Begotten not made

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!

10 thoughts on “Begotten not made”

  1. Hallelujah!
    For me, the most poignant line in any of the beautiful carols we so enjoy singing at this time of year is:
    ‘Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till he appeared, and the soul felt its worth ….’
    (O Holy Night)

    In the divinity of Jesus, humanity finds its worth.
    We can only know our true worth through Jesus the Saviour.

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  2. Thanks for these comments. In terms of scriptural authority, I think I’ll give a scholar’s answer, and say that the answer to that all depends on what you mean by ‘scriptural authority’. For me, I am persuaded by the approach of Robert Jenson (among others, such as John Webster) that the task of theology in this regard is to help us read Scripture more meaningfully and truthfully. ‘Begotten not made’ thus is theologically warranted because it helps us make sense of what Scripture says, and, even more importantly, of who Jesus is, in the light of what Scripture says. The slogan’s scriptural authority rests in how it unfolds the scriptural testimony about Jesus to us, in a way that would be otherwise obscured without it. I realise this probably requires a whole other piece to unpack, so maybe one to store up for next time!

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  3. A difficulty, both in envisaging and in explaining the Trinity, is that the creeds and much of the preaching and discussion within the church separate out the three persons, at the expense of recognizing the essential unity of God. If God is an omnipresent spirit, where can we find one person of the Trinity without the other two being there? This tendency to stress the three rather than the one, particularly in order to draw out the divine role of Jesus, comes very close at times to giving a picture of three separate gods. This is made more confusing by our tendency to anthropomorphize the father and the son. In the baptism service, the service where we are most likely to welcome new families and their friends, we include “For you he prays at God’s right hand.” How do we expect visitors to understand that differently from a stained glass window depicting the three divine figures sitting next to each other?

    Religious doctrines continue not because they have been shown to be valid intellectually but because people benefit from them and because they reflect personal experiences. A strength of the Trinity doctrine is that it acknowledges and unifies different approaches to God. It combines a father figure, the assurance of a personal saviour and the presence of God as an in-dwelling spirit. Whichever emphasis is preferred, one can enjoy a relationship with God through which one can feel completely accepted. Andrew is correct; logic is not a major component in faith. (That’s why Richard Dawkins doesn’t understand it.) Relationships are much more a matter of the heart rather than of the mind; and that applies equally to our relationship with God.

    In modern times there’s been a trend towards seeing faith as intellectual assent to beliefs about God. This attempt to rationalize Christianity to fit in with an age of science has too often led to literalization of scripture and an over-emphasis on doctrines. As a result, stories, metaphors, and images that sought to express a relationship with a God who is beyond description become treated as factual accounts and the supra-rational truths they contain lose much of their power. The best evidence for the truth of Christianity has never been intellectual reasoning; it has always been people’s personal experiences of God and lives that have been transformed by faith. =

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  4. Pavel, I like your words:
    ‘Relationships are much more a matter of the heart, rather than of the mind ….’

    I’m no scholar, but for me the whole point of the Trinity is that God is relational. The Father has a relationship with the Son, and through the Holy Spirit, which proceeds from the Father and the Son, we can have a relationship with all three. That means we are one with the Trinity, and it follows that every person we bring into our circle of love is also one with the Triune God. As our circle of love grows wider, to include not just our nearest and dearest, but the local, national and global communities we live in, so eventually all of humanity is one with God. In this sense, the Trinity is not an obstacle to unity, it is the very means of making us one with the whole world in our hearts, including those who do not share our beliefs.
    It might not make sense to some but it does to me, and my God loves a tryer! 🙂

    PS Thank you, Andrew, for engaging with the dialogue.

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  5. Thanks for your engagement too! As you might expect from someone who spends time teaching theology, I do think that doctrines such as the Trinity are intellectually coherent as well as practical – so you’re spot on to emphasise the relational focus of theology, but, for me, that also includes the mind and the intellect. The key point, which I think we agree on, is that too often intellectual assent is seen as the main ‘mode’ of theological reflection, whereas, instead, (and appropriately for Methodists) theological reflection can be seen as an exploration of the relationships that ground us and the whole universe, about which we can sing and pray and preach! God’s grace has its own logic, which is not the same as ours (thankfully!).

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  6. In the gospel genealogies, it is quite clear that ‘begat’ and ‘begotten’ refer to procreation. In Psalm 2, “Today I have begotten you” appears to mean “Today you have become as much my son as if you were physically mine.” In the 4th century debate “begotten” appears to proclaim that Jesus was brought into being directly “from the substance of the Father.” “Begotten not made” seems to have had the original meaning of “Conceived not created” or “Progeny not product”. And, of course, the very use of “Father and Son” suggests procreation (or at least adoption.) Of course, ideas have developed a long way in the last 1700 years, and interpretations of the Trinity have been given considerable amount of thought. However, we still cling to the creed as the test of orthodoxy. This leads to changing the meaning of some words to reflect new interpretations. And why not? However, the meaning of “Begotten” in the creed has to be a contrasting alternative to “made” for the slogan to make sense. “Dependent not made” just doesn’t work. Also, how does this suggestion of dependency fit in with the persons of the Trinity being “co-equal, co-omnipotent and co-eternal”?

    I have no wish to revisit Arian controversies. The Trinity is a sacred mystery. I am quite happy that people should understand and envisage the Trinity in whatever way makes them feel spiritually comfortable and fits in with their personal experience. I have learned to live with the continual and copious curious contradictions in Christian thinking, many of which come in slogans related to the Trinity doctrines. During church services, the meaning of the terms ‘God’, ‘Lord’, ‘Spirit’ can vary between different hymns, the readings, the prayers and the sermon, and even within the sermon. ‘God’ is sometimes used to mean the Trinity, frequently just the Father, and increasingly just the Son. ‘Lord’ is applied primarily to Jesus but also appears in phrases, such as ‘Lord God’. It is not always clear when the ‘spirit of God’ refers to the Holy Spirit alone and when it indicates an experience or act of the Triune God. In books and courses, the use of these terms can change within a chapter. For example, “God came down in the person of his Son Jesus Christ” is followed within a page or two later by “It cost God not money, but his one and only Son.” Catholics venerate Mary as “the Mother of God” but then have to explain that ‘God’ in this case doesn’t include the Father and the Spirit. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” [Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking-Glass]

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  7. I don’t have a problem with the intelligentsia; in fact I am in awe of them! I work in a Christian bookshop and, in the quiet moments when there are no customers, I sit in silence, surrounded by centuries of Christian literature and wisdom, and I feel that, even though a lot of it is way over my head intellectually, I benefit from just being there, absorbing what I need in a spiritual way. I just wish that the scholars would recognise that their big words and complex theories can be quite off-putting to those who are only seeking a relationship with God. Most people don’t have a clue what they are talking about!
    I like James’ words: ‘The Trinity is a sacred mystery.’ Isn’t it just? And what would life be without mystery, awe and wonder? Everything doesn’t need to be explained and understood in a logical way. God can reach us at every level.
    Today I officially became an old-age pensioner (age 66 – they moved the goalposts!) and I celebrated the day with a trip to Newcastle with my husband. One of the highlights of the day was standing in line with people of all ages to enjoy the window display at Fenwick’s store. It tells the story of Shaun the Sheep and his wayward brother Tim in ‘The Flight before Christmas’, a heartwarming tale of the whole flock pulling together to rescue one of their own.
    A shop front. An attractive display. A children’s story. No mention of religion, creeds or doctrines. You didn’t need a degree in theology to pick up the moral of the story. We should all pull together for the ones who are in danger. Theology is not just the domain of the brainy people or the religious folk. God is for everyone, without exception. And it will please Robert Bridge no end that it was the mother sheep (not the father!) who rescued Tim and brought him safely home.
    As for Humpty Dumpty, well there’s another mystery! Did he fall or was he pushed? 😉

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