"Begotten, not made …"
Millions (I’m pretty sure it’s actually millions) of churches repeat that line every week. Pretty much all of us have, at one time or another, said we believe it.
We might as well know what it means.
Especially because it’s adds so much to the birth story—the Christmas story—that we already know.
I have to explain "begotten, not made" as quick as I can, then the fun part is below that!
Begotten, Not Made
"Begotten, not made" is a phrase from the Apostles Creed.
It was made a part of the "official" belief of the united churches in the 4th century (there was no Roman Catholic Church at the time) at the Council of Nicea. It was not an addition to the faith, but simply a clarification of terminology because of a heresy that had arisen.
Arius, an elder from Alexandria, and Eusebius, a bishop from Nicomedia, were teaching that the Son of God had been created from nothing in the beginning, the first and greatest of God’s creatures.
This was an innovation, a teaching that no one had held to in the history of the church. (Abundant evidence for that is given at Christian History for Everyman.)
The problem is, it wasn’t unscriptural terminology. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that everyone used at the time, says in Proverbs 8:22:
The Lord made me the beginning of his ways for his works; he established me before time in the beginning, before he made the earth.
To the early Christians that was an obvious reference to the Son of God being born of God in the beginning. No one denied this or argued about it. Both sides at Nicea agreed on it.
But from the beginning the church had never understood this passage to refer to the creation of the Son in the same way everything else was created. No, the Son was stated by Scripture to be the Logos (the Word, Reason, or Thought) of God. Before the beginning, he had been inside of God as the Logos, and then, at some point in eternity past, the Father generated, birthed, or begat his Son in some way that humans can’t comprehend.
Tertullian, an early 3rd century Christian, said that this birth happened at the time that the Father said, "Let there be light." Origen said that it had always happened, that there could never have been a time when the Father was not yet Father.
Either way, none denied either that the Son had always existed—either inside the Father as the Logos or eternally begotten of God—nor that he was begotten before the beginning.
Prior to Nicea, that begetting was occasionally referred to as "created" or "made," but everyone knew what was meant by that.
At Nicea, because of the heresy of Arius and Eusebius, they forbad referring to the Son as created. They did this by adding the phrase "begotten, not made" to the Creed issued at Nicea.
The First Birth of the Son
Sorry about the long first part. I had to explain that it’s not only orthodox, but part of the universally-accepted Apostles Creed, to say that the Son was born twice. Once before the beginning (or eternally), when he became the Son, and once when the Son came to earth and became man.
It’s important to understand the idea of the Logos of God being with God in the beginning, because once you do, it makes the birth story in John 1 possibly even more thrilling than the birth stories in Matthew and Luke that we read every Christmas.
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was fully divine. He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made by him. Without him, nothing was made that was made. … He was in the world, and the world was made by him, but the world didn’t know him. He came to his own, and his own did not receive him. But to those that did receive him, to them he gave the authority to become the sons of God. (Jn. 1:1-3; 10-12)
Wow! Did I manage to get the picture across at all?
I love this picture! The divine Logos came to earth. He had made everything, and then he put on flesh, and he lived in our midst. People didn’t recognize him, but those that did recognize and acknowledge him received power from him to become children of God.
I say again: Wow!
The First Birth Story in Proverbs
Maybe it will help some to look at that first birth story, the one that happened before the beginning, as it is described in Proverbs.
The divine Logos came to earth as a humble carpenter and is known to us as Jesus Christ, but there’s something about the divine Logos we don’t talk about much.
Well, of course we don’t talk about it much. We over-reacted to Arius in the 4th century, and so all of us later Christians aren’t allowed to believe the obvious: that Proverbs 8 is a description of our Lord Jesus in the beginning, when he was God’s companion, known only as the Son and the Logos, not yet as Jesus.
So let’s pretend that we’re early Christians, in the apostles’ churches, who don’t know yet that we’re not allowed to believe that Proverbs 8 is about Jesus, and let’s get all the joy out of it we can …
One of the statements about him is:
My delight was in the children of men. (Prov. 8:31)
From the very beginning, Jesus’ delight was in the children of men. So when John says that he came to his own, it was not just a creation of his, the way a factory might produce blocks for children to play with. People were his delight, and he had given personal attention to preparing the world for them:
The Lord made countries and uninhabited regions and the highest uninhabited parts of the world. When he prepared the sky, I was present with him; and when he prepared his throne on the winds. When he strengthened the clouds above; when he secured the fountains of the earth; when he strengthened the foundations of the world; I was by him, suiting myself to him. I was that in which he took delight, and daily I rejoiced in his presence continually. For he rejoiced when he completed the world and rejoiced among the children of men. (Prov. 8:26-30, LXX)
This was the only-begotten Son, God’s divine Son, before he was born on earth.
But his generation in the beginning is not the only mention of him in the Old Testament.
Any Christian who’s ever been in an argument with Jehovah’s Witnesses knows Genesis 19:24:
Then Jehovah rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from Jehovah in heaven.
That, to early Christians who still remembered that Jesus was the Logos generated from out of the Father before the beginning, was the divine Logos on earth, calling down fire and brimstone from his Father in heaven.
But that’s not the only place where there’s two Jehovahs. Jehovah’s Witnesses know that we know about Genesis 19:24, and they are prepared with an answer (though I don’t remember what it is). They don’t seem to know about Zechariah 2:8-11, which is just as effective against them in their New World Translation as it is in any of our translations:
“… For this is what Jehovah of armies has said, ‘Following after [the] glory he has sent me to the nations that were despoiling YOU people; for he that is touching YOU is touching my eyeball. For here I am waving my hand against them, and they will have to become spoil to their slaves.’ And YOU people will certainly know that Jehovah of armies himself has sent me.
“Cry out loudly and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for here I am coming, and I will reside in the midst of you,” is the utterance of Jehovah. (NWT)
So here we have Jehovah of armies—LORD of Hosts or Yahweh of Hosts in our translations—saying that he was sent by Jehovah of armies.
That renders JW’s speechless—in fact, a little breathless, too—but it’s somewhat mystifying even to mainline Christians.
But it’s extremely interesting, isn’t it?
Why There Are Two Jehovahs
It’s because the Logos was the God of Israel. The Father sent the Son, who had as much right to the name of Yahweh as his Father, to be the God of Israel. Early Christians were convinced that all the appearances of God to ancient Israel were appearances of the Logos.
That would be why John could say in John 1:18 that no man has seen God at any time, despite the fact that many people saw God in ancient Israel. But what they saw was not the Father but "the only-begotten God" as most modern translations render John 1:18 and as early Christians understood John 1:18.
That adds even further meaning to John 1:11: "He came to his own, and his own did not receive him."
The Jews were his own people. According to Zechariah 2, they were "the apple of his eye," or, as the New World Translation accurately renders it in this case, his eyeball. Going after the Jews was like poking the Logos in the eye. They were his delight, and he was their God.
Where Did I Get This?
I’m not making any of this up on my own. Justin Martyr has a very thorough explanation of all this starting around chapter 56 of his Dialogue with Trypho. It goes on for pages, and the understanding that only the Logos ever made appearances on the earth is in most of the pre-Nicene writings of the church (as well as in John 1:18).
I’d assume this was the understanding for centuries after Nicea, but I haven’t read the post-Nicene writings myself.
So Next Christmas …
So next Christmas, and even before next Christmas, I’m hoping that you can enjoy both birth stories of the Son, his begetting before the beginning and his incarnation upon the earth to dwell in the midst of the people for whom he’d been the only God for centuries.
I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. Proverbs 8 remains my favorite creation story because it’s the most personal and relational, and I love the very literal understanding that the apostolic churches had of Jesus as the Logos of God.