The Eternal Generation of the Son

By Mark Mullins

The eternal generation of the Son of God is another doctrine that has come under attack today, with many evangelicals either questioning or rejecting it.

Its importance is that it is the only way to distinguish the Son from the Father. If we reject eternal generation (that the Son is eternally begotten by the Father) then, for the same reasons, we will have to reject the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. This will leave us with one God appearing in three different modes which is the heresy of modalism.

The Meaning of Monogenes

Let us begin with a defence of the traditional understanding of the Greek word monogenes which John uses four times in his Gospel and once in his first epistle[1] as an appellation for the Son of God. From Tyndale’s translation in 1526 up until the latter part of the 20th Century monogenes was translated as “only begotten”.

The King James, New King James and New American Standard versions retain the traditional translation of “only begotten.”

However, the New International Version translates monogenes as “one and only” and the English Standard Version translates it as “only.” The Good News follows the ESV. The Message varies between “one and only” and “one of a kind.”

Etymology or Origin of Monogenes

Monogenes is a Greek adjective consisting of the two parts, mono and genes. There is no argument about the derivation of the first part of the word which is from the Greek word monon meaning “only.” However, the difference is in the second part of the word: genes. The traditional view is that the word is derived from the Greek verb meaning “to beget,” so that monogenes means “only begotten.” However, the most recent view is that genes is derived from a word meaning “class,” “sort” or “kind,” so that monogenes means one of a kind or unique.

According to Mr L. Brigden B.Sc (Hons), M.Sc., BA (Hons), Senior Editorial Consultant at the Trinitarian Bible Society, the etymology or origin of the two Greek words is not very different because both words may also mean “offspring,” “posterity,” “race,” “stock” or “kin.” This means that the meaning of monogenes would still be “only offspring” or “only posterity.”

It is worth noting that during the Arian controversy of the fourth century, Athanasius was instrumental in opposing the Arians who claimed that the Lord Jesus was a created being and not God. In one place, in his Second Discourse against the Arians, Chap 62, Athanasius, who wrote in Greek, writes that that Christ is called “Only-begotten (monogenes), because of His generation from the Father”

For the same cannot be both Only-begotten and First-born, except in different relations;— that is, Only-begotten (monogenes), because of His generation from the Father, as has been said and First-born, because of His condescension to the creation and His making the many His brethren.

New Testament Use of Monogenes

A survey of the use of the word monogenes in the New Testament confirms that “only begotten” is the best fit.

The first occurrence is in Luke 7:12-13 where we read:

Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only (monogenes) son of his mother, and she was a widow … And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said unto her, Weep not.

Translating monogenes as “one of a kind” would, or “unique” might, imply that he was not her only son but simply a special kind of son – such as her favourite son. The loss of such a son would not have left her without support. Yet the implication of the passage is that the Lord had compassion on her because she was a widow and therefore dependent on her only son.

Similarly, Monogenes is used in the context of Jairus’s daughter in Luke 8:41-42:

And behold, thee came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue and he fell down at Jesus’ feet, and besought him that he would come into his house for he had one only (monogenes) daughter, about twelve years of age, and she lay dying.

Again, the best sense of monogenes is that this was the only begotten daughter of Jairus rather than a “one of a kind” or “unique” daughter. It explains the earnestness of his plea for the Lord to heal her.

The next use of monogenes is in Luke 9:38 where the father of a boy with an unclean spirit sought the Lord for his deliverance, pleading with the Lord, “I beseech thee, look upon my son: for he is mine only (monogenes) child.” The strength of his pleas points to monogenes meaning his only begotten son and not just “his one of a kind” or unique son.

It is worth noting that each of these examples monogenes is used in the context of a parent and child where “only begotten” makes the best sense.

The five uses of monogenes by John are each best translated as “only begotten” for the following reasons:

1] In John 1:14, who but the only begotten of the Father would share the glory of the Father?

2] In John 1:18, who but the only begotten of the Father would be in the Father’s bosom declaring the Father?

3] In John 3:16, as in 1 John 4:9, the manifestation of God’s love is demonstrated by His sending His only begotten Son into the world.

By sending a “one of a kind” son or a “unique” son, a father is not necessarily sending all that he has.

4] In John 3:17-18 the culpability of unbelief is heightened by man’s rejection of the Father’s only begotten Son as opposed to His “one of a kind” Son.

The only begotten Son represents His Father in the way that no one else can.

Hebrews 11:17 says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten (monogenes) son. Those contending for the new meaning of monogenes argue that Isaac was not Abraham’s “only begotten son,” because when God commanded him to offer up Isaac, Abraham had another son, Ishmael who was his first born and that to translate monogenes as “only begotten son” introduces a contradiction into scripture whereas “unique” does not. Having established that unique or “one of a kind” son fits the context of this verse, opponents of the traditional meaning of monogenes go on to apply “unique” or “one of a kind” to every other use of monogenes.

It is significant to note that in Genesis 22:2 Isaac is called Abraham’s “only son” so that the same objection could be made about this verse which appears to contradict the fact that Abraham had two sons and not one. The explanation is that Abraham’s seed was to be through Isaac alone (Genesis 21:12 and Hebrews 11:18).

It is obvious that Isaac is not Abraham’s only son in an absolute sense, but he is in the sense that only through Isaac would God’s promises to Abraham be fulfilled. He was therefore the only son of the promise and in that sense Ishmael did not exist.

One final point made by Mr L. Brigden is that if “one of a kind” or “unique” were the correct translation of monogenes then one might expect the word to be used of a unique brother or sister or even of a unique which never occur strongly suggesting that monogenes has been correctly translated as “only begotten.”

How Important is the translation of Monogenes in John’s Gospel?

The doctrine of eternal generation can be made out from other portions of scripture, but the use of monogenes to describe the Lord Jesus is of primary importance because, it is a plain statement of His generation from the Father. We can go further. In John 1:18, John writes:

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

When the Son was in the bosom of the Father he was not yet a man, yet He is still described as the only begotten Son. To be lying in the bosom of the Father in eternity therefore can only mean that the Son of God is eternally begotten.

There are various other passages that support that Christ is begotten of the Father some of which we should look at briefly.

Proverbs 8:22-25

This is highly persuasive in support of eternal generation because the Lord Jesus is the “Wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). Wisdom is a feminine noun which has led some to discard this passage for fear of giving support to God being feminine. However, like French, Hebrew has masculine and feminine nouns. When the Lord Jesus said he was a door (John 10:9) a French believer would not think that the Lord Jesus was describing himself as a woman (la Porte is a feminine noun) and so it is with the Hebrew word for wisdom.

Wisdom is an attribute of God (for God is “only wise” – Jude 25) but here in Proverbs 8 wisdom is spoken of as a person:

The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.  I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.  Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth.

To quote from Francis Turretin in the First Volume of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology (page 296):

Who else teaches men calls men to him, teaches the true way of salvation, wishes the law and his precepts to obtain in the church, convicts sinners of foolishness, promises life to those who regard him and denounces final destruction upon the unbelieving? Who else was with God before the world was and was perpetually with him while creating the world? If Jehovah is said to have possessed Wisdom from the beginning, is not the “Word” said “to have been in the beginning” and “to have been with God”” (John 1:1)? If it is said to have been a delight to the Father, is not Christ “the beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17)? If ordained and anointed by the Father, was not Christ foreordained before the foundation of the world and anointed for the mediatorial office (1 Peter 1:20)? If Wisdom is said to have been brought forth before the hills, was not Christ before all things (Colossians 1:17)? If by her kings reign, is not Christ the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16)? If Wisdom teaches and cries out, calls and exhorts men to repentance in high and low places, both immediately by herself and immediately by her maidens, do we not read the same of Christ both immediately by himself preaching the gospel and mediately by his servants the apostles whom he sent through the whole world to call men to a participation of his grace?

Psalm 2:7

Another important verse in support of eternal generation is Psalm 2:7. I include verse 8 to place it in context:

I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.  8  Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.

This is a messianic prophecy concerning the Lord Jesus and is quoted by Paul in Acts 13:33 in relation to the resurrection. The same verse is quoted twice in Hebrews. First in Hebrews 1:4-5 to demonstrate Christ’s superiority to the angels, and second in Hebrews 5:6-7 to demonstrate that as the eternally begotten Son of His Father, he was a fit and proper person to be appointed to the everlasting priesthood of the order of Melchizedec.

These different references point to the day of Christ’s generation being both an eternal day (in terms of his generation) and a day in time whenever Jesus Christ was declared to be the Son of God (see Romans 1:4).

The manner of the Begetting

There is some disagreement amongst orthodox theologians about whether the generation of the Son involves the communication of the whole divine essence. Many good men who hold to this view would cite John 5:26 in support:

For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself.

However, I believe this to be a reference to the eternal life that the Father gives to the Son, as mediator, which the Son, as mediator, then gives to the elect.

There is a distinction between the essence of God, which is self-existent, and the Personality of the Three persons of the Godhead which are mutually dependent. The self-existence of the Godhead is seen in Exodus 3:14 where Jehovah revealed Himself to Moses as “I AM THAT I AM.” The Lord Jesus identifies Himself with the self-existent “I am” in John 8:58:

The relationship of begetting, on the other hand, defines the distinctive personal properties of the Father and Son. The Father begets, and the Son is begotten by the Father. The begetting of Christ is, in my view, spoken of in John 8:42:

… for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me.

The difficulty with explaining the begetting of Christ as involving the communication of the whole essence of God from Father to Son is that each person of the Godhead possesses the same essence, and so if the essence is begotten for the Son then the Father must have a begotten essence, otherwise there would be an essential difference between them. Instead, I prefer limiting the begetting to the level of personal relations as opposed to the communication of the whole essence of God. After all, as John Gill observes in his commentary on Psalm 2:7, “for as in human generation, person begets person, and like begets like, so in divine generation; but care must be taken to remove all imperfection from it.”

Dr Gill, in his Body of Divinity, Book I., Chap iv explains the position with clarity as follows:

This nature is common to the Three Persons in God, but not communicated from one to another; They each of Them partake of it, and possess it as one undivided nature; They all enjoy it; it is not a part of it that is enjoyed by one, and a part of it by another, but the whole by each; as all the fulness of the God-head dwells in Christ, so in the Holy Spirit; and of the Father there will be no doubt; these equally subsist in the unity of the divine Essence, and that without any derivation or communication of it from one to another. I know it is represented by some who otherwise are sound in the doctrine of the Trinity, that the divine nature is communicated from the Father to the Son and Spirit, and that He is fons Deitatis, ‘the fountain of Deity,’ which I think are unsafe phrases, since they seem to imply a priority in the Father to the other Two Persons; for He that communicates must, at least, in order of nature and according to our conception of things, be prior to whom the communication is made; and that He has a superabundant plenitude of Deity in Him, previous to this communication. It is better to say that They are self-existent, and exist together in the same undivided Essence; and jointly, equally, and as early one as the other, possess the same nature.”

J.C. Philpott sums up John Gill’s point in his excellent treatise on The Eternal Sonship of the Lord Jesus Christ:

The Unity of God implies self-existence; the Trinity in Unity implies relationship. Thus, as regards the Unity of Essence Christ is self-existent; but as regards the Trinity He is begotten.

We are thus left ignorant about how the Father generated the Son. It should be enough for us that we accept that the Scriptures reveal that the Son is begotten by the Father.

The Stumbling Block of Eternal Generation

The difficulty some have with eternal generation is that they imagine that the generation must take place at a point of time in eternity, forgetting that eternity has no time. This apparent contradiction is removed if, instead of thinking in terms of a priority of time which does not exist in eternity, we think of a priority of order. This means that the Father, who generates the Son, may be considered in priority of order before the Son generated by Him. However, the Father who generates the Son is not in priority of time before the Son because there is no time in eternity.

Conclusion

We live in a strange time when contemporary evangelicals seem only too quick to reject the received wisdom of our forefathers, believing that somehow, we know better than they did. This is very strange, but is nothing less than the spirit of the age where every man does what is right in his own eyes (Judges 17:26). We should all be warned.

In conclusion, let the final word go to JC Philpot:

But you say, “I cannot understand this eternal generation. It seems to me so inconsistent, so self-contradictory, that I cannot receive it.” Do you mean, then to receive nothing which you cannot understand, and which appears self-contradictory? Then you must on those grounds reject the two greatest mysteries of our most holy faith – the Trinity and the Incarnation. We do not call upon you to understand it. But if you love your own soul, we counsel you not to deny it, lest you be found amongst those who “deny the Son, and so have not the Father” 1 John 2:23.

[1] See John 1:14, John 1:18, John 3:16, John 3:18 and 1 John 4:9

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