John 3:16 might be the best known passage in the Bible. The EHV translation aims to sound very familiar in well-known passages that many people have memorized. Here is the EHV translation of John 3:16:
16For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.
The EHV uses “only-begotten” five times in the New Testament. It is, of course, in John 3:16 (above) as well as in four other related passages: John 1:14,18; 3:18; and 1 John 4:9.
We did not base our decision to use “only-begotten” on etymology (whether it comes from the stem genn- or gen-). Instead we focused on how the New Testament uses the Greek term μονογενής (monogenes) in each context. We do not believe that “only-begotten” is the only option for translating μονογενής (monogenes). We are not criticizing other translations that don’t use “only-begotten.” Yet, in examining how this term is used in each context, we find “only-begotten” to be an appropriate translation in some cases, particularly in the inspired writings of John.
The Greek term μονογενής (monogenes) essentially means “only” in the sense of “unique” or “one of a kind.” The context must reveal what makes the person referred to unique. For example, in John 3:16, what is it that makes Jesus unique? It seems that the uniqueness here is in his being God’s only-begotten Son. No one else is God’s only-begotten Son. That is true only of Jesus. Consider Hebrews 1:5: “For to which of the angels did God ever say: ‘You are my Son. Today I have begotten you’?” (EHV; see Psalm 2:7).
Angels are, in fact, called “sons of God” in Job 1:6. They are sons by creation, but they are not begotten. We are all children of God by creation, but we lost the rights of heirs through the fall. We believers are now children of God and heirs again through faith in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26 says, “In fact, you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (EHV).
But Jesus is unique. The eternal begetting of the Son makes Jesus unique. He is the only one who is the Son of God on the basis of an eternal divine nature. In the Nicene Creed, we confess the truth that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God who is “eternally begotten of the Father” (Christian Worship) or “begotten of His Father before all worlds” (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions). He is “begotten, not made.”
God’s Word to the Nations (a translation of the New Testament) consistently used “only” for μονογενής (monogenes) in the text of the translation. This 1988 book also offered a very balanced presentation of μονογενής (monogenes) in Appendix 6 in the back of the book (pages 542-544). This presentation concluded that “in John’s Gospel where it is used of Jesus… it could mean ‘the only-existing’ (‘the only-one-there-is’ or ‘one-of-a-kind’), or… it could have the special meaning of ‘only-begotten’” (p. 544).
Kittel’s ten volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states: “In Jn. μονογενής denotes the origin of Jesus. He is μονογενής as the only-begotten… μονογενής probably includes also begetting by God” (vol. 4, p. 741). Many other translations have used “only-begotten” as well, including KJV, NKJV, and NASB. So, we are not breaking any new ground here. We are making use of an old and familiar translation.
This familiar translation appears regularly in Christian worship. In the liturgical song called the Gloria of the Common Service, believers sing, “O Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.” In Martin Luther’s hymn, “All Glory Be to God Alone” (translated by W. Gustave Polack), Jesus is praised with these words: “O Lord, the Sole-begotten One, Lord Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son.” As already mentioned, it appears in the Nicene Creed. At Christmas, many Christians sing, “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.”
If the word “begotten” is regularly used in worship, confessed in the Nicene Creed, and appears in hymns, it is a “heritage term” worth preserving. Many of us grew up memorizing John 3:16 using “only-begotten” too. At this point, we are not aware of a translation of monogenes that is better for this passage.
Yet, the Greek term μονογενής (monogenes) does not always mean “only-begotten” in the sense of referring to an eternal divine nature. Context reveals what is unique. There are different nuances in different contexts. The translation “one and only” is not necessarily the best fit for every context either. Consider, for example, Hebrews 11:17-18. The context is Isaac’s relation to Abraham. Was Isaac really Abraham’s “one and only” or “only-begotten” son? Since Ishmael was already born, that was not really the case. So, here it means that he was the “only” son through whom Abraham’s offspring (the promise of the Savior) would be traced.