The Apostles’ Creed dates from the end of the second century. It confesses Jesus Christ to be God’s ‘only Son’. Scripture, however, affirms that God has many sons (Hebrews 1:10). So in what sense is Christ God’s only Son?
The rise of heresies resulted in the Nicene Creed of AD 325, universally accepted by Christian churches (although the Greek Church maintains the Holy Spirit proceeds only from the Father, not from the Father and the Son).
The Nicene Creed affirms Jesus Christ to be ‘the only begotten Son of God’. This significant phrase shows that the church universal eventually considered ‘His only Son’ to be an incomplete definition of the divine dignity of Christ, being capable of too many differentinterpretations.
John presents the mystery of the hitherto hidden identity of Jesus Christ in three key statements: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’; ‘and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth’; ‘no man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him’ (John 1:1,14,18).
These texts show that the Son of God is a divine person and reveal the following truths concerning the Son’s relation to the Father:
It is ‘essential’
The proper sense of ‘essential’ is ‘relating to the essence of a thing’. Without this it ceases to be what it is. A child knows that without the concentrated orange juice added to the water in a glass the drink is not diluted orange juice; the essential ingredient that makes it what it is would be missing.
We describe the essence of God by such attributes as self-existence, sovereignty, power, love, and so on. The Son possesses all of these in the fullest extent, because ‘the Wordwas God’.
There is no inferiority of nature. The Father and the Son are equal in power and glory. John testifies ‘we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father’.
It is eternal
We mean by this that there never was a time when the Father had no Son or when the Son was without his Father, and there never will be.
There was a time when there was no universe, no angels and no created beings or things. But even then — ‘in the beginning’ — ‘was the Word’. The Son did not come after the Father chronologically or in any other way.
It is incomprehensible
The Son’s relation to the Father involves union without merging, and distinction without separation. God the Father is God, and God the Son is God, but there are not two Gods but one.
The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father, but Jesus could still say, ‘I and my Father are one’.
We accept the distinction of persons without division or separation in the being of God. It is a mystery, but the Son is withthe Father, even ‘inthe bosom of the Father’ (John 1:1,14).
When we enquire concerning the exact relation of the first person of the Trinity to the second, we find it is paternal. When we enquire concerning the exact relation of the second person of the Trinity to the first, we find it is filial.
How we are to understand this relation? Is the Sonship ‘official’ or pertaining to nature? Are we to view Christ as an adopted creature, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain? Is he made or begotten?
Partly to answer such issues, the Nicene Creed had reason to explain further what was meant by ‘God’s only Son’. Heresies could claim to accept the Apostles’ Creed, but the Nicene Creed explicitly affirmed Jesus Christ to be ‘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’.
Christ is God’s ‘only Son’, the only one that is as he is. There is none like him and none to be compared to him as Son of God. He shared our human nature, but was first altogether different as the Son of God.
The angels are glorious and sometimes called ‘sons of God’, but Hebrews 1 tells us they are but creatures and servants. In what then is the Saviour unique, as the Son of God? The statement ‘the only Son’ would be without significance, unless there is something distinctive about the relationship he has to the Father.
God has many sons (John 1:12) since believers are begotten of God (John 1:13). John elsewhere writes: ‘Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him’ (1 John 5:1). But, in referring to the Son as ‘the only begotten of the Father’ (John 1:14), John draws attention to a unique relationship.
This relationship may be called one of ‘generation’. It is this that defines the uniqueness of the Saviour as Son of God. ‘Christ is the “only-begotten Son” by generation; sinners become begotten sons of God by regeneration’ (R. Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Hendrickson; italics added).
This unique aspect is indicated in the words ‘the only begotten Son of God’. In John 1:14 Christ is called the ‘only begotten of the Father’.
There is nothing physical about this generation, for God is a spirit. This generation results in no division, alienation or change. There is distinction without disharmony. It remains both a mystery and a reality.
The contrast with the spiritually regenerated sons of God (referred to in John 1:12-13) requires the heightened sense of ‘only begotten’ of the Father, as in John 1:14. (See W. Bauer, referred to in
William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, The University Press, p.529.) Even if the phrase ‘only begotten’ is not understood as derived from the verb ‘to beget’, but from the noun for a member of a kin drawn from the verb ‘to become’, its meaning of ‘born’ or ‘begotten’ still refers to the Son as the kith and kin, or stock, of the Father.
In the context of verses 12-13, this could only mean generated in a unique sense as opposed to many regenerated sons.
Eternal generation is taught in the Creed’s words, ‘begotten of his Father before all worlds’. The generation of the Son stands outside of time and space. He is eternally begotten of the Father ‘before all worlds’.
This makes a difference between ‘generation’ and ‘creation’. Everything created is outside of God. Generation is within the eternal Divine Being, ‘always continuing and yet ever completed’.
By it, without any temporal precedence, the Father ever ‘generates the personal subsistence of the Son’ and thereby communicates to the Son ‘the divine essence in its entirety’ (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology; Banner of Truth Trust).
The Son is fully God in every way. He is the second person of the Godhead. John is not intending to deny that the Son of God is a divine person by calling him ‘the Word’.
Our words are impersonal. We, the subject, use them to make our thoughts known. When John writes that ‘the Word wasGod’ he is showing to us that the Son is a full personal member of the Godhead. At the same time he is giving to us a remarkable insight into the Trinity (by which we mean three persons in one God).
We can list differences between our thought and the word we use to express it, but there is a unity between the thought and the word. If we bring our observation into it, we have an analogy of trinity in unity. I see a dog and think, ‘a dog’. I speak to my friend and say ‘a dog’. My thought is not the word and my word is not the thought and both differ from my seeing, but the three are in some sense one. This illustrates ‘trinity in unity’, but not ‘tri-personality in unity of substance’.
Without denying the personal subsistence of the Son, we can safely maintain that, all that God the Father is, is expressed in God the Son. ‘In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily’ (Colossians 2:9).
The message of creedal history concerning the testimony of Scripture is plain. Christ is to be confessed as ‘the only begotten Son of God’ by those admitted into the church, and this is to be reflected in our worship in prayers, preaching and praise.
This glorious truth is scripturally and historically an integral part of Christian profession. A mere creature cannot save us. Only the infinitely precious blood of Emmanuel, God with us, can save us.