Since Dale Moody's 1953 article in the Journal of Biblical Literature, the consensus of modern New Testament scholars through the remainder of the 20th century was that the Greek word monogenes should not be translated and understood in the traditional way as 'only-begotten' (as the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and EHV translate it) but should be better translated and understood to mean 'one-and-only' (as the NIV, ESV, CSB and many others render it). Many top notch scholars, such as D.A. Carson, George Beasley-Murray, Gerald Borchert, Leon Morris, and others quickly brush aside the traditional translation, dismissing it casually as if the language of 'only-begotten' was as obviously outmoded as belief in the Earth as the center of the solar system.
Beginning in the early 1980's with J.V. Dahms article in New Testament Studies, as stream of scholars has gone against the conventional wisdom, arguing linguistically that 'only-begotten' is the more proper understanding. Very recently, Lee Irons and Denny Burk have written strong arguments in support of the traditional translation. They lean heavily on the Church Fathers and how they used the Greek terms in the New Testament to argue against heresies in the early church. The Fathers' understanding of Greek--especially where there is broad consensus--has always carried more weight for me than any contemporary scholarship given their knowledge of New Testament Greek, which far surpasses what anyone can get today. For those with a technical interest in the subject, I highly recommend reading, mulling over, and digesting articles on both sides of the debate to gain a better understanding of the issues and the two positions.
My concern in this post is pastoral, thinking about the negative impact bible translations choosing 'one-and-only' create on everyday bible readers. Specifically, translations that use 'one-and-only' son to describe Jesus' relationship to the Father create an apparent contradiction with other passages (especially Rom 8 and Gal 3-4). For example, look at these passages in the Christian Standard Bible, which is one of my favorite contemporary bible translations:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John testified concerning him and exclaimed, “This was the one of whom I said, ‘The one coming after me ranks ahead of me, because he existed before me.’ ”) Indeed, we have all received grace upon grace from his fullness, for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him. (John 1.14-18, CSB)
So then, brothers and sisters, we are not obligated to the flesh to live according to the flesh, because if you live according to the flesh, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all those led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. (Rom 8.12-14, CSB)
Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3.23-26, CSB)
Now I say that as long as the heir is a child, he differs in no way from a slave, though he is the owner of everything. Instead, he is under guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were in slavery under the elements of the world. When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then God has made you an heir. (Gal 4.1-7 CSB)
Do you see the problem? In John, Jesus is described as the 'only' and 'one and only' son. But in the other three passages, all believers are called God's 'sons'. Why the contradiction? Which is correct?
Obviously, the apparent contradiction can be resolved by diving into a discussion about the meaning of the word monogenes and Jesus' special relationship to the Father as the one "begotten of the Father before all worlds," to use the words of the Nicene Creed. It is much the same discussion that is used when explaining to readers what 'only-begotten' means in those versions using the traditional language.
But this situation doesn't need to exist at all! Even if readers don't understand what 'only-begotten' means, they can plainly see that Jesus' relationship as Son to the Father is somehow different from the believer's relationship as son (or daughter) to the Father. Jesus is begotten (John), while we are adopted (Galatians). That the relationship is different is clear, even if one fails to fully understand the implications of what 'begotten' means. Any confusion merely requires an explanation of the traditional language. The distinction is not apparent in translations describing Jesus as the one-and-only Son and all other Christians as adopted sons. Such language is simply confusing. Translations using 'one-and-only,' require a discussion coming by way of explaining away (at first blush) an apparent contradiction in the bible.
My plea? There are really two. For pastors and readers, please take up and read versions that use 'only-begotten' in order to better understand the explain these relationships. Connect these passages with the creeds and understand how these essential tenets of our faith were bounded and defended. For bible translators and committees, please consider making use of your update cycles to return to the traditional language held dear by the Church for nearly two thousand years.
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