Modern Christians put a lot of stock in seminary professors. These men are often acclaimed bloggers, lecturers, authors, and occasionally, keynote speakers at conferences. Personally, I have found myself to be more and more skeptical of such. In more liberal seminaries, stories of the Bible and the authorship of scripture are questioned. But even in conservative circles there is a preference for the often self contradictory Critical Text family of manuscripts and an obsession with accusing various English versions of “mistranslation.” That, and all of the other trappings of modern, American Christianity.
This morning, I was reading a blog entry someone sent me on the phrase “only begotten son.” The author is Bill Mounce, a seminary professor who “specializes” in New Testament Greek. His education boasts a list of universities, as does his resume. In fact, his Twitter profile says he assisted in translating the NIV and ESV. If you visit his website, he sells videos teaching you to learn Greek. In other words, his career has been teaching people Greek. This is in every way, a modern Christian guru. I mean no disrespect to the man. I assume he is a Christian brother who loves the Lord. But I feel the need to scrutinize his writing on this issue. It’s that crucial of a matter.
The premise of his blog entry (found here) was that the KJV and other translations were in error for translating variations of the Greek phrase “ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός” as “only begotten son.” In his opinion, it should be “one and only son.” What’s laughable about this is that this language “only begotten” is literally found in creeds, writings, and translations all the way back to the church fathers. In fact, the Nicene Creed (kind of a big deal), the result of a counsel that ruled in favor of Biblical orthodoxy regarding the eternality of the Son, uses the phrase as the KJV translates it:
Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
Likewise, so does the First Council of Constantinople:
“the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.”
That statement conveys “eternal generation,” that the son is eternally begotten of the Father, which is the orthodox position. It’s clear the Nicene preachers, men who spoke Greek, used the phrase as Christians have traditionally understood it. English translations of the Nicene Creed translate these same terms from Greek to English in an identical manner to how the KJV translates them from John’s gospel to English – as “only begotten son.”
Further, regarding his actual point, he apparently misses that variations of the γενής in μονογενής translate into many terms regarding birth. I invite anyone who disputes this to simply read Matthew chapter 1 in Greek. In fact, even our modern terms genes, genetics, genesis, generation, genealogy, etc., are cognate with these terms. He misdefines the word contrary to other Biblical variations of the word AND church history. Sounds dangerous. So how can Mounce make such an obvious oversight? I’ll explain my theory of that in a moment.
But – to reiterate – according to Mounce, a regarded, modern Christian Scholar, this English phrase “only begotten son” is a mistranslation. Never mind the many theologians and authors throughout all of Christian history that say otherwise…a modern American says it’s wrong so we’re to take his word for it. No sir, we won’t.
The main point of my writing though, is to point out that there is a more embarrassing error in his blog entry. At one point, he lists all the occurrences of the word he’s scrutinizing, ὁ μονογενὴς. That is, “only begotten.” Regarding John 3:16, he says the following: “his only Son” (μονογενής θεός, Jn 3:16, no specific word for “Son”)…”
I’ve saved a screenshot, below, just in case the blog entry is edited for accuracy and his error is corrected.
So, most people would read over that and just accept what Mounce says as true. After all, he’s the expert. But he’s actually dead wrong! There IS a specific word for “Son” in John 3:16, it’s just a few words before the word for “only begotten.” Pasting in from the TR,
“Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ᾽ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον”
The phrase under consideration is, “υἱὸν (son) αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ (only begotten).” Apparently, since the word for “son” wasn’t directly before or after “only begotten,” Mounce assumed it wasn’t in the Greek. Really? Surely this was an oversight made in haste. Certainly a Greek seminary professor guru knows that the structure of the Greek language is so different than our own that words which appear side-by-side in English might be separated by a few words in Greek (It’s also quite common for some Greek words, such as definite articles, to be left off in translation). These are different languages and many times the structure of a Greek sentence does not parallel the structure of its translation into English. Mr Mounce knows this. Why am I being harsh about it? If one wants to challenge 2000 years of Christological language, he might want to be a little more cautious in his argumentation.
To repeat, “son” (υἱὸν) DOES occur in John 3:16, contrary to what Mounce wrote.
Why the Revision?
I can’t say with certainty, but I have pretty good hunch. Proponents of the Critical Text opt for an extreme minority variant reading of John 1:18. That passage, to us, reads “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” In the Textus Receptus, as well as the majority of Greek manuscripts, the underlying Greek is ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός, though there are a few variants of such in early manuscripts. Either way, υἱός (son) is the word used. We believe this to be the correct, God preserved reading. However, there exists a variant in the corrupt Critical Text family of manuscripts a variant which reads μονογενὴς θεὸς, or only begotten god. Gross! You can see the obvious problem. There is enough evidence to cause one to believe this early variant was a heretical alteration, perhaps by Gnostics or Arian heretics. We reject that reading and you should too.
Since modern seminarians have placed their unyielding support on the Critical Text, they are forced to invent alternate translations/definitions of the word μονογενὴς, because “only begotten god” would be a heretical Christology. They would, in effect, be siding with the Arians who denied the eternality of Christ. So rather than only begotten, they opt for “one and only,” rendering John 1:18 “the only God” as you find in the ESV, which I have already shown to be erroneous in this short article (again, hello Nicea).
Takeaways (My Soapbox)
- Even the most regarded seminarians don’t use Greek as a functional language. Rarely do they refer to Greek words in the proper form or tense, citing it as the root form. They know a lot of grammar which impresses people and gives the impression of expertise, but they don’t speak the language. When they do sound out words, they use the Erasmian pronunciations, which no Greek speakers use. Most of these experts couldn’t walk into a Greek pub and order a glass of water.
- Placing their faith in the Critical Text (CT) created a host of issues for folks that go far beyond this one. For starters, without 1 John 5:7 (also different in the CT), you have no Tri-unity. You have an only begotten god (Jn 1:18). And “he,” not “God,” was manifest in the flesh in 1 Timothy 3:16. The list goes on and on. This is expected, as the two primary CT manuscripts disagree with each other in more than 3000 places in the four gospels alone! Please laugh out loud next time you hear someone say “the oldest and best manuscripts.” I’m not sure how thousands of disagreements between but two manuscripts qualifies either as “best.” Variants exist in each family of manuscripts, but c’mon! That’s ridiculous.
- If you read Mounce’s article, you’ll find he often makes the KJV the boogey man behind this phrase “only begotten.” Blaming the KJV is a convenient but dishonest strawman of which modern seminarians are often guilty. Again, I cited the Council of Nicea above. And a host of other quotes could be supplied. For instance, the Geneva translates it likewise, as does the Bishops, with many more, both before and after the KJV.
- Bill Mounce has made a living, along with many other gurus, selling his service as a Greek teacher. This is very lucrative. Even on his personal site, the service is advertised in a prominent spot. This is just another terrible issue with Western Christianity, Big Eva, the seminary model for training ministers, etc. See the issue, back up, turn around, and walk away.
- If you’re really interested in learning Greek as a functional language, including Biblical Greek, start with modern Greek and view it as one language. Seminarians want to make koine Greek an ancient, extinct language so you have to come to them to learn the secrets of it (hello Darth Sideous). But this isn’t true at all. If you learn Modern Greek, studying backwards into koine isn’t difficult at all, plus you learn a functional language in the process. I promise, 2 lessons of Duolingo a day along with a Language Transfer Greek exercise/lesson will teach you more in the course of a year or two than all the expensive resources these men peddle could ever do. We take the power from these institutions when we refuse to buy their services.
- If you speak English, your KJV is a faithful translation and there’s no need to learn Hebrew or Greek to “really” know what God has said to you. I study both as a personal endeavor to do what I have done in this blog entry and because it’s actually rather fun. But your translation is absolutely sufficient!!
No offence or disrespect intended to Mr. Mounce. But this entry really ruffled my feathers and it seemed to be a great opportunity to expose a major problem in the American “brand” of Christianity. – BW