BEGOTTEN NOT MADE
by Emily Cook
When Pope Benedict first declared this the year of faith, I thought it would be easy to fulfill his request to study the creed. Sure, I’ll try to spend a little more time this year thinking over what it means…
But I was wrong. If it weren’t for Melanie providing a forum for meditating on the meaning of the creed phrase by phrase, I never would have started actually studying on my own. That I’m finding it more difficult than I initially thought to put the meaning of the creed into my own words is proof that the Pope’s request is merited; I need his goading to study my faith more because what I think I know is not so deeply ingrained in my understanding as I vainly assumed. I’m also thankful to Melanie for providing the kickstart to studying the creed because, as the Pope says in Porta Fidei, faith is personal and communal. Our individual growth in faith depends upon our communal practice, and vice versa, so this communal project fits perfectly with the suggestions of the Holy Father.
The phrase “begotten, not made” seems easy enough to comprehend. I chose this phrase partly because it was easy, and because it reminds me of having babies. How many times have I had to remind myself that my children are not made in MY image? They are their own selves. I may have birthed them, but I did not make them, nor did I beget them on my own. Every day they assert their individuality, and in doing so, reaffirm the creativity of God.
My children, like Christ, have a father. But my children, unlike Christ, are made by God. To say that Jesus Christ is “begotten, not made,” is to affirm that He is not a creature, but a child, the Son. He comes from God; He isn’t made from dust in the image of God like the rest of us. Christ is of the same substance as the Father, as the next word of the creed asserts; hence, He is truly divine. He is also fully human, as the Catechism points out, because He takes on flesh and a rational soul. Jesus is not only “consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity” but also “consubstantial with us as to his humanity.” His divinity is begotten of the Father; his humanity derives from his being born of the Virgin Mary (CCC 467).
These three words form one of the phrases that are found in the Nicene Creed but not in the Apostles Creed. According to the Catechism, the phrase was added to counter the Arian heresy, which asserted that the Son of God “came to be from things that were not” and that he was “from another substance” than the Father (465). Christ is fully divine and also fully human. He is not a God in human form or a supernatural Man, but fully both God and Man. He comes from the Father, like a son does, by being begotten, not made of another substance. And as a Son in our human flesh, Christ brings us into a parent-child relationship with God the Father. He is “like us in all things but sin” (467)
Christ’s dual nature has already been professed in the creed: the “only begotten Son of God, born of the Father,” and is professed again: “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” This emphasis on Christ’s incarnation – a God who is human – suggests it is one of the most important aspects of our faith. The immanence of a God who takes on our flesh and our suffering is what makes our God so different from the gods of other faiths. “Belief in the true Incarnation of the Son of God is the distinctive sign of Christian faith” (463).
This duality of the second Person of the Trinity is also one of the more mindboggling mysteries of the faith. I sit here with the Catechism open to make sure I don’t misinterpret anything as I type. To believe that Christ is fully divine and fully human requires assent, rather than reason.
And yet, this leap of faith doesn’t seem a large one. To accept this mystery is to accept that an outpouring of love can be incarnated, can take on human form. Any parent recognizes that “begetting” is something that is mysterious and yet completely sane. That an act of love should result in a physical manifestation of that love is no great surprise. Love is such a huge and complex emotion that to find it has taken a form and a life of its own seems to make sense. And just as the incarnation of love as a child takes part of its nature from its mother and part from its father, Christ takes on the divinity of his Father and the humanity of his mother.
In Advent, we heard the first chapter of Matthew in one of the daily gospel readings. The long series of “begats” asserts the connection between Jesus the Messiah with God’s covenant with Abraham. It traces a kinship between generations, an inheritance of a promise. But when the series comes to an end, the Scripture does not say “Joseph begat Jesus,” but “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Mt. 1:16). Jesus does not have a human father. But he is born of a woman. An angel tells Joseph that his wife’s child is “from the Holy Spirit” and that he is to be named Jesus. And Joseph obeys the angel and does not have marital relations with Mary (Mt. 1:18-25). Matthew also links this with Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin birth and gives Christ the name “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.” (Isa. 7:14), a child who will be called “Mighty God, Everlasting Father” (Isa 9:6). Scripture doesn’t spell out the subtleties of Christ’s dual nature, but some of the Old Testament prophets foretell it.
As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity “We don’t use the words begetting or begotten much in modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless set—or he may make something more like himself than a wireless set: say, a statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But, of course, it is not a real man; it only looks like one. It cannot breathe or think. It is not alive.
Now that is the first thing to get clear. What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God, just as what man creates is not man.”
One difficulty in understanding the phrase “begotten, not made” is that to say that Christ is “begotten” seems to suggest that he is not eternal. A child cannot exist before the father. And yet, some idea of that child, the seed of the child, does exist at the same moment of the father. Since time is a nonissue for God, the Father and Son co-exist eternally. So God, without beginning, from eternity contained his Son, his Word, as the Gospel of John so poetically asserts: “In the beginning was the Word.”
So the theological importance of this phrase is that Christ has two natures, divine and human. But what is the practical importance? Our salvation depends on Christ’s incarnation so that he might humanly suffer as we do and on His divinity so that his suffering might expiate our sins. The Catechism points out four reasons why we need a divine and human Christ: 1. The Word is incarnate so that we might be reconciled with God, 2. so that we have a model of holiness, 3. so that we might know God’s love, and 4. so that we might be brought into communion with God (CCC 457-460). We must accept the duality of Christ, and the reality of the Trinity, to enjoy that final communion. And so we must live our lives in response to the Love that begat our Savior.
St. Paul reiterates the idea that we are adopted as children of God through Christ’s incarnation in his letter to the Galatians, which we hear in the second reading for the Solemnity of Mary on January 1: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. As proof that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.” (Gal. 4:4-7)
This is what we believe: that Christ’s birth as our brother makes us heirs of the Kingdom of God. He is our salvation. We can and must live not as slaves, but as children of God. We must listen to the Spirit, and not just give it a friendly nod as we go about our own business.
Thinking about the Word Incarnate during Christmas adds to the wonder of the season and the mystery of this truth. As Isaiah foretold, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.” (Isa 9:6). That a child, an infant, is the model for holiness… that a baby is the means of reconciliation . . . that a baby is how we know God’s love and share in his divinity … a baby as Messiah seems impossible – and yet perfect. It is an outpouring of love that begets a child.
During Advents past, when I was anticipating children of my own, I felt a stronger kinship with Mary. What I nurtured beneath my heart was a source of hope and joy, but also would bring sorrow. As my children grow, I am reminded that I did not make them; I am not their creator; I cannot mold them into what I want them to be. They are all unique individuals. They are begotten. They are their own persons. They are a part of me, but entirely their own nature. They are mysteries. They are Love incarnate.
And my response to them is love. Just as the Father pours out his love for us in His Son, we should exude love for the Son and for all who share in his humanity. It is the birth of our brother that we celebrate at Christmas. It is also our birth into the inheritance of God’s promises. And just as every newborn baby inspires an outpouring of love and gratitude, so we respond to the birth of Christ with love and gratitude that overflow to others.
Pope Benedict’s Porta Fidei encourages us to study our faith for this reason: “faith commits every one of us to become a living sign of the presence of the Risen Lord in the world.” Because Christ was “begotten, not made,” we all “can recognize the face of the risen Lord in those who ask for our love. ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40). These words are a warning that must not be forgotten and a perennial invitation to return the love by which he takes care of us.”
Reading these words at the beginning of a new year is yet another reason I’m thankful to Melanie for this project; they are a perfect reminder of what I should be resolving to do daily – to see and love Christ in others.
What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “Begotten not made”?
Emily Cook is a Navy wife and mother of six who blogs at Back Bay View.
Read all the entries in the Blog Series: Credo: Professing the Creed for the Year of Faith.