in A.D. 110 that Jesus was gennetos kai agennetos meaning “begotten and not begotten.” (Revised Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich Greek Lexicon p. 156) Ignatius meant that in reference to the incarnation Jesus was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) or “begotten” but in reference to his eternal status he was “not begotten.” It is clear that Ignatius believed according to the Gospels that Christ was begotten only in his flesh, in the incarnation, he was not-begotten in his deity.

It seems some Christian leaders were using begotten for the Son, as the begotten God to contrast him with the unbegotten Father. Only the Father God of unbegotten, uncaused cause. According to the early Christians, Christ was begotten (created or made into existence) before the creation of the world, like a fire is kindled. It seems they could never accept the eternal self existence of Christ or the co-equality in the Trinity, and the divine indivisibility or aseity, hence the Arian and subordination believes persist even to this day among all the Christian sects.

Pagan influential leaders were converting to the Church and were made Bishops and architectures of the official Creeds of the Church, like Augustin and Hilary of Poitiers in the fourth century. Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 315-367 CE) in his De Trinitate, also uses the term unigenitus for Christ.

The scripture reference of monogenes was changed by Jerome officially into begotten, in his new Vulgate translation. The Vetus Latina, Old Vulgate translation contained unicus (only) not unigenitus, that Jerome used in 4th century.

  • KJV alternate rendering of the Greek monogenes ( John 1:14 ,John 1:14,1:18; John 3:16 ,John 3:16,3:18; Hebrews 11:17; 1 John 4:9 ). Elsewhere the KJV rendered the term “only” (Luke 7:12; Luke 8:42; Luke 9:38 ). The phrase “only begotten” derives directly from Jerome (340?-420 A.D.) who replaced unicus (only), the reading of the Old Latin, with unigenitus (only begotten) as he translated the Latin Vulgate. Jerome's concern was to refute the Arian doctrine that claimed the Son was not begotten but made. This led Jerome to impose the terminology of the Nicene creed (325 A.D.) onto the New Testament.
    (Holeman Bible dictionary, 1991)

  • When we have to do with living beings—men or animals—the meaning ‘born,’ ‘begotten’ is, of course, congruous, but there is no emphasis whatever attached to this side. When Christ is designated μονογενὴς υἱός, the emphasis is laid not on the fact that He as Son was ‘born’ or ‘begotten’ (in contrast to being ‘created’ or ‘made’), but that He is the ‘only’ Son, that as Son of God He has no equal. The Latin translators were quite right when originally they rendered the expression υἱὸς μονογενής simply by filius unicus, not by filius unigenitus. It was the dogmatic disputes as to the inner essential relations between Christ and God, especially those raised by Arius, which first gave occasion for emphasizing the point that Christ as the Son of God was a ‘begotten’ Son, i.e. that He did not form part of the creation. After that it became a general custom to render μονογενής by unigenitus, ‘only begotten.’ In the original form of the so-called ‘Apostolic Symbol’—the ‘Old Roman Symbol’—we read: καὶ εἰς Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν; and in the Latin text, which in all probability belongs to the same date (i.e. in any case some time in the 2nd cent.): ‘et in Christum Jesum filium eius unicum dominum nostrum.’
    (Ferdinand Kattenbusch, Hastings, James. Entry for 'Only Begotten'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament)

Fortunately they did not pervert the Greek since their official language was Latin, however it is a well known fact that various textual corruption in Greek manuscripts are caused by scribal tendency to conform to the Vulgate translation. I see these facts about the changing of unicus to unigenitus are undisputed from the Roman apologists, you can confirm with the Vulgate comparison. The English Bibles also conformed to the Latin, as a result various corrections took too long to take place in the critical English versions, and even today despite the evidence, some scholars refuse to accept the original meaning of the Greek word, due to the traditional perception about it.

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  • "Jarome's (sic) Vulgate translation played a vital role in this change of official theology." Except Jerome is after Nicaea by a good 60 years. " It seems the mainstream or ruling sect of Christians could never accept the eternal divine coequal nature of Christ, thus they had to turn him into a begotten, formed, temporal creation," That is a far-fetched claim seeing as the same groups that use only-begotten also teach the divinity of Christ, the unity of God and the co-equality of the Son and the Father.
    – eques
    Sep 6, 2023 at 10:48
  • The theological strains of this answer seem confused; it's hard to clearly see which perspective the author takes. In some places it seems to critique Trinitarian theology but others appear to critique "only-begotten" because they theologians couldn't accept coequality, etc (i.e. core aspects of Trinitarian theology). In any case, it appears to attack the mainstream theology of the Church without really understanding the key details.
    – eques
    Sep 6, 2023 at 10:56
  • "they did not pervert the Greek since their official language was Latin" and yet the Greek Orthodox share with the Western Catholic Church their understanding of "only-begotten Son"; how do you explain that?
    – eques
    Sep 6, 2023 at 10:57
  • If any Greek man agrees with the Roman traditional definition, or any Greek scholar, it is explained by the same conformity to the Latin tradition, not the actual basic meaning or linguistic evidence. @eques 1. Jarome was not the first one to come up with the begotten concept, it maybe various early Romans, tho his translation standardised the concept of begotten redefinition of the bible verses. 2. The created smaller deity in subordinationism is still deity; and the modern Xians purporting coequal deity or denying creation/begotten still have the paradoxical dilemma to explain.
    – Michael16
    Sep 6, 2023 at 11:06
  • dilemma resulting in questns hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/86523/… The traditional or the Romans may have purported to believe in coequality in the trinity persons, that doesn't mean their actual construction of trinity really holds coequality (viz, the begotten temporal small deities generated by the monarch one god). Yes, the smaller or coequal children of the one god may be equal in rank, but I don't see that's really coequality, nor it is the real biblical trinity. I have only critiqued the traditional subordinationism begotten misdefinition doctrines.
    – Michael16
    Sep 6, 2023 at 11:11

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