The Trinity on Trial An in-depth examination of a doctrine

John 1:18


"No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has expressed Him."


The Trinitarian Claim

Trinitarians here claim that Jesus is being identified as "God."


Examination of the Claim

Doubtful Authenticity

There are two main manuscript traditions for this passage. Your Bible may even note this in a footnote to this verse. The ancient manuscripts we do have in our possession are not in agreement. Some manuscripts read "only begotten God" while other manuscripts read "only begotten Son." Some patristic writers quote "only begotten God" while others quote "only begotten Son." Hence, one of these readings is an error and did not originally come from the hand of the Apostle John.

It is very difficult to tell which rendering is authentic by examining the historical evidence alone. The earliest manuscript evidence seems to be in favor of "only begotten God." However, it is a well known fact among textual critics that earliest does not mean best and all these manuscripts seem to conspicuously reflect an Alexandrian tradition and the ancient manuscripts where are not Alexandrian seem to be consistent with "only begotten Son." Early patristic writers also tend to lean heavily toward "only begotten Son" indicating they were using manuscripts which had that reading. Moreover, some of these patristic documents pre-date the earliest manuscripts we have in our possession.


Variations in Major Trinitarian Translation

The difference between these two traditions can be seen in major Trinitarian Bible versions, some of which are translated from one manuscript tradition and others which are translated from the other manuscript tradition. The most recent translations tend to have "only-begotten God."

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (NASB).

No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father's side, has revealed him. (NAB).

No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. (NIV).

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (ASV).

No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known. (RSV).

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared [him]. (ASV).

No man hath seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the Bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (Douey-Rheims).

No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (KJV).

The difference in in these Trinitarian translations illustrates a very serious problem in using this passage as evidence concerning Trinitarian doctrine. However, these differences reflect a changing opinion over time since the Bible was first translated into English. The older translations tend to have "only-begotten Son," while the newer translations have "only-begotten God." This is due to an accessibility to a wider variety manuscripts for modern translators. The difference in translations is not so much due to scholarly disagreement but due to contemporary scholarly discovery.


Manuscript Evidence

ManuscriptCommon NameDateTextOrigin
p66Bodmer Papyrica. 200only begotten GodNear Nag Hammadi, Egypt
p75Bodmer Papyrica. 250only begotten GodNear Nag Hammadi, Egypt
BCodex Vaticanusca. 325only begotten GodAlexandrian
AlephCodex Sinaiticusca. 350only begotten GodAlexandrian
ACodex Alexandrinusca. 450only begotten SonByzantine
 Curetonian Syriacca. 450only begotten Son 


The earliest manuscripts have "only-begotten God." However, earliest is not necessarily best. These manuscripts are essentially confined to the Alexandrian tradition and textual criticisicm tells us this means we just might have a locally perpetuated error on our hands. Second, Egypt was known for a high level of Gnostic activity and they were well known to have tampered with Scripture. The Gnostics would have prefered the rendering "only begotten God" as we shall soon see. The Chester Beatty papryii, for example, were found in the Nag Hammadi region where Gnostic Scriptures were also discovered.


The Early Christian Witness

We also need to consider the evidence provided by early Christians. Which version did they have in their possession? We can find out by discovering which version they quoted in their writings.

Quotations of John 1:18 in Early Christian Writings
AuthorReferenceDateTextComments
Ignatius
Bishop of Antioch
Syria
Philippians
II
ca. 110 "only begotten Son" Long Recension only
Irenaeus
Bishop of Lyons
Gaul
Against Heresies
III, 11.6
ca. 180 "only begotten Son"  
Irenaeus
Bishop of Lyons
Gaul
Against Heresies
IV, 20.6
ca. 180 "only begotten Son"  
Irenaeus
Bishop of Lyons
Gaul
Against Heresies
IV, 20.11
ca. 180 "only begotten God" Interpolation
Clement
Alexandria
Pedagogue
I, 3
ca. 200 "only begotten Son" Head of the School of Alexandria
Clement
Alexandria
Stromata
I, 26
ca. 200 "only begotten Son"  
Clement
Alexandria
Stromata
V, 12
ca. 200 "only begotten God"  
Hippolytus
Rome
Against Noetus
V
ca. 205 "only begotten Son" Greek writer
Tertullian
Africa
Against Praxeas
VIII
ca. 212 only begotten Son

"The Son alone knows the Father, and has Himself unfolded the Father's bosom."
Not an explicit quotation of John 1:18 but obviously implied.
Tertullian
Africa
Against Praxeas
XV
ca. 212 "only begotten Son" Latin writer
Origen
Alexandria
Commentary
on John
II, 24
ca. 230 "only begotten God" Head of the School of Alexandria
Origen
Alexandria
Against Celsus
LXXI
ca. 248 "only begotten Son"  
  Letter of Hymenaeus
(Letter of the Six Bishops)
ca. 268 "only begotten Son"  
Archelaus
Bishop
Mesopotamia
Disputation
with Manes
XXXII
ca. 280 "only begotten Son" Syriac
Alexander
Bishop
Alexandria
Deposition
of Arius
I, 4
ca. 324 "only begotten Son" Arius' initial chief rival
Athanasius
Alexandria
De Decretis
Defense of the
Nicene Definition
  "only begotten Son"  
Arian Bishops
Antioch
Second Arian
Confession
341 A.D. only begotten God Not a quote of John 1:18 but very suggestive.
Athanasius
Alexandria
Four Discourses
Against the Arians
Discourse II
357 A.D. "only begotten Son" Athanasius obviously does not wish to appeal to the unbegotten God text
Athanasius
Alexandria
Four Discourses
Against the Arians
Discourse IV
357 A.D. "only begotten Son"  
Hilary
Poitiers
On the Trinity
Book IV, V, VI
359 A.D. "only begotten Son"  
Basil
Bishop of Caesarea
On the
Holy Spirit
VI
ca. 375 "only begotten God"  
Basil
Bishop of Caesarea
On the
Holy Spirit
XI
ca. 375 "only begotten God"  
Gregory of Nyssa Letter VIII
To Flavian
  "only begotten Son"  
Gregory Nazianzus Letters   only begotten God
"he declares that the Only-begotten God, the Judge of all, the Prince of Life, the Destroyer of Death, is mortal, and underwent the Passion in His proper Godhead"
Numerous references to "only begotten God"
Chrysostom Homilies on John
XV
ca. 389 "only begotten Son"  
Ambrose
Bishop of Milan
Italy
The Patriarchs
(The Fathers)
X1, 51
ca. 389 "only begotten Son"  
Augustine
Bishop of Hippo
Africa
Gospel of John
XLVIII, 3
430 "only begotten Son"  

The Ante-Nicene Voice

Clement of Alexandria, writing in the early 200's in his Stromata (V, 12), apears to have "only-begotten God," but he also has "only-begotten Son" in the same document (I, 26) and his The Instructor has "only-begotten Son" (I,3) suggesting that the line which reads "only-begotten God" in the Stromata could be a copy corruption, or vice versa. Origen has "only-begotten Son" in Against Celsus (II, 71) but "only begotten God" in his Commentary on John (II, 24).. Tertullian around 212 A.D. has "only-begotten Son" in Against Praxeas (VIII; XV). In the later 200's, Archelaus in his Disputation with the Heresiarch Manicheus, still has "only-begotten Son" (XXXII). Hippolytus has "only-begotten Son" in Against Noetus (V). All these men were writing before Nicea and the development of Trinitarian doctrines. Alexandrius who writes against the Arius and the Arian heresy never mentions it but has "only-begotten Son." The ante-Nicene texts which have only-begotten" God seem to also be confined to one locality - Alexandria - where Platonism and Gnosticism flourished. So we can see here a very serious problem with this passage. Either the texts of the Bible were later miscopied and/or corrupted, or the texts of these church fathers were later corrupted with an interpolation to meet a new doctrine and/or a later corrupted Bible text.

As we can see from evidence in the above list, both renderings are prevalent from around 200 A.D. The "only begotten God" version seems to be restricted to the Alexandrian region which could indicate a locally circulated corruption. The following quotation by Irenaeus that has "only begotten God" is considered to be an interpolation (i.e. corrupted text) by translators and textual critics (and yes they are Trinitarians).

But His Word, as He Himself willed it, and for the benefit of those who beheld, did show the Father's brightness, and explained His purposes (as also the Lord said: "The only-begotten God, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared [Him];" and He does Himself also interpret the Word of the Father as being rich and great); not in one figure, nor in one character, did He appear to those seeing Him, but according to the reasons and effects aimed at in His dispensations, as it is written in Daniel."

The portion in brackets is thought to have been added to Irenaeus' actual words. The style and structure of the sentence indicates these are not his own words and it would also contain an error because John said these words in narration, not the Lord Jesus as this interpolation mistakenly indicates.

Another interesting fact concerning this particular quotation by Irenaeus is the context in which he said these words. In the following passage, Irenaeus is saying the only begotten Son declares the one God who Irenaeus identifies as the Father.

"Indeed, then, the Scripture declared, which says, "First of all believe that there is One God, who has established all things, and finished them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence." He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one. Rightly also has Malachi said among the prophets, "Is it not One God who established us? Have we not all One Father?" Corresponding to this, too, does the apostle say, "There is One God, the Father, who is above all, and in us all".... There is One God, the Father, who upholds all things, and who bestows existence to all, as is written in the Gospel, "No man hath seen God at any time, except the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared." (Against Heresies, Book IV, 20).

We have ample clear evidence the rendering "only begotten Son" was in use in the early church well before 200 A.D.. The "only begotten God" text seems to first show up around 200 A.D. in Egypt and these are the earliest manuscripts we have in our possession at this time. However, the evidence merely suggests such a date and this reading may have been in circulation at an earlier time. We must also be reminded that Gnostics were amiable to the "only begotten god" rendering. And for the Arians, it afforded them the same idea they advocated in John 1:1. The Arians believed Jesus was "a god", a begotten God of the unbegotten God. This is likely why we do not find the Athanasians clamouring to use John 1:18 to support their argument.


The Two God Dilemma

If the text did indeed say, "No one has seen God; the only-begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father expresses Him", this introduces the concept of multiple Gods. Unbegotten God number 1 is expressed by the other begotten God number 2. Some Trinitarians seem to be quite aware of this problem while others seem to be quite blind to it. One simply cannot escape the fact that John would be describing "a" distinct God that everyone saw from "the" distinct God no one has ever seen, but who is declared by the other God who people can see. Indeed, such a rendering indicates the visible God expresses the invisible God and the unbegotten God begat a begotten God, the second God declares the first God. Since the Word is begotten of God then we have a begotten God of the unbegotten God. And in the end, the Trinitarian has two Gods on his hands and is caught in the very predicament he accuses Arians of being found in.

Trinitarian ConceptJohn 1:18
God (1)* * *
Unbegotten FatherBegotten SonHoly SpiritUnbegotten
God (1)
Begotten
God (2)



No one has seen God the Father; the only-begotten God... declares God the Father",

The only thing the Trinitarian can do to attempt to contrive his way out of this mess is to pretend in his mind that John was simply saying that one person of the Trinity is expressing another person of the Trinity. In other words, he must try to insist that this is no different than saying God the Son expresses God the Father. However, this contrivance doesn't work. It simply doesn't say that the Son expresses the Father. It doesn't say that one person reveals/declares another. That is what the other manuscript tradition says. This version says the begotten God reveals/declares God the Father. The passage says that one visible begotten God expresses another invisible unbegotten God. This would not be a case of the Son member of the one Triune God expressing the Father member of the one Triune God, but a case of one God expressing another God. It is inescapable.

We must ask ourselves as monotheists what version is more plausible. Is it more plausible for John to have said the Son declares/reveals/expresses God the Father? Or is it more plausible for John to have said the unbegotten God declares/reveals/expresses God the Father


The Internal Evidence

Father-Son Relationship

If the passage did say, "only begotten God," then such a translation would be inconsistent with the rest of John's message where Jesus is always portrayed as God's only-begotten Son. The Greek word itself, monogenes, indicates a Father/Son relationship. The same word is used of Isaac at Hebrews 11:17. If we carefully think about the siutation, the Father-Son version of the text seems to be far more likely than the only begotten God version. No one has seen God but the only-begotten [somebody] who is in the bosom of the Father expresses Him. If we are to understand that "God" here in this verse is the Father and only the Father, then what word goes with "Father?" The term "only-begotten Son" goes with the word "Father." No one has ever seen God but God's only-begotten Son expresses him who is his Father and whom no one has ever seen. Verse 14 tells us that he is the Word that became flesh and verse 15 that he is the only-begotten from the Father and right here in this passage we see that he is "unto the bosom of the Father."

VerseConsistencyInconsistency
John 1:14only-begotten of the Father only-begotten of the Father
John 1:18only-begotten Son only-begotten God
John 3:16only-begotten Sononly-begotten Son
John 3:18only-begotten Sononly-begotten Son
1 John 4:9only-begotten Son only-begotten Son

The "only begotten God" version is inconsistently out of place in John's writings. Christ is always portrayed by John as someone of God, Lamb of God, Son of God, Love of God, Glory of God, Word of God, Bread of God, and and begotten of God. Secondly, "only-begotten God" goes against John's immediate message. He previously has said, "the Word was theos in John 1:1 to refer to pre-existent divine nature and then says, "the Word became flesh" to refer to his present human nature. And now we are to believe that John is saying that no one has seen God but the Word of human flesh is the only begotten God/god who declares God the Father?" It makes John out to be speaking ambiguously to say no one has ever seen God, and then to say people did indeed see the unbegotten God through a begotten God who is flesh, especially when he later says, "God is spirit." If John had said, "no one has seen the Father," that would be another matter and this is of course what the Trinitarian imagines into the text to meet his needs. However, this is not what John said.

Trinitarian Hypocrisy

Let us suppose again for a minute John actually did write "only begotten theos." Trinitarian apologists are then caught in quite a dilemma with the Jehovah's Witnesses who say that John 1:1 should be translated, "and the word was a god." Trinitarians insist this results in two Gods/gods. The Logos, or "Word", is an expression of God. The Word is God's Word, God's expression. And so we would then find in John 1:1 that the word that is god, or a god, is the Logos-Word who expresses God the Father. And then we would also find in John 1:18 that no one has seen God the Father but this unbegotten god expresses that God. So if John 1:1 refers to "a god" then we would have the person expressing God in John 1:18 to be that very only-begotten god identified in John 1:1. We most certainly can't have an only-begotten capital 'G' God at John 1:1 or we would have two Gods in play when there is only one capital 'G' true God, "the" God. One of them would necessarily be a false God. But if we have one true unbegotten God expressed by one begotten god then we do not have a problem at all since this god is not claiming to be God and cannot be accused of being a false God but is a true god. The Trinitarian wants to have an unbegotten God and a begotten God thereby having two Gods, and one must then be false, not to mention the fact that there is no such thing as an unbegotten God or a begotten God in Trinitarianism since there is only one Triune God who cannot be defined as either begotten or unbegotten. But the Trinitarian also refuses the Jehovah's Witness to have one true God and one true god of God. Why is it okay for the Trinitarian to have a begotten God and an unbegotten God in this passage but it is not okay for Jehovah's Witnesses to make a similar claim at John 1:1? Hypocrisy.

Is God the Father the monogenes God too?

In order to try and escape the two-God dilemma, Trinitarians need to claim monogenes does not mean "only-begotten" and only means "one of a kind" or they end up with an (1) unbegotten God and (2) a begotten God who is not the unbegotten God, two Gods. Even further, they claim that they do not believe in three Gods where the implication is that the Son is not a God in addition to the Father, but this would indeed result in such a situtation. Hence, Trinitarians are left with the need to claim the Father is the monogenes God too since they also claim there is only one God.

In verse 14, Jesus is being describes as "the monogenes of the Father. Is that the type of language that could also be applied to the Father? And in verse 18, we would read that the monogenes God expresses, explains, declares the one God. Is that the type of language that could also be applied to the Father?


The Evidence for a Likely Corruption

The historical evidence powerfully suggests the "only begotten God" version is a Gnostic corruption designed to offset the force of John 1:14. The Gnostics were infamous for altering Scriptural texts. In Gnosticism, gods begat other gods. The Gnostics did have a god they called "Only-begotten" (Monogenes). Irenaeus tells us that Ptolemy, a Valentinian Gnostic, used a translation which seems to have referred to an only-begotten god, (monogenes), which was a time period when serious corruptions had been occurring. This is also about the time period when the "only begotten God/god" rendering first shows up in history. The texts which contain the error seem to be confined to Alexandrian origin, a hotbed of Platonism and Gnosticism.

1. Gnostic Tampering

The Gnostics did use the Christian Scriptures and advocated their own brand of the Christian faith. But they were also well known to the church as a group that had little reverence the sacred writings of the Christians. They are said to have corrupted the Scriptures regularly to suit themselves.

2. Ptolemæus's Corruption of Scripture

Irenaeus, a faithful church father, makes a very revealing statement when he is charging the Gnostic Valentians with perverting the Scriptures:

"By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they (Gnostic Valentinians) succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions..... Further, they teach that John, the disciple of the Lord, indicated the first Ogdoad, expressing themselves in these words:
John, the disciple of the Lord, wishing to set forth the origin of all things, so as to explain how the Father produced the whole, lays down a certain principle,—that, namely, which was first-begotten by God, which Being he has termed both the only-begotten Son and God....for that which is begotten of God is God.... Such are the views of Ptolemæus." (Against Heresies, I, 8, 5).

Irenaeus was referring to this document by Ptolemaeus the Valentinian Gnostic (as preserved by Irenaeus):

John, the disciple of the Lord, intentionally spoke of the origination of the entirety, by which the Father emitted all things. And he assumes that the First Being engendered by God is a kind of beginning; he has called it "Son" and "Only-Begotten God." In this (the Only-Begotten) the Father emitted all things in a process involving posterity. By this (Son), he says, was emitted the Word, in which was the entire essence of the aions that the Word later personally formed.

But furthermore (he says), "That which came into being in it was Life."[Jn 1:4] Here he discloses a pair. For he says that the entirety came into being through it, but Life is in it. Now, that which came into being in it more intimately belongs to it than what came into being through it: it is joined with it and through it it bears fruit. Indeed, inasmuch as he adds, "and Life was the light of human beings", [Jn 1:4] in speaking of human beings he has now disclosed also the Church by means of a synonym, so that with a single word he might disclose the partnership of the pair. For from the Word and Life, the Human Being and the Church came into being. And he called Life the light of human beings because they are enlightened by her, i.e. formed and made visible. Paul, too, says this: "For anything that becomes visible is light." [Eph 5:13] So since Life made the Human Being and the Church visible and engendered them, she is said to be their light.

Now among other things, John plainly made clear the second quartet, i.e. the Word; Life; the Human Being; the Church.

But what is more, he also disclosed the first quartet. describing the Savior, now, and saying that all things outside the Fullness were formed by him, he says that he is the fruit of the entire fullness. For he calls him a light that "shines in the darkness" [Jn 1:5] and was not overcome by it, inasmuch as after he had fitted together all things that had derived from the passion they did not become acquainted with him. And he calls him Son, Truth, Life, and Word become flesh. We have beheld the latter's glory, he says. And its glory was like that of the Only- Begotten, which was bestowed on him by the Father, "full of grace and truth". [Jn 1:14] And he speaks as follows: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; we have beheld its glory, glory as of the Only-Begotten from the Father." [Jn 1:14] So he precisely discloses also the first quartet when he speaks of the Father; Grace; the Only-Begotten; Truth. Thus did John speak of the first octet, the mother of the entirety of aions. For he referred to the Father; Grace; the Only-Begotten; Truth; the Word; Life; the Human Being; the Church.

3. Tatian

Tatian wrote in his Diatessaron, No man has seen God at any time; the only Son, God, which is in the bosom of his Father, he hath told of him." (Diatessaron, IV, 1). This is a remarkably odd translation.

Tatian was a disciple of Justin Martyr. However, Tatian went astray and got himself involved in Gnosticism. According to Irenaeus, Tatian got puffed up at the thought of being a teacher after Justin's death in 165 A.D. This was not long after the teachings of Marcion's brand of Gnosticism were first promulgated in Rome. The church fathers later wrote about Tatian.

Tatian, formed a certain combination and collection of the Gospels, I know not how, to which he gave the title Diatessaron, and which is still in the hands of some. (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV, 29).

Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus, also wrote:

Tatian the Syrian...also composed the gospel which is called 'Diatessaron,' cutting out the geneologies and whatever other passages show that the Lord was born of the seed of David according to the flesh.

Whether Tatian wrote before or after being a disciple of Justin Martyr is problematic. It seems that he would have created this work after Justin's death, and not before, when he saw himself as a teacher of the gospel. This work may not have yet been intentionally influenced by Gnostic thought. However, Tatian's character has indeed been called into question and it seems likely he was sympathetic to the Gnostic cause while he was a disciple of Justin's.

4. "Only begotten God" in Gnostic Literature

This ancient Gnostic text known as the Bruce Codex was discovered near Alexandria, Egypt in 1769 and translated into English in 1892 by Carl Schmidt.

"This truly is the only-begotten God. This is he whom the All knew. They became God, and they raised up his name : God. This is he of whom John spoke: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. This is the one without whom nothing exists, and that which has come into existence in him is life." This is the only-begotten one in the monad, dwelling in it like a city. And this is the monad which is in Setheus like a concept. This is Setheus who dwells in the sanctuary like a king, and he is as God. This is the creative Word which commands the All that they should work. This is the creative Mind, according to the command of God the Father. This is he to whom the creation prays as God, and as Lord, and as Saviour, and as one to whom they have submitted themselves. This is he at whom the All marvels because of his beauty and comeliness. This is he whom the All - those within being a crown upon his head, and those outside at his feet, and those of the midst surrounding him - bless, saying ; "Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, Thou art living within those that live, thou art holy within the holy ones, thou dost exist within those that exist, and thou art the father within the fathers, and thou art god within the gods, and thou art lord within the lords, and thou art a place within all the places" And they bless him, saying :"Thou art the house, and thou art the dweller in the house." And they bless him again, saying to the Son who is hidden within him : "Thou art existent, thou art the only-begotten one, the light and the life and the grace (Charis)."

Here is another early Gnostic document, from manuscripts discovered in Egypt in 1945, called "Trimorphic Protennoia."

"Then the Perfect Son revealed himself to his Aeons, who originated through him, and he revealed them and glorified them, and gave them thrones, and stood in the glory with which he glorified himself. They blessed the Perfect Son, the Christ, the only-begotten God. And they gave glory, saying, "He is! He is! The Son of God! The Son of God! It is he who is! The Aeon of Aeons, beholding the Aeons which he begot. For thou hast begotten by thine own desire! Therefore we glorify thee: ma mo o o o eia ei on ei! The Aeon of Aeons! The Aeon which he gave!"

"Then, moreover, the God who was begotten gave them (the Aeons) a power of life on which they might rely, and he established them. The first Aeon he established over the first: Armedon, Nousanios, Armozel; the second he established over the second Aeon: Phaionios, Ainios, Oroiael; the third over the third Aeon: Mellephaneus, Loios, Daveithai; the fourth over the fourth: Mousanios, Amethes, Eleleth. Now those Aeons were begotten by the God who was begotten - the Christ - and these Aeons received as well as gave glory. They were the first to appear, exalted in their thought, and each Aeon gave myriads of glories within great untraceable lights, and they all together blessed the perfect Son, the God who was begotten."

Plainly, the "only begotten God" was a preferred Gnostic concept. It seems Trinitarians are in the company of the Gnostics.

Arians

Arians could not possibly be the culprit for the error, one way or the other, because the error appeared long before Arius was born. But an examination of Arian creeds and beliefs show they preferred the "only begotten God/god" tradition while Athanasians seemed to quote the "only begotten Son" tradition, at least during the major portion of the controversy. The only begotten God rendering seems to be first used by the Cappadocian Trinitarians around 360-370 A.D. This concept fits perfectly with Arian theology, as we can even see today in Jehovah's Witness Watchtower theology which describes Jesus as another "god" in addition to "God." We must also be reminded the Arian controversy was centered in Alexandria where Alexander and Athanasius were bishops and Arius was a priest prior to his excommunication, and where the early texts with this rendering are found, and where Gnosticism flourished. If indeed this text should say "only begotten theos" it does the Trinitarian more harm than good since it favors Arianism and Gnosticism. And this is likely why the Arians favored it early in the controversy and the Trinitarians did not. One does not find Athanasians appealing to this text until the latter days of the Arian controversy around 370 A.D. when Arian strength was beginning waning.

The Second Arian Confession (Antioch, 341 AD)

We believe, conformably to the evangelical and apostolical tradition, in one God, the father almighty, the framer, and maker, and provider of the universe, from whom are all things.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, his son, only-begotten god/deity [John 1:18], by whom are all things, who was begotten before all ages from the father, god from God [deity from the Deity], whole from whole, sole from sole, perfect from perfect, king from king, lord from lord, living word, living wisdom, true light, way, truth, resurrection, shepherd, door, both unalterable and unchangeable; exact image of the Deity, essence, will, power and glory of the father; the first born of every creature, who was in the beginning with God, God the Word, as it is written in the Gospel, and the Word was God' [John 1:1]; by whom all things were made, and in whom all things consist; who in the last days descended from above, and was born of a Virgin according to the Scriptures, and was made man, mediator between God and man, and apostle of our faith, and prince of life, as he says, 'I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him that sent me' [John 6:38]; who suffered for us and rose again on the third day, and ascended into heaven, and sat down on the right hand of the father, and is coming again with glory and power, to judge quick and dead.

And in the Holy Spirit, who is given to those who believe for comfort, and sanctification, and initiation, as also our Lord Jesus Christ enjoined His disciples, saying, 'Go ye, teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit' [Matt 28: 19]; namely of a Father who is truly father, and a son who is truly son, and of the Holy Spirit who is truly Holy Spirit, the names not being given without meaning or effect, but denoting accurately the peculiar subsistence, rank, and glory of each that is named, so that they are three in subsistence, and in agreement one.

Holding then this faith, and holding it in the presence of God and Christ, from beginning to end, we anathematize every heretical heterodoxy. And if any teaches, beside the sound and right faith of the Scriptures, that time, or season, or age, either is or has been before the generation of the Son, be he anathema. Or if any one says, that the Son is a creature as one of the creatures, or an offspring as one of the offsprings, or a work as one of the works, and not the aforesaid articles one after another, as the divine Scriptures have delivered, or if he teaches or preaches beside what we received, be he anathema. For all that has been delivered in the divine Scriptures, whether by Prophets or Apostles, do we truly and reverentially both believe and follow.
(Athanasius, De Synodis, 23. LPNF, ser. 2, vol. 4, 461).

Several other Arian creeds have "only begotten Son" as well. But these examples of Arian belief show us that the phrase "only begotten god/God" is not an idea favoring Trinitarianism but Arianism. Most Trinitarians will most certainly have their eyebrows raised at reading the above confession. While Arianism may be a heresy, the true beliefs of Arians is not honestly reported in most circles.

Common Sense

While the Bible does make shocking statements from time to time, let us appeal to our common sense. What do you think John intended to say? Did he intend to say the only begotten God declared/revealed the unbegotten God the Father? Or do you think he intended to say the Son reveals his invisible Father who is God? Let us be honest with ourselves.


Summation of the Facts

  • There are two manuscript traditions. Each of them were widely attested in the early church. The authenticity of the "only begotten God" text is therefore highly questionable on these grounds alone. Are we expected to rest our faith upon such suspicious evidence?


  • The earliest Christians attest to the "only begotten Son" version except in the Alexandria region.


  • The "only begotten God" version absurdly results in a visible begotten God everyone can see declaring/revealing the unbegotten invisible God no one can see.


  • The "only begotten Son" version is the one which is consistent with John's terminology


  • During the Arian controversy, the "only begotten God" was not used by the Athanasians but was used by the Arians.


  • The manuscript to which Trinitarians appeal, was found in near Nag Hammadi where the Nag Hammadi gnostic collection was found.


  • Evidence shows the Gnostics preferred the "only begotten God" version and since they loved to tamper with Scripture, they likely corrupted this passage to say just that. Trinitarians opt for the version that puts them into company with the Gnostics.


No matter how you look at it, this passage is useless as evidence for Trinitarian doctrine and attempting to identify Jesus as "God" and presenting this passage as a Trinitarian "prooftext" is simply one more lame attempt by Trinitarians to promote an untenable doctrine and unscriptural teaching. The text has been corrupted one way or the other. The weight of the evidence seems to indicate it should say, "only begotten Son." If it does, then it says nothing to advance the Trinitarian agenda. And if it doesn't, the Trinitarian has serious theological problems which only a heavy dose of denial can cure.


Call for Discernment

The evidence at hand is inconclusive at best. It would be quite easy to make a choice based on a theological bias. However, this would not be honorable to truth and it would be quite mad to rest our faith upon a highly doubtful text. Both readings are strongly attested in the early church. The weight of the evidence, indicates the passage should say "only begotten Son." It is consistent with John's terminology in all his writings. And it seems highly likely the passage is a Gnostic corruption designed to offset the force of John 1:14.

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