Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Only Begotten, Not Created, Christ

Author’s note: all definitions in this article have been taken from the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (1890) unless otherwise cited.

I recently attended the Ambrose School Christmas program, and heard some of the most amazing exhortations from the students. In between musical performances, during the set changes, individuals take turns delivering memorized speeches to the gathered assembly. We usually greet them with loud applause; it’s really amazing what these kids can do. One of them spoke a phrase that caused me to stop and think, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. She said that “Christ was begotten, not created.”

So what’s the difference?

I decided to look into it, starting with my treasured five hundred pound Webster’s Unabridged dictionary from 1890. I started with the two most obvious words:

Beget v.t. [be and get] 1. To procreate, as a father or sire; to generate; to get. 2. To produce as an effect; to cause.

Create v.t. [Lat. creare, creatum, to create] 1. To bring into being; to form out of nothing; to cause to exist. 2. To effect by agency and under the laws of causation; to be the occasion of; to produce. 3. To invest with a new form, office, or character; to constitute; to appoint; to make. a. Begotten; composed; created.

I then started on my hunt, looking up the words that were used to define the original words. I came up with the following:

Procreate (the Latin roots are pro, forward, and creare, to create) means to beget, to generate and produce. Generate means to produce a being similar to the parent, or to originate, especially by a vital or chemical process; to produce; to cause. Get (both the Icelandic geta and the German getan mean to obtain) means to procure, to come into possession of, to persuade or to carry. The Wordnet Dictionary defines Create as “to bring into existence, to cause to be or to become, or to create by artistic means.”

How about some Latin for ya? Fully fifty percent of the English language finds its roots in Latin (hence the importance of the study of this “dead” language). Turning to original meanings is usually highly instructive for me, so I trawled around on the Web looking for some insight:

Wikianswers.com gives us this information on the Latin roots of the word create (pronounced cray AH tay): “as a noun, create is the vocative masculine singular of creatus, the past participle of the same verb creare. As such, creatus is an adjective meaning ‘created,’ ‘elected’ or ‘begotten,’ and can be used as a noun meaning “offspring.” The vocative form is the form of direct address, so the translation of the noun would be (addressed to one male person) ‘O offspring,’ ‘O elected one!’”

Let’s add to the mixture here, shall we, because there’s more to the picture of Christ than what we’ve yet laid out. Take the word temporary, for instance. A quick perusal of Roget’s Thesaurus gives us more to look into: interim, transient, substitute, conditional. Have a look at a derivative word like temporal, and its synonyms include unsacred, material. All this is again, highly instructive, because it’s serving to throw more light, out to the edges, on the canvas we’re looking at, helping us see the picture better.

But wait a tick. I seem to remember Jesus referring to Himself as the Son of God and the Son of Man. So how about the word son? The Slavonic word for son is synonymous with the Sanskrit word sunu, from su, which means to beget. The word son is also described as meaning a male child, the male issue of a parent, a male descendant, a native or inhabitant of some special place, the produce of any thing [Redwoods might be called the sons of the earth], and, in my old dictionary, Jesus Christ, who is referred to as both the Son of God and as the Son of Man.

Now, I’ve always wondered what these phrases meant; what the difference is between them. The phrase “Son of Man” is used in the book of Ezekiel, for example, 93 times, and The Oxford Companion to the Bible also notes the same (1993). Son of Man is used as a Semitic idiom (a peculiar phrase stamped by the usage of language) and is thought to denote humanity or self (body, life, having one’s own body). The first time the phrase appears in the Bible is Numbers 23.19, where it is used in traditional Hebrew parallel poetic form (where the same idea is expressed twice, often with different words, for clarity and emphasis) where the phrase ben-adam (Son of Man) is used across from ‘iysh (human being or man). Even with this modest scholarship we can safely deduce that the phrase Son of Man is evocative of our concept of humanity. As for upper or lower case treatments of the words, we owe that to the translators taking some degree of license. I’m pretty sure the Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic languages had no facility for upper or lower case, and indeed no punctuation either. I know that for a fact about Latin because I studied it for two years in high school. I remember at least that much.

As to languages, here’s a quick detour: The Hebrew Torah was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic (the Aramaic reflecting the years of exile in Babylon). That intermixture produced all kinds of dialects, and Jesus may have spoken at least four major languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Latin is important because the first full translation of the Old and New Testaments together into a single language was the Latin Vulgate (completed in late 300-400 AD).

Okay, back to our little study on the Son of Man. The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993) explains that the Greeks rendered the phrase we read today—Son of Man—effectively as “the son of the man,” a literal translation of a phrase that, to the Hebrews, was instead mostly idiomatic and had metaphorical meaning. So it’s not completely accurate. The Aramaic language at the time included a similar phrase, bar enas, which in the Galilean Aramaic meant “a human being,” or could be used as a modest way to speak of oneself (to say, “I”). “Son of Man” in the New Testament can mean a number of things, and its true meaning can only be inferred from context. It may mean “one,” “a human,” or could be “a self-reference provoked by awe, modesty, or humility…” (ibid). The Biblical New Testament text supports this thesis too, because the phrase is almost exclusively used by Jesus as a self-designation. There are only a handful of occurrences where the translated phrase is used by anyone else.

So how do we compile all these facts? I think that we can make a case for Christ as all in all. In other words, He is precisely and exactly who He says He is. I think the little word study we’ve seen here provides sufficient evidence for Christ the Begotten as He appears in Colossians 1.15; “The image of the invisible God;” and in John 1.1-3 as the “Word” or logos that the Greeks in those days understood philosophically to be the foundation of all that is. So Christ is fully God, but He is also fully man, as evidenced by the very use of the word begotten.

Is there a difference between beget and create? How about this: in some ways they're total opposites, and in others they're identical. This search for enlightenment has at its end a vast portal to dimness of sight; it's an enigma, at least in the realm of the temporal.

Contrary to what some might think is a nail in the coffin of the advocate for Christ, it is not a disaster that beget is sometimes synonymous with create. No, it actually further supports the Christian doctrine of the Triune God, the Trinity, the Father-Son-Spirit Godhead, that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man. That’s where the word temporary comes in, because its root is the Latin tempus, or having to do with time. Christ, being fully God since before the foundation of the earth, submitted himself to His creation and inserted Himself into the scope and limits of time, the temporal. He forsook not just the throne and glory, but eternity itself to join us. Contrary to being a kneejerk reaction to our fall from grace in the garden, or even a reactionary search and rescue operation, it was part of His plan from the beginning, as John 1.1 tells us. He took on manhood in order to live the perfection of which we have always been incapable... and that was, from the beginning, prerequisite for true fellowship with our Holy God. That invasion, His begetting, still echoes heroically in these dark places. How can One who was and is and is to come be created, after all? It is not possible.

But what of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man? Let's look at some of the words we've unearthed, in bold. He is both effect and cause, generated to get to us; He is the elected One, the I AM, the only begotten. And not created. Christ was appointed in the flesh to make atonement for us. Christ is the origin and genesis of all creation, our God incarnate, Emmanuel, who walked with us, and His story is singular throughout all cultures and tribes and nations; there is not one pagan god (i.e. a created god, a god created by man) that can boast of anything close: He became sin for us, took the penalty for sin in our place as substitute, chose to become our servant, to become material, unsacred for us. He chose to have a self, having his own body, become a native, an inhabitant of some special place with us here, under temporal influences of corruption, weather, wickedness, time itself. Our Almighty God chose, before Day One, to become ben-adam, 'iysh, the Son of Man, a human, begotten, though He remained fully God, the Son of Man. It is a great and noble mystery, like all scripture, that the Elect of God is revealed by His Spirit in scripture in this interim, this temporary state of being, to those called and elect of God.

I guess a word study of elect is overdue...

1 comment:

  1. Interesting point of view. It always seemed to me that it was important for Christ to become "Son of Man" because he needed to descend below all things while still being Devine, born lowly in a stable of all places. I believe the Bible literally when it says begotten. Well said.