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Chasing red herrings: μονογενής as “only-begotten” vs. “unique”

Recently Charles Lee Irons posted on TGC a defence of the translation of μονογενής in the New Testament as “only-begotten”, instead of the modern consensus that it means “unique” or “one of a kind”. Why? I can only presume, and the article indicates as much, that it’s in response to the ongoing controversy in Evanglical circles over Grudem and Ware’s “Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission” (ERAS) and problems with Eternal Generation (EG). One should also look at Daniel Wallace’s musings in response.

Grudem, as I hear it, has affirmed EG at the recent ETS conference, but without retracting his position on ERAS. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what he has said most recently.

Nonetheless, if you go back to Grudem’s Systematic Theology, he makes a clear case *against* EG in Appendix 6. He basically states that μονογενής derives from μονός and γενός rather than μονός and γεννάω. He also states that it as misunderstood, to mean ‘only-begotten’, and that this is the erroneous usage found in the Nicene Creed.

Grudem also states, erroneously, that the Greek Fathers should have used μονογέννητος! (One should exercise more caution in telling Greek theologians how to use their own language)

Let me quote Grudem at length:

If the phrases “begotten of the Father before all worlds” and “begotten, not made” were not in the Nicene Creed, the phrase would only be of historical interest to us now, and there would be no need to talk of any doctrine of the “eternal begetting of the Son.” But since the phrase remains in a creed that is still commonly used, we perpetuate the unfortunate necessity of having to explain to every new generation of Christians that “begotten of the Father” has nothing to do with any other English sense of the word beget. It would seem more helpful if the language of “eternal begetting of the Son” (also called the “eternal generation of the Son”) were not retained in any modern theological formulations. Similarly, to refer to Jesus as God’s “only begotten” Son—language that derives from the King James translation—seems to be more confusing than helpful. What is needed is simply that we insist on eternal personal differences in the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that the Son eternally relates to the Father as a son does to his father.[1]

The main problem with Grudem’s view is that the pro-Nicene articulation of the doctrine of Eternal Generation does not depend upon how they read μονογενής. And this is why Irons’ article is chasing a red herring – you don’t need to defend μονογενής as “only-begotten” to defend EG.

When Grudem says that ‘eternal begetting’ means we have to keep re-explaining what ‘beget’ means in this context, this is no different than the pro-Nicenes in the fourth century. They have to continually say that the relationship of ‘generation’, i.e. that the Father is father to the Son, and the Son is son to the Father, does mean that (a) they are of the same essence, and (b) that the Son’s origin is in the Father in a causal sense, but that it doesn’t mean there is any temporal beginning to the Son, change or diminishment in the Father, difference in essence of the Son, or materiality or even sexual intercourse involved in the Son’s coming into being.

That is, for the Father-Son language of the Scriptures, the pro-Nicenes articulate how the analogy works – what parts are actually analogous, and what parts are not analogous. All good analogies work by providing a comparison between two things, but two things that are alike in every respect are in fact the same thing! Saying that an apple is analogous to an apple is true, but unhelpful. Analogy works when something is alike in a pertinent respect, and unlike in other respects. That’s why a careful use of analogy distinguishes its points of analogy, and its points of disanalogy.

Does μονογενής mean ‘only-begotten’ in the New Testament in the sense the fourth century Fathers understand it? I don’t think so. I actually don’t want to go down that linguistic path today, but my point is that it doesn’t matter for Eternal Generation of the Son. It’s similar to, though perhaps more contentious than, the fact that Hebrews 1:3 uses the word ὑπόστασις in a way totally uninformed by late fourth century discussions of God existing in three ὑποστάσεις. The fourth-century pro-Nicenes are “free” to use μονογενής to mean only-begotten in the context of their debates, without having to either import that meaning back into the New Testament texts, or us thinking that their articulation of Nicene Trinitarianism depends upon such a reading being present in those texts.

It’s certainly true, I should say, that those same pro-Nicenes make arguments from those Johannine verses; it’s also true that the pro-Nicene arguments are exegetically propelled. But in this case, understanding μονογενής as “unique” does no harm to this position. Though thinking that understanding μονογενής as “unique” was an argument for rejecting Eternal Generation does great harm to orthodox trinitarianism (and is one reason Grudem was wrong).

[1] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 1234.

The Bridge – customisable Greek and Latin vocabulary lists

Recently I came across a project I hadn’t heard about before, the Bridge, and a new version of the same. It’s a site, and an interface, that lets you build customisable vocabulary lists based on Greek and Latin textbooks and texts.

In general, I don’t believe rote memorisation of vocab is the most effective or pedagogically sound method for expanding vocabulary, but it’s not without merits. This tool is incredibly useful for that purpose (and others). Especially it allows you to build a list from (a) the text your working on, excluding (b) texts/textbooks/lists you’ve already learnt. That allows you to stage your learning of vocab, or target what you don’t know. You can also design a list including words from another list only, so you could create a list of words, for example, you should already know.

If you wanted to brute force your way to a very solid Greek or Latin vocabulary, here’s how to do it.


  1. Download or otherwise install Anki.
  2. Set up an Anki account online for syncing.
  3. Create a single list at the Bridge, starting with the DCC Core vocabulary, or your textbook.
  4. Export that list as a TSV (tab separated values) file.
  5. Import that file into Anki (make sure you get the right entries to line up for the correct front/back fields).
  6. Start learning these words rigorously using Anki.

There’s very good reasons to start with the DCC Core vocabulary lists. They (each) represent a curated and carefully composed list that draws upon corpus analyis and frequency of occurence to generate a core list that is ‘biggest bang for buck.’ The Greek list is probably not quite as useful if you’re purely a NT Greek student, but you shouldn’t be so fixated on the New Testament corpus anyway (but if you are, you will get best value by learning a frequency list of NT occurences only).

If/when you learnt/mastered/totally conquered the DCC list, then I’d create a new list – a particular text minus all the words from DCC. If you did DCC first, then I’d do your primary textbook second. Then repeat: new list, minus all the previous lists. If you want to read through a particular actual text, then same process – new list, minus all previous lists.

Voila, you are now on your way to brute forcing your vocabulary acquisition. Is it ideal? No, but if your disciplined it will work and it will pay off.

Process for preparing Patristic Reader texts

I’m not sure I’ve written about this before, but here’s how I prepare a text for a patristic reader (and if I plan to teach it closely).

Step 1: I obtain a clean, digitised version of the text. Depending on the text, that changes where and how I try to obtain it. Basically, I want a version without any copyright claims on it. Personally, I don’t think copyright inheres in edited or critical editions anyway, but I don’t have the legal resources to test that kind of claim in a court. So, open texts it is.

Step 2: If I can’t get a digital copy of an open text, I’ll use a text with claims on it, and re-edit it based of an open text. Texts are copyrightable, not origins, so conforming it to a rights-free edition removes any legal issues. Usually this means a PG or PL version. Thanks Migne, you were a hero in your own way.

Step 3: I alphabetise the base text. I then open up two files: the alphabetised base text, and a “Master Patristics Vocab file”. The latter has every word I’ve written a vocab entry for in previous texts. The current Greek file has 1911 entries. I then work through the base text file and (a) cut and paste entries for which I’ve already got data, (b) analyse any words that don’t have entries, (c) compile frequency numbers as I go, (d) note any words that are morphologically ambiguous. At the end of this, I revisit (d) words and look at them in context. Resolving (d) words is usually much easier for Greek than Latin.

Occasionally there are (e)-class words: words that aren’t easily analysed/parsed. For these I will find them in context in the text, look at a translation, run a parsing program, and then try every parsing-trick that I know. Usually I can resolve them, but some are tricky little suckers. Those are the cases where you need to undo some unusual vowel contractions/formations and run guess versions of a lexical form through a couple of dictionaries. Sometimes it’s a fairly unique or neologistic word that you need to backwards derive. That’s always fun.

Step 4: Once this is done I have a master vocab list for the individual text. I then open up the clean base text file again, as well as a template document for the reader’s edition. I work a page at a time, copy and paste 10 lines of text into the template, mark the cut-off point in the base text, and then work on that page.

Step 5: for an individual page, I work through these steps:

(a) alphabetise the vocab and cut and paste entries out of this document’s vocabulary file, thus producing a vocab list for this page. I eliminate high frequency vocab.
(b) I work through the text, producing a translation of my own. If a pre-existing translation exists, I’ll leverage that for speed of comprehension.
(c) make notes on any grammar I think is interesting or difficult
(d) tidy up the page and move on.

Step 6:
Each page is on average 90-100 words. It takes 20-30 mins to work through a page, depending on complexity and issues. So it’s not a fast process to produce a full text. But it does get me up close and personal with a text. At the end of all the pages, I go through and convert them all to pdf, and compile into a single file. I then add front material (introduction) and end material (vocab lists).

And that’s pretty much it. That’s how I produce a patristic reader text.

State of the Projects, Nov 2016

Well the big news is that I’m almost done with the PhD dissertation. I’m sitting on a fairly full draft, a proofreader is working through it, I’ve had a good friend read the whole thing, and my supervisor is working their way through this version. If all goes well, I’ll do some final edits, supervisor will sign off, copies will be printed and sent off to my three external examiners, they will read it and be convinced it’s up to scratch, and it will ‘Dr. Patrologist’ from here on in.

In January, as my last post mentioned, I’ll be teaching a 1-week course again at MALS, and I plan to work through Nyssen’s De deitate filii et Spiritus Sancti et in Abraham. This means that for the rest of November and December, I’ll be preparing that text, which also means I’ll be producing (a) a Patristic Readers edition of the text, (b) an English translation (there isn’t one), and (c) since this will be a third Nyssen text of suitable length, I plan to incorporate it with Ad Ablabium and Ad Simplicium to produce another print version. Sales of my first reader have been unsurprisingly miniscule, but I’m not bothered by this. My market is niche, and I derive a lot of benefit from the preparation of these texts.

My other plan for summer here going forward is to turn attention back to article writing and really get a few articles submitted over the next 4 months. I don’t lack for materials, but I do need to turn them into submissables.

I have no idea what I’ll be doing in 2017. I’m applying for jobs, obviously, but I have an unhealthy pessimism about employment in contrast to my otherwise general optimism. If I can find a few more online students, I’d be happy to take them on for the year ahead. We’ll see.


Come read Gregory of Nyssa with me this January!

The program is up for Macquarie Ancient Languages School for Summer 2017, it’s 9th to 13th January. This time around I’ll be teaching through Gregory of Nyssa’s De Deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti et in Abraham, which has no English translation so unless you want to wait around for my forthcoming translation, and even if you did, now is the time to come and read the Greek with me!

We’ll also be reading some Genesis narrative material from the LXX as well. Fun times!

So go and enroll! All the information you need is here.

State of the Projects, October 2016, and how I plan to fix my publication record

It’s a warm Saturday night and I’ve just polished off some delicious milo as I type this. In the morning the lords of time and date decree that we will lose an hour to make summer more bearable (they are wise, because I’ve been getting up at 5:30 this week, and without daylight savings time, it’ll be 4:30 by the middle of summer, which reminds me of Mongolian summer which was very productive).

This, if you haven’t realised, is me at my rambling best.

Very little to report on ‘the projects’. I did receive a lovely email a few weeks past asking about my shelved Greek Ørberg work. Happy to share that around, such as it is.

I, of course, am about waist-deep in trying to bring my thesis to completion by mid-November. This is stymied by the delightful distraction of only studying 3 days a week and looking after a beautiful 6 month old for 2 days a week (out of 5, if you’re confused by my maths).

That thesis is coming along well, but a metric tonne of work remains to be done. A lot of editing, revising, formatting, following up references, incorporating some material, and a bit of writing.

I’m also applying for jobs for which I have great anti-enthusiasm and a fair share of pessimism. I’m hyper-aware of the defects in my c.v. and my applications, which are generally fixable but I can’t fix them right now.

One of those is my lack of publications. I have just an odd assortment of ‘things’ I’ve published, but I am missing those stand out bejewelled peer-reviewed prestige journal articles. Partly, I believe, because my doctoral candidature never pushed me hard enough to publish.

I can literally count up about six articles worth of material that I have sitting in digital form. Some of these need more work than others. One has been rejected once so far. All need sustained attention to bring them to fruition. But time and the self-review has never been my friend here.

So right now, I have been carving out a minimal but important amount of time to diligently work through Wendy Laura Belcher’s  Writing Your Journal Article in 12 weeks. Though I’ve read a couple of really helpful books about article writing, this is a workbook designed to get you doing the process. So I’ve got a single article that parallels some thesis material that I’m working over for resubmission.

Once the thesis is done my secondary plan is to start working over those other article materials at a staggered schedule and just keep at it until I (a) fix the deficit in my c.v. (b) become habituated to a work flow that results in journal articles.

Of course, this is all future plans, which helps my current job applications not one whit. Hence, healthy pessimism.

Then, too, I have some good ‘projects’ lined up to resume – again, once that thesis is done and submitted. Until then, almost everything else must wait.

Conference on Chrysostom, and a paper by myself

On the just passed Friday and Saturday I was delighted to attend the Seventh Saint Andrew’s Patristic Symposium at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney. The topic was Chrysostom, and the keynote speakers were Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen. Top class speakers!


Anyway, I have uploaded a recording of my own presentation, “Chrysostom: Proof Texts and Problem Texts” which you may listen to at your leisure. I think with a bit more work it will turn into a nice article of its own.