I grew up rejecting the old-school translation of monogenēs (mah-nah-geh-NAYSE) as “only-begotten.” I think I first picked that up from Grudem’s Systematic Theology (though he has since changed his mind).1 Then, one really pays heed when he reads it in Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies.2 In college I received (paid a lot for) the boss of Greek dictionaries, BDAG, which confirmed it. So, I was convinced that translators in the past mistakenly thought the Greek compound monogenēs owed its meaning to mono (only) plus gennaō (to beget), thus rendering “only begotten Son” (kjv), when in fact it comes from mono and genos (genus, kind), thus “one-of-a-kind.”

This went hand in hand with my rejection of the phrase in the Nicene Creed that God’s Son was “begotten, not made.”3 That sounded like a contradiction to me, since “to beget” means “to bring a child into existence” or, metaphorically, “to give rise to, bring about.” To my modern English ears, the Creed meant “made, not made.” And I knew that I knew that God the Son was not made. As God, He never began; He has always existed, of Himself, the I AM who I AM.4 I don’t think I even knew it at the time, but I was rejecting the ancient doctrine of the Son’s “eternal generation,” that the Son is begotten of the Father, not at a point in time, but eternally (that is, always begotten, never-not-begotten). But more on that later (below).

The Meaning of Genos

Recently, however, Professor Denny Burk has me rethinking all of this.5 He realized that all the nay-sayers source the same journal article from Dale Moody as the definitive word, but Burk believes Moody was “really wrong” about several points. First, though, Burk says, “Moody is correct that the Greek suffix –GENES derives from the word GENOS.”6 But it turns out that genos itself can refer to an offspring. As Murray J. Harris explains, “In compound adjectives, -γενής [-genēs] refers to derivation or descent in general, rather than to birth in particular or to species.”7 Oops. “In fact,” Burk writes, “in John’s one use of the term GENOS, it clearly refers to ‘offspring’ or ‘one that is begotten from another’ (Revelation 22:16). ‘Offspring’ is the only attested meaning for this term in John’s writings!”8 So, I was already feeling a little silly. But it gets worse.

[For more, read the PDF.]

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  1. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 1233-34. Denny Burk chronicled Grudem’s change of mind in “A Note on the Trinity Debate at ETS,” 21 Nov 2016 (dennyburk.com/a-note-on-the-trinity-debate-at-ets/).
  2. D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 30-31. Andreas J. Köstenberger’s footnotes helpfully point to scholars on both sides of this fence (John, BECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004], 42-44, 49 [notes 72-75]). Denny Burk quotes a sampling of those against “only begotten” (“Deep in the Weeds on MONOGENES and Eternal Generation” (dennyburk.com/deep-in-the-weeds-on-monogenes-and-eternal-generation/).
  3. See ccel.org/creeds/nicene.creed.html.
  4. See The Preeminence of Christ: Part Two, The I AM (Lawrence, KS: Project one28, 2017) at ProjectOne28.com/IAM.
  5. I’m a fanboy of Professor Burk’s blog, and you should be, too. Unless otherwise indicated, all of the following quotes of Burk come from “Deep in the Weeds on MONOGENES and Eternal Generation” (dennyburk.com/deep-in-the-weeds-on-monogenes-and-eternal-generation/). I don’t reproduce every one of his points here, so you should read his full article.
  6. Burk pointed me to Lee Irons, who says, “This argument collapses once it is recognized that both genos and gennao derive from a common Indo-European root, ǵenh (‘beget, arise’)” (“Let’s Go Back to ‘Only Begotten’,” 23 Nov 2016 [thegospelcoalition.org/article/lets-go-back-to-only-begotten]). Murray J. Harris writes, “Etymologically μονογενής [monogenēs] is not associated with begetting (γεννάσθαι [gennasthai]) but with existence (γίγνεσθαι [gignesthai])” (Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992], 86). I’m not educated enough (yet?) to adjudicate.
  7. Jesus as God, 84.
  8. Emphasis his.