From early on, the church has emphasized that Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God. We find this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. Until recently, it was also found in English Bibles, for instance in the well-known verse, John 3:16:
God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son. (KJV)
But the New International Version translates:
God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son. (NIV)
Some have accused the NIV of denying the “only-begotten” of the ancient creeds, and so “weakening the truth of Christ’s deity”. These critics point at the Greek word used in John 3:16, which is mono-genês. This word is clearly made up of two parts: mono means “only”, and genês is related to birth.
But the meaning of a word is not simply the sum of its parts. The translators of the King James Bible knew this. For instance, in Luke 7:12, we read of a dead man who was “the only son (monogenês) of his mother” (KJV). Here it would make little sense to say that he was “only-begotten”. Likewise, in Heb. 11:17, Isaac is called Abraham’s monogenês, even though Abraham had also begotten Ishmael.
The word monogenês emphasizes that a child is unique and specially loved. In the Old Testament God describes Isaac as “your son, your one [son] whom you love” (Gen. 22:2). This applies to Isaac in Heb. 11:17, to the son of the widow of Nain in Luke 7:12, and also to our Lord Jesus Christ. So the NIV translators chose to translate monogenês as “one and only”.
Jesus is the unique and specially loved Son of God. The earliest church used to speak of him that way. The oldest Latin creeds called him unicus filius, “one and only son”. At first, nobody felt the need to emphasize how he was “begotten”.
That changed in the course of the centuries. Arius and his followers agreed that Jesus is “unique”, but denied that he is also God. In response, the church had to clarify the truth. It affirmed clearly that Christ is “begotten of the Father as the monogenês, that is, from the essence of the Father.”
This conflict with the Arians explains why the Apostles’ Creed calls Jesus Christ not merely unicus “one and only”, but unigenitus, “only-begotten”. This word is not meant as just a translation of monogenês, but as a summary of the deep theological truth, based on the overall testimony of Scripture, that Jesus is not merely special, but even God himself.
And while that truth may not be found in a single Bible verse like John 3:16, it is a core Biblical truth that we must cherish.