The Meaning of Monogenēs in the Nicene Creed
Giles not only argues that the Greek-speaking church fathers understood μονογενής to mean “unique” and applied it to the Son “to speak of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ,” he also argues that “unique” is the meaning of the term as used in the Nicene Creed. In his Jesus Creed post responding to me he wrote that he is convinced the Nicene Creed makes “a clear and sharp distinction between the words μονογενής and γεννάω.” In his 2016 ETS paper, he stated: “The Nicene Creed says, ‘We [Christians] believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only (μονογενής) Son of God’ …. Again, we all know that the word μονογενής means ‘only’ in the sense of ‘unique’; ‘one of a kind.’”
In this post, I want to challenge Giles’s interpretation of μονογενής in the Nicene Creed. The word is used in both the 325 and the 381 version, but in the 381 version it was moved to a different location a few words earlier. Here are the two versions side by side, both in the original Greek and in English translation. I am only quoting the second article about the Son, and only the beginning portion of that article, up through the famous homoousion. The main verb “we believe” is to be understood from the first article.
The Creed of Nicaea (325)
The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (381)
Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ, γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς μονογενῆ, τοὐτέστιν ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός, θεὸν ἐκ θεοῦ, φῶς ἐκ φωτός, θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί
Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν, τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων, φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ, γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father
What were the changes in the 381 version relative to the 325 version? One change is that the phrase “God of God” is deleted since “very God of very God” was felt to be sufficient. This is a minor stylistic edit. But the next three changes are more significant:
- The phrase “that is, of the essence of the Father” was deleted.
- The prepositional phrase “before all ages” was added.
- As mentioned, “only begotten” was moved up from after “begotten of the Father” to go with the initial clause, “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God.”
325: τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ, γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς μονογενῆ
381: τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα
In 325, μονογενής is a précising term modifying the aorist passive participle γεννηθέντα, “begotten of the Father as only-begotten.” Oskar Skarsaune argued this in his helpful article, “A neglected detail in the creed of Nicaea (325),” Vigiliae christianae (1987): 34-54. He writes:
“If one takes monogenes—as it now stands in the creed [of 325]—not as an asyndetic apposition to the foregoing phrase, but as a precision to γεννηθέντα: ‘begotten as only-begotten’, one gets a sentence which seems perfectly adapted to the following precision: ‘that is, from the substance of the Father’ …. In its present position, the word [monogenes] serves as a first precision of the meaning of γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ πατρός, closely followed by the further precision: ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρός” (pp. 36, 44).
In 381, μονογενής is in a different position and functions as an adjectival description of the Son, with γεννηθέντα now functioning as the precision of μονογενής, “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages” (τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ, τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων).
Either way, γεννηθέντα plays a major role explicating the meaning of μονογενής in the Creed, whether μονογενής is a precision of γεννηθέντα, or vice versa. Giles argues the presence of γεννηθέντα actually suggests μονογενής does not mean “only begotten,” since the “begotten” segment of meaning (were it really present) would then be repeated in γεννηθέντα: “only-begotten … begotten of the Father” (381). This “introduces repetition that makes little sense,” Giles says. But linguists say redundancy is a common feature of human communication because it reinforces the intended meaning. Contrary to Giles, a redundant interpretation is in fact more likely than a non-redundant one. If anything, the Nicene Creed is a master class in rhythmic redundancy: “God of God … very God of very God” (325), and “begotten … begotten, not made” (γεννηθέντα … γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα) (325 and 381).
Corroborating this interpretation of μονογενής as “only begotten” is a very helpful contemporary document, the Epistle of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, to Alexander, Bishop of Constantinople, dated 324, the year before the Council of Nicaea. Alexander’s reasoning against the views of his heretical presbyter Arius is a powerful, early statement of the orthodox position. He uses the term μονογενής of the Son seven times in the letter, but I will only quote three of them. In these three instances it is instructive to see how the verb γεννάω is used in collocation with “only begotten,” just as in the Nicene Creed. For example, here is a quote where he says the Father “begat the only-begotten Son”:
“… the Father is always Father. And He is Father from the continual presence of the Son, on account of whom He is called Father. And the Son being ever present with him [which Alexander had earlier proved from John 1:18, ‘the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father’], the Father is ever perfect, wanting in no good thing, for He did not beget His only-begotten Son (γεννήσας τὸν μονογενῆ υἱόν) in time, or in any interval of time, nor out of that which had no previous existence” (apud Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History 1.3; NPNF2 3.37 modified).
In the next quote, Alexander speaks of “the only-begotten nature” of the Word, who “was begotten of the self-existent Father,” which he supports with a quotation from 1 John 5:1 which also uses the perfect participle “begotten”:
“In their [referring to Arius and his followers] ignorance and want of practice in theology they do not realize how vast must be the distance between the Father who is unbegotten (ἀγεννήτος), and the creatures, whether rational or irrational, which He created out of the non-existent; and that the only-begotten nature (φύσις μονογενής) of Him who is the Word of God, by whom the Father created the universe out of the non-existent, standing, as it were, in the middle between the two, was begotten of the self-existent Father (ἐξ αὐτοῦ τοῦ ὄντος πατρὸς γεγέννηται), as the Lord Himself testified when He said, ‘Every one that loveth the Father, loveth the Son that is begotten of Him (τὸν υἱὸν τὸν ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεγεννημένον)’ [1 John 5:1]” (NPNF2 3.39 modified).
In his quotation of 1 John 5:1, Alexander has inserted τὸν υἱόν in front of the phrase τὸν ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεγεννημένον to make clear that he takes it as a reference to the Son begotten of the Father. Modern commentators see “the one begotten of Him” as referring to the believer rather than the Son. But the point is that Alexander interprets the φύσις μονογενής (“the only-begotten nature”) of the Son as his being begotten of the Father, which sets the Son apart from things created out of the non-existent.
The third passage I want to quote where Alexander uses the word μονογενής is highly significant because it foreshadows the language of the Nicene Creed itself.
“We believe, as is taught by the apostolical Church, in an only unbegotten Father (μόνον ἀγέννητον πατέρα), who of His being hath no cause, immutable and invariable … and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten not out of that which is not, but of the Father who is (τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ μονογενῆ, γεννηθέντα οὐκ ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος ἀλλ’ ἐκ τοῦ ὄντος πατρός); yet not after the manner of material bodies, by severance or emanation … but in an inexpressible and inexplicable manner, according to the saying which we quoted above, ‘Who shall declare His generation?’ [Isa 53:8]” (NPNF2 3.39 modified).
Skarsaune notes that “These passages [in Alexander’s letter] clearly imply a specific exegesis of monogenes, viz. that the word means the only one who has been born, begotten” (p. 43). He recognizes that modern scholars think the -γενης stem means “kind” and he follows them in thinking the word originally meant “only one of its kind.” However, Skarsaune argues, Alexander is deliberately connecting μονογενής and γεννάω, a connection he thinks Alexander got from Origen.
The language is so similar to the Nicene Creed, particularly the use of γεννηθέντα in connection with μονογενής, it strongly suggests that Alexander had a hand in the original draft of the Creed of Nicaea in 325. We know he attended the Council, with the young Athanasius as his assistant. There can be little doubt that Alexander thinks μονογενής means “only begotten,” and he likes it because it is an important biblical term—as John said: “The only-begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). This provides scriptural justification in Alexander’s mind for the notion that the Son is “begotten” from the bosom or οὐσία of the Father, not made out of nothing as the creatures.
Skarsaune writes: “The Son being born monogenes means that he derives his existence ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρός! I thus conclude that for Alexander the term monogenes was thought to be a strong weapon against the Arians, because he read the Origenistic concept of eternal begetting into it” (p. 44).
Returning to the Creed of Nicaea, Skarsaune has argued that the similarities between Alexander’s letter and the actual text of the Creed suggest that Alexander and his circle were the ones who drafted the Creed. Since μονογενής is a Scriptural term and since it is used in John 1:18 to signify the Son’s origin as begotten from the Father, not being a creature made from the things that do not exist, it seems that this term μονογενής was specifically inserted into the Creed to provide the exegetical ground of the phrase “begotten, not made,” a key phrase in the Creed that functions as a trumpet blast against the Arians who said the Son was a creature made by God.
In the 381 version, decades later, the arrangement of words was changed somewhat, but the theology is the same. In fact, the 381 version underscores how the whole argument rests on the biblical word μονογενής. The word μονογενής is the anchor and the rest of the anti-Arian portion of the Creed is a cascade of expository phrases fleshing out what that means with ever-increasing clarity until the climactic homoousion is reached:
τὸν Υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ,
τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων,
φῶς ἐκ φωτός, Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ,
γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα,
ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί
The Son’s being begotten of the Father provides the ultimate theological ground for the homoousion. Just as human fathers beget sons that are the same in substance, that is, fully human, so the divine Father begets a Son who is the same in substance with him, that is, fully divine. The intervening phrases, “Light of Light, very God of very God,” make this logic clear. All of this rich theology is anchored in the affirmation that Jesus Christ is the Father’s “only begotten” Son. By denying that that is what μονογενής means in the Nicene Creed, Giles misses an important element of the Creed’s scriptural logic.