Question: In the Nicene Creed, a line confuses me about Jesus: “... the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.” If Jesus was eternally with the Father before his incarnation, how can we say he is “begotten … before all ages”? His physical body was only conceived in time.
— Richard Smith, Garden Valley, Idaho
Answer: You imply by your question that only human beings are begotten, and this somehow is tied only to our physical existence. But this is to misunderstand the term. To say that one is begotten is to say that he or she shares in the nature of the one who begot them. This is different than being “made” by someone. For example, a potter may make a jar. But the jar is just clay. But if the potter has a son, he begets him; he does not make him. The son shares in the human nature of his father and so is begotten, not merely made.
And this is true in the Godhead as well. The Latin word in the Creed to which you refer is unigenitum (literally, “only begotten”). What this means is that the Second Person of the Trinity (the Son) is begotten, not made, because he shares the same divine nature as his Father. The word “genus,” from which “genitum” comes, means “nature.” To say that Jesus is begotten (“unigenitum”) is to say he is Son and also that he is God, since a son is not made but is begotten and shares his father’s nature.
In the well-known hymn Tantum Ergo, St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of the Trinity in this way: “Genitori, Genitoque, laus et jubilation … Procendenti ab utroque, compar sit laudatio,” which means, “To Generator and to the Generated, be praise and jubilation. And to the One proceeding from them both be equal praise.” And thus St. Thomas speaks to the eternal processions within the Godhead. The Father eternally begetting the Son, the Son being eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeding from them both.
Thus, limiting the term “begotten” only to human existence is to miss the Fatherhood of God from whom all fatherhood has its origin.
Question: I read in a book by a Catholic author the following passage: “In the Old Testament, God is frequently portrayed as one who is out to destroy the enemy. Has this false image of God been debunked, or do we still believe that God delights in the suffering and death of the ‘enemy’ however we might define that term?” Could you comment please?
— Armel Audet, location withheld
Answer: I think the author takes up a questionable premise that the portrayal of God in the Old Testament was of a moody and angry God, which has been replaced by the image in the New Testament of God who is kindly. But this misses that there are many tender passages of God in the Old Testament, even as there are many fearsome images of God in the New Testament. It is too simplistic to divide out the images of God in Scriptures in this way.
The central fact is that God is holy, and we must be prepared by his grace to one day meet him. If not, we will be unable to endure his glory. And this vision unifies the whole of Scripture.
That some texts speak of God’s wrath, or that he has enemies, are ways of saying that some have taken a stance against him such that they will not endure the day of his coming. But the problem is in us, not God, who wants to save us but requires our cooperation.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.