What Does it Mean that Jesus is Begotten?
Certainly, you have heard the term, “Jesus is the only begotten of the Father.” It’s in songs sung, sermons preached, and found in some Bible verses. But how is Jesus begotten? Does that mean that he was created? Was there a time when Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, did not exist? What does it mean that Jesus is Begotten?
Here’s the short answer: Yes. Jesus is begotten. Jesus is eternal. There is no time when he did not exist. “Begotten” does not speak to his being born, but his Relationship with the Father and his Nature. As to his relationship, he is “in the Father” and “one with the Father.” As to his nature, he is of the same substance and is fully God.
However, the short answer really isn’t sufficient for anyone who is thinking deeply about this. Here is the longer answer for those who would like to contemplate the begetting of Jesus.
To understand what it means for Jesus to have been begotten, we need to go back to the original Koine Greek. Don’t worry; this won’t be a long lesson in Greek.
Most modern day scholars teach that the Greek word “Monogenes” (mono-gan-ace’) means “unique” or “only.” So, most English translations say “only” or “unique” wherever monogenes is found (John 1:14; 1:18; 3:16; 1 John 4:9). The New American Standard (NASB) and King James (KJV) use the term “begotten.” Hence, John 1:18:
No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (NASB)
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (ESV)
Formerly, “monogenes” was understood to mean “only begotten.” However, that began to change in the last century. Scholars previously believed that monogenes derived from “mono” meaning one and “gennao” meaning beget. However, in the last century, scholars shifted and most now say the term comes from “mono” and “genos” (kind). Hence, monogenes went from meaning “only begotten” to “one of its kind” or “unique.”
Why the change?
Scholars and teachers are determined to affirm, intentionally or otherwise, that Jesus was not created. Today, the idea of “begotten” encompasses the human conception of being born. The term begotten is used elsewhere in the Bible to denote the relationship between a father and a son (Abraham begat Isaac). In these cases, we understand that the son did not exist but then came into existence at some point in time.
To use the term begotten for Jesus would seem to mean that he did not exist but then came into existence at some point in time. Hence, changing “begotten” to “unique” or “only” teaches us that Jesus is one of a kind. While this is true, I’m not sure we should mistranslate the original Greek meaning to make our own points.
What is Eternal Generation?
The teaching that Jesus was begotten is called the doctrine of Eternal Generation. The debate is whether the theological doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son of God is valid. Those who believe monogenes means “unique” are opposed to the doctrine while those who have kept the term “begotten” agree with the doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son.
The doctrine of Eternal Generation is defined as follows:
an eternal personal act of the Father, wherein, by necessity of nature, not by choice of will, He generates the person (not the essence) of the Son, by communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead, without division, alienation, or change, so that the Son is the express image of His Father’s person, and eternally continues, not from the Father, but in the Father, and the Father in the Son. – A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 182.
In other words, before Time began, the Son is begotten or “generated” by the Father (hence the term “Eternal Generation”). This generation regards the Person of the Son. The substance of the Father is the substance of the Son, meaning the Father is fully God and the Son is fully God. The Son is the image of the Father eternally. He is in the Father and the Father is in the Son.
How Does Eternal Generation Make Sense?
This might seem confusing to us. It is. How can the Son be generated or begotten and still be eternal? Does this mean that there was a time when the Son was not? Here, the Church Father Augustine might shed some light. He had deliberated upon this also. Augustine looked at John 5:26:
For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself,
He asks, what does this mean for the Father to have life in Himself? He concludes that life for God is different from human life. Our life changes and is dependent on external situations. God’s life is immutable and independent of anything. The Father has this life in himself but the Son also has this same life in Himself. However, the life of the Father is not given to Him. It is “unbegotten.” The life of the Son is “granted,” or “given,” to Him from the Father. How does the Father give this life to the Son? He begets Him.
The idea of being begotten in the life of God is not that Jesus ever did not exist. He was begotten eternally. Genesis 1 explains the beginning of the universe (Space) and of Time. In the beginning, God created what scientists today call the Space-Time Continuum. In other words, Time began when God created the universe. Before the Creation, there was no Time. We call that Eternity.
God is before Time and He is after Time. Time is what we are currently experiencing; Eternity is everything outside of Time. In Eternity, God begat Jesus. In other words, no Time exists in which the Son was not. He has always been and will always be. He was before Time and will be after Time. He is eternal as is the Father. He is the alpha and the omega. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is outside of Time.
Since the Son is eternal, he was begotten, is being begotten and will continue to be begotten forever.
Understanding the Meaning of Begotten
What it means for the Son to be begotten is not the same as what it means for us to be begotten. When we are begotten, we mean we have been born. The term begotten when applied to the Son is not speaking of birth but of Relationship and Nature: the Nature of the Son and the Relationship between the Son and the Father.
The relationship aspect of begotten is best described by Jesus himself.
I and the Father are one. – John 10:30
If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him. – John 14:7
… no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son…–Matthew 11:27
O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You – John 17:25
…Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. – John 17:11
…even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You… – John 17:21
Jesus says he is in the Father. He says he and the Father are one. When John uses the term monogenes, he is saying something specific about the relationship of Jesus to the Father. He is saying that they are one in the same way you are one with your thoughts. They are One.
The Nature aspect of begotten describes the substance of God. The Father is of the same essence as the Son. The Son is not something other than the Father. They are the same. They are both God. They share a single essence.
An Illustration of Begetting
It may be difficult for us to comprehend fully the Father begetting the Son. Here is an illustration that might help: You have a fireplace with two logs in it. You light one of the logs on fire. Soon, both logs are lit; you have a fire going. Separate the logs. You still have the same fire, but it is in two places. Put them back together; you still have the same fire with two logs together. When you separated the logs, you did not remove fire from the first log. The first log gave fire to the second log but it did not lose fire to give fire to the second log. Now both logs have the same fire.
Let’s tweak this illustration. Let’s say a fire is lit. The fire gives off light. This light does not take away from the fire. It is from the fire. Without light, there is no fire and without the fire, there is no light. The light comes from the fire but is part of the fire; they are one. There is no time when the fire did not give off light. The light was there from the beginning.
Hopefully, these two illustrations help to explain the idea of begetting.
The Father begat the Son but they are both God. They are One. One God. Separate persons. Eternally.
What did the Early Church Believe? – The Nicene Creed
The early Church Fathers understood Koine Greek much better than any modern scholar. Here is part of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.” – Nicene Creed
They understood monogenes to mean begotten. They understood the Son to be eternally begotten. They recognized that to be begotten does not mean to be made (or born as we know it). They knew that the Son was one with the Father. This would be the Church Fathers’ understanding of John’s use of monogenes.
Not only the Church Fathers, but also the early Reformers:
In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. – Westminster Confession of Faith II.3
The Westminster Confession was written in 1647. In it, the writers described the Trinity and the relationship among the Persons of the Godhead. The Confession explains that the Father is unbegotten and not proceeding. They understood that only the Son was begotten and only the Spirit proceeds. They also understood that these things occurred in eternity. As with the Early Church Fathers, they understood monogenes in the Gospel of John to mean “begotten.”
Jonathan Edwards writing in the mid-1700’s:
The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity [eternally] generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s infinite love to and delight in Himself. And . . . the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons. – Jonathan Edwards, “Essay on the Trinity”
Jonathan Edwards is the most prominent thinking preacher in American history. He was a pastor in Connecticut in the 18th century. Here Edwards makes out what it means for the Son to be begotten from the Father. The Father is unoriginated and prime. He is the direct existence of God Himself. The Son is generated by God’s idea of Himself. The Spirit proceeds from God’s essence flowing out of Himself. Edwards’ understanding of John’s monogenes was that the Son was generated, or begotten, by the Father.
What it Means
It is possible that the Church has misunderstood John’s meaning of monogenes for the first 1900 years of her existence. It is possible that monogenes is mono + genes and means “unique” or “only.” It is possible that the only understanding of Eternal Generation of the Son means that there was a time that Jesus did not exist and therefore cannot be true.
But it is more probable that our misunderstanding of monogenes over the past 100 years has clouded our understanding of something God intended for us to know about Him, something that the Church had known for the first 19-centuries of her existence: that Jesus is begotten of God, which teaches us of the beautiful Relationship between the Father and the Son and the shared Nature of the Persons of the Trinity.