A response and critique of Charles Lee Irons’ “A lexical defence of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten'”

Charles Lee Irons, “A lexical defence of the Johannine ‘Only Begotten'” in Retrieving Eternal Generation. Edited by Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Zondervan, 2017), 98-116.

In the course of writing a response and review of this book as a whole, I thought it worthwhile to respond to this chapter individually, as it is a chapter that I’ve thought a great deal about, having read some of Irons’ pre-published work on the topic and engaged with all of the same data.

Irons’ argument is that monogenes in the Johannine texts should be understood as “only-begotten,” not “only” or similar translations that have dominated NT scholarship for the past 60 years (largely thanks to Dale Moody’s 1953 article).

Irons does not provide any explanation of what “only-begotten” means. In my view, this is problematic precisely because “only-begotten” is not contemporary English and has no meaning for most English speakers outside a theological jargon phrase applied to the second person of the Trinity. That in itself suggests that “only-begotten” carries more semantic “freight” than we’d like. Connected to this, it suggests a significance or ‘weight’ upon the “begotten” part of that phrase that I’m not convinced is borne out by the data.

On page 99, Irons provides an occurrence count for μονογενής in fourth century fathers. This data affirms the prevalence of the term, but Irons offers no interrogation of those usages. A problem I will return to at his conclusion.

While Irons is generally correct that μονογενής is first translated into Latin as unicus filius (p100), his conclusion that this “suggests the -genēs stem was taken as communicating the notion of sonship or offspring” is too confident. It assumes that Latin translators attempted to divide μονογενής and render it by its constituents, which is unlikely

Irons’ fundamental argument that the historical development of a position that it mans “only” or “one and only” or “unique”, which he traces on p100 to 101, is accurate for that development. Similaraly, he is quite correct on p103 in arguing that Arians were more than happy to accept μονογενής differing only on the word’s interpretation. I believe that Irons’ attempt to clear away the etymological objection (p103-105) is well done, though anticipated mostly by Büchsel’s entry in the TDNT.

While Irons is correct that “only-begotten” does not develop in response to Arianism, his reliance upon Latin terminology on p102 is misleading, because unigenitus carries more genitus “weight” than μονογενής does.

Irons gets closest to what I believe to be the case when he writes, “the earliest meaning of monogenēs was biological, in reference to an only child.” (105) I puzzle why he did not stick with “only child”, which is the meaning I propose, but instead opts for the problematic “only begotten”. When he expands this to “monogenēs is used most basically and frequently in reference to an only child begotten by a parent, with the implication of not having any siblings,” the import of “begotten” seems to me problematic. “Only child” is all that is needed here, and the absence of siblings is the key factor in that. Every child is begotten, that’s a corollary of being a child, it doesn’t need to be imported into the definition. Indeed the definition is the absence of siblings, not the begottenness which is by necessity true of every child, only or otherwise.

Irons provides a raft of 4th century references in note 28, p106, some of which overlap my own recent SBL paper. I would suggest, though, that he at points confuses definitions from explanations, with some of these designating ‘what’ μονογενής means, others exploring and explaining the significance of the term.

Irons coverage of the classical occurrences of the term is comprehensive, and having covered all these texts myself, I can confirm the basic correctness of the claim that these use the word in a basic sense to refer to (in my terms) an only child.

Irons goes on to interpret the use in the case of Isaac, as a “nonliteral” extension. This is, going back to Carson’s chapter, the point Carson stumbled at because Isaac is not “literally” an “only-begotten” or an “only child”. Honestly, this is not really a stumbling block if you just have some common sense – anyone can call someone an only child, even if they aren’t, and by doing so they suggest a raft of implicatures. In the case of Isaac, he is the only child that counts, the child of the promise, or in Irons’ terms, the legitimate heir.

Irons sees the other uses of μονογενής as further metaphorical extensions (p110) I’m not so sure that they are extensions of the begetting concept, as it seems entirely possible that on the basis of the γένος etymology, they could arise as appropriate independent uses of μονογενής. But in any case, Irons is correct that when applied philosophically to the universe or similar, it designates it as unique. I do not think “only-begotten” works here as well as he does. Stronger, however, is the scientific use (p111) applied to trees and birds.

Returning them to John 1.14 and 1.18, the key texts, I think Irons’ argument is half-correct. For, the word “son” being absent many English translations must supply it, for “only son”. Irons thinks this is not far enough, and “only begotten son” is better. This, I feel, is part of his over-emphasis on “begottenness”, and part of the difference between meaning and translation. μονογενής on my argument means or designates “an only child”, but in attributive usages “child” is often specified with a noun – παῖς, θυγάτηρ, υἱός, in which case in translation you have to substitute that noun for “child”. But as a substantive, “only child” will work fine depending on context. Here, it is most natural to supply “son”. Adding “begotten” into “only son” to form “only begotten son” lays an unnatural emphasis on “begotten” in English.

Irons goes on to discuss Jn 1.18 and both NIV and ESV renderings. I concur that the ESV rendering gets it wrong, and to be honest Dale Moody is probably to blame. The NIV is slightly having a bet each way.

My final critique rests with Irons’ final conclusions. “The five occurrences of the term in the Gospel and first Epistle of John thus provide part of the exegetical basis for the traditional doctrine of the eternal begetting or generation of the Son, which is in turn a crucial linchpin for the pro-Nicene doctrine of the Trinity.” (116) Part, perhaps, but a small part. I refer you to my SBL presentation for the argument that these five occurrences do not directly provide an exegetical basis for the doctrine of eternal generation, and do not do so because they do not lay the emphasis on begetting that Irons does. He goes on, “the importance of the Johannine monogenēs for the construction of the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son cannot be underestimated.” I presume he means “should not be underestimated”. In any case, again I must demur, because the reliance upon the Johannine monogenēs is not as great as suggested, and to return to the table on p99, this is misleading because actual reliance upon these Johannine texts is much, much less than Irons makes it out to be.

In conclusion, I am largely sympathetic to Irons’ argument that “only” or “unique” is a wrong understanding of the term μονογενής. Like Irons, I would point to the overwhelming body of Greek textual evidence that suggests that whenever it refers to a person, it designates a child without siblings (or intends a child with siblings to evoke the associations of an only child). I differ from Irons in three main, but important respects. Firstly, I think “only-begotten” ties us to a Latin trajectory that places weight upon the “begotten” part of that phrase more than that Greek term itself does. Secondly, that use of “begotten” reads more into the Johannine texts that is warranted of a doctrine of eternal generation per se. Thirdly, and the subject of my recent SBL paper, neither μονογενής as a term itself, nor the Johannine texts, provide as much direct grounding for pro-Nicene doctrines of eternal generation as Irons suggests.

Monogenes in pro-Nicene exegesis (SBL paper)

As mentioned in my last post, I was in Boston last week for AAR/SBL 2017. More than a few people have expressed interest in my paper, and so I arranged for it to be recorded (My thanks to Charles Meeks!)

You can watch a video of it here.

You can also download an audio of it here. (which may be slightly clearer, as it was recorded separately)

I hope to turn it into an article or two, but those things take time. In summary, my paper argues:

  1. That μονογενής in Greek literature up to the 1st century CE refers to an ‘only-child’ when talking about a person, or very occasionally to an only-son or only-daughter (in contrast to the other gender. i.e. an only daughter when there are many sons). This makes best sense of the use fo the word.
  2. That ‘only-begotten’ throws too much emphasis on ‘begotten’ in a way that is misleading for the word’s signification.
  3. That while reference to the 5 Johannine texts containing monogenes is prevalent throughout the pro-Nicene authors, closer examination reveals a number of interesting, key facts, which are:
  4. That those statistics are misleading because very often the verse is referenced but not to draw upon the word monogenes.
  5. That some of those instances are in fact not the authors under which they are listed.
  6. That pro-Nicenes actually rarely, if ever, base an argument for a doctrine of eternal generation on an exegesis or explanation of one of those Johannine texts.
  7. Rather, pro-Nicenes regularly use monogenes in a denotative or absolute sense to name the second person of the Trinity, in a way similar to the English expression “God the Son”. This does not necessitate reading a strong version of eternal generation into every one of those nominal uses.
  8. pro-Nicenes both understand monogenes to mean ‘only-child’ as above, but understand the implication of the Son’s status as only child to be a part of the evidence that his filiation is both genuine and unique, and this is part of a broader theological argumentation in favour of eternal generaiton
  9. The argument that eternal generation emerges from a misunderstanding of monogenes in the fourth century is itself a misunderstanding both of the word monogenes, and of the weight put upon it (or not) by the fourth century Fathers.

Happy to hear comments/questions/feedback.

A brief report from SBL2017

As you might know, I’m currently in Boston for the AAR/SBL 2017 Annual Meeting. I arrived on Friday evening after a fairly long journey (but reasonably pleasant), and managed to sleep a full night and not suffer any particular jet lag.

This time round I realised there was not real value in trying to fill out my schedule with as many papers and sessions as possible, and instead have been more selective. This has meant (a) that I can’t really think of a paper that I didn’t enjoy (oh, wait, except for one!), (b) that my general energy levels have been better, (c) more time for socialising.

It’s been a good opportunity to catch up with some old friends, connect with some people whom I only know from conferences, and corporealise the friendship I have with others via the internet. A real pleasure in every instance.

Today I gave my paper, “μονογενής in pro-Nicene exegesis”, which I have been endlessly spruiking on twitter, and which was well received and helpfully engaged. Some solid work ahead, but I can see a clear path to producing an article or two on it.

The twin factors of considerable discounts and zero shipping have induced a few book purchases, only one of which was not pre-planned, so I consider that a fairly restrained and respectable book-buying-endeavour.

Tomorrow I have a bit of time in the morning, and then I’ll begin the long trip home, in which I also lose a day, the price to be paid for having gained a day the other way.

Overall, an enjoyable and successful conference.

Sweeping plagiarism under the rug

In 2016 the sad news emerged that three commentaries written by Peter O’Brien, a respected New Testament scholar, had been pulled following an investigation finding them guilty of plagiarism. See Eerdmans’ post here.

Sad, because it’s clear to all who know him that Peter is indeed a formidable scholar and gracious Christian person, and this is a major academic transgression. But it was not treated as such. It was quietly ‘dealt with’. The books were pulled, a few people made some mutterings about how it was indeed possible to ‘unintentionally’ plagiarise, especially in the realm of commentary writing, and everyone ‘moved on’.

(No one who has taken notes ought to find it difficult to believe that poor note-taking practice could lead to unintentional plagiarism, but this is merely to understand the fault, not to excuse it)

More recently, and with much, much less attention, Andreas Köstenberger’s Baker commentary on John has been ‘declared out of print’ for the same reason (here). I only heard about this from Jim West, and the  accusation has existed since 2011. Nick Norelli quotes from Köstenberger himself on the vice of plagiarism here.

It’s worth repeating a key paragraph from Köstenberger here:

What is more, once a scholar’s reputation has been marred by plagiarism, it is virtually impossible to regain credibility. Even if those whom you harmed by plagiarism forgive you and you avoid losing your job and you avoid being expelled from an academic program or institution, you can never turn back the clock, and your reputation will likely suffer permanent damage. What is more, you bring dishonor to the God whom you serve and with whom you have chosen to publicly identify. Of all students, it is those engaged in biblical and theological studies who should hold to impeccable standards when it comes to respecting and referencing the work of others.

Plagiarism is a vice and transgression that would destroy a student’s career, but it is a blemish to senior scholars. Köstenberger is apparently working on a new commentary that will correct the misdemeanors of the tainted one.

Really, this simply won’t do for Christian scholarship. It’s not that I feel some sort of vindictive persecution of these two writers needs to take place, indeed I wish them no ill will of any sort. Nonetheless, this ‘go gently’ attitude of quietly removing books from sale, with an almost impossible to locate statement of the transgression, and no repercussions, is itself undermining the righteousness of all parties.

As for me, in my small corner of the world I deal with students still reading and utilising these works. No longer, I decided. My new policy is to (a) warn students that these works are condemned to oblivion, and (b) treat all citations and reliance upon these works as ‘unsourced material’, as if they simply failed to exist. While we may, and indeed ought, forgive authors their sins, to do so we must acknowledge (genuinely) the wrongness of the plagiarism done.


Update (Dec 4th):

I note that today Zondervan has released a statement that they are pulling Köstenberger’s commentary on John that is part of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Commentary series. Presumably Köstenberger reused material from his Baker commentary, and that material was part of the content plagiarised from Carson. At least Zondervan have undertaken to re-assign that volume to a new author, and not just give Köstenberger a chance to revise his work.

Triangulating curriculum design

The only useful thing I ever learned about curriculum design was at a staff development day while in Mongolia. Thankfully the presenter spoke in English and it was translated for the Mongolian staff. I say, “thankfully”, because this (a) reduced my overall cognitive load, and (b) meant I could process the material twice.

Anyway, the big take-away I had was designing your courses backwards, and triangulating three things:

  1. Goals
  2. Methods
  3. Assessments

Goals are what you think your students should know/be able to do, at the end of the course. It’s the point B you’re trying to get them to. Working out your point B (and, for any possible course that has real or implicit prerequisites, the point A they start from), is essential because you can’t get students where you want them to end up if you don’t know what that is.

Then you need to work out appropriate methods to get to those goals. It’s no good saying you want to get to B, if you teach via a method that leads to C. For example, if your goal is grammatical analysis abilities of Greek in English, then teaching communicatively in Greek only will not get you there. And, vice versa, if your goal is an oral ability in Greek, then written translation exercises will not get you there. And so on.

Then you need to design assessments that will test whether you got to those goals. In effect, you are testing (a) did the student(s) reach your goals, (b) did your teaching get them there? That is, assessment assesses both students and teaching. It’s important to get this right because (i) if your assessments don’t actually assess your goals, you have no idea whether you reached them, and (ii) how you assess inevitable influences what students do.

That first issue is part of what I was driving at with the NT translation post – does translation function as a useful assessment for most NT Greek courses’ goals? No. It would be perfect if the class’s goal were translation though, say, a class in translation!

That second issue is also incredibly vital, especially where a lot of student “time” is directed by the students. What a teacher does in 2, 3 contact hours constitutes one part of the teaching method, but students will inevitably shape their own practices around how they will be assessed. So if you have, say, communicative methods in 3 hours of teacher-led interaction, but the class is tested on translation and vocab tests, guess what students will spend their time doing? That’s right, prepping for translation and rote-learning vocab.

Which is why you need to triangulate all three of these things, to make them line up perfectly. And, because that’s going to fail, to do it iteratively. That is, to get to the end of a course of teaching, and evaluate as a teacher whether you reached your goals, and why it is you failed: were the methods wrong? did the assessments do what they were meant to? Did the assessments corrupt your methods and mislead your students? Were there other factors? How to fix these?

(Of course, I have zero control over all three of these factor in almost all my current variety of roles, so don’t blame me!)

Assessing NT students on translations of NT texts is a waste of time

Asking New Testament students to provide a translation of a known (chapter/verse) NT text in an exam or exegetical paper is a waste of time. It tests nothing and it discriminates nothing.

Every student ought to be getting 90-100% on this part of an assessment anyway, because either:

  • they are smart enough to check any translation they do with several English versions and realise their errors beforehand
  • they are smart and a little unscrupulous and are just going to vary an existing English version anyway.
  • if it’s an exam situation, and it’s a set text, then all we are testing is their preparation, not their ability to read Greek.

Why are we even asking them to do translations anyway? They are unlikely to create a translation that is genuinely better or meaningfully different from the hyper-abundance of English versions already in existence. And, assuming that this is a paper and not an exam, as an examiner I gain almost zero insight into their Greek ability or their understanding of the text, unless they stuff it up horribly. Even on an exam, I am testing an unrealistic environment and their ability to read Greek under pressure but with the real question of “what did they prepare and how well?”

Consider what translation is meant to be testing.

  1. Their ability to read Greek.
  2. Their ability to translate
  3. Their understanding of grammar.

In reverse order:

Understanding grammar: Yes, it’s true that asking someone to translate something is a fast and relatively effective way to see if they understand it. But a set translation doesn’t do that, and a set text doesn’t do that either. Knowledge of the English is too strong an interference.

And, if we are asking students to translate in a way that demonstrates their knowledge of the grammar (as I unfortunately have to instruct some of my tutoring students to do), we are training them to be bad translators.

If you want to test explicit grammar knowledge, just ask explicit grammar questions. It’s that simple.

Ability to translate:

Translation is a skill, and it’s a high order one, not a low order one. It requires a real and comprehensive ability in both the source and target languages. Most translation exercises are a test in the students ability to reproduce “Biblish” English.

If we genuinely wanted to test (and train!) translation ability, we would set translation tasks/assessments in which the translation target was specified in demanding ways: Basic English, Anglish, a specific Flesch Reading Ease score, Poetry, highly idiomatic, highly regionalised, etc., etc..

Ability to read Greek:

In some ways it’s difficult to easily, accurately, and comprehensively assess someone’s ability to read Greek. It’s certainly possible to, for instance, ask questions in Greek. But then you are also testing their ability to comprehend the questions. And, you run into ‘form’ problems – if you understand the form of the question, and the answer, you can answer a foreign language question without actually understanding the question or its answer. I did this a great deal in Mongolian because of my “fake it till you make it” philosophy.

I think you might till test this via translation, if you want to, but by varying a few factors. Firstly, in exams simply remove all chapter and verse markings. maybe even punctuation. You don’t need to make them read undivided uncials though, unless you are cruel.

Secondly, you could also provide texts that are single-manuscript sources, rather than eclectic texts. Students easily get used to the sanitised versions of ‘text’ that critical editions give them. Throw them into the wild and have them read something more like this:


ειπ]ε[ν ουν] αυτοις ο ι̅η̅· α[μην αμην λεγ]ω̣ υμιν̣ [οτι εγω ειμι η θυρα των

π̣ροβατ̣ω̣ν· παντες οσοι̣ [ηλθον κλεπτα]ι εισιν και λησται· α̣[λλ ουκ η

κουσεν αυτων τα προβατα[· εγω ειμι η] θ̣υ[ρ]α· δι εμου εαν τις εισ[ελθη σωθη

σεται· και εισελευσεται· και εξ[ε]λ[ε]υσεται· και νομην ευρησει· [ο κλεπτης

ουκ ερχεται ει μη ϊνα κλεψη και θυση και απολεση· εγω η̣[λθον

ϊνα ζωην εχωσι· και περισσον εχωσιν·


(John 10:7-10 from P45)


If they were classical Greek students tackling a NT class, you can be meaner. Convert a NT text into Ionian, or similar mean tricks.

Anyway, my point is simple – asking students to produce a ‘standard’-esque translation of a Greek NT text is not a very useful assessment tool because it doesn’t test anything very useful, and doesn’t provide any real discrimination among students. So it’s neither providing any valuable feedback to me as a teacher, nor is it spreading the student field in any meaningful way, so giving them all 10/10 is the same as giving them 0/10 for it. Yes, by all means students should probably go on translating NT texts as part of their studies, it won’t harm them (much), but let’s give up assessing them with it.

On being a “hard marker”

I am known as being a “hard marker”, apparently.

And I am coming to terms with that, not as a perverse badge of honour, as if I get some delight over punishing students with low marks. Actually, I work hard to grade consistently, in line with the rubrics I’m given, and with some eye to consistency across other markers. It’s not certain that I’m actually a hard marker, but certain student bodies certainly perceive me to be.

Good think I’m not in the States, where mark inflation means the actual marking range is about 10-15 percentage points higher than the Australian range. Here I make most assignments as somewhere between 55 and 90. 85 is my usual benchmark for amazing. 55 is a pass. Below that I usually need to mark it as a failure and make sure it’s below 47.

But all these numbers mean nothing, in the end, which is what I’m coming to terms with. If I give a 65, or a 75, does this matter, except relative to my own grades? That is, if I awarded you a 65 on one assignment, then a 75 on the next, that should mean something – that should mean that your second assignment was better. But if I award you a 65 and someone else awards you a 75 on something else, who actually cares? You do, because you put numbers on your self-worth as a student.

Most of my marking energy (and time) goes into commenting. I genuinely want students to succeed as students, to improve, to grow, and that includes the area of academic writing. So, yes, I’ll keep on commenting on every little thing you could do to improve, and I’ll keep on marking as I do, without trying to be a student-pleaser, but rather with an eye to overall consistency.

And if that means you think I’m a “hard marker”, all the more reason for you to be diligent, work hard, and earn my respect by turning in exceptional work.