In my previous article, I examined all of the verses in the Old Testament that are associated with eternal generation. Now, I will turn my attention to the New Testament.
The Greek term monogenēs is traditionally translated as “only begotten” to describe Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. Therefore, it is argued, Jesus is eternally begotten or generated by the Father. I agree that “only begotten” is one possible way monogenēs can be translated depending on the context, but even if this is how the term is being used in John’s writings, it does not follow that John is describing an eternal action of begetting in the being of God. To understand the different ways monogenēs can be used, we need to examine its different uses throughout Greek literature. The primary way monogenēs is used in Greek is to describe an only child. Jesus is the only Son of the Father in the sense that he alone has existed as God’s Son from eternity and shares the same nature as the Father. In contrast, we become sons of God in time by adoption and do not share God’s nature. The word monogenēs is how John differentiates Jesus’ sonship with our sonship. We are sons of God by adoption, but not sons of God in the sense that we share his nature. God only has one unique Son who is eternal and shares his nature. This is why modern translations rightly translate monogenēs as “one and only,” “only unique,” or “only one-of-a-kind” rather than “only begotten” in the Bible. The idea of begetting is not intrinsic to the word. The same term is used in Hebrews 11:17 to describe Abraham’s son Isaac. But Isaac was not the only born son of Abraham since Ishmael was also born of him. Isaac was the monogenēs son of Abraham because he was the only unique son of Abraham through whom God’s blessing would come. Josephus uses the word the same way to refer to Isaac (Antiquities 1.13.1). The word is used in reference to a phoenix in 1 Clement 25:2 that is called “the only one of its kind.” God only has one Son who is unique and eternal whereas we become sons of God through adoption (John 1:12). Some other examples that demonstrate monogenēs does not necessarily include the idea of begetting include Psalm 22:20 (only life); 25:16 (only child or alone); and Wisdom 7:22 (unique). I believe we should translate monogenēs the same way in John as we do in Hebrews 11:17 since Isaac is a type of Christ. Just as Isaac was not the only son of Abraham because there was also Ishmael, we too are sons of God in addition to Christ. But Isaac’s sonship was unique in that he alone would be the one through whom the promise would come just as Jesus’ sonship is unique to him. We are sons of God in a different sense than Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus shares the Father’s nature or attributes analogous to how a human son reflects his father’s attributes but in a perfect sense (Heb 1:3).
2. John 5:26
The granting of the Son to have life in himself is the bestowing upon the Son the authority to grant eternal life just as the next verse speaks of the Father bestowing the authority to judge on him. John 17:2 is a close parallel to this concept: “Since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” The term “life” in John 5 consistently means eternal life, not self-existence. The Father has given the Son both the authority to give eternal life and the authority to condemn. As God, the Son has the authority to bestow eternal life, but as a man, he must receive this authority from the Father. The closest parallel to the language about having life in oneself is John 6:53: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” This verse is the only other place in John’s Gospel where the same Greek phrase is used describing life in oneself and it is talking about eternal life. Other parallels include: John 5:21; 13:3; and 1 John 5:11.
3. John 15:26
This verse is not related to the debate over eternal generation, but to eternal procession. It is argued that because the verb “proceeds” is in the present tense, this must be describing an eternally occurring action in the being of God rather than the work of the Holy Spirit. But “proceeds” is in the present tense because the Spirit’s work in the world or missio Dei did not begin on the day of Pentecost, but has been ongoing from the beginning of creation (Ps 104:30). The proceeding of the Holy Spirit from the Father is the Spirit’s present work in the world that became publicly evident on the day of Pentecost.
4. Colossians 1:15
The title “firstborn” is a term of preeminence and sovereignty and does not necessarily carry with it the concept of being born. The language of Christ as firstborn is rooted in the concept of the king of Israel as God’s firstborn son. Psalm 89:27 says concerning the king of Israel: “And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” “Firstborn” is parallel to “highest” or greatest. Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 1:5 call him “the firstborn from the dead” meaning that he is supreme over all who will ever be raised from the dead. As firstborn over all creation, he has primogeniture or the rights of the firstborn son over it. As creator of all things, he must be God since only God created all things (Isa 44:24; John 1:3; Col 1:16).
5. 1 John 5:18
1 John 5:18 calls Jesus the one born of God. To call Jesus the one born of God is simply another way of calling him the Son of God since human sons in our experience are born into the world. The participle “he who was born” is being used as a deverbal noun as a title for Jesus. It is not referring to a time when he was born or an act of being born, but it is a title which reflects his eternal relationship with the Father as the Son of God. The sonship of Christ was visibly manifested by his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God when he was declared to be the Son of God (Ps 2:7; Rom 1:4; Phil 2:9-11). Jesus can be called the one born of God because he shares the Father’s nature analogous to how a human son reflects his father’s nature. Human sons look like their fathers and God the Son perfectly reflects his Father’s nature. To see Christ is to see the Father (John 14:9). But we must be extremely careful not to read everything that is true of the human father-son relationship back into the eternal Father-Son relationship. That was the mistake the Arians made since human fathers exist before their sons and human sons are subordinate to their fathers.
It is interesting to note that most of the verses used to support eternal generation are the same verses the Arians used to support their belief that Christ came into existence and has not eternally existed with the Father. Eternal generation simply takes these verses and argues that they are describing a never-ending timeless action that takes place within the being of God rather than an act of creation. This might be an easy way for the common man to respond to the arguments of Arianism (the Son is eternally begotten in Psalm 2:7, eternally brought into existence in Proverbs 8:25, eternally granted existence in John 5:26, and eternally born in Colossians 1:15), but it still makes the same hermeneutical mistakes that the Arians made in interpreting these verses except that they thankfully read into them a concept of eternality that is not present in the texts to avoid falling into heresy. Hence, the argument goes, if you do not accept eternal generation, you have no way to respond to the arguments of Arianism.
But it is actually the misinterpretation of these verses leading to a belief that the Son owes his existence to the Father that led to the rise of Arianism in the first place. Both Arianism and eternal generation are evolutions of Logos Christology that came about when Logos Christology was shown to be incompatible with the immutability of God. By properly exegeting these verses, I am undercutting the foundation upon which Arianism is built. But in the process, Origen’s concept of eternal generation must fall as well. But then again, the language about Christ being “begotten before all ages” in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed comes from the subordinationist Eusebius of Caesarea who supported Arius and used the phrase to express his understanding of Logos Christology, not eternal generation. For these reasons, it is better to speak of the Son as autotheos or God of himself sharing equally, indivisibly, and underivatively the one divine nature with the Father rather than saying he derives his existence or divine nature from the Father. He is begotten (gennētos) with respect to his human nature and unbegotten (agennētos) with respect to his divine nature (Ignatius to the Ephesians 7:2). This was the teaching of the apostolic fathers before Justin Martyr’s theories about the Logos and Origen’s concept of derived deity gained influence in the church based on their mishandling of Proverbs 8:22-25.