THE ONLY BEGOTTEN SON OF GOD
Every line of the Creed has a purpose, especially here in the Nicene Creed, which was formulated to combat heresies that cast doubt on the divinity of Jesus Christ. And so when we come to “only begotten Son”, we can stop and consider why the council fathers felt the need to tell us here that Jesus is the only begotten Son of the Father. Certainly, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that there were heretics at the time, Photinus among them, who believed that Jesus was just a man who only merited to be called son of God by adoption. And Sabellius, who said that the Father and the Son were the same Person. And Arius, of course, for whom Christ is a creature and not of one nature with the Father.
So the council fathers combatted these heresies first by proclaming Jesus as “lord” and “anointed one” (Christ) and then the only begotten Son of God. I’ll leave it for another to delve into what “begotten” means as it comes up again a few lines later in the Creed. Instead let’s ask what it means for Jesus to be the only begotten Son.
St. John in his Gospel refers to Jesus as the only begotten Son of the Father three times (although “begotten” doesn’t come through in every English translation). In John 1:14, he writes:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.
Then a couple of verses later in John 1:18:
No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
And finally and most famously in John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
In the first verse, we see Jesus described in His glory before His incarnation as the eternal Logos, the Word of God. In the second, St. John proceeds to the earthly ministry of Jesus, in which He has become the Incarnate Word who says, “He has who has seen Me, has seen the Father.” He is His Father’s presence among us, He is the very image of God for us to see. This is the twofold nature of Jesus’ identity as the Son, because by His Sonship He reveals the Father and in that identity we see that the essence of the nature of the Trinity is relationship.
Finally, in the third verse, we see Christ fulfilling the mission of His incarnation, bringing salvation to the world. In Salvifici Doloris (14–21), Pope John Paul II tells us that only the One who was begotten could be given, that only that one who was begotten of the Father could be given for the salvation of the world. Only the second Person of the Trinity, He who is begotten of the Father, could suffer for sin and bring salvation through it. It is by His nature that this is possible and His nature is to be begotten of the Father.
According to the words spoken to Nicodemus, God gives His Son to “the world” to free men from evil, which bears within itself the definitive and absolute perspective on suffering. At the same time, the very word “gives” (“gave”) indicates that this liberation must be achieved by the only begotten Son through His own suffering. And in this, love is manifested, the infinite love both of that only-begotten Son and of the Father who for this reason “gives” His Son. This is love for man, love for the “world”: it is salvific love.
As a father to sons and daughters, I contemplate my children and their lives. I love them dearly, more than I love my own life. I would die to protect them from harm. I say it without bravado, but as a fact. When they are hurt physically, I rush to soothe them. When they are hurt emotionally, I feel it even more keenly because I know I can’t just kiss the injury away.
And then I contemplate our Father in heaven and his only begotten Son. The Father has all of us as son and daughters, but Jesus stands alone, of course, for He is the only one not created by the Father. He is special. And I think of the Father who gives His Son to suffer and to die for love of us. Could I be like Abraham with Isaac, willing to give my son in sacrifice at the Lord’s command? Would I be willing to let my son even suffer the slightest pinch of brief discomfort for the worst sinner in the world?
Yet, the Father shows the infinity of His love by allowing His Only Begotten Son to suffer, and not just to suffer but to become sin to save us, the ungrateful, wretched lot of us, from “perishing” from losing eternal life, from having eternal death, from damnation and hell.
And not only does He saves us from hell, He gives our suffering in this life meaning and dimension. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) For me, this is what some Protestants would call a “life verse”, a Scripture verse which speaks to me and by which I seek to live my life. In this verse is all the hope of the Resurrection and all the meaning of whatever suffering comes my way, because if it is Christ who carries my sufferings, then Christ turns it into salvation. This is how He loves us.
In the final analysis, this is what it means for Christ to be the Only Begotten Son of the Father. In the Father’s love of the Son and the Son’s love for the Father, we are caught up in that embrace and we enjoy the overflowing abundance. We are made sons and daughters of God through baptism into the Body of the Only Begotten Son and share in some pale, sliver of a way in that unique divine life.
In that Sonship of Christ, we can then turn to our Father, holding up our arms to Him, crying out, “Abba”.
What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “the only begotten Son of God”?
Domenico Bettinelli is husband to Melanie Bettinelli and father of four, soon to be five children. He studied theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently Director of New Media for the Archdiocese of Boston. He blogs at Bettnet.com
Read all the entries in the Blog Series: Credo: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith.