The Received Text
By Christian Khanda
Bible-believing Christians believe and confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. He is worthy of worship because He is God. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And this eternal and divine Word “became 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” (John 1:14).
The biblical doctrine of Christ is filled with hope and comfort because this Jesus, the Son of God, whom we worship and adore, became man and came into the world to save sinners. We confess that Christ is truly God and truly man, the only Savior and Redeemer of God’s elect!
At the heart of biblical Christology is the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God. Christ is the only begotten (μονογενὴς) Son of God. This means that “Christ alone is the eternal and natural Son of God” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A. #33). From all eternity, Christ, the eternal Son, has been in the bosom of the Father. He is equal with the Father and the Spirit, “the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q/A. #6) This is not just a Reformed doctrine but the catholic (or universal) doctrine of the Church. The true Church has always believed in and confessed that Christ is the only begotten Son of God.
In the Nicene Creed we confess that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, 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, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.”
Sadly, the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son is under attack today and it seems that it is partially due to the forsaking and abandoning of the Received Text by many churches in favor of the modern critical text. John 1:18 is the classic proof text of this doctrine: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The Textus Receptus (the traditional Greek text of the New Testament) here declares that Jesus is ὁ μονογενὴς (monogenēs) υἱός. But this rendering has been challenged and rejected by the modern critical text (NA and UBS editions). The modern critical text, underlying English translations such as NASB, ESV, NIV, etc., says here in verse 18 that Jesus is μονογενὴς θεὸς, the only begotten God. This rendering is inconsistent with the Johannine use of the term μονογενὴς and problematic.
It is my desire in this article is to defend the traditional text of John 1:18 as the authentic wording, and make a case that abandoning the Greek Received Text of the New Testament affects doctrine, as in this case, the doctrine of Christ.
The Johannine Use of the Term “Only Begotten”
Every time John uses this term “μονογενὴς,” he is referring to the Son, the second Person of the Holy Trinity.
John 1:14. 14 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.
John 3:16. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
John 3:18. 18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
1 John 4:9. 9 In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.
Wouldn’t it consistent with John’s own writing and Christology to have “the only begotten Son” in John 1:18 as well? John is teaching us about the eternal and blessed communion between the Father and the Son. Notice whom Christ declares: the Father. Does it make sense for John to say that “the only begotten God” declares the Father? Of course not! The Son declares the Father and the only way to get to the Father is through the Son (John 14:6).
What Reading Did the Church Have?
The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ has always had the reading “the only begotten Son” in John 1:18 until the 19th century when the traditional text of the Scriptures began to be challenged by newer discoveries of “older manuscripts.”
However, the reading that was affirmed at the Council of Nicea (325) is the traditional reading of John 1:18. This is a compelling historical indication that the text that the early Church had agrees with the Received Text.
Why should then we reject the traditional reading “the only begotten Son” in John 1:18 in favor of 20th century scholarship?
The Personal Property of the Son
As a confessional Reformed Presbyterian, I have come to see the ESV rendering (along with NASB, NIV, etc.) of John 1:18 as problematic and inconsistent with Reformed theology. When was the last time you read in a church’s doctrinal statement or heard a preacher say that Jesus is the only begotten God? This is not our doctrine, or our language as Christians. Biblical Christology is at stake here!
It’s the Son who is eternally begotten of the Father, and only the Son. The Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. The eternal begotteness is the personal property of the Son, not of the Godhead (i.e., all three Persons). The Westminster Confession of Faith emphatically teaches that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God. In fact, so foundational is this doctrine to biblical Christology that it is the first statement in the Confession of Faith 8.1: “It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man.” It teaches that Jesus is the eternal Son of God; the He is very God of very God. And it emphasizes that his eternal begotteness is the personal property of the Son, not of the Father or of the Spirit.
The Persons of the Godhead are the same in substance, although distinguished by their personal properties. The Westminster Larger Catechism faithfully teaches what the personal properties are:
Q 10. What are the personal properties of the three persons in the Godhead?
A. It is proper to the Father to beget the Son, and to the Son to be begotten of the Father, and to the Holy Ghost to proceed from the Father and the Son from all eternity. (Heb. 1:5-6, 8; John 1:14, 18; John 15:26; Gal. 4:6)
The Westminster Assembly theologians used John 1:18 as one of the proof texts to teach and declare the doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ in the Confession and the Catechisms.
The ESV’s Rejection of the Traditional Text and Translation
Before I switched to a translation based on the Received Text for private and family worship and public preaching and teaching, I was using the ESV. As a preacher and a student of the Word, I came to a point where I had to wrestle with John 1:18 and its Christological implications. The ESV says, “18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
I see two problems with the ESV rendering. The ESV not only abandons the traditional text but also the traditional Christian translation of the word μονογενὴς in English, namely, “only begotten.”
Firstly, the ESV translates its underlying text “μονογενὴς θεὸς” as “the only God.” As we have already seen, begotteness is the personal property of the Son. The ESV has adopted a corrupt reading here and thereby, in my opinion, attacks (at least here in John 1:18) the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. Calling Jesus “the only begotten God” is incompatible with biblical Christology.
Secondly, the ESV does not properly translate the word “μονογενὴς”. It translates this word as “only.” The word “μονογενὴς” is a compound word made up of two Greek words “μονος (monos)” (only) and “γεννάω (gennao)” (beget). Therefore, the proper translation of this term must be “only begotten.”
In fact, the ESV has abandoned the term “only begotten” entirely. Think about this tragic situation: Christians in churches that use the ESV, and do not hold to a historic confession of faith, nor use the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed, would never hear the phrase “the only begotten Son” ever!
The ESV defends its rendering in its study Bible notes on Page 2020, “The Greek word underlying “only,” monogenēs, means “one of a kind, unique,” as in the case of Isaac, who is called Abraham’s “one-of-a-kind” son in Heb. 11:17 (in contrast to Ishmael; cf. Gen. 22:2, 12, 16). Thus “only” is a better translation than “only begotten” (made familiar through its use in the KJV).”
There are several problems with this reasoning:
Firstly, the reason Isaac is called μονογενὴς is because he was the heir of God’s covenant promises made to Abraham. Isaac was the “only begotten” son as far as God’s promises were concerned. Neither Abraham’s servant Eliezer (Gen. 15:2) nor his other son Ishmael (Gen. 17:20, 21) were the son of promise. Romans 9:7 says, “Nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” Both Hebrews 11 and Romans 9 quote Genesis 21:12.
Also, John Calvin comments on Heb. 11:17 and says that Isaac was called the only begotten son because after Ishmael was excommunicated, he was considered as one dead, leaving Isaac as the only true son. Calvin writes, “It may, however, be asked, why is Isaac called the only begotten, for Ishmael was born before him and was still living. To this the answer is, that by God’s express command he was driven from the family, so that he was accounted as one dead, at least, he held no place among Abraham’s children.”
Secondly, even if the meaning of the word μονογενὴς is unique or one of a kind, there is still this question: What is unique about the Son? What is the incommunicable personal property of the Son? What’s unique about the second Person of the Trinity is that He is the eternal and only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. There is no one like Jesus! God the Father only has one natural and eternal Son who shares His glory, substance, and eternity: the Lord Jesus Christ. And the good news of the gospel is that those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation become sons and daughters of God by adoption.
12 “But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: 13 which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).
Today, many professing evangelical Christians have abandoned the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son in favor of the eternal subordination of the Son. We must return to confessional clarity and retain biblical terms like justification, propitiation, and the only begotten Son. John 1:18 is a doctrinal statement and must never be abandoned!
This is one of many reasons to hold the traditional texts of Scriptures (Hebrew Masoretic Text of the OT and the Greek Received Text of the NT).
My prayer is that Bible-believing Protestants would prayerfully consider this important matter and return with me to the confessional Protestant view that the traditional texts of Scriptures are providentially preserved by God and kept pure in all ages (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.8). Let us uphold and rejoice in the true reading of God’s inspired and preserved Word.
Christian Khanda is a Minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and is Pastor of Holy Trinity OPC in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.