THE FAMOUS 3:16 AND SPIRIT CHILDREN
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
In this we see a radical concept: Jesus is God’s only begotten Son. CS Lewis explains it quite brilliantly in Mere Christianity:
We don’t use the words begetting or begotten much in the modern English, but everyone still knows what they mean. To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make. And the difference is this. When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets human babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds.
But when you make, you make something of a different kind from yourself. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a… statue. If he is a clever enough carver he may make a statue which is very like a man indeed. But, of course, it is not a real man; it only looks like one…
What God begets is God; just as what man begets is man. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is.
So what we see is that this language of begetting helps us to understand the relationship between Jesus and the Father.
When an earthly father has a son, that son is no less human than his father. In the same way, Jesus is no less God than his Father. A human son imitates his human father in having both a beginning and an ending. In the same manner, Jesus imitates His heavenly Father in having no beginning and no termination. Hence, “In the beginning was the Word…”
So the Orthodox Christian understanding of this passage is that God the Father begets a being that is completely God. Because we think of children having a beginning, this can seem a bit confusing. Blessed Theophylact, an ancient Christian writer, compares it to the sun. What came first: the sun, the light, or the heat? All of them came together. The sun would be no sun if it lacked either light or heat, but these things proceed from the sun. This is a metaphor for the way in which God the Father is the fountainhead of the Trinity from which the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed, all of them being of the same essence, yet also distinct.
BEYOND SPIRIT AND FLESH
God by His nature is beyond nature, beyond time, and even beyond being. The Son, who cannot be any less “God” than His Father – if He truly is begotten – is also beyond nature, beyond time, beyond being.
In Orthodoxy, we understand that there are two things that exist, and One beyond existence. There is the material world that we can see and there is the spiritual world, which we cannot comprehend clearly. Both of these worlds are created. God cannot belong exclusively to a created world. That would place constraints on God’s being, which is not possible.
“God is spirit” (Jn 4:24) and dwells in the spiritual realm; it is a higher reality than our own. Truly though, God is not only spirit, but is also beyond spirit. In this way God participates1 in both created realms through His spiritual presence spoken of above and His fleshly material presence when He became incarnate, yet He is not limited by either of these realms.
The Watchtower offer a strange concept that seems to me to resemble a bit of ancient paganism. My understanding of their theology is this:
They say that spirits are similar to people in that they have bodies, only their bodies are invisible and not composed of flesh and blood. God is a spirit with a body that is bigger, stronger, and more powerful than the others. At some point, he created the angel Michael through whom he created all of the other angels, which are “sons” of God as well. He chose for Michael to have the title of “only begotten son.” However, their doctrine leads me to believe that the title only begotten means that God and this spiritual child are good buddies, but ultimately, there’s nothing inherently significant about this spiritual son. One Witness told me God could have picked any other angel for this honorary title and have sent him to earth to die for our sins.
If any of the above were true, St John would not have made it a point to speak of Christ as being God’s only begotten son. He could have called him God’s “favored,” “special,” or “highly chosen” son, but to speak of Jesus as only begotten declares that He is “true God of true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father by whom all things were made.”2
JOB AND THE SONS OF GOD
As the Witnesses enjoy pointing out, the book of Job refers to “sons of God” (Job 1:6), which they state in their Bible is “A Hebrew idiom that refers to angelic sons of God.” I’m not convinced that’s true when seeing the context in which the Hebrew phrase (הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים בְּנֵ֣י) appears in other Old Testament passages.
Regardless, never does scripture refer to any angel as “only begotten son of God,” and that is because the other “sons of God” were created and not begotten. Their argument serves only to distract us from the fact that John 3:16 uses the word begotten. When I have spoken to them in the past, they had no explanation for this word other than it meaning “special,” which it clearly does not.
There is a significant distinction here. Calling angels “sons of God” was nothing more than a primitive Semitic way of saying that these were spirit creatures and not fleshly creatures. Being a Hebrew himself, the Apostle John likely knew of this passage in the book of Job which is why he drew the sharp distinction between Jesus Christ and angles by speaking of Jesus as only begotten rather than “first created” or “favorite angelic son.”
1 God holds and sustains all things in their being, both material and spirit. Nothing exists except through God being within it and holding it together (cf. Col 1:16-17). That includes every spirit, every human, every star, every planet, and every black hole. So, while I say “God participates” another accurate statement is that the spirit and material worlds exist to the extent at which they participate in the energies of God. We exist due to our participation in God, yet God also condescends to participate in the material and spiritual worlds in order to interact with His creatures.
2 From the Orthodox creed.