“I believe 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…”
So says the Nicene Creed, the only Christian creed adopted by all major Christian traditions as authoritative.
Although all Christians confess this statement to be true, not all Christians know exactly what it means. “Begotten, not made”? How are we to understand statements such as these? I was recently asked this question so let’s do some investigative work.
First, let’s go to the Scriptures. We find the term “begotten” used of the Son, the LORD who is the King and whose throne is in Zion, in Psalm 2:7:
Ps 2:7 I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you."
Psalm 2:7 is then quoted in Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5 and Hebrews 5:5, each indicating that it is speaking of Jesus Christ.
(Most of us memorized John 3:16 as saying that “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believers in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Most modern translations, however, have dropped “begotten” from the text. Translators say that the Greek term translated to English simply means “only.” Some scholars have begun pushing back saying that the translators needed to better consider the context when determining how to best translate it into English).
If we turn to an English dictionary (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/begotten) we find that “begotten” is the past tense verb of “beget” which is defined as :
1. (typically of a man, sometimes of a man and a woman) bring (a child) into existence by the process of reproduction:
"they hoped that the King might beget an heir by his new queen"
father · sire · engender · generate · spawn · create · give life to · bring into being · bring into the world · have · procreate · reproduce · breed
2. give rise to; bring about:
"success begets further success"
cause · give rise to · lead to · result in · bring about · create · produce ·
While this use of the term is fine when talking about humans, it is inadequate when discussing the Godhead as it would imply that the Son of God is a created being, but we know that is not the case. Jesus, the Son of God, is a one of the persons of the Triune Godhead. He is co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. “Very God of very God, begotten, not made,” as the Nicene Creed tells us.
So how does the term “begotten” apply to Jesus?
The Church Father, Cyril of Jerusalem, offers us some help.* Cyril was made bishop of the church in Jerusalem in 350 AD. Explaining what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son, Cyril taught:
“On hearing of a ‘Son,’ think not of an adopted son but a Son by nature, an Only-begotten Son, having no brother. For this is the reason why He is called ‘Only-begotten,’ because in the dignity of the Godhead, and His generation from the Father, He has no brother.”
In this brief statement, we can note a couple of things. First, the term “begotten” is used to describe the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son. As we note in our English definition, fathers “beget” sons. That is what makes a father a father and a son a son: their relationship to one another which is defined as “begetting” and being “begotten.” The father does the begetting, the son is begotten.
But, again, to use this type of terminology to describe the relationship between two eternal persons, seems to stretch the boundaries of its usefulness.
Cyril explains, “He is called “only-begotten, because in…His generation from the Father, He has no brother.”
Here, he helps us by showing how the term “begotten” is to be understood in the context of the Godhead. It means to be “generated.” So, the idea the term “begotten” is intended to convey is that the Son was not “created,” but is “generated” from the Father. Is this a distinction without a difference? Not once we understand that His “generation” is from eternity. Cyril continues:
“Again, I say, on hearing of a Son, understand it not merely in an improper sense, but as a Son in truth, a Son by nature, without beginning; not as having come out of bondage into a higher state of adoption, but a Son eternally begotten by an inscrutable and incomprehensible generation… Son of the Father, in all things like to Him who begat Him, eternal of a Father eternal, Life of Life begotten, and Light of Light, and Truth of Truth, and Wisdom of the Wise, and King of King, and God of God, and Power of Power.”
Jesus is truly the Son of God by nature, but He is also “in all things like to Him who begat Him….God of God.” Since Jesus is “without beginning,” we can say that He is “eternally begotten by an inscrutable and incomprehensible generation.”
Indeed, according to Cyril,
“God was not previously without a Son, and afterwards in time became a Father; but hath the Son eternally, having begotten Him not as men beget men, but as Himself only knoweth, who begat Him before all ages VERY GOD.”
So, when we speak of Jesus as being “begotten,” we are saying that He comes from the Father (that is what makes Him the Son) but He does so eternally (we refer to this as "eternal generation") because He is God.
In his book, Simply Trinity, Matthew Barrett explains why it was so important to the drafters of the Nicene Creed to utilize this language:
“The doctrine not only distinguished the person of the Son from the person of the Father, but ensured the two were coeternal and coequal in divinity, power, will, glory and authority. To affirm eternal generation was equivalent to confessing oneself to be a Christian, and a Bible-believing Christian at that. To deny eternal generation was to align yourself with heresy.” (Simply Trinity, pg. 26)
When we say that they are “coeternal” and “coequal” we are emphasizing the fact that the Son and the Father are equal in every way except for the fact that the Son is begotten of the Father.
Think of John 1:1-3. Describing Jesus, John says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him was not any thing made that was made.”
In these three verses, John both distinguishes Jesus (the Word) from the Father (God) and declares them to be One. Jesus is distinct from the Father because He is generated from Him. He is One with the Father because that generation is eternal (“in the beginning” referring to before any thing was made which indicates that the Word is uncreated). Note here that the generation of the Word is not referring to Jesus coming in the flesh. John speaks of that in verse 14 (“and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”), but that is Jesus’ incarnation, not His eternal generation. The Father’s begetting of the Son is an eternal act not one that has taken place in time.
So, the question “When was Jesus begotten of the Father?” is nonsensical. We must simply say He “is” begotten of the Father and always has been. Related to this is the fact that the Father does not exist before the Son. Just as we would not say that there was a time that the Son began to exist, we also would not say that there was a time that the Son was begotten. He just "is" begotten. So we must be careful that when we speak of Jesus being begotten or generated- we are not saying that He came “after” the Father but “from” the Father.
Barrett helpfully addresses a few dangers that people have fallen into by noting some things that Jesus’ eternal generation (His begin begotten) does NOT mean.
First, there is no division of nature or multiplication of essence. A multiplication of essence, or the divine nature, would involve there being three gods. There is but one essence and nature in three persons. The Son did not receive a part of the essence of God. The Son wholly possesses the one, undivided divine essence. This is only possible because of the infinite nature of God.
Second, generation does not involve one Divine Person being before or after the other, nor does it involve one Divine Person being inferior from the other. The generation of the Son is eternal. If it was not, it would necessitate the Son being created by the Father and, therefore, the Son being inferior to the Father. Since it is eternal, we can say that they are "coeternal" and, thus, "coequal."
Third, generation does not involve any change in the Trinity. Athanasius declared that the Son, “being from the Father, and proper to His essence, is unchangeable and unalterable as the Father Himself.”
Fourth, generation occurs within God, and it is not God generating a creature external to Himself.
This doctrine seems more difficult than it is because we naturally think in human terms. For a father to beget a son does involve change, separate identities, priorities and statuses. With the Trinitarian God, it is not so. He is eternal and He is Spirit and so we need to be sure that we keep our categories straight as we navigate through this. And how important is it that we navigate this well? The early church thought it was worth dying over. For, if we do not affirm the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, we undermine the Scriptural claims to Jesus’ divinity. If Jesus was not divine, we can have no assurance that He had the power, ability, nature or authority to accomplish those acts which our salvation is dependent upon. Without such assurance, we are most to be pitied.
*Quotes from Cyril come from:
Cyril of Jerusalem, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. R. W. Church and Edwin Hamilton Gifford, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 64–65, 66