by Andrew Stobart.
As we approach the celebration of Christmas, we might encounter a now-familiar slogan: ‘Jesus is the reason for the season.’ Like all slogans, it does its job. It’s short, memorable, and encapsulates a message that is both descriptively positive (Jesus is the reason for the season) and appropriately polemical (Jesus is the reason, not someone or something else).
Roll back seventeen hundred years, and the Church had another slogan that aided its celebration of the incarnation: ‘begotten not made.’ Written into the Nicene Creed, this slogan became an expression of orthodoxy, directing Christian believers to affirm an essential truth about their Saviour, while also denying a disastrous heresy. We still use this slogan today, in the Creed that we share, and in one of our most popular carols (the line ‘begotten not created’ in ‘O come, all ye faithful’). However, unlike ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’, ‘begotten not made’ is a slogan that requires us to limber up our theological muscles and do some serious reflection. It’s thus an appropriate focus for us this Advent.
First things first: ‘begotten not made’ is a slogan about Jesus Christ, and so is part of the Christian reflection that we call Christology. While we may not use that term very much, we cannot long escape the substance of Christology if we are serious about being Christian disciples. Christian discipleship is inherently personal, in that the contours of the life of discipleship are not formed from generalised principles, or vague intuitions, but rather are put in place by the person of Jesus Christ. The whole business of the Church – whether in worship or in mission – is brought about by the activity of and under direction from the risen and ascended Son of God, who is now appropriately worshipped as true God, with the Father and the Spirit.
Quite what this means is precisely the task of Christology. And it’s also the background to the slogan ‘begotten not made’. Followers of the infamous theologian Arius in the late third and early fourth century had sought to get their heads around the place of Jesus in the Church. Surely, they thought, there can only be one true God, original and unchangeable. Jesus, they said, insofar as he is a ‘second’ to the Father, must be as close to divine as you can get without actually being fully divine. They had their own slogan: ‘there was a time when He was not’, referring to Jesus, and making what they felt was the obvious point that the Son of God did indeed have a beginning. Since the divine has no beginning, and the Son (in their understanding) had a beginning, the Son is not fully divine, but rather the first among all of the Father’s creatures.
So far so logical. But discipleship, remember, does not proceed on the basis of vague logical principles, but rather follows the reality of the person of Jesus Christ. And, as critics of Arius and his followers pointed out, Arian Christology tended to diminish the Church’s authentic worship of Jesus as Lord and God – how could it possibly be right to worship a creature, even if that creature was the very first and very best?
Against Arius, the slogan went, Jesus is ‘begotten not made’. To understand this, we need to see the two terms for what they are – representations of two different kinds of being. The second, ‘made’, describes the relationship between the Creator and the creation. The Creator makes; the creation is made. This is, essentially, the kind of relationship that Arius envisaged between the Son and the Father. But the slogan (and the creed, and thus the Church) says, this is precisely what the relationship between the Son and the Father is not.
Instead, the relationship is described as ‘begotten’. The pairing in mind here is the pairing of the ‘unbegotten’ on the one hand and the ‘begotten’ on the other. The ‘unbegotten’ is the original source and fount of all life – life that appears from nowhere, because it simply is. The ‘begotten’ is that life which is dependent on another; in this instance, the ‘begotten’ is dependent on the ‘unbegotten’. The Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten. Crucially, being ‘begotten’ in this context does not indicate a beginning point, but simply a dependency, which the theological tradition calls the ‘eternal generation’ of the Son. The Father lives in and of himself; the Son lives in and from the Father. Both (with the Spirit also) are eternal.
So, we say and sing this Christmas, the Son of God is ‘begotten not made’. So what? Well, as noted above, a slogan is descriptively positive and appropriately polemical. What is descriptively positive about ‘begotten not made’? The credal slogan affirms that the Son’s dependency upon and obedience to the Father – his begotten-ness – properly belongs to his divinity. As the doctrine of the Trinity says much more fully, the Christian God is not a static, uneventful eternal principle, but a lively, giving-and-receiving community of Father, Son and Spirit. There is no other God before or behind this One. When we affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he is ‘begotten not made’, we celebrate that love is not just from God, but that love is in God, for God is love.
And what is appropriately polemical? No matter what might have been the case in previous generations of the Church, today we have little problem in seeing Christ as ‘one of us’. That affirmation is full of significance for us. But we must not forget that while Jesus Christ is indeed ‘one of us’, he is also, as the Son of God, ‘not made’. The historical event of the incarnation is not, for Jesus, a beginning, but rather a disclosure for us and for our salvation of his eternal begotten-ness. Wonder of wonders, God is not caught unawares in Bethlehem. The whole story of salvation, including manger and cross and tomb, is what Jesus willingly chooses, not just from within creation, but also as creation’s Lord!
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…begotten not made. O come, let us adore him!