Read John 3:16 slowly from the increasingly popular English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible below. See if you can identify the “missing” word from the most popular verse in the Bible.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Did you catch it? If not, see below (I’m waiting to tell you until after you click to the next screen so as not to give it away). What could possibly be the justification for leaving it out?
The missing word is “begotten.” From the four centuries now of the King James Version’s (KJV) popularity, we have come to expect it to read:
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.
So why did the ESV leave out the begotten? I recall when I was in seminary being perfectly comfortable with my professor’s clear explanation of the Trinity (mystery though it was and is), yet just being confused at what it meant for Jesus to be “only begotten.” I have also found it hard to teach and, when encountering Arian’s modern day children called the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to explain or defend it in a clear way. Believing also, as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, that translations into the “vulgar languages” are subject to review and correction by Scripture itself, noticing this change in how the ESV approached this word confirmed what I had been reading and studying elsewhere.
It comes from understanding the language behind the word. The Greek word translated by the KJV as “only begotten” and by the ESV as “only” is the word monogenes. It has been rendered “only begotten” because translators thought it came from the compound Greek words mono+gennaw, which would literally be “only+begotten.” Historically, this understanding created great debates in the church. To say that Jesus was begotten gave rise to the teachings of the Arians, heretics who taught that Jesus was not fully divine but a created being. To counter this, the fourth century Council of Nicea sought to clarify the church’s understanding by declaring their belief:
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;
Saying Jesus is “begotten, not made” is helpful. However, saying He was “begotten of his Father before all worlds” is still language that perhaps confuses more than it clarifies. Yet for centuries this word begotten has become embedded in the orthodox explanation of the person of Christ. To even suggest John 3:16 should read otherwise seems to cross sacred boundary lines. What follows is not a denial of the eternal existence of Jesus Christ nor His eternal Sonship to and with the Father, which I affirm and believe with all my heart. Rather, it is a short exercise in Scripture and language study.
For it now seems clear* that rather than monogenes being formed by the compound mono+gennaw, it instead comes from mono+genos. This would be translated “one of a kind,” “unique” or perhaps “only” as the ESV renders it. Good precedence exists for this rendering elsewhere in Scripture. Hebrews 11:17 in the KJV says of Abraham that he “offered up his only begotten (monogenes) son,” speaking of Isaac. Obviously, Isaac is not the only son born to Abraham, as Abraham had Ishmael before him and others by Keturah after him. Here the sense is “unique,” in that Isaac was born as a child of promise when his mother’s womb was as good as dead (Romans 4:19). Isaac was a “one of a kind” son born to Abraham. In this verse the ESV renders Isaac as Abraham’s “only son,” which also has its problems of being awkward for similar reasons just offered. Yet when we relate this verse back to John 3:16, perhaps translating it as only leaves less room for misunderstanding than only begotten.
Rather than monogenes speaking of Christ’s origin, derivation, or substance, it is a word that better describes His position and uniqueness. It has been pointed out by others* that this word should be treated similarly to prototokos (“firstborn”) in Colossians 1:15. As a friend showed to me recently, Jesus is the firstborn in the Biblical sense of the position of ruling, not in the American sense of the order of birth. So it is that He is the only Son of God in that He is uniquely God’s Son in ways that no one else is.
Being a creedal man, I hesitate to suggest change to a word that impacts the most popular verse in the Bible. The dropping of “begotten” does leave it feeling like something is missing. Yet Reymond* makes me feel better when he summarizes:
The titles of Father and Son denote sameness of nature…monogenes does not mean ‘only begotten,’ alluding to some form of generation, but rather “one and only” (see Luke 7:12…) or “only one of a kind” or “unique.”…Calvin taught that the Son with reference to himself is God in himself, but in relation to his Father, he derives his Sonship from the relationship in which He stands to the Father.
Still, I can hear the “King James Only” crowd crowing, “You liberal! Even John 3:16 is changed!?!” Yet, if you are one of them, beware. If you call me a liberal, I’ll call you a “King James Only Begotten.” That should confuse you long enough for me to get away.
*See Robert Reymond’s A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Thomas Nelson), pp. 324-327 and especially on top of page 326 where he states that twentieth century scholars now favor this rendition; also see the entry for monogenes in Arndt & Gingrich’s A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 527.