Jesus Christ as the Only Begotten
That the Bible refers to Jesus as “the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14) has provoked great controversy in church history. Because Jesus is also called the “firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15), it has been argued that the Bible teaches that Jesus is not divine, but an exalted creature.
Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons deny the deity of Christ by appealing to these concepts. It is chiefly because of their denial of the deity of Christ that these two groups are regarded as sects rather than as bona fide Christian denominations.
The deity of Christ was a crucial issue in the fourth century when the heretic Arius denied the Trinity. Arius’s chief argument against the deity of Christ anticipated the arguments of modern Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Arius was condemned as a heretic at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.
Arius argued that the Greek word translated begotten means “to happen,” “to become,” “to start to be.” That which is begotten must have a beginning in time. It must be finite with respect to time, which is a sign of creatureliness. To be the “firstborn over all creation” suggests the supreme level of creatureliness, ranking higher than the angels, but it does not rise above the level of creature. To worship a creature is to commit idolatry. No angel or any other creature is worthy of worship. Arius saw the attributing of deity to Jesus as a blasphemous rejection of biblical monotheism. For Arius God must be regarded as “one,” both in being and in person.
The Nicene Creed reflects the church’s response to the Arian heresy. It confesses that Jesus was “begotten, not made.” In this simple formula the church was zealous to guard against the idea of interpreting the term begotten to mean or to imply creatureliness.
Some historians have faulted the Council of Nicea for engaging in special pleading or mental gymnastics to evade the plain and simple meaning of the Greek word begotten and the phrase “firstborn over all creation.” The church, however, did not flee from the simple meaning of these terms in an arbitrary manner. There was justifiable grounds for fencing their term begotten with the qualifier “not made.”
First, the church was seeking to understand these terms in the total context of the biblical teaching concerning the nature of Christ. Being persuaded that the New Testament clearly ascribes deity to Christ, the church was against setting one part of Scripture against another.
Second, although the New Testament was written in the Greek language, most of the thought forms and concepts are loaded with Hebrew meanings. The Hebrew concepts are expressed through the vehicle of the Greek language. This fact sounds a warning against leaning too heavily upon tight nuances of classical Greek. Just as John uses the loaded term logos to refer to Jesus, it would be a mistake to fill that term exclusively with the Greek ideas associated with the use of the word.
Third, the term begotten is used in a qualified way in the New Testament. In John 1:14 Jesus is referred to as the “only begotten.” Again in John 1:18 He is called the “only begotten Son.” There is significant manuscript evidence that suggests that the original Greek read “only begotten God.” Had that text been accepted the debate would be over. However, if we treat the text as reading “only begotten Son,” we still have a crucial qualifier. Jesus is called the only begotten (monogenais). The prefix mono- is stronger in Greek than the word only is in English. Jesus is absolutely singular in his begottenness. He is uniquely begotten. No one or nothing else is begotten in the sense Jesus is begotten. That the church can speak of Christ’s eternal begottenness is an attempt to do justice to this. The Son proceeds eternally from the Father, not as a creature, but as the Second Person of the Trinity.
The book of Hebrews, which also refers to Jesus as “begotten” (Hebrews 1:5), is the epistle that gives us perhaps the highest Christology to be found in the New Testament. The only book in the New Testament that rivals Hebrews in this regard is the Gospel of John. It is John who clearly calls Jesus “God.” It is also John who speaks of Christ as the “only begotten.”
Finally, the phrase “firstborn over all creation” must be understood from the background of first- century Jewish culture. From this vantage point we can see that the term firstborn refers to Christ’s exalted status as the heir of the Father. Just as the firstborn son usually received the patriarchal inheritance, so Jesus as the divine Son receives the Father’s kingdom as His inheritance.
- That Jesus is called “the only begotten of the Father” and “firstborn over all creation” has sparked controversy in church history over the deity of Christ.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons use these passages to deny the deity of Christ.
- The Nicene Creed clearly spelled out that Jesus was “begotten, not made.” This careful distinction was a reflection of the New Testament’s affirmation of Christ’s deity.
- Jesus is called “the only begotten” of the Father. Jesus is uniquely begotten of the Father, not as a creature, but as the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity.
- The term firstborn must be understood from a first-century Jewish background. Jesus is the “firstborn over all creation” in the sense that He is the heir of all that belongs to the Father.