Theology in Bible Translation: μονογενὴς

If you have ever memorized any Bible verses at all, most likely you have memorized John 3:16. The King James Version (KJV) reads: “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.”

The phrase “only begotten” is a translation of the Greek word μονογενὴς, which is transliterated as monogenēs.

This word played a major role in the formation of historic Christian doctrine. The first Council of Nicaea describes Jesus as γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς, “begotten from the Father,” and γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα, “begotten, not made.” The Greek word γεννηθέντα is a passive verb form of the verb γεννάω “to become a parent of, to beget” (BDAG).

However, in the 20th century, the scholarly consensus for μονογενὴς moved from “only begotten” to “only one of its kind, unique.” μονογενὴς seems to be derived from μόνος, “only,” and γένος, “class, kind,” and not γεννάω, “to become a parent of, to beget.” Thus, BDAG, the standard New Testament Greek-English Lexicon, defines μονογενὴς as “pertaining to being the only one of its kind.” The Revised Standard Version, revising the American Standard Version, was the first major translation to make the revision, taking out the word “begotten” and leaving it as “only Son.” Many other Bible translations followed suit.

Recently, the debate has shifted again. In 2016, Charles Lee Irons wrote an article called “Let’s Go Back to ‘Only Begotten.'” This was convincing enough for Wayne Grudem to change his view expressed in his systematic theology book. But not all were convinced, as Dan Wallace replied to Irons in an article entitled, “Μονογενής = ‘only begotten’?

Related to the translation of this word is the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. Before he changed his mind on μονογενὴς and eternal generation of the Son, Grudem wrote in his Systematic Theology:
It would seem more helpful if the language of “eternal begetting of the Son” (also called the “eternal generation of the Son”) were not retained in any modern theological formulations.

However, it needs to be noted that one can support this doctrine without agreeing that μονογενὴς means “only begotten.”

For example, D. A. Carson writes in his commentary on John 5:26:
The impartation of life-in-himself to the Son must be an act belonging to eternity, of a piece with the eternal Father/Son relationship, which is itself of a piece with the relationship between the Word and God, a relationship that existed ‘in the beginning’ (1:1). That is why the Son himself can be proclaimed as ‘the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us’ (1 Jn. 1:2). Many systematicians have tied this teaching to what they call ‘the eternal generation of the Son’. This is unobjectionable, though ‘the eternal generation of the Son’ should probably not be connected with the term monogenēs (sometimes translated ‘only begotten’: cf. notes on 1:18).

So how do Bible translations today render μονογενὴς?

Both the NRSV and the ESV have followed RSV’s lead and have translated μονογενὴς in John 3:16 as “only Son.” However, Wayne Grudem is on the ESV oversight committee, so it’s possible that it could revisit this in the future.

The New American Standard Bible (NASB) 1995 has “only begotten Son.” However, the NASB 2020 has revised this to “only Son.” The Legacy Standard Bible, also a revision of the NASB 1995, has retained “only begotten Son.”

The two major KJV recent revisions, the New King James Version and the Modern English Version, have retained “only begotten Son.” The Evangelical Heritage Version, produced in 2019 by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, has “only-begotten Son.”

Most of the other major recent translations have either “only Son” (CEB, CEV, GW, NABRE, NEB, REB) or “one and only Son” (CSB, NET, NCV, NIV, NLT). N. T. Wright translated it “only, special son.” However, Wright translates the same word in John 1:18 as “The only-begotten God.”

Will Bible translations in the future move towards the traditional “only begotten”? Will we see standard Greek lexicons change their entries? Will there be an increasing rift between systematic theology and biblical theology? Only time will tell.

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