The Only Begotten

How Does This Term Apply to Christ?

Austen G. Fletcher is a pastor-evangelist in the Western Australia Conference.


HE KNEW the voice it was clearly recognizable. It had always been the voice of a friend before a welcome voice, so full of hope, so encouraging.


There was no mistaking it now, but this time the message startled, shattered! There was no need for it to be repeated, for his mind had grasped it all too clearly already! "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you" (Gen. 22:2, R.S.V.).

For the rest of the night Abraham lay awake thinking about God's strange command.

If God had said, "Your son" there would have been room for choice. But when He said, "Your only son," Abraham knew at that moment what the next word would be, for Isaac was Sarah's son, the miracle child, God's gift so bright, and such a lovely child.

"Isaac!" Abraham thought of the first time he had ever heard the name. The same voice had spoken it. "You shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my cove nant with him." God wasn't making it any easier when He added, "Isaac, whom you love." How strangely, yet how wonderfully, true it had been Isaac became Abra ham's great love. Time was when Ishmael had claimed the old man's heart.

Abraham had even protested to God, "O that Ishmael might live in thy sight!" But the years had changed all that. Not that Abraham loved Ishmael less, but that Isaac had been born, after all, to Sarah! He was a quiet child of mild nature, lovable, teachable, a good child of such ready and wholesome faith in God and in God's promise. A child of their old age, how he brightened each shorten ing day.

Now God asked Abraham to do this! to Isaac! The man had always been resolute in obeying God, and now, well before dawn he aroused a couple of servants and told them to prepare for a short journey with out disturbing anyone. For a moment he paused over the sleeping form of Isaac. Then he woke the youth, and Isaac, always ready, was eager to go.

For three days the little caravan of travelers moved on till, far in the dis tance, Abraham saw the mountain that loomed up before him like a place of doom. Time now to be alone with his son.

"Then Abraham said to his young men, 'Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you'" (verse 5, R.S.V.).

Together they climbed the mountain, the old man silent, his heart in an agony of prayer, pleading with his God, his wonderful God who had given him this child. Then Isaac, ever observant, al ways helpful, broke the silence, softly calling, "My father!" Abraham an swered, "Here am I, my son." Isaac then questioned, "Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham's trusting reply was "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." As they came to the place of sacrifice, Abraham built an altar and laid the wood in order.

The moment of truth had now come.

It must be faced. Isaac must be told of God's command. Can you see the old man there stooped, aged, noble, his voice trembling as he rehearses to Isaac how he, Isaac, was the child of God's promise? The father related how Sarah received strength strength of faith, and strength of body to conceive and to bear him. Abraham confirms to Isaac that it is through him, Isaac, that the earth is to be blessed with the Redeemer and Mes siah. Nothing will ever make it impossi ble for God to fulfill these promises to Isaac not even death. And if the lad dies, then God will resurrect him from the dead to fulfill the promises. Then Abraham tells Isaac what God has asked him to do.

The lad falters, but not for long. There would be no sacrifice unless Isaac were willing, for the lad is lithe, supple, strong, and Abraham is old. The son's faith rises to equal his father's. He, too, commits himself to the promise of God. Isaac encourages his father's nerve less hands in binding and laying him upon the altar.

"Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, 'Abraham, Abraham!' And he said, 'Here am I.' He said, 'Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.' And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son" (verses 10-13, R.S.V.).

Many have pondered the episode, and deep are the thoughts it stirs, the ques tions it raises in our minds. The writer to the Hebrews comments on the great trial of Abraham's faith, "By faith Abra ham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac; and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure" (Heb. 11:17-19).

Notice he calls Isaac Abraham's "only begotten son." Could it be that of all men, God loved Abraham so much as to give this man the most profound insight into what God Himself would do for us one day? In a sense, Abraham gave his only begotten son, his deed standing as a faint, flicker ing reflection of the fact that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have ever lasting life" (John 3:16).

Significance of "Only Begotten" The Greek term for "only begotten" is monogenes, a word used nine times in the New Testament. Five of its usages are of theological importance for they describe the Lord Jesus Christ. Four speak of ordinary people in a special way.

Every usage sheds light on what is meant when Jesus Christ is called "the only begotten." Moulton and Milligan list its mean ing as "one of a kind," "only," "unique." In his doctoral dissertation "Monogenes in the Johannine Literature," Francis Marion Warden demonstrates that monogenes means "uniqueness of be ing, rather than any remarkableness of manner of coming into being, or yet uniqueness resulting from any manner of coming into being." 1 Notice Luke's use of the term: "Just as he arrived at the gate of the town [Nain], a funeral procession was coming out. The dead man was the only son of a woman who was a widow, and a large crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her his heart was filled with pity for her and he said to her, 'Don't cry.' Then he walked over and touched the coffin, and the men carrying it stopped. Jesus said, 'Young man! Get up, I tell you!' The dead man sat up and be gan to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother" (Luke 7:12-15, T.E.V.).* To be a widow was tragic enough, but then to lose her only son! Jesus thought of the special relationship this son had grown into with his mother. Such sons have a unique relationship. Other sons whose mothers are not widows know little about this, for it is a singular ex perience. The closeness of it, the tender ness of it, moved Jesus profoundly.

Imagine, also, the anguish of the man who brought his tormented son to the disciples for help, only to find they could do nothing for the child. Then Jesus came upon the scene, and the man won dered whether it would make any dif ference. After all, he had resorted to Jesus' disciples without results. He had every reason to wonder whether their Master could accomplish anything more than they.

"Teacher! Look, I beg you, at my son my only son! A spirit attacks him with a sudden shout and throws him into a fit, so that he foams at the mouth; it keeps on hurting him and will hardly let him go! I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they couldn't" (chap. 9:38-40, T.E.V.). The man's agony was increased because this was "my only child." Af flicted though the child was, there had been lavished on him the interest and affection that is lavished on an only child. If parents have but one child, that child grows into a distinctive relation ship in the home. Jesus, of course, "healed the boy, and gave him back to his father" (verse 42, T.E.V.).

The passages in which monogenes re lated to Jesus Christ Himself all occur in the writings of John.

The Revealer of the Father is Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ came among us we discerned the perfection and the fullness of grace and truth in Him. It was a fullness consistent with divinity, for it was obviously grace and truth the way grace and truth are God's far above and beyond the way grace and truth are ever man's, even at their best in man. This person, Jesus Christ "is in the bosom of the Father" (John 1:14,18).

Christ's unique relationship with the Father is emphasized by the fact that He is termed the Monogenes. No other being in the vast universe could ever sustain the same relationship to the Father as He does. All other beings are created and owe their life and origin to Him, for He is their Creator. Eternity of being, effulgence of glory, perfection of love, of wisdom, of power are His, inher ently and underived. What a Being is this! What a singular, unique Being! He alone can reveal to man God's true character.

Monogenes also speaks of Jesus Christ as Saviour. This is made absolutely clear in the familiar passage, John 3:16.

Salvation is God's solution to the sin problem. Of course, there are many ramifications to this problem apart from sin itself. The sinful act, the sinful thought, the sinful deed, and the sinful disposition of heart and mind are all there as are the guilt of sin, the influence or power of sin, and the results of sin.

Many of these pose considerable intel lectual problems for the thinker, but what God does in Jesus Christ is to ad dress all and every aspect of the sin syn drome. Sin and its complexities are dealt with by a unique Being who is divine both in His nature and in His dimen sions.

When discussing the problem, Martin Luther dealt with the matter by refer ring to "Horace's rule of dramatic art, that a God must not be introduced into the action unless the plot has got into such a tangle that only a God could un ravel it. Well, says Calvin, human sin is such a tangle. Only God can deal with our sins." 2 The Person who is our Saviour has al ways and forever sustained a unique and special relationship with the Father.

This relationship existed before He came to this earth, as both He and the Father existed before that time, and as long as they both were. He was NOT begotten, for it is a mistranslation to translate monogenes as "only begotten." He is forever, one with the Father, and He is forever God. The fact that He is forever with the Father (which no other being was), speaks of a relationship with the Father that is unknown by any other being. He is "the only Son, Deity Himself, who lies upon His Father's breast" (John 1:18, Williams).+How, then, did the translators ever get to use the phrase "only begotten"? Because the Arian controversy raged over the point as to whether Father and Son were of the same essence, Jerome in translating for the Latin Vulgate succumbed to the temptation of translat ing monogenes in a way he thought would assist the cause of truth in this controversy. Instead of using the Latin word unicus, which means "only," "unique," "special," "one of a kind," he chose unigenitus, which means "only begotten." He made this choice because the begetter and the begotten both have the same nature.

However, the great translator's theo logical maneuver proved a mistake, for the Arians immediately rebutted by a clever twist. They shifted the focus of argument. Instead of focusing on the nature of Christ as Jerome had, the Arians seized the term "only begotten" and focused it on origins. They said, "Of course He was begotten, which only proves that there was a time when He was not. He is different from all other creatures, for they were created, but He was not created. He was begotten." From the Latin Vulgate, only begot ten found its way into many transla tions, notably the King James Version of 1611. King James' translators relied on the Latin Vulgate, and before we censure them too severely, let us remem ber that today we have readily avail able at the disposal of modern trans lators, a large number of manuscripts that were not available three hundred and fifty years ago. We do not need to be unkind to those translators, but neither do we need to perpetuate their mistakes.

What then does monogenes say about Jesus Christ? It portrays Him as unique and special as a Person and in His rela tionship with the Father. It distin guishes Him as a separate Person from the Father, for as John 1:1 says, "The Word was with God." But it identifies Him as being of the same nature as the Father, as John 1:1 does, for "the Word was God."


* Texts credited to T.E.V. are from the Good News Bible—Old Testament: Copyright CO American Bible Society 1976;
New Testament: Copyright (r) American Bible Society 1986, 1971, 1976.

+ From The New Testament in the Language of the People by Charles B. Williams. Published by Moody Press, Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Used fay permission.

1 Quoted in "God's Only Son: The Translation of John 3:16 in the Revised Standard Version," by Dale Moody, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The dissertation by Francis Marion Warden was given in 1938 and is available in the library of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

2 D. M. Baillie, God Was in Christ (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), p. 171.

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Austen G. Fletcher is a pastor-evangelist in the Western Australia Conference.

April 1977

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