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A typical translation of a line from the Nicene Creed from the First Council of Constantinople (381) is

"And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father"

According to Trinitarians, is Jesus the begotten Son of God the Father, or the begotten Son of the Godhead, or both but in different senses?

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    God creates. The Father begets. They are different functions. One is of nature, The other is of Person. Which results in a relationship of Divine nature (Deity/humanity) and a relationship of Divine Person (Father/Son). Trinitarianism (eg Council of Nicea and Athansius) makes this quite clear. See also John Calvin. The question just needs more research in order to reach its own improved stage of further clarity and detail.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 4 at 12:59
  • @NigelJ I've researched the Trinity plenty - I was raised in a Trinitarian church and attend one. I have read lots of theology on it. It's an obvious and straightforward question which arises when reading, say, the Nicene Creed. This is your opportunity to clarify this question for people who have this specific sort of question and don't want to go wading through reams of theological articles. You have a nice start on an answer, maybe post it as one? Jun 4 at 16:28
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    It would be helpful if you could direct us to any Bible verses that speak of Jesus as "begotten". John 3:16 uses the phrase "only begotten" in the KJV, NKJV and NASB. Some take the word "begotten" to prove that Jesus is a created being but fail to realise that "begotten" is an English translation of a Greek word (monogenes) which has two primary definitions. Before going any further I need to know if this is the Bible verse and the Greek word you are thinking about when you ask about Jesus being "begotten".
    – Lesley
    Jun 4 at 16:30
  • @Lesley Thanks for this question - I am thinking in particular of typical translations of the Nicene Creed "And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father" I'll add it to the question. Jun 4 at 16:33
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    @MikeBorden Expand it into an answer? On its own, it's pretty cryptic to me. TBH. Jun 4 at 16:55
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The words 'Father' and 'Son' provide the big clue here. Both are put together in scripture to show a connection that cannot be broken, as in John 1:14 -

"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth."

Then the connection with God is made a few verses on, verse 18 adding:

"No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."

This means that those two verses alone provide the scriptural basis for any Christian creed declaring Jesus (previously known as 'the Word') as being the only-begotten Son of the Father, the Father also being called 'God'. There can be no distinction made between the only begotten Son of God being the only begotten Son of God the Father.

I offer this answer as a trinitarian, and not as a person whose Christian faith is based on any creed. My faith in Jesus Christ, the Word of God, being the only begotten Son of God the Father is based entirely on scripture.

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  • +1 "the Father also being called 'God'." To be clear, are you saying Jesus is the Son of God the Father (which as a short-hand can be said "Son of God"), but not the Son of the Godhead? Jun 4 at 17:21
  • I will not be drawn further as I am not into playing semantics games. Understanding the complexity of the Godhead requires a revealing from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 16:17). The one Being of God is complex, not simple. Beyond that, I will make no response.
    – Anne
    Jun 4 at 17:31
  • Thanks for clarifying your position. I'm trying to find semantic clarity, though, not trying to play semantic games, FWIW. Jun 4 at 17:52
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According to Trinitarians, is Jesus the begotten Son of God the Father, or the begotten Son of God?

The short answer is that Jesus is the begotten Son of God the Father!

Although Trinitarians will haggle to some degree over definitions in place here. I would like to give a response based on the Catholic viewpoint. Other denominations, I am sure will have a similar understanding also.

Before going on it would good to be be aware that both translations and interpretation will vary even within a Trinitarian outlook.

Also, to understand how Catholics understand the phrase begotten of the Father, one has to be able to understand the Trinitarian terms such as the Spiration of the Holy Spirit and Perichoresis

Perichoresis (from Greek: περιχώρησις perikhōrēsis, "rotation")1 is a term referring to the relationship of the three persons of the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to one another. Circumincession is a Latin-derived term for the same concept. It was first used as a term in Christian theology, by the Church Fathers. The noun first appears in the writings of Maximus Confessor (d. 662) but the related verb perichoreo is found earlier in Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389/90). Gregory used it to describe the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ as did John of Damascus (d. 749), who also extended it to the "interpenetration" of the three persons of the Trinity, and it became a technical term for the latter. It has been given recent currency by such contemporary writers as Jürgen Moltmann, Miroslav Volf, John Zizioulas, Richard Rohr, and others.

Modern authors extend the original usage as an analogy to cover other interpersonal relationships. The term "co(-)inherence" is sometimes used as a synonym.

Since humans are made in the image of God, a Christian understanding of an adequate anthropology of humans' social relations is informed by the divine attributes, what can be known of God's activity and God's presence in human affairs. Theologians of the Communio school such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) locate the reciprocal dynamism between God and God's creatures in the liturgical action of sacrament, celebrating the sacred mysteries in Eucharistic communion, in a hermeneutic of continuity and apostolic unity.

Gothic triskele window element

Gothic triskele window element

It is a defined dogma of the Catholic Church that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son as from a single principle through a single spiration. You will find this in Lateran IV (D 428), Lyons II (D 460, 463), and Florence (D 691, 703, 704). That the Holy Spirit is not generated and so not a son is affirmed by the Athanasian Creed (D 39), Toledo XI (D 277), and Lateran IV (D 428).

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is said to be the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. Therefore he proceeds from both the Father and the Son. He is called the Spirit of the Father in Matt. 3:16; 10:20; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor 2:12. He is called the Spirit of the Son (or of the Lord or of Jesus) in Acts 5:9; 16:7; 2 Cor. 3:17f; Gal. 4:6; Phil 1:19; Rom 8:9-11. These texts speak about a divine Person, not a mere created gift.

Tim Staples has a good take on this issue in his article: Explaining the Trinity. St. Thomas Aquinas explains, and Scripture reveals, the Son is uniquely “begotten” of the Father!

Processions and Relations in God

In Catholic theology, we understand the persons of the Blessed Trinity subsisting within the inner life of God to be truly distinct relationally, but not as a matter of essence, or nature. Each of the three persons in the godhead possesses the same eternal and infinite divine nature; thus, they are the one, true God in essence or nature, not “three Gods.” Yet, they are truly distinct in their relations to each other.

In order to understand the concept of person in God, we have to understand its foundation in the processions and relations within the inner life of God. And the Council of Florence, AD 1338-1445, can help us in this regard.

The Council’s definitions concerning the Trinity are really as easy as one, two, three… four. It taught there is one nature in God, and that there are two processions, three persons, and four relations that constitute the Blessed Trinity. The Son “proceeds” from the Father, and the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” These are the two processions in God. And these are foundational to the four relations that constitute the three persons in God. These are those four eternal relations in God:

  1. The Father actively and eternally generates the Son, constituting the person of God, the Father.

  2. The Son is passively generated of the Father, which constitutes the person of the Son.

  3. The Father and the Son actively spirate the Holy Spirit in the one relation within the inner life of God that does not constitute a person. It does not do so because the Father and Son are already constituted as persons in relation to each other in the first two relations. This is why CCC 240 teaches, “[The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity] is Son only in relation to his Father.”

  4. The Holy Spirit is passively spirated of the Father and the Son, constituting the person of the Holy Spirit.

We should take note of the distinction between the “generative” procession that constitutes the Son, and the “spirative” procession that constitutes the Holy Spirit. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, and Scripture reveals, the Son is uniquely “begotten” of the Father (cf. John 3:16; 1:18). He is also said to proceed from the Father as “the Word” in John 1:1. This “generative” procession is one of “begetting,” but not in the same way a dog “begets” a dog, or a human being “begets” a human being. This is an intellectual “begetting,” and fittingly so, as a “word” proceeds from the knower while, at the same time remaining in the knower. Thus, this procession or begetting of the Son occurs within the inner life of God. There are not “two beings” involved; rather, two persons relationally distinct, while ever-remaining one in being.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, but not in a generative sense; rather, in a spiration. “Spiration” comes from the Latin word for “spirit” or “breath.” Jesus “breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit…” (John 20:22). Scripture reveals the Holy Spirit as pertaining to “God’s love [that] has been poured into our hearts” in Romans 5:5, and as flowing out of and identified with the reciprocating love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father (John 15:26; Rev. 22:1-2). Thus, the Holy Spirit’s procession is not intellectual and generative, but has its origin in God’s will and in the ultimate act of the will, which is love.

As an infinite act of love between the Father and Son, this “act” is so perfect and infinite that “it” becomes (not in time, of course, but eternally) a “He” in the third person of the Blessed Trinity. This revelation of God’s love personified is the foundation from which Scripture could reveal to us that “God is love” (I John 4:8).

God is not revealed to “be” love in any other religion in the world other than Christianity because in order for there to be love, there must be a beloved. From all eternity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have poured themselves out into each other in an infinite act of love, which we, as Christians, are called to experience through faith and the sacraments by which we are lifted up into that very love of God itself (Romans 5:1-5).

It is the love of God that binds us, heals us, and makes us children of God (I John 4:7; Matt. 5:44-45). Thus, how fitting it is that the Holy Spirit is depicted in Revelation 22:1-2, as a river of life flowing out from the Father and the Son and bringing life to all by way of bringing life to the very “tree of life” that is the source of eternal life in the the Book of Revelation (Rev. 22:19).

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It is the having of a son that makes one a Father. Therefore the being "God" is made both God and Father by the begetting of the Son:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places - Ephesians 1:3

There are many places in Scripture where reference is made to Jesus as the "only-begotten Son" of God in distinction to the created sons (all who are "in" Adam):

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. - John 1:14

This word, translated only-begotten in some versions and one and only, or one of a kind in others is monogenes and is found in Luke 7:12, 8:42, 9:38, John 1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18, Hebrews 11:17, and 1 John 4:9.

It is also found in the Nicene Creed where it is declared that Jesus is the "only begotten" (monogenes) and a derivative "begotten not made" (gennao).

There has been much debate fairly recently regarding the proper understanding of monogenes with particular scholarly energy pointing in the direction of a primary understanding of "unique" or "one of a kind" rather than "only begotten"

This article "Deep In The Weeds on MONOGENES and Eternal Generation" makes a compelling case that:

  1. The Nicene Fathers, in writing the creed, imported "only begotten" from scriptural context coupled with an everyday working familiarity with Koine Greek

It turns out that the Nicene Fathers knew Greek really well—probably better than any of us reading the New Testament today. I think that the interplay between MONOGENES and GENNAO in the Creed shows that the Nicene Fathers noticed the interplay of those same terms in John’s writings.

  1. The mid 20th century push towards "uniqueness" and away from "begottenness" is due in large part to the first cited reference in the much vaunted BDAG treatment of "monogenes" being to a 1953 paper by Dale Moody "God’s Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version,” Journal of Biblical Literature 72, no. 4 (1953): 213–19.

Moody’s article defends the RSV’s translation of MONOGENES, arguing that “only begotten” is an etymological, linguistic, and historical error. He certainly was not the first one to have made this case, but his arguments in particular seem to have influenced at least two generations of New Testament scholarship. I think this is due in no small part to the fact that Moody’s article is the first one cited in BDAG’s entry on MONOGENES (BDAG is the most important and authoritative lexicon of New Testament words; see right). Anyone looking to BDAG for a definition of MONOGENES is going to be confronted with the non-generative interpretation of the term that is reflected in Moody’s article.

The article makes a good case for both "only begotten" and "eternal generation" as ideas having solid scriptural support which was recognized by the Church Fathers and therefore incorporated into the Nicene Creed.

There has never been a "time" where God was not also Father since the Son is eternally begotten and therefore it is equally appropriate to refer to Jesus as the Son of God and the Son of the Father:

And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. - 1 John 4:14-15

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    +1 "There has never been a "time" where God was not also Father since the Son is eternally begotten and therefore it is equally appropriate to refer to Jesus as the Son of God and the Son of the Father" In the 'Jesus as the Son of God' sense, could this be paraphrased as something "Jesus as the Son of the Family" where the 'family' is the trinity? In other words, in one sense, it is about begetting, in another, about one's position within an organization? Jun 7 at 21:04
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    I don't think so. Jesus is not "son" of the trinity as I understand it; he is part of the trinity. He is the begotten son of God (God being Father by the begetting). Since his Father is God by nature and Father in the begetting sense, Jesus is son by the begetting and also God by nature through the begetting because like begets like. It's more like saying Isaac was the son of Abraham and Isaac was the son of his father where "father" has to only mean Abraham. In "the Father has sent His Son to be Savior of the world" God is intended to be understood by Father. Jun 9 at 12:39

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