HOW NOT TO DO HERMENEUTICS: A Response to Daniel Mann’s “Jesus: The ‘Begotten of the Father’” (Christian Research Journal 34(2), 2011, pp.8-9)

HOW NOT TO DO HERMENEUTICS: A Response to Daniel Mann’s “Jesus: The ‘Begotten of the Father’” (Christian Research Journal 34(2), 2011, pp.8-9)

© 2011, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

The writer to the Hebrews, in demonstrating the superiority of the Son of God to angels, quotes Psalm 2:7, saying

For to which of the angels did He ever say: “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? (Hebrews 1:5).

In this CRJ article, Daniel Mann calls this a “controversial verse” and a “problem”, pointing out that

this verse suggests to some that Jesus is ‘begotten’ in the sense of being created and having a beginning in time … Many cults understand this verse, and others like it, to affirm that Jesus was birthed into existence.

However, his attempt to refute this understanding by arguing that “begotten” should be understood figuratively, as “exalted” and not as actually “begotten,” fails utterly.  In fact, it stands as a salutary example of how not to hermeneutics.

Now, if there is a potential problem with a particular word in a particular verse, it is that word in that verse that must be addressed.  In this case, the word is “begotten” in Hebrews 1:5.  In the original Greek, the passage reads:

Υἱός μου εἶ σύ ἐγὼ σήμερον γεγέννηκά σε

The word translated as “begotten” is the first person perfect indicative active form of “γενναω” (gennao) which means to beget, give birth to/bear, or, figuratively, to bring forth, produce, cause[1].

Mann’s first mistake is in looking at a completely different word in a completely different passage.  He asserts that

This same ‘problem’ is also reflected in perhaps the most famous New Testament verse: ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten [monogenes in Greek] Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).

Yet this is not the “same ‘problem’” at all, for gennao and monogenes are not the same thing.  The majority of Greek scholars believe that μονογενης (monogenes) comes not from μονος (“alone, only”) and γενναω (“beget”) but from μονος (“alone, only”) and γενος (“kind, type”), and should be translated as “unique, one of a kind”; in fact, the only listed meanings for monogenes given in BDAG are “one and only, only” and “unique (in kind)”[2].  Therefore, John 3:16 occasions no “problem” regarding the eternal deity of Christ, but also does nothing to alleviate the alleged problem of Hebrews 1:5.

Mann’s second mistake is problematic.  He writes

In this context, ‘begotten’ can’t possibly mean, ‘to physically birth.’   The One who is ‘begotten’ is being addressed.  He therefore already exists, even before He is ‘begotten.’   The verse therefore can’t mean, ‘The Lord has said to Me … ”Today, I am giving birth to you.”’   Instead, ‘begotten’ must mean something else.”   For this argument even to be plausible, the word γενναω must be in the present tense in this verse; indeed Mann puts it as “Today, I am giving birth to you.” (bolding his.)

His argument collapses, however, if γενναω is in the perfect tense, as it in fact is: “Today I have begotten you.”  One being thus addressed certainly “already exists,” but all that is required is that he came into existence on the day (“today”) on which the statement was made.  Who cannot see a father saying to his newborn son on the day of his birth, “You are my son; today I have begotten you?”  Changing the tense of the verb in a verse to fit one’s argument cannot be considered legitimate hermeneutics, and is a serious oversight on Mann’s part.

As for Mann’s statement, “reference to a physical human birth could hardly demonstrate His superiority [to the angels],” it is clear that the passage demonstrates Jesus’ superiority only on the basis of His status as the Son of the Father, and not on how He came to be that.  Thus Mann’s point here is not germane to the discussion at hand.

Mann’s next gambit is no better.  He appeals to the fact that

Jewish authorities likewise understand this verse in a nonliteral way.

Of course Jewish authorities understand this verse in a nonliteral way, as they do any passage that speaks of a Son of God, because they deny that God can have an actual Son in any real sense, and this includes Jesus.  So how can their opinion inform a Christian understanding of Scripture?[3]

Then Mann spends some effort to show that “firstborn” (πρωτοτοκος) is used figuratively to mean “preeminent”, rather than referring to a literal birth.  This is only half right, and it is wholly irrelevant.  It is only half right because, while πρωτοτοκος can indeed mean “preeminent,” it can also retain its primary meaning of being first in physical birth order, as it does in 11:28 of this selfsame book of Hebrews[4].  It is irrelevant because the problem is the statement that Jesus was “begotten” (γενναω), not the reference to Him being the “firstborn.”

Next, Mann claims that Hebrews 5:5 “comes close to a definition of ‘begotten’ – exalted (as high priest).

Nonsense: Mann needs to look at the entire context.  Beginning at v. 4, we read

And no man takes this honor to himself [i.e. priesthood], but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: “You are My Son, Today I have begotten You.”

Clearly, the point of the passage is that only God can appoint priests, and that this held true for Christ, who was appointed as High Priest by God, the One who had begotten Him.  This in no way equates “begotten” with “exalted,” or even suggests any link.

After this, Mann spends the balance of his article (almost half the entire piece) returning to μονογενης, which, as we’ve already pointed out, is immaterial to the “problem” in Hebrews 1:5, and to talking about Abraham on Mount Moriah, which is equally immaterial to the problem at hand.

So what have we seen?  The statement of God about Christ, that “You are My Son, today I have begotten You” (Hebrews 1:5), may prima facie seem problematic, and it is true that

Many cults understand this verse, and others like it, to affirm that Jesus was birthed into existence.

To get around this difficulty, Mann urges us simply to view the term “begotten” (γενναω) as figurative, without giving any sound hermeneutical reason to do so.  If, say, the Watchtower insisted that we should view verses that are problematic for their theology as figurative, without sound hermeneutical reasons to do so, we would laugh them to scorn.  Such an approach doesn’t become any more palatable when it is done by an Evangelical.

Actually, however, the “problem” in Hebrews 1:5 is not an intractable one; in fact, it is not really a “‘problem” at all.  Using one principle of sound hermeneutics, let us look for other passages in which γενναω is applied to Jesus.  There are, in fact, seven other such passages: Matthew 1:20, 2:1, 2:4; Luke 1:35, 1:53; John 18:37; and Acts 13:33.  Consider, first, Matthew 1:20 and Luke 1:35:

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is begotten (γενναω) in her is of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20b)

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is being begotten (γενναω) will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35)

Now, what is begotten in Mary at this time?  It is the human body and nature of Jesus; this is the Incarnation.  Certainly the Logos, the Second Person of the Triune Godhead, is eternally existent deity, with no beginning in time, but the human body and nature of Jesus do have a beginning in time, viz. their conception in Mary in ca. 2 BC.

This same fact is made clear in the other verses.  It is especially clear in John 18:37, where Jesus Himself expressly links His birth (γενναω) to His entry into the world:

Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was begotten (γενναω), and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth.” (John 18:37b)

It should be obvious, then, that Hebrews 1:5 occasions no difficulty at all for orthodox theology, which indeed holds that the Second Person of the Triune Godhead is eternally existent but that the human body and nature He took on at the Incarnation did indeed begin at a point in time[5].  Since the references to Jesus as begotten (γενναω) are invariably linked to His human body and nature, this is how Hebrews 1:5 must be understood.

And that, folks, is how proper hermeneutics is to be done: no dismissal of putatively problematic passages as “figurative” without good reason; no changing of the tenses in the passage; no exegeting a different word instead of the one in question.  This is the sort of “practical hermeneutics” Christians must do.


Endnotes

[1] Danker, Frederick William (reviser and editor). A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition (BDAG). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. pp. 193-194

[2] BDAG, p. 658

[3] Mann also cites 2 Samuel 7:14, in which God says about Solomon, “I will be his Father, and he shall be My son.”  This does not help Mann’s case however, as it indicates a relational status, similar to what is promised Christians in the New Testament (cf. John 1:12; Romans 8:16-17; Galatians 4:4-7), and says nothing of “begetting.”

[4] BDAG, p. 894

[5] In an evangelistic sermon at Pisidian Antioch, Paul also quotes Psalm 2:7 as he talks about Christ’s resurrection (Acts 13:33).  He later writes, in Romans 1:4, that Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.”  It is no surprise, then, that he quotes the Psalm about the Messiah’s Sonship as he speaks about the resurrection, but in doing so he sheds no light on the meaning of “begotten” in Psalm 2:7.

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