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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"begotten" and Bible translation

I was not raised in a creedal church, but my wife and I attend one now. I am familiar with the Apostles Creed and can recite it fairly well with the rest of the congregation. Last Sunday, however, the liturgy included the Nicene Creed, whose wording I was not familiar (although, I was aware of that creed from study of church history). I wondered about the word "begotten" when we got to the part of the Nicene Creed that says:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father
I was taught in theology classes that Jesus Christ the Son was "begotten of God the Father." I may have even been taught that he is eternally begotten. Now that I am older and have been translating the Bible for many years, I pay more attention to some words. One of them is the word "begotten." It's an older English word, not in current usage, except among theologians and some church people. My dictionary gives its primary meaning as "to father, sire." I recall the long genealogies in the Bible where Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, etc.

I'm not qualified enough to question those who hammered out the Nicene Creed, but I do want to question whether or not it is accurate to translate with the word "begotten" or "begat" anywhere in the Bible where it refers to the relationship between God and Jesus. (Don't worry, orthodox readers of this blog; I'm not questioning some important theology; I'm questioning how to word in current English parts of the Bible that might refer to the concept of God the Father "begetting" the Son.)

I memorized John 3:16 from the KJV as a child:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
But many biblical scholars in more recent years now believe that "begotten" is not the best translation for John 3:16. Greek ton huion ton monogene of that verse refers to the "unique son" or "the one and only (unique) son". The word "begotten" seems to have gotten (not begotten!) into some translations of this verse due to confusion between two similar Greek verbs ginomai meaning 'to coming into being, to happen' and gennaw meaning 'to become the parent of someone, to bear.' There are words in the Greek New Testament which have inflected spellings of these two infinitives which are nearly identical and it is easy to confuse the two. My understanding is that a key to differentiating them is that words having to do with "begetting" (that is, fathering or parenting) will have the letter n twice while words derived from ginomai will have only one n. Michael Marlow suggests that use of "unique" rather than "begotten" as a translation of monogenes is theologically motivated. I would suggest, rather, that it is linguistically motivated, that is, based on which of the two Greek verbs a verb in any particular biblical context is derived. I personally believe that the Son is "begotten" (in some important theological sense) by the Father. But when I am translating I want to be sure that any particular passage actually says that in Greek before I use the English word "begotten", "begat", or some current equivalent.

I have quickly skimmed my memory bank and the Bible and I suggest that there may not be as clear statements in the Bible that God "begat" Jesus as the Nicene Creed states. Yes, Psalm 2:7 refers to a father "begetting" his son, and that psalm is applied messianically to Jesus in Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5. But I'm not sure that every aspect of physical "begetting" of a son by a father is intended to be taught by the author of Hebrews who quoted from Psalm 2. I suspect that the focus of the Hebrews quotations are on the relationship between God the Father and the Son, not on the precise details of "begetting."

I don't know what it means in the Nicene Creed that Jesus Christ is "eternally begotten of the Father". It would help me if I heard that statement translated to contemporary English. Perhaps it simply means that there is an eternal Father-Son relationship. Surely it does not mean that that the Father is eternally begetting (that is causing to be born) the son.

I realize that this post is of a different nature than many others we have had on this blog. But I hope that the main point, that we should use currently understood English words to translate biblical concepts, comes through clearly. I think that theology can sometimes inform the Bible translation process. But I believe strongly that theology should not determine how we translate. Instead, we need to translate what the biblical texts actually say (and what they mean by what they say), not what we interpret them to say based on various systematic theologies.

20 Comments:

At Tue Jul 04, 10:28:00 AM, Blogger rebecca said...

"Eternally begotten" was used in the Nicene creed in response to Arianism, which said Christ was created. They never defined exactly what "begotten" meant. It was a word they took purposefully from scripture to exclude Arianism as orthodox.

They did understand it to have something to do with the eternal relationship of the Father and Son, and that the Father in some way had primacy over the Son. The word "eternally" (or "before all ages") is to make sure no one took it to have something to do with being born or being derived from someone else.

Of course, now that we know that monogenes comes from a different root, perhaps we could update the creed to reflect that. But then creeds are historical documents, and changing it would be kind of like changing the Declaration of Independence.

 
At Tue Jul 04, 10:53:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

They did understand it to have something to do with the eternal relationship of the Father and Son, and that the Father in some way had primacy over the Son

Rebecca,

I always understood this to apply to the sameness of the nature of father and son, that Christ was divine and not a 'created being'. That is Christ is 'of God' in the way that a son is of his father, partaking in the divine nature fully. This would match up with the argument against Arianism.

It would also match the Hebrew use of the phrase 'son of' to denote, 'of the same people or tribe, or nature or characteristic.'

I know you have previously asserted that this statement teaches the primacy of the father, but I forget your references at that time.

In Aristotle, the son is only subordinate to his father in his immaturity, in his incomplete or ατελος state.

ο μεν γαρ δουλος ολως ουκ εχει το βουλευτικον, το δε θηλυ εχει μεν αλλ' ακυρον, ο δε παις εχει μεν, αλλ' ατελες.

I am no theologian so you must clarify this for me. I only remember being taught over and over that this verse in Hebrews shows that Christ was fully human and fully divine, that Christ's sonship is different from ours, it is comlete sameness of nature.

 
At Tue Jul 04, 11:06:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Rebecca, thanks for your comment. If the "eternally begotten" phrase of the creed does simply mean that the Son was not a created being, I can understand that wording.

Since many churches today recite the Lord's Prayer and one or more creeds, I would be in favor of revising their so that they communicate more accurately and clearly their original intended meaning. I suspect there are many who recite the Lord's Prayer who do not know what "hallowed be thy name" means. And I suspect there are many, like myself, who do not know what "eternally begotten" means in the Nicene Creed. I prefer to recite and worship with wordings that I understand.

 
At Tue Jul 04, 11:19:00 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Tue Jul 04, 11:35:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I wrote:

Surely it does not mean that that the Father is eternally begetting (that is causing to be born) the son.

Anon. replied:

To the contrary, this is exactly the meaning suggested by some commentators, based on an interpretation of John 6:57. For example, J. I. Packer writes (in I Want to Be a Christian):

Yes, Anon., I am aware of statements such as these as well as the even more baffling wording that the Son "eternally proceeds from the Father."

I am not questioning the theology here, as I tried to make clear in my post. I am questioning how we word what we are trying to communicate. None of the traditional theological wordings about the Son's "begottenness" make linguistic sense to me. My point is that I would like to hear the concepts expressed in language that makes sense to current speakers of English. There is a relationship to Bible translation in that it is relevant to how we translate monogenes and, of course, all the other words of the biblical texts. It does not make sense to me to call a translation "accurate" if it does not accurately communicate its original meaning to users of that translation. I don't think a person should have to learn new words or new meanings to understand a translation. Rather, my understanding is that a translation is a tool to allow a speaker of one language (which includes the lexicon and syntax of speakers of that language) to understand what was communicated by something in another language.

I enjoy learning new words and I'm not against learning new words, per se, in a translation. But I am, in principle, against using words which are not really extant in the current stage of a language in a translation into that language. I don't believe that the main purpose of any translation is to teach people new words. Rather, the main purpose is to allow people to understand what was said in another language, using the words and syntax which they already know.

In what sense would the Father be eternally causing the Son to be born? How was the Son being born yesterday, and how is he being born today? These words just don't compute for me in my dialect of English.

 
At Tue Jul 04, 03:05:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Tue Jul 04, 04:15:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

In the translation I am working on (not into English), we struggled to find a suitable rendering for "begat" in genealogies. We couldn't say "Abraham caused Isaac to be born", and while we could have said "Abraham caused Sarah to give birth to Isaac", but this works only when we know the mother's name. Also some possible renderings might have had undesirable sexual overtones. We ended up with for example "Abraham became the father of Isaac" (in a literal back translation).

In the case of normal human births, there is no real difference between "caused to be born" and "became the father of". But with the divine persons there is a difference. It seems to me that it would be quite wrong to translate or interpret the Nicene Creed as teaching that Jesus was "caused by the Father to be born", even if qualified by "eternally", for this part of the Creed is not about Jesus' birth from Mary. The point of "eternally" is surely more that this was not a process but an eternal state, and so we could render it, quite adequately in my opinion, as saying of Jesus that "the Father is eternally his father".

 
At Tue Jul 04, 04:57:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter suggested:

The point of "eternally" is surely more that this was not a process but an eternal state, and so we could render it, quite adequately in my opinion, as saying of Jesus that "the Father is eternally his father".

And I would understand (linguistically) that wording with no problem, Peter. Nice solution. Could we tweak it to "God is eternally his father"?

 
At Tue Jul 04, 05:14:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

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At Tue Jul 04, 06:13:00 PM, Blogger rebecca said...

I always understood this to apply to the sameness of the nature of father and son, that Christ was divine and not a 'created being'. That is Christ is 'of God' in the way that a son is of his father, partaking in the divine nature fully. This would match up with the argument against Arianism.

The term is meant, by the framers of the creed, to show both sameness and distinction. The son is begotten, the spirit proceeds. If it was meant only to show that the nature of the father and the son is the same, then the same wording would be used of the spirit as well, since the spirit is also of the same nature. They are trying to make distinction between the three persons of the Godhead, while also keeping them of the same nature, status, etc, in contrast to Arianism; and also Origen's teaching that Christ is eternally derived from the Father, and is in that sense inferior to him.

I only remember being taught over and over that this verse in Hebrews shows that Christ was fully human and fully divine, that Christ's sonship is different from ours, it is comlete sameness of nature.

I'm not sure what verse in Hebrews you're referring to. I was speaking only for the Nicene creed, really, and what the framers of the creed meant by that word.

 
At Tue Jul 04, 06:25:00 PM, Blogger rebecca said...

Since many churches today recite the Lord's Prayer and one or more creeds, I would be in favor of revising their so that they communicate more accurately and clearly their original intended meaning.

Yep. I don't disagree. As we recite them, they're simply translations of the original historic documents, anyway, and various groups use slightly different translations, anyway.

The problem with this particular word is that I suspect the writers of the Nicean creed gave the word their own definition that mostly involved what it didn't mean, rather than what it did mean, and it might not be that easy to get a relatively short revision. :)

 
At Tue Jul 04, 06:33:00 PM, Blogger rebecca said...

....although "God is eternally his father" is not bad. Or "eternally the Son of the Father".

 
At Tue Jul 04, 08:24:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

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At Tue Jul 04, 08:36:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Rebecca,

I come from a very noncreedal background so I would only think of this in terms of Hebrews 1:5, 5:5 and Acts 13:33 which are the NT quotes of Psalms 2:7.

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?

With reference to the Nicene Creed, I would only think of it as a response to Arius and his followers. This is a discussion of the orignal problem.

The teaching of Paul of Samosata was reinstituted, along with variations, in the first decades of the fourth century, first by Lucian of Antioch and then by his follower Arius, circa 320. Arius was a presbyter of the church at Alexandria and presided over an independent parish within the city. Alexander had become bishop of Alexandria in 312, and during the course of a sermon, Alexander proceeded to explain the so-called "mystery" of the Trinity. He affirmed that the Son was equal to the Father and of the same substance as the Father who begot him. Arius took offense at this teaching and proceeded to controvert Alexander. He began to promulgate the view, taught by Paul the Apostle, that the Son was the firstborn of the Father, was created by the Father and thus was a creature, although the first and highest creature. Arius logically deduced that if the Son was begotten by the Father, there must have been a time when the Son did not exist, that is, before his creation by the Father.

So my reaction would be that the creed was intended to reinstate the equality of Christ with the father.

I realize that I must seem very obtuse in insisting that I had never heard of the subordination of the son to the father, before this year. However, I have only ever read the Bible, English and Greek and a few Brethren worthies, not much else, (and church history. Well, I do have Calvins' Instructions Breves.)

This is an example of Darby's writing on Hebrews 1:5. You can see clearly that he teaches the functional equality/sameness of status of the son with the father. Here is an excerpt form his writing on the topic. The whole chapter focuses on Christ's power and glory, never his subordination.

The words here quoted are the answer to this question. Humbled as He might be, He was the Creator Himself. He was ever the same; His years could never fail. It was He who had founded the heavens: He would fold them up as a garment, but He Himself would never change.

Such then is the testimony rendered to the Messiah by the scriptures of the Jews themselves-the glory of His position above angels who administered the dispensation of the law; His eternal throne of righteousness; His unchangeable divinity as Creator of all things.

Thus the Messiah is introduced into the world as holding this place with regard to God Himself. He is the Firstborn-the immediate expression of the rights and the glory of God. He has universal preeminence.

He is God, He has come down from heaven, He has gone up thither again.



Please excuse my off topic comments here, since I haven't much to offer on how the creeds should be translated.

 
At Wed Jul 05, 02:27:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

For reference, here is the Greek text of the relevant clause of the Nicene Creed, taken from Wikipedia:

Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων

So the word "begotten" is in fact the regular word "born", the passive of γεννάω, and "eternally" is literally "before all ages". The wording is not "the Father begat the Son"; the Father is semantically not the agent but the source, "out of the Father". (Contrast Acts 13:33 etc where the Father is the subject of γεννάω in the active; but in John 1:13, 3:5,6,8, 1 John 2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1,4,18 we do have the passive of γεννάω with "out of God", "out of the Spirit", but of ordinary belivers, not Christ.). I am sure that this distinction is theologically significant. Dare I suggest that here God is taking the place of the mother's womb? This appears in the same construction with the passive of γεννάω in Matthew 19:12 cf. John 3:4.

Anonymous wrote:

it is not clear how it distinguished from any father-child relationship (my father is eternally my father).

Your father is not eternally your father in the sense I meant, because he became your father at the point in time when you were born. Perhaps "eternally" is not the best word to express my intention, but I am not sure how to put it better, perhaps "from the very beginning".

Moreover, it does not lead to an interpretation that the notion of eternally begetting refers to the resurrection and ascension.

As of course it should not. "Eternally begotten" in the Nicene Creed (whatever "begotten" might mean in Acts 13:33 and Hebrews 1:5, 5:5) is nothing to do with the resurrection and ascension, or the incarnation, but refers to eternal relationships within the Trinity. See further below.

Suzanne's quote reminds us that:

Arius logically deduced that if the Son was begotten by the Father, there must have been a time when the Son did not exist, that is, before his creation by the Father.

But Arius' logic is faulty if "begotten by the Father" is understood as a state, something eternal and unchanging, rather than an event. The Nicene Creed is obviously intended to make this point that "begotten" is a state. In English that would correspond to being, rather than becoming, father and son. This is actually not so much theology as linguistics!

Now I accept that Acts 13:33, the only place where it is "taught by Paul the Apostle, that the Son was the firstborn of the Father" ("firstborn" (πρωτότοκος) is not used here, and nowhere with "of the Father" or similar, see below re Colossians 1:15,18), is about becoming rather than being, but then this verse (also Hebrews 1:5, 5:5 which Arius might have attributed to Paul) is not about eternal relationships but about the incarnation (in which the Father took the initiative usually taken by an earthly father, the theological significance of the virgin birth), or the resurrection and ascension.

The New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was the Firstborn (πρωτότοκος) in at least three ways. He was of course Mary's first child (Luke 2:7). But Colossians 1:15,18 tells us of two more ways in which he was Firstborn (πρωτότοκος): 1:15 he was born before all creation, before the beginning of time, further explained in v.17 as "he is (exists) before all things"; and 1:18 he was the first to be raised from the dead. If he was born in all three of these ways, so also was he begotten, and in all three cases the one who begat, who took the initiative, is the heavenly Father. But only in 1:18 he is the Firstborn literally "out of the dead", and at the Incarnation he was born out of Mary's womb, but before all creation he can only have been born out of God, as there was nothing else to have been born out of. So the Nicene Creed is fully justified in teaching that the Son was eternally begotten out of the Father, as a state, even though he was also begotten again in time, as an event, at least twice, at the incarnation and at the resurrection.

 
At Wed Jul 05, 09:56:00 AM, Blogger rebecca said...

So my reaction would be that the creed was intended to reinstate the equality of Christ with the father. Exactly. But they were also trying to carefully deliniate distinction between the persons of the Godhead at the same time. They were trying to deliniate the relationships between the three. That deliniation is where one of the disagreements in the wording of the creed came--the Eastern Orthodox had a problem with the Filioque (sp?) clause--that the Spirit proceeds from the Son.

So they are laying out a formula of both equality and distinction.

he teaches the functional equality/sameness of status of the son

Functional equality (if by that you mean "sameness of function) and sameness of status are not the same things. Everyone agrees that Christ has equal status with the Father, but those who hold to the econonomic trinity believe that he doesn't have the same function as the Father in relation to creation. The Father planned, and the Son accomplished those plans. I think you see this, BTW, in Hebrews 1: The Father created through the Son, the Father appoints the Son as heir to all things, etc. Equal status, different roles, with the Son accomplishing what the Father plans or appoints.

 
At Wed Jul 05, 10:10:00 AM, Blogger rebecca said...

Coincidently, I was reading John Frame's new systematic theology last night in order to review it eventually, and he says that he doesn't think the term eternal generation, which I think is pretty much the equivalent of eternally begotten, doesn't "take us any farther than the name Son. Jesus is the eternal Son."

From Peter's comment:

So the Nicene Creed is fully justified in teaching that the Son was eternally begotten out of the Father, as a state, even though he was also begotten again in time, as an event, at least twice, at the incarnation and at the resurrection.

John Frame suggests that because the Son is eternally begotten is the reason, whe it was appropriate for the Son--and not the Father--be incarnated, and why the Son's role in the world is obedient servant.

 
At Thu Jul 06, 04:00:00 AM, Blogger Glennsp said...

However you word it or try to explain it or delineate it in translation you will always have to 'explain' it to some degree because what is being communicated is ultimately beyond our comprehension.
Whatever alternatives you come up with will, by necessity, always fall short or be unclear to someone (read many)
What is 'clearer' to you will be not as clear to someone else.
No matter what language you use it will always struggle to encompass the reality of the relationship bwtween God the Father and Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit.
We are finite and God is infinite and this dichotomy will always mean we struggle in this area.

 
At Fri Jul 07, 07:06:00 PM, Blogger exegete77 said...

Peter suggested an alternative: "God is eternally his father".

There seems to be a problem with this alternative relative to the sense of the Nicene Creed: it focuses on the nature of the Father, not the Son, which is the focus of the Creed at this specific point. Thus, while it might make theological sense and be Biblically sustainable (which I think it is), it does not convey the sense of the Creed at this particular point, which concerns the nature of the Son.

 
At Sat Jul 08, 03:42:00 PM, Blogger DOGpreacher said...

Enjoyed this post & comments very much.

 

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