Reflections on John, Monogenes, and Only Begotten in (John 1:14; 18; 3:16; 1  8; 1 John 4:9)

Within the discussion on Eternal Generation, one of the fascinating elements is the use and translation of the term “monogenēs” within the Gospel of John. The modern debate centers on whether the Greek word should be translated as “only”  (or “unique”) or “only-begotten.” Yet, there is a secondary debate underneath this issue of translation. The secondary argument is whether or not this term, as used in its Johannine passages, was used by the church to teach the eternal generation of the Son. This latter issue intensifies the former point. Whether or not we, within our contemporary setting, need to utilize the five monogenēs texts in John’s literature, this discussion will rage on and continue. Here, then, we will examine the former issue: translation first.

This distinction in translation is easy to see as one can examine John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (ESV) vs. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” (KJV) This discussion can be traced to Wescott and was pushed further by Dale Moody and his article from 1953, “The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version.” Moody’s argument was not in an attempt to undermine classic doctrine. He never questions the doctrine of eternal generation or the preexistent deity of Christ. Instead, he makes a case linguistically that the term monogenēs should be understood as one of a kind or unique. [1]  

The plot thickens when some seem to hinge their adherence to eternal generation on this single term. In contrast, others don’t believe that generation is limited to or proven by the single word monogenēs. To the former, we can trace this in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. In his first volume, appendix 6 included a discussion on the term whereby Grudem rejects “only begotten” and states, 

“If the phrases “begotten of the Father before all worlds” and “begotten, not made” were not in the Nicene Creed, the phrase would only be of historical interest to us now, and there would be no need to talk of any doctrine of the “eternal begetting of the Son.” But since the phrase remains in a creed that is still commonly used, we perpetuate the unfortunate necessity of having to explain to every new generation of Christians that “begotten of the Father” has nothing to do with any other English sense of the word beget. It would seem more helpful if the language of “eternal begetting of the Son” (also called the “eternal generation of the Son”) were not retained in any modern theological formulations.”[2]

Aside from the unfortunate assessment regarding the ecumenical confession of eternal generation, Grudem’s second edition now positively includes a section affirming Eternal Generation. [3] Within his second edition, he states that he affirms eternal generation because, 

“The evidence and arguments produced by Irons have convinced me that monogenēs when used of God the Son in the New Testament means “only begotten.” As a result, I have removed appendix 6 (where I had argued against “only begotten”) from this edition of Systematic Theology. In addition, I am now willing to affirm the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son (also called the eternal begetting of the Son).”

Yet, as Fred Sanders notes in his discussion on Grudem’s revision, “Traditionally, of course, Christian theology has drawn the doctrine less from the ‘five’ only-begotten passages and more from places like John 5. Hebrews 1, and others.”[4] Along these lines, we find Kevin Giles taking a view contrary to Charles Lee Irons in holding that the term does mean unique or only rather than only-begotten. [5] Yet, while he holds that monogenēs is not correctly translated as only begotten, he states, 

“The use of this word in reference to the Son is, however, still relevant to any study of Scripture investigating the eternal begetting of the Son. The Greek speaking church fathers saw these texts that used the word monogenēs as highly significant, not because they thought the word meant only begotten and thus spoke of the Son’s eternal generation, but because they understood it to mean unique. This designation set Jesus Christ apart from all others. What made him utterly unique, they concluded, was that he alone is eternally begotten, not made.”[6]

Further, he says, “At this point I need to reiterate the fact that while the semantic meaning of the word monogenes is unique or only, it implies begetting because all children are begotten. And in the case of the Son is speaks of a unique begetting, because the Son alone is eternally begotten of the Father.” [7]

In other words, for Giles, the term is appropriately translated as only or unique, and it marks the uniqueness of the Son on account of his generation, and thus it presupposes begotteness. 

 In examining a dialogue between Charles Lee Irons and Giles on the subject of how the early church used monogenēs, Giles puts forward that the early church did not see the monogenēs texts as insignificant, but the thrust of their argument for generation was not based on the term monogenēs in John’s literature. Instead, monogenēs reflected the Son’s generation in that the Son is the ‘only unique.’ [8]

Charles Lee Irons, contra contemporary scholarship, puts forward an interesting case for the translation of monogenēs as “only begotten” in John’s Gospel. [9] His case has been compelling enough to sway Grudem and call for the revision of his Systematic Theology on the subject of Eternal Generation. However, as Giles and Fred Sanders have correctly pointed out, Eternal Generation does not hinge on the term monogenēs or its respective texts within John’s literature, as Irons (and Grudem) imply. 

Regardless, as Robert Letham and Matthew Barrett state, within the texts of John’s literature monogenēs is used in contexts of familial significance. The term is utilized in John 1:14; 18; 3:16; 18; 1 John 4:9. Within these texts, “the context assumes a biological metaphor is applied to God: he is called Father and his offspring is called Son. Of course, the language is analogical, not literal (there is no mother!). Nevertheless, it is familial at its core.” [10] Further, Letham points out that “common to each context is that the force of the passage relates to Christian believers’ being born or begotten by God.”[11] In examining the texts of John, Letham continues to point out that the spiritual birth of believers is placed in juxtaposition to physical birth, and yet the idea of birth or begetting is present. The Son “is the monogenēs from the Father; they [believers] are they children of God” and the Son “stands in relation to the Father as his monogenēs. It is his relation to the Father that is in view, not any particular event in his life or in the work of salvation.” [13]

There can be no doubt that Iron’s work, especially concerning current discussions in conjunction with the resurfacing of “only begotten” in one of the newest translations produced, the Legacy Standard Bible, will be significant going forward. With this in mind, I thought it would be beneficial to survey Iron’s argumentation for translating monogenes as only-begotten.

Tracing Irons’ contribution:

First, Iron’s points out that in the Western church, where Latin was predominate, the Old Latin translation of the New Testament translated the Johannine passages as “only Son.” Thus suggesting that the stem in the term monogenes (I.e., genes) denotes communication of sonship or offspring. In the standardized Vulgate, Jerome, the 5th century church writer, translated the texts in John as “only begotten.” Irons points out that the vulgate likely influenced Tyndale’s English translation, which contained ‘only begotten” in the texts of John [4/5 occurrences, I believe], and the KJV followed. [14] 

Secondly, Irons points out that Only Begotten was not something that was merely reactionary within the early church. In other words, the understanding of monogenes as only begotten was not in response to Arianism, but can be seen early in church writings in the Greek speaking Justin Martyr and Latin Tertullian. [15] Additionally, he states that the dispute between Arians and the Nicene Christians was not whether or not Jesus was Begotten. Instead, it was assumed that he was only-begotten, but rather the discussion was whether or not the Son was Eternally Begotten or begotten in time as a creature. [16]

Third, when speaking to the etymology of monogenes, there is a relation between the two stems in question. The stem of genos can be traced to being meant as “be born” in some contexts. Additionally, in surveying words that are built upon the genes stem, Irons states that “in the vast majority of instances, the glosses given..contain such words as ‘born’ and ‘produced.’” [17] After providing examples of this, he notes, “Fewer than 12 of the 145 genes words involve meaning related to kind and there are a few with miscellaneous meanings.” [18] Further, “according to the online LGPN database, there are at least 166 ancient Greek proper names based on the genes stem…Naturally, when used in personal names, the genes stem ordinarily communicates the concept of biological birth or begetting, indicating something special about the offspring’s parentage or circumstances of birth.” [19]  Irons ends this argument with the crucial point that context and usage determines the meaning of a word rather than its etymology, yet that monogenes can be demonstrated in instances as being understood as only-begotten. 

Fourth, Irons stresses that monogenes does not always mean only begotten nor does it never mean only one of its kind. He states that these ideas are extremes to be avoided. He claims that “monogenes” was biological in its earliest reference, specifically to denote an only child. [20] Irons states, “my claim is that monogenes is used most basically and frequently in reference to an only child begotten by a parent, with the implication of not having any siblings.” [21] Iron’s proceeded to demonstrate this claim and then demonstrate two non-literal uses of monogenes. The second, or metaphorical use being the most relevant, in that there are times where monogenes means only begotten in a metaphorical sense, such as “the way Greek philosophical literature deals with the physical universe as if it were God’s only begotten offspring’.” [22]

Fifth, Irons looks at John 1:14 and 1:18 and demonstrates how “thee two verses provide compelling evidence that monogenes, when applied to the Son in the Johannine literature, is not being used in a scientific sense to mean only on of his kind but in a metaphorical biological sense meaning only begotten.” [23] On John 1:14, he points out that translations are left needing to supply the term “Son” regardless of the notion of excluding Sonship from monogenes. “Both these English versions, though refusing to see ‘begetting’ as part of the meaning of monogenes, nevertheless cannot avoid inserting the word “Son,” even though it is not present in Greek.” [24]

In John 1:18, Irons argues that monogenes must be understood as “only begotten” while including sonship. In critiquing the ESV, Irons points out that by excluding Sonship from monogenes, John 1:18 in the ESV states that Jesus is the “only God” when the term monogenes denotes the uniqueness in reference to the Son as contemporary scholarship would say. 

Irons concludes his contribution by stating that there are notable points of discontinuity between human begetting and the begetting of the Son, namely that the Son’s begetting had no beginning, did not occur in time, does not grant the Father chronological priority over the Son, and lacks the involvement of a mother. Additionally, he summarizes points of continuity in that the Father is the source or the cause of the Son, the Son possesses the same nature as the Father who beget him, the Father delights in his Son, and calls him beloved. [25]

“Only Son”

With this all laid out, Seumas MacDonald’s analysis seems to bring in the balance between Iron’s and Gile’s debate. In “A Response and critique of Charles Lee Irons’ “A lexical defence of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten,’ MacDonald points out that the term “begotten” is problematic because it is firstly not contemporary language and has a theological weight that can be interjected into a text if used to translate monogenēs. [26] MacDonald also points out that Irons’ reliance on the Latin is misleading because the Latin term carries more notions of “begotten” than monogenēs. The meaning MacDonald puts forth for monogenēs is “only child.” [27] He states, “Only child” is all that is needed here, and the absence of siblings is the key factor in that. Every child is begotten, that’s a corollary of being a child, it doesn’t need to be imported into the definition. Indeed the definition is the absence of siblings, not the begottenness which is by necessity true of every child, only or otherwise.” [28]

A significant point of contention in the translation debate of monogenes is in regards to Hebrews wherein Isaac is referred to as monogenēs. The tension is evident in that Isaac was not “only begotten” nor an “only child,” yet MacDonald states, “anyone can call someone an only child, even if they aren’t, and by doing so, they suggest a raft of implicatures. In the case of Isaac, he is the only child that counts, the child of the promise, or in Iron’s terms, the legitimate heir.” [29]

Further, MacDonald says, “Like Irons, I would point to the overwhelming body of Greek textual evidence that suggests that whenever it refers to a person, it designates a child without siblings (or intends a child with siblings to evoke the associations of an only child). I differ from Irons in three main, but important respects. Firstly, I think “only-begotten” ties us to a Latin trajectory that places weight upon the “begotten” part of that phrase more than that Greek term itself does. Secondly, that use of “begotten” reads more into the Johannine texts that is warranted of a doctrine of eternal generation per se. Thirdly, and the subject of my recent SBL paper, neither μονογενής as a term itself, nor the Johannine texts, provide as much direct grounding for pro-Nicene doctrines of eternal generation as Irons suggests.” [30]

My Thoughts: 

I will summarize my thoughts on the topic, which will surely not end anytime soon. Of course, my input is less significant than those who have been laboring over this issue for months and even years. 

Firstly, the patristics, as demonstrated by MacDonald [31] and Kevin Giles [32] do not base their understanding of Eternal Generation on the five texts of John that use the term Monogenēs. Not only do I believe they had demonstrated this well, but others who have debated the discussion of Pro-Nicene Trinitarianism have also rightly pointed out this exact point. I think this should be stressed more than anything else – the doctrine of Eternal Generation does not hinge on monogenēs or its translation.

I find that misconception, that Generation stands or falls on monogenēs, to be problematic both theologically and going forward. To the former, this is a problem theologically because we don’t base systematic theology on one proof text [let alone a single term], and the patristics’ understanding of Eternal Generation was [likewise] the synthesis of imagery applied to Christ. The patristics, as others have shown, appealed to many other texts for generation. To the latter, this is problematic going forward because it is shaky ground. If scholarship moves one direction or another on monogenēs, we may soon have those who have just affirmed the doctrine of Eternal Generation, moving back to denying it again.

With both of these points in mind, I find it challenging to think that the ancient Greek-speaking patristics were basing crucial Nicene formulations on a misunderstanding of a single term. That said, importing an English translation back onto a Greek word is problematic. From my observations, often, when individuals defend the translation of monogenēs as “only-begotten,” the English translation is assumed as if equal to the Greek term, ultimately begging the question. Just as well, I am tempted to think that the importing of “only begotten” on monogenēs is ultimately a means to find a proof text for the ancient doctrine that some think hinges on this single word. 

In looking at monogenēs within the scope of my own limited resources and brain capacity, I have found MacDonald’s insight to be great, that is, monogenēs seems to point to “only child.” The emphasis being on the lack of siblings of the Son. I think this also highlights what makes him unique, as the only Son in relation to the Father. Irons even nearly gets there himself, but just moves down the line to the traditional “begotten.” Thus, I think this [“only Son”] almost bridges the gap between both camps of the debate as: 1) It retains the “only” (or unique) element while making sense of the obvious supplying of sonship in the Johannine texts in many translations. And 2) It lines up with the usage of monogenēs with church fathers on account of the Son’s unique relationship as a Son, begotten not made. In other words, monogenēs as the “only child” still places the Son in his proper place in relation to his Father, without importing or loading eternal generation into the term and interjecting eternal generation into John’s texts. While being “only Son” would add to the synthesis of the Father-Son/Unbegotten-Begotten conclusion, it allows John to stand on his own.

When looking at the creed of Constantinople, I see how this understanding of “only Son” would work, but perhaps I’m not seeing what others have seen:

ὸν υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ,         
τὸν ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς γεννηθέντα           
πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων,        
φῶς ἐκ φωτός,
Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ,
γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα,     
 ὁμοούσιον τῷ πατρὶ· 
The only Son of God
Begotten of the Father 
From all ages
Light from light
True God from True God
Begotten, not made
Of one essence with the Father

In the creed of 325, γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς μονογενῆ or Begotten from the Father, the only Son.

Any input on this would be appreciated, especially if I’m dropping the ball or missing anything crucial although I recognize that ‘bridging’ the gap as I suggest can be reductionistic in light of the more nuanced debates. 

[1] Dale Moody, “The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version,” Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1952), 213-19.

[2] Dale Moody, “The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version,” Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1952), 213-19.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, Bits & Bytes/Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 1234.

[4] Chapter 14 of Systematic Theology, second edition.

[5] Fred Sanders, (2020).

[6] Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology. (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2012), 81.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] See “μονογενης in the church Fathers: A Response to Kevin Giles,” pts. 1-5 along with Gile’s subsequent comments at “The Upper Register.”

[10] Charles Lee Irons’ Contribution, A Lexical Defense of the Johannine “Only Begotten,” in Retrieving Eternal Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).

[11] Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2021), p. 188.

[12] Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity, p. 195

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Charles Lee Irons’ Contribution, A Lexical Defense of the Johannine “Only Begotten,” in Retrieving Eternal Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 99.

[16] ibid, 102.

[17] ibid, 103.

[18] ibid, 104.

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid, 105.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid, 106.

[23] ibid, 110.

[24] ibid, 112.

[25] ibid, 113.

[26] ibid, 116.

[27] See Seumas Macdonald, (the patrologist, 2017).

[28] ibid.

[29] ibid.

[30] ibid.

[31] ibid. See also MacDonald’s “Monogenes in pro-Nicene exegesis”,

[32] MacDonald’s “Monogenes in pro-Nicene exegesis”,

[33] Kevin Giles, The Eternal Generation of the Son, Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology. (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2012).

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