"Only begotten" or "Elect" Son? A reassesment of "μονογενής"


“For God so loved the world He gave His only begotten (μονογενής) Son…” These words have resonated in the ears and hearts of people all over the globe for ages, Christians and non-believers alike. One of the most famous passages in all of scripture (John 3:16) has always reminded us of Jesus as God’s only Son, but is it possible we might have missed something about Him that was integral to the original audience’s perception of who Jesus was? What did it mean to them? Did the early Christian community see Jesus as God’s only Son? And what of Him being the only begotten? Is it possible that our modern, post-enlightenment lenses have tainted the reading of an eastern Semitic text relying primarily on the theology of the Hebrew bible as its foundation?

These are interesting questions that have sparked much debate over the centuries and is deserving of our attention today as we strive to know Christ and who He is as adequately as we can from the scriptures. The Council of Nicea in 325 AD dealt with the Arians who used the “begotten” language to say there was a time when Christ was not and that He was a created being, denying His co-equal, co-eternal identity with God. This was dealt with and recognized as heresy and is not part of our question. The question at hand is in regards to the proper use of “μονογενής” in the NT in general, and in the gospel of John in particular. When approaching these texts, we will need to be careful not to read theological presuppositions into the documents to the best of our abilities in order to allow the text to speak for itself. The “μονογενής” language in Johns gospel is important to His Christology due to its calculated placement (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; further attestation in the Johanine corpus can be found in 1 John 4:9).

* “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten (μονογενής) from the Father, full of grace and truth” – John 1:14

* “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten (μονογενής θεός) God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” – John 1:18

* “For God so loved the world, He gave His only begotten (μονογενής) Son…” – John 3:16a

* “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten (μονογενής) Son of God” – John 3:18

At first glance we see John apparently concluding that Jesus is God’s ONLY son. This would be the case if “μονογενής” is taken in John as it is apparently understood in Luke (7:12; 8:42; 9:38 from stories without messianic overtones). What makes John’s use of “μονογενής” problematic is that Luke is not the only other place we see this language used. In Hebrews 11:17 we see “μονογενή” used in the context of Isaac being Abraham’s child of promise. Now what is interesting about this use is the fact that Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, but he was his “beloved” son (Gen.22:2, 12, 16 in LXX). Abraham also had previously had Ismael, who was not the son of promise, the chosen son as was Isaac.

Is it possible then to say that John could be using “μονογενής” in the same way as the author of Hebrews in regards to Abraham’s relationship with Isaac as the “child of promise”, the “chosen” or “elect” son? If so, then the implications for Johanine Christology could be great. Is Jesus the “only” son of God, or is He the “unique, elect, or chosen” son of God? If so, does God have other sons? I hope this question sparks conversation and I will be further addressing this question and how I think John answers it in a post  soon.

2 Replies to “"Only begotten" or "Elect" Son? A reassesment of "μονογενής"”

  1. The idea that God has had other sons would return us to the time of Origen and cause us to believe that we are somewhat equal with God. I don’t know if I like the direction of such thinking, but I do see that you are trying to be honest with the text. Very interesting conclusion, and connection with Hebrews.

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