Eternal Generation, the “Only Begotten” Son, and Monogenes: A Summary of the Conversation

Eternal Generation, the “Only Begotten” Son, and Monogenes: A Summary of the Conversation November 30, 2016

IMG_1719An outflow of the recent Trinity debate is a new(ish) conversation surrounding the eternal generation of the Son (EG). Originally, Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware were hesitant to affirm the doctrine because they didn’t see sufficient biblical data to affirm it. However, at the recent ETS meeting in San Antonio, they both explicitly said that they now affirm EG.

During a late night panel, Grudem pointed to an (as of now) unpublished article by Charles Lee Irons that convinced him of EG. In that article, Irons makes the case that the Greek word monogenēs (μονογενής), used in John 3:16 and elsewhere, should be translated “only begotten” rather than “one and only,” “one-of-a-kind,” “unique,” etc. By extension, this has implications for the doctrine of EG. Fortunately, The Gospel Coalition posted a version of his article on their site last week for us to read.

This article has now elicited responses, most notably from Daniel Wallace and Denny Burk. Here’s my attempt at outlining the conversation with quotes from their articles and some of my own summarizing. I hope this either encourages you to read these pieces for yourself, or at least gives you handles on the conversation.

Charles Lee Irons on Monogenēs and “Only Begotten”

Irons argues that:

  1. “A search of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae—a comprehensive database of ancient, Koine, and medieval Greek—reveals that the word monogenēs is used most basically and frequently in contexts having to do with biological offspring. Its fundamental meaning is ‘only begotten’ or ‘only child’ in the sense of having no siblings.” Though there are occasional uses of the term to mean something like “unique” or “one of a kind,” they’re often metaphorical. Context is key, and John’s five uses are all in the context of sonship.
  2. “Careful examination of the word list of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae reveals at least 145 other words based on the –genēs stem. … Taken together, this wealth of –genēs words constitutes critical data demonstrating that the –genēs stem strongly encodes notions of derivation, offspring, and begetting throughout the history of the Greek language.”

For Irons, then, monogenēs denotes “begottenness” and should be translated as such. And though it’s not the only biblical proof for the doctrine of EG, his “research suggests we have good reason to restore one of the bricks in the wall of scriptural support for the belief that the Son is begotten of the Father, as the church fathers taught and as the church confesses in the Nicene Creed.”

Daniel Wallace Responds to Irons

Wallace responded on his blog, challenging a few of the assumptions made by Irons. He responds to Irons’s two points thusly:

  1. Irons doesn’t sufficiently consider whether or not the idea of birth is already in the context alongside monogenēs. For example, “Irons begins by citing one reference from Plato—Critias 113d: μονογενῆ θυγατέραἐγεννησάσθην. Here not only is ‘daughter’ mentioned explicitly, but also that she had been ‘born.’ If μονογενής here means ‘only begotten’ then an awkward tautology occurs: “They begot an only-begotten daughter.”
  2. Wallace is intrigued by this point, but wants to see the 145-word research. “To argue from other words that have the –γενής stem as though they must inform the meaning of μονογενής may seem to be imbibing etymological fallacy, especially since there are some –γενής words that have the force of ‘kind’ or ‘genus.’ However, if ‘begotten’ is the routine meaning diachronically, and especially synchronically during the Koine period, Irons may well have a point.”

So Wallace isn’t trying to debunk Irons, necessarily, but is pushing back on his assumptions.

Denny Burk Responds in Agreement with Irons

Burk first responded to Wallace in four points.

  1. Pointing out an awkward phrase about begetting an only-begotten daughter (to use Wallace’s example) isn’t that convincing. After all, “the NT is filled with pleonastic expressions.” In other words, redundancy of words is commonplace, and therefore not a compelling reason to discount Irons’s first point.
  2. Further, “Lee is not engaging in the etymological fallacy [and] if an etymological argument tilts in anyone’s favor, it tilts in the direction of ‘only-begotten.’” Irons is responding to Dale Moody’s 1953 article on this topic, showing that Moody was wrong about his own etymological argument against the translation of “only begotten.”
  3. “Some words [reflect the root words of their component parts] (butter-knife), and some words don’t (butterfly). The question at hand is to what extent MONOGENES may reflect the meanings of its components (MONO ‘only’ + GENES ‘kind’ or ‘begotten’) and whether the -GENES suffix encodes the idea of generation.” Irons and Wallace both seem to agree that this is a good point to explicate.
  4. “It would be wise to withhold judgment until seeing the evidence Lee has amassed. Lee has 60+ examples of MONOGENES from 2nd century and earlier. That is a decent data set.”

Burk then wrote a more substantial response/argument in favor of Irons. Here, he interacts extensively with the Moody article that Irons also interacts with. Moody’s article defends the interpretation of “one and only” or “unique” rather than “only begotten.” Burk’s four points of disagreement:

  1. “Moody claims the suffix –GENES means ‘kind’ without any notion of generation. … Moody is correct that the Greek suffix –GENES derives from the word GENOS. But Moody is wrong about the semantic range of GENOS and the suffix derived from it. In some contexts GENOS means ‘kind,’ but in other contexts it means ‘offspring.'”
  2. “Moody says that if John had meant ‘only-begotten’ he would have used the term MONOGENNETOS. … [However,] the term MONOGENNETOS does not appear to be attested in ancient Greek literature before the second century (it does not appear in Liddell-Scott’s lexicon). If John were to have used the term, he would have to have been the one to coin it. But why would John coin a new term when MONOGENES was ready at hand?”
  3. “Moody argues that MONOGENES in Hebrews 11:17 cannot possibly mean ‘only-begotten.’ … [However] the idea of ‘begottenness’ is necessary in this context. Moody has this completely backwards.”
  4. “Moody’s linguistic arguments are not sensitive to the context of John’s use of the term. … John seems to be saying that while Christians have been ‘begotten’ by the Holy Spirit, Jesus is the ‘uniquely begotten’ Son of God. His ‘begottenness’ is different from ours and indeed utterly without parallel.”

Burk concludes:

“As I mentioned in a previous post, Lee Irons has undertaken a research project that has made a decisive case for ‘only-begotten’ as the meaning of MONOGENES in John’s writings. But before I ever saw that research, the above lines of argument are what convinced me that Moody’s arguments do not hold up to the evidence. For that reason, I think that scholars who have based their opinion of MONOGENES on the arguments of Dale Moody or on the entry in BDAG need to reevaluate their position. Those who view the doctrine of eternal generation as speculative and as having little biblical warrant need to reevaluate as well.

It turns out that the Nicene Fathers knew Greek really well—probably better than any of us reading the New Testament today. I think that the interplay between MONOGENES and GENNAO in the Creed shows that the Nicene Fathers noticed the interplay of those same terms in John’s writings. They were interpreting the Greek Bible in the Creed, and they were and are right. Jesus is the uniquely generated Son of God, begotten, not made, before all ages.”


As someone whose dissertation is broadly on this topic and with a day job on a Bible translation team, I hope this discussion continues. Irons, Wallace, and Burk have done a great job of getting us moving in the right direction.

I’m still studying and reading on monogenēs, but I do agree wholeheartedly with Burk’s concluding line of thinking: EG is a doctrine affirmed both in specific texts and in the broader biblical narrative, and the Fathers were certainly always making doctrinal assertions based on their reading of Scripture. This is an important piece of the conversation, for sure.

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