“The moment God begets, he is not God!”

That title is a quote from the popular Muslim apologist, Zakir Naik. And on this rare occasion, I (along with all orthodox Christians) can heartily agree. God didn’t become a proud Father on Christmas Day, when Jesus was laid in a manger. He didn’t feel like me walking out of the hospital on the day I became a father. Yes, if there was a day that God became the Father, I agree, he is not God! 

But while I agree with Zakir Naik’s statement, it is for very different reasons to him. Zakir Naik makes this statement in order to deny that God begets at all. This is what our Muslims friends are required to do, because the Quran is crystal clear in this denial:  

“He [Allah] begets not, nor is he begotten”. (Sura 112:3)

However, the reason I agree that “the moment God begets, he is not God” is not to deny that God begets, but in order to affirm it more accurately. The Christian hope for the world is that Jesus is the “only begotten Son” of God (John 3:16; 1 John 4:9). But what do we mean when we describe Jesus like this? 

“begotten, not created”

There’s a moment in Christmas Carol Services that you can always bank on. It’s when you’re singing “O Come all ye faithful” and you reach the lines: 

“Very God, 

Begotten, not created”. 

You can guarantee two factions will break out in the congregation as they wrestle to fit the number of syllables to the tune. The result is usually musical mayhem. But these lines do more than throw up a musical challenge. They throw up a theological challenge. What does it mean to say Jesus is “begotten, not created”? 

Bible translations

The discussion is complicated by the fact that if you look up modern, English Bible translations at John 3:16 and 1 John 4:9 you won’t find the word “begotten” there at all!  They read: “only Son”, rather than “only begotten Son”. That’s because there has been some complicated lexical discussion about what the word “monogenes” means. Greek scholars have argued the word should be translated “only one of its kind” rather than “only begotten”, though recent discussions have tilted back in the direction of translating it “only begotten”. In any case, the doctrine of the “eternal generation of the Son” doesn’t hinge on the translation of this one word. There are a number of other important words that describe the Son’s relation to the Father – “word” (John 1:1), “wisdom” (1 Cor 1:24), “form” (Phil 2:6), “image” and “firstborn” (Col 1:15), “radiance” and “exact imprint” (Heb 1:3). They are describing the same thing. 

Old language

Another problem is that the language of “begetting” is old-fashioned, unfamiliar English to us. But it describes a man’s role in fathering a child. I have begotten four children. But Naik points out the sexual connotations of the word. “Begetting is an animal act. It’s a function of lower animals of sex”, he says. So, if God begets his son, it sounds to Muslim ears as though God is involved in impregnating Mary. That is obviously a shocking and blasphemous suggestion to anybody who understands the Bible’s view of God. It sounds more like something you’d find in a pagan, Greek myth than the Bible. But it is exactly the sexual, earthly connotations of the word that Christians want to deny. Whenever we use human language to talk about God, we have to realise its limits. The Bible’s talk of God’s ear, eyes, and mouth can’t be taken literally. Neither can its talk of begetting. 

Uncreated Son

When we say Jesus is “begotten, not created”, we’re saying we need to strip God’s “begetting” of all creaturely ideas. So, biology tells us there’s a moment when conception takes place. There’s a moment when two cells unite to become a new human life. But there’s no such moment in the divine life. There’s no before and after in the being of God. That’s exactly what we’re denying and celebrating! In the being of God, the Father is endlessly, eternally, fathering the Son. God is so blessed that the Father continually pours himself forth in the person of the Son. God isn’t static, but bursting with life in himself eternally. There is no moment when God begets God. If there was a time when the Son was not, there was also a time when the Father was not, and that is unthinkable. 

I admit that’s high, deep, mysterious truth. But the eternal generation of the Son is not a subject just for pointy-headed theologians. That Jesus is the only begotten Son of God is crucial to his being our Saviour. It means that the person born in Bethlehem is not just god-like, nor is he a second god, rivalling his father, but he is the second person of the Holy Trinity, who alone can bring us back to God.

A late, happy Christmas (which officially ends tomorrow)!