Why Does It Matter That Christ Was ‘Begotten, Not Made’?
Interview with John Piper, Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
Pastor John joins us today over Skype remotely, even though today’s question comes in from a pastor not far from you. “Pastor John, hello! I pastor a small congregation in Minneapolis. As we endured the inability to gather in person as a congregation in the midst of the virus, I emailed the church weekly, slowly working through the questions in the New City Catechism. It raised again a question that has been gnawing at me for a number of years. What does it mean that the Son was ‘begotten’ by the Father, and ‘not made’? Why this distinction? And why does it matter so much?”
Well, hello brother, fellow lover of Minneapolis — our sad city, our sinful city. The early church had to settle certain really crucial disputes over the nature of Christ. And one of those disputes came to a head in the fourth century, when a group called the Arians argued that Jesus Christ was created, made, and was not God. The summary and the end of that dispute was the Council of Nicaea. I’ll just read a little section of it.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, only begotten [that is, of the substance] of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made [clearly in the face of the Arians], of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made.
Now, that has been, and is today, the historic, biblical, orthodox position of the church throughout history. I believe that what that says is true. The phrase “begotten, not made” comes from that Council of Nicaea, the Nicene Creed.
Never Not the Son
So, we now should ask, Since the Bible and not creeds is our final authority that we really esteem — I esteem highly and love to ponder the wisdom of the creeds — is it biblical, and why does it matter?
I think a compelling case can be made biblically from the first fourteen verses of the Gospel of John that the phrase “begotten, not made” is biblical. John begins like this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He [this Word is a person] was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1–3)
And then he adds in John 1:14,
And the Word became flesh [we’re talking about Jesus Christ] and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only [the KJV reads begotten] Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
So, what I’m focusing on here is that sonship is introduced: what he called Word in verse 1 he calls Son in verse 14. Now, there’s a good deal of dispute over whether the Greek term monogenous means “only Son” or “only begotten Son.” And here’s the catch — and I want all ordinary, run-of-the-mill, faithful pastors and teachers to take heart: I don’t think the truth of the doctrine of “begotten, not made” depends on the translation of that verb. If it did, we would be in the middle of a dispute that continues.
What is essential is that in the first three verses of this Gospel, the Word of God is said to be God and to be with God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” — meaning, you have two persons, God and the Word of God (John 1:1). And the second person, the Word of God, is God and with God.
And then it says that through the Word everything was “made that was made,” and that precise wording rules out the possibility that the Word of God itself was made. Because everything that is in the category of made or coming into being was in fact brought into being, was made, by the Word, which means he’s not in that category; he was not made.
Then verse 14 uses sonship language (quite apart from whether you say “only Son” or “only begotten Son”) to describe the relationship between God and the Word. Not only is the Word God; the Word is also Son of God, which means that what is said about the Word applies to the Son, and what was said about the Word was that he was not made.
How, then, does the Son exist as Son — not as Father, but as Son? If we just stay with the language of Son and Father, the answer would be: not made, but begotten. That’s what sons are: sons are begotten; that’s what it means to be the son of a father. But this begetting of the Son clearly is very unique — I mean, it’s really different because this Son, this Word, had no beginning. In the beginning was God. The Word of God was there, and God was there — and the two of them were eternally there. God was the Word. The Word was God. They had no beginning. He was always there with God as God.
The text itself pushes us to the conclusion that the peculiar kind of begetting that we’re talking about is an eternal begetting. There never was a time when the Son did not exist, and yet he is Son and not Father. They’re not reversible ever in the New Testament. And the Christian church is right to argue that it is fitting to speak of this eternally existent Son who is God, and yet who is not the Father. He has been eternally begotten by the Father, not coming into being but eternally begotten.
So, the point stressed, both biblically and confessionally, is that the eternal begetting of the Son secures the Son’s very same, exact nature with the Father. That’s the point of Hebrews 1:3: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Or Philippians 2:6: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”
Help from Heroes
Now, C.S. Lewis was really criticized for trying to make things understandable for ordinary people, but most of us bless him for it, right? And here’s what he wrote:
When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers, and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set [he’s writing eighty years ago or so]. (Mere Christianity, 157)
That’s an essential part of what the doctrine intends to preserve: the Son is not a creature; he’s not made; he’s not different from the very essence and nature of God.
Or if you want to move from Lewis and jump into the deep end of the pool with Jonathan Edwards, let me read you what Edwards says in his attempt, not to explain to ordinary people — although I guess he was, and yet he pushes the limits of our mental capacities. But I think it’s valuable to hear what Edwards has to say about this. Here’s what he says:
As God with perfect clearness, fullness, and strength, understands Himself, views His own essence, . . . that idea which God hath of Himself is absolutely Himself. This representation of the Divine nature and essence is the Divine nature and essence again: so that by God’s thinking of the Deity, [the Deity] must certainly be generated. Hereby there is another person begotten, there is another infinite, eternal, Almighty and most holy and the same God, the very same Divine nature. And this Person is the second person in the Trinity, the only begotten and dearly beloved Son of God. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 21:116–17)
I think it is faithful and true to speak of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as eternally begotten but not made, and yet never having a beginning and being the very nature of God.
No Redemption Without Divinity
Now, does it matter? That’s the question at the end that he asks: Can you help me understand what it means, and why would we devote a summer to it? It does matter, yes. I will mention only one of many reasons that it matters.
Paul and the writer to the Hebrews show how the full deity of Christ — begotten, not made — is interwoven with his work of redemption. There wouldn’t be redemption without this truth:
In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19–20)
Those go together; you can’t have the one without the other: if the fullness of deity isn’t there, reconciliation by the blood of this being isn’t there.
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:3)
In other words, there is no salvation without the deity of Christ. If the Son of God was made instead of being eternally begotten in the very nature of God, we are still in our sins, and biblical salvation does not exist.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.