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Change John 3:16?

Read John 3:16 slowly from the increasingly popular English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible below.  See if you can identify the “missing” word from the most popular verse in the Bible.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Did you catch it?  If not, see below (I’m waiting to tell you until after you click to the next screen so as not to give it away).  What could possibly be the justification for leaving it out?

The missing word is “begotten.”  From the four centuries now of the King James Version’s  (KJV) popularity, we have come to expect it to read:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

So why did the ESV leave out the begotten?  I recall when I was in seminary being perfectly comfortable with my professor’s clear explanation of the Trinity (mystery though it was and is), yet just being confused at what it meant for Jesus to be “only begotten.”  I have also found it hard to teach and, when encountering Arian’s modern day children called the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to explain or defend it in a clear way.  Believing also, as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, that translations into the “vulgar languages” are subject to review and correction by Scripture itself, noticing this change in how the ESV approached this word confirmed what I had been reading and studying elsewhere.

It comes from understanding the language behind the word.  The Greek word translated by the KJV as “only begotten” and by the ESV as “only” is the word monogenes.   It has been rendered “only begotten” because translators thought it came from the compound Greek words mono+gennaw, which would literally be “only+begotten.”  Historically, this understanding created great debates in the church.  To say that Jesus was begotten gave rise to the teachings of the Arians, heretics who taught that Jesus was not fully divine but a created being.  To counter this, the fourth century Council of Nicea sought to clarify the church’s understanding by declaring their belief:

in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;

Saying Jesus is “begotten, not made” is helpful.  However, saying He was “begotten of his Father before all worlds” is still language that perhaps confuses more than it clarifies.  Yet for centuries this word begotten has become embedded in the orthodox explanation of the person of Christ.  To even suggest John 3:16 should read otherwise seems to cross sacred boundary lines.  What follows is not a denial of the eternal existence of Jesus Christ nor His eternal Sonship to and with the Father, which I affirm and believe with all my heart.  Rather, it is a short exercise in Scripture and language study.

For it now seems clear* that rather than monogenes being formed by the compound mono+gennaw, it instead comes from mono+genos.  This would be translated “one of a kind,” “unique” or perhaps “only” as the ESV renders it.   Good precedence exists for this rendering elsewhere in Scripture.  Hebrews 11:17  in the KJV says of Abraham that he “offered up his only begotten (monogenes) son,” speaking of Isaac.  Obviously, Isaac is not the only son born to Abraham, as Abraham had Ishmael before him and others by Keturah after him.  Here the sense is “unique,” in that Isaac was born as a child of promise when his mother’s womb was as good as dead (Romans 4:19).  Isaac was a “one of a kind” son born to Abraham.  In this verse the ESV renders Isaac as Abraham’s “only son,” which also has its problems of being awkward for similar reasons just offered.  Yet when we relate this verse back to John 3:16, perhaps translating it as only leaves less room for misunderstanding than only begotten.

Rather than monogenes speaking of Christ’s origin, derivation, or substance, it is a word that better describes His position and uniqueness.  It has been pointed out by others* that this word should be treated similarly to prototokos (“firstborn”) in Colossians 1:15.  As a friend showed to me recently, Jesus is the firstborn in the Biblical sense of the position of ruling, not in the American sense of the order of  birth.  So it is that He is the only Son of God in that He is uniquely God’s Son in ways that no one else is.

Being a creedal man, I hesitate to suggest change to a word that impacts the most popular verse in the Bible.  The dropping of “begotten” does leave it feeling like something is missing.   Yet Reymond* makes me feel better when he summarizes:

The titles of Father and Son denote sameness of nature…monogenes does not mean ‘only begotten,’ alluding to some form of generation, but rather “one and only” (see Luke 7:12…) or “only one of a kind” or “unique.”…Calvin taught that the Son with reference to himself is God in himself, but in relation to his Father, he derives his Sonship from the relationship in which He stands to the Father. 

Still, I can hear the “King James Only” crowd crowing, “You liberal!  Even John 3:16 is changed!?!” Yet, if you are one of them, beware.  If you call me a liberal, I’ll call you a “King James Only Begotten.”  That should confuse you long enough for me to get away.

___________________________________

*See Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson), pp. 324-327 and especially on top of page 326 where he states that twentieth century scholars now favor this rendition; also see the entry for monogenes  in Arndt & Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 527.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent thoughts! Thanks for posting.

    April 27, 2011
  2. Jim Fisher #

    That last paragraph made me laugh. :)

    Good post

    April 27, 2011
  3. Adam King #

    The doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is considered a fundamental point of orthodoxy from Nicaea through all the Reformation creeds and is embodied in the Westminster Confession which is the official position of teh RPCNA (see chapter 2 paragraph 3 and Larger catechism 10). Have you studied the major church fathers and reformation expositions of this doctrine before attempting to discredit it? I highly suggest you read Francis Turretin’s treatment. In the meantime, it may be wise to remove your post.

    April 27, 2011
  4. Adam,
    You may want to read this article again. I don’t see Barry denying that the Son is begotten. I only see him questioning whether ‘begotten’ belongs in an accurate translation of John 3:16. There are other verses that say the Son is begotten, such as Psalm 2:7. Perhaps a clarifying statement from Barry would be helpful, but until then, you are jumping to conclusions.

    April 27, 2011
  5. Adam,

    Thank you for reading and commenting. I appreciate your concern for me and, more importantly, God’s honor. I hope my further clarification below alleviates your concern. In response to your comment, I carefully re-read my post and I did make two slight changes where I could have been more clear. I point them out below.

    First, it was not my intent in any way to deny Jesus’ eternal generation in what I wrote nor discredit the creeds or confessions. I stated what I wrote is “not a denial of the eternal existence of Jesus Christ nor His eternal Sonship to and with the Father, which I affirm and believe with all my heart,” which I meant as a reaffirmation of His eternal generation. I called myself a “creedal man” to mean I accept the creedal statements. Though I had not read Turretin’s treatment before I posted, I am always glad for an excuse to read him. Honestly, I had read the Westminster Confession reference you gave before I posted as well as other works.

    My main point was to suggest that for the ESV not to use the word “begotten” seems strange exactly because of its rich existence in the creeds that obviously draw from this text and others like it. Saying that I have struggled to explain Christ’s eternal generation using the word “begotten” is different than saying I deny it. That is why translation work is difficult, for bringing a concept into one language from another presents challenges. My post was meant to explain, as Warfield said (quoted in the Reymond passage I cited), that “the adjective ‘only begotten’ conveys the idea, not of derivation and subordination, but of uniqueness and consubstantiality; Jesus is all that God is.”

    Also, so you know I did not mean to suggest a change in the creedal or confessional language, as I was only speaking to the ESV rendition. Though certain theological terms can by themselves say more than they mean, within the context of their theological history they have become clearly defined. However, in the way I spoke at two points I see how it could appear perhaps I was suggesting change and hence my slight alterations to my original post:

    1) Where I said “that translations into the “vulgar languages” as well as church councils are subject to review and correction by Scripture itself;” I changed that to “that translations into the “vulgar languages” are subject to review and correction by Scripture itself.” Though its true the councils are subject to correction, I did not mean to imply that is what I was suggesting doing.

    2) Where I said “Yet for centuries this word begotten has become embedded in the orthodox explanation of the person of Christ. To even suggest it should read otherwise seems to cross sacred boundary lines.” I changed that to “Yet for centuries this word begotten has become embedded in the orthodox explanation of the person of Christ. To even suggest John 3:16 should read otherwise seems to cross sacred boundary lines.” In the immediate context, the “it” could have been read as the confession rather than the translation of the verse. Yet the sentence only truly makes sense this way as the sacred boundary lines I meant are the confessions.

    Sincerely,

    Barry

    April 27, 2011
  6. Adam King #

    Thank you for your gracious clarification. I am glad to hear that you maintain the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. I do wonder about your consistency in maintaining the doctrine of the eternal generation while eroding its exegetical support. Our confession cites as proof John 1.14 and 18. Based on your article you would deny the applicability of those verses. Where would you point to as defence of the doctrine exegetically? If we lose the biblical basis we will lose the doctrine (the conclusion) even if that is not your own intent. I know there are other passages used (such as Proverbs 8.24-25). Perhaps you could indicate the biblical basis you see of the doctrine.

    I am sorry I made an assumption that you had done no study before posting. However, the reformation exegetes have given answers to some of the arguments you made (e.g. your use of Hebrews 11.17). Turretin writes “Isaac is called the only begotten not simply but relatively (because alone begotten from free Sarah in lawful wedlock with Abraham and therefore made sole heir)” (vol 1. p.298). Furthermore, I do find it somewhat strange than modern (twentieth century!) “scholars” are now able to tell us the meaning of the Greek word better than the Greek speaking church fathers at Nicaea. Yes, it is true that Arians made the erroneous arguments of the Son’s creation from terms such as this. But keep in mind, the Nicaean council met for the purpose of condmening Arianism. It is a stretch of the imagination that they were not sharp enough to realize that they were using language that would aid the Arians if that language was not the biblical languag.

    I believe your honesty when you say that you embrace the doctrine. But many heretics attack the doctrine using similar arguments. You can understand why this would raise some red-flags! The orthodox understanding of the Trinity is under attack in our day (as it always has been). Writers like Reymond, rather than lending weight to your argument, tend to raise the alarm. Reymond doesn’t just explain away the proof texts, his treatment is actually heterodox. Reymond’s treatment of Calvin has been throughly debunked. I’ll try to see if I can find the article…

    April 27, 2011
  7. Adam Kuehner #

    Regarding Hebrews 11:17, the ESV translators here supply the word “son” which does NOT appear in the Greek text.

    A strictly literal translation would be “by offering up his only”. Wisely recognizing the contextual insufficiency of rendering “monogenes” as “only”, they conveniently add the word “son”. In other words, they do NOT translate “monogenes” as “only” or “one of a kind”, but as “only son”; i.e. “only male offspring” or “only generated male”. At the end of the day, this is not so far from the traditional rendering as one might first have supposed, in that it recognizes an inherent generative aspect to “monogenes”. Just a thought :)

    I am not a Greek scholar by any means, so anyone may feel free to correct this observation.

    April 27, 2011
  8. Adam Kuehner #

    Another brief observation: If “genos” simply means “kind”, how do we explain its frequent translation as “offspring”? E.g. Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ῥίζα καὶ τὸ γένος Δαυίδ [Rev. 22:16; Cf. Acts 17:28-29, etc.] It seems to me that asserting “genos” as the etymological root of “monogenes” still leaves us with the inherent notion of that which is begotten. Again, these are the musings of an amateur, so feel free to set me straight :)

    April 27, 2011
  9. Brothers,

    Thank you again for your comments. Since further important Greek and creedal issues were raised, I thought I would just answer in one response. Though you may want to respond and are welcome to do so, I will most likely not write any more on this as I had no intention of creating a stir nor do I feel a need to defend myself further.

    First, a few further reading helps for my article:

    Please remember the title of my post had a question mark rather than an exclamation point.

    I said myself that the article was a “short exercise” in study, as our blog is intentionally not meant to be for academia. Putting a picture of Tim Tebow at the top and ending with a gentle poke at “King James Only” folks as well as me running away from them should be enough to convince you of this. Hence I did not intend, and am indeed incapable of, producing a lengthy and scholarly tome on this issue.

    The intent of my article was to give to God’s people the reasoning for the change already made by the ESV in John 3:16 that they may or may not have noticed. I myself said I “hesitated to suggest change” to the word as it appears, but believe there is some etymological and Scriptural support for considering this a valid rendering in this translation.

    Next, a few pastoral remarks:

    For the record, I have used the New American Standard version ever since I became a Christian. It happens to be the version our congregation also uses. I have and would publicly read “begotten” from John 3:16 or elsewhere without hesitation or an asterisk, and quote it memorized as such. Though believing we need versions like this or the ESV that reflect the “vulgar Ianguage” of the 21st century, I love the heritage of the KJV and rejoice in its 400 year birthday coming soon.

    I do not consider myself a Greek expert by any means. However, I do teach basic Greek and this post was spawned out of two events related to that. One was with my students who, when we came across this word in our reading class, wrote short papers on it and then we had a discussion. Also, I had just last week privately read an exegesis paper on Colossians 1 written by a PhD friend where he did a brilliant study of the word prototokos. We had a follow-up discussion about its relationship to monogenes and issues of translation on certain mission fields. Perhaps knowing this will help you see that my heart’s intent in writing was not to be controversial or innovative, but just trying to share some fruits of these times.

    I believe any translation of the Bible would command us, even on and perhaps especially on the internet or Facebook since the words are virtually irretrievable and public, to be “slow to speak” and “believe and hope all things” in love with others in the church before assuming heresy. We should be able to disagree respectfully with how a particular word is translated without being suspicious of one another.

    Finally, some concluding Greek and creedal remarks:

    Regarding using John 1:14 & 18 for exegetical support of eternal generation, the Reformation Study Bible says in its notes on the ESV text that the term “only Son” translates “a single Greek word and explicitly points to the eternal generation of the Son in the Trinity.” If the renowned Reformed scholars behind this work can say that, may not I? I would add there are dozens of Biblical references that support it, for just to call the eternal Son “Son” and the eternal Father “Father” implies it.

    Undoubtedly, genos and gennaw are derivatives with a common root. Also, as with many words, genos has a range of meaning and is not simply limited to always meaning “kind” – my post did not state that it did. Certainly, as Adam points out, it has the sense of generation, race, son, or offspring behind it. If indeed it is the word behind monogenes, it’s calling Christ (or Isaac for that matter as a type) a unique son, in special relationship to the Father.

    Certainly the church fathers knew Greek way more than I do. I did not mean to say they had trouble in what they meant with monogenes, but that we might in translating it and in finding some of the phraseology they used to explain it clarifying. (Even Calvin said the Nicene Creed was more suitable to sing as a song than a doctrinal formulation, as he found it a bit flowery and unclear.) We should pay attention to the Greek they used, but also to the English that we use to interpret their Greek. For instance, in the Nicene Creed portion that I quoted, the “only begotten Son of God” uses monogenes, but in the next two instances of “begotten” that follow there is a switch to participial forms of gennaw (Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom) . Why? Are they simply using gennaw synonymously to enhance monogenes? That’s possible and, as I intimated, has historical precedence in English translations. But could it be possible that they are using the Biblical phrase to state His uniqueness as a Son and then, in answer to the Arians who interpreted his Sonship baldly as a crass generation, giving the participles to modify it further to highlight especially the eternal generation aspect of it? My understanding is that translating monogenes to English as “only begotten” here (and in John 3:16) may come more from the influence of the words used in Latin translations and the Vulgate on the English translations than from the actual Greek itself.

    Biblically, gennaw and its clear derivatives, used extensively in the New Testament to speak of physical and spiritual birth, appears to me to be only used of Jesus in reference to His physical birth and His resurrection. I may be wrong in this, but I don’t think so. This means that the Greek fathers, who did know way more Greek than I do, felt comfortable using it beyond its Biblical usage for Christ as a way to explain His eternal regeneration. Perhaps, then, a Greek word or term has a little more stretch to it than we might think as long as we are careful to understand the concepts behind it and the context around it? And perhaps it is the same for English words and, might I say, people?

    In the Eternal Son of God,

    Barry

    April 28, 2011
  10. Dan Drost #

    Pastor York,

    As one who does take the confessional position of eternal generation (because the Bible says it) but does not fully understand it, I have found your remarks in your response very helpful, as well as that of the two Adams. Thank you all for your help. I would add that though I agree with King’s concern, I do believe you have raised an important modern exegetical issue that many wonder about. Perhaps, we can hold to the historic doctrines but not always be bound to every single arguement used by the historic proponents. I would throw in Romans 1:3-4 using Charles Hodge’s explanation (in his Systematic Theology where ever it is that he deals with this, I forgot, I always forget). Hodge’s arguement here is one which helped me in coming over to the Confessional Position. He also suggests that we can believe in the creedal formula without neccesarilly explaning it the same exact way that the Fathers would in their own writings. I know that sometimes the best way to understand a historical document is in historical context, which would include studying the writings of it’s authors and their contemporaries but sometimes even they can go beyond the original intent.

    Dan Drost

    May 4, 2011
  11. Adam Kuehner #

    Thanks for addressing my comment on genos/gennaw, Pastor York. Your post succeeded in giving me a much better idea of what you are advocating.

    Indeed, your response appears to leave room for a good deal of common ground. Since you acknowledge that monogenes “explicitly points to the eternal generation of the Son in the Trinity”, would you accept a translation of “only generated Son”? If, as you have asserted, “the eternal generation of the Son in the Trinity” is what the “single Greek word… explicitly points to”, this would seem appropriate (even if not personally preferable) and quite within the bounds of a sound translational philosophy. Any thoughts?

    I know you are a busy man, so if you do not have time to respond to my question, I will understand.

    In the Beloved,
    Adam

    May 5, 2011
  12. T Man #

    Leaving out the word “begotten” has serious theological implications. Coming to a sound conclusion on the issue should not be the question of “is this the most accurate reading according to our modern critical theories?”, but, rather, “is this the most accurate reading according to historical understanding and basic logic?”

    Leaving out the word begotten leaves us with the phrase “his only Son” rather than “his only begotten Son” in John 3:16. Logical problems arise when you compare this to Luke 3:38 where Jesus’ genealogy is finished off with a bang. “…which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.” Now if Jesus is the only son of God, what does that make Adam? And what of the “sons of God” who were mentioned in Genesis 6 doing things which they ought not? But most importantly, if Jesus is the only son of God rather than the only *begotten* son of God, what does that make us, his followers, who were promised adoption as sons of God in John 1:12?

    If you believe that God’s word hasn’t been preserved, then the theories of modern textual criticism may fit your mindset. However, if you believe God’s word has been preserved, then the modern theories must fall to the wayside when faced with the importance of choosing the correct textual variants based upon the idea (found within Scripture) that Scripture is infallible, and so, cannot contradict itself, and thus, any blatant contradictions cannot possibly be the correct textual variant choice.

    May 6, 2013

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