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?


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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