The most familiar and beloved verse in all the Holy Bible is the sixteenth verse of the third chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. It has been called “the Gospel in a nutshell” and “the Bible in miniature”. Here it is in the English rendition of the Authorized Bible:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
One would think that if there was any verse in Scripture that all Christian believers would agree should be beyond acrimonious disputes about interpretation it would be this one. That is not however the case. There have been several such disputes about this verse. We shall examine three of those here, each having to do with a different word in the Greek text. Here is that Greek text:
Οὕτω γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν,
ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
The above is the text as it appears in the Textus Receptus, the text underlying the Authorized Bible. The Nestle-Aland and UBS critical editions have Οὕτως instead of Οὕτω as the first word and leave out the αὐτοῦ. Neither of these differences affects the meaning of the text. Οὕτως and Οὕτω are two different ways of spelling the same word. Most often the former is used before words beginning with vowels and the latter before words beginning with consonants but it is not a hard rule. αὐτοῦ is the word that means “his” in “his only begotten son” (1) but this meaning is implicit in the text even without it.
The easiest of the disputes to dispense with is the one pertaining to the seventh word in the verse, κόσμον. This is the word for “world” and in the first clause of the verse it stands as the direct object of the verb ἠγάπησεν (“he loved”), with ὁ θεὸς (God) as the subject. A certain type of Calvinist objects to this word being taken in its ordinary sense in this context but it conflicts with his idea that God only loves a tiny portion of the people of the world, His elect, and hates all the rest, having unalterably determined their eternal damnation from before the beginning of time. This kind of Calvinist argues that κόσμος does not always mean the world in its entirety but can be used in a more limited sense. This is true, but it by no means follows from this that the term can be used in the specific limited sense that the Calvinists imply, i.e., as referring to God’s elect. Technically, the basic meaning of the word is “order”. It can have the subordinate meanings of “good behaviour” and “government” and can even mean such things as “ornament” and “ruler”. From the basic meaning of “order”, however, it developed the sense in which it was used in serious abstract thought, i.e., the world or universe, considered in regards to its structure and order. It is in this sense and its subordinate meanings such as “the present world” (as opposed to that of a future age) “mankind in general” (as opposed to a specific people) and the like that we find it in the New Testament. “Mankind in general” is the sense in which most people would understand this word in John 3:16 and it is itself a subordinate sense to “universe”. If the common understanding is erroneous, a strong case could be made based on passages like the eight chapter of Romans that the error is in understanding κόσμος in only this limited sense rather than as meaning all of Creation which clearly is part of God’s redemptive plan. Another limited sense of the word that is prominently used elsewhere in the New Testament is as the designation of the spiritual forces arrayed against God’s kingdom operating in and through human society. This could hardly be the sense in which the word is used in John 3:16. What both of these limited senses of the word have in common is that they both refer to something that is so large in scale that calling it by the name of the whole created order does not seem ludicrous or inappropriate. This could hardly be said of the hyper-Calvinist interpretation of the word in John 3:16. Yes, hyper-Calvinist is the appropriate term for the interpretation that “world” in John 3:16 does not mean the whole of mankind but only a select number chosen from out of the whole. “Hyper-Calvinist” suggests taking the ideas of John Calvin and taking them to an extreme beyond what he himself taught. Here is what Calvin himself had to say about this in his Commentary as translated by the Rev. William Pringle:
That whosoever believeth on him may not perish. It is a remarkable commendation of faith, that it frees us from everlasting destruction. For he intended expressly to state that, though we appear to have been born to death, undoubted deliverance is offered to us by the faith of Christ; and, therefore, that we ought not to fear death, which otherwise hangs over us. And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life. (bold indicates italics in the original, underlining indicates what I wish to emphasize).
Calvin went on to mention election in the sentence that immediately follows this quotation, but unlike many of his followers he had the good sense not to force its intrusion into the meaning of the universal terms within the verse.
The next controversy that we shall look at pertains to the word μονογενῆ. It is the singular masculine accusative form of μονογενής, a third declension adjective belonging to a class of adjectives that are highly irregular even for the third declension. This is the word translated “only-begotten” in the Authorized Bible. A great many today insist that this is a mistranslation and modern versions tend to use “only”, “one of a kind” or “unique” in place of “only-begotten”. I have addressed this in the past in the context of discussing the closely related contemporary theological problem in which many recent prominent evangelical leaders have denied the doctrines of the Eternal Generation and Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ and taught instead Incarnational Sonship while claiming to be sound Trinitarians, a problem compounded by the fact that an even larger number of evangelical leaders who do not reject Eternal Generation and Sonship have nevertheless accepted the claims of the Incarnational Sonship teachers to be orthodox Trinitarians. The Eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ is part of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, of course. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not merely that the three co-equal, co-eternal, Persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are One in Being, but Three in Person, so that as Persons they are distinct from each other, but each is fully God, and the same One God as the other two. It is also that the three have distinct relations to each other. None of the three are created, all have no chronological beginning but are co-eternal, however, the Father is neither begotten nor does He proceed from another Person, whereas the Son is begotten of the Father (eternally, not in a moment of time to which there was a before), and the Holy Ghost proceeds in a manner distinct from what the Son’s being begotten denotes from the Father (the entire Church affirms this, the Western Church adds “and the Son” which the Eastern Church considers to be heresy). If you fail to see the importance of this, note that Incarnational Sonship, taught by the late Walter Martin, and John F. MacArthur Jr. before he recanted, confuses the Persons of the Trinity. The Agent in the Incarnation is identified in the Gospels of SS Matthew and Luke as the Holy Ghost, and if Jesus’ being the Son is due to the Incarnation and not to His eternal pre-Incarnation relationship with the Father, that makes the Holy Ghost the Father.
With regards to the word μονογενής the claim is made that while this was previously thought to have been formed by adding μό̂νον (only) to γεννάω (beget) it was actually the noun γένος rather than the verb γεννάω that went into the compound adjective’s formation and since γένος means “kind” the adjective means “one of a kind” or “unique” rather than “only-begotten”. This first thing to observe about this argument is that even if it is correct to say that μονογενής is formed from γένος rather than γεννάω, the conclusion by no means necessarily follows. While γένος can be translated “kind” this is somewhat misleading. The first meaning that Liddell and Scott give to this word is “race, stock, kin”, and the other meanings given are arranged in such a way as to indicate that they are all derivatives of this primary meaning. A clarifying subhead to the first meaning emphasizes that it refers to “direct descent” as opposed to “collateral relationship”. The second meaning given is “offspring, even of a single descendent”, which the subhead “collectively, offspring, posterity”, and the third meaning is “generally, race, of beings”. The meaning “class, sort, kind” is the fifth in the list, and the subentries to it demonstrate that even here it is classes, sorts, and kinds of things that are biologically related that is primarily intended. The significance of all this is that γένος is a noun that incorporates the verbal idea of γεννάω in itself. This should surprise nobody as the two words are closely etymologically related. It is not that γένος first means “kind” or “sort” in a general sense and “race” or “kin” is derived from the general meaning through specific application. It is the other way around. The word γένος first denotes groups that share a common biological descent and it is by metaphorical extension that the more general sense is arrived at. In other words the meaning of γεννάω cannot be eliminated from μονογενής simply by tracing the second part of the compound to γένος rather than to γεννάω.
A look at how μονογενής was used both in the New Testament and in ancient Greek literature as a whole shows that those who object to rendering this word “only begotten” have no sound scholarly reason to do so. The adjective appears nine times in total in the New Testament. Five of these, including the one we have been discussing, refer to Jesus Christ as the μονογενής Son of God. One is a reference in the book of Hebrews to Abraham’s offering of Isaac. The other three, all in the Gospel according to St. Luke, are references to children – the son of the widow of Nain, Jairus’ daughter, and the possessed son of the father whom Jesus encountered upon coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration – and in each case μονογενής was used to indicate that the child was the only child of his or her parent. This same pattern occurs throughout Greek literature as a whole. The adjective μονογενής is almost as tied to nouns like παῖς, τέκνον, υἱός and θυγάτηρ (child, child, son, daughter) as Homer’s πολύφλοισβος (much roaring) was to θάλασσα (the sea). This is a strong indicator that the primary meaning of the adjective pertains specifically to children and that when it is used in a more general sense this is the secondary meaning derived from the primary.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this insistence that μονογενής means “one of a kind” rather than “only begotten” has less to do with Greek scholarship than with hyper-Protestantism. Orthodox Protestantism rejects the errors that are distinctive to Rome, especially the Rome of the late Medieval Period, but accepts what is genuinely Catholic, that is to say, the doctrines, practices, etc. that belong to the whole Church going back to the earliest centuries before the major schisms. Hyper-Protestantism goes beyond this and opposes much that is Catholic as well as that which is distinctively Roman. Orthodox Protestants confess the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Hyper-Protestants do not all reject the Nicene Creed per se, but their thinking is filled with all sorts of wrong ideas that generate suspicion of the Creed as being too “Catholic”. It is from this sort of thinking the idea has gained traction in certain evangelical circles that one can have orthodox Trinitarianism without the doctrine of Eternal Generation. The Fathers of the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Councils of the fourth century had it right, however. It is because we confess about Jesus that:
τὸν ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς γεννηθέντα πρὸ πάντων τῶν αἰώνων
(He was begotten of the Father before all worlds),
and that He is:
γεννηθέντα οὐ ποιηθέντα
(begotten, not made),
that we can confess that He is:
ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί
(of one substance with the Father).
The final dispute that we shall look at concerns the first word in the Greek text, οὕτω. Again, it makes no difference to the meaning of this word whether it is spelled with the final sigma or not. This is the word rendered “so” in the Authorized Bible. It precedes the word for “for” in the Greek, γὰρ, because γὰρ cannot stand in the first position in a Greek clause, although “for” has to stand in the first position in English to convey the same meaning as γὰρ in Greek. It is frequently maintained that the Authorized Bible misrepresents the meaning of this word in its rendition of the first clause of the verse “For God so loved the world”. Worded this way, “so” is an expression of extent or degree. “For God so loved the world” means the same thing as “For God loved the world so much”. οὕτω, however, means “so” in the sense of “thus” or “in this manner” and so, we have often been told, the Authorized rendition is inaccurate.
That οὕτως does indeed mean “thus”, “in this way” or “in this manner” is not in dispute, nor even that this is the primary meaning of the word. The problem with those who insist that it must have this meaning in this verse is that they maintain that it cannot have the meaning “so much”. This is demonstrably false, and furthermore, this verse employs the very construction in which οὕτως is most likely to have the meaning of “so much”.
The word οὕτως is the adverbial form of οὕτος. οὕτος is a demonstrative, or if you prefer the term with Greek rather than Latin roots, a deictic. Usually classified as pronouns, demonstratives or deictics are words that serve as both pronouns and adjectives. Unlike most adjectives, however, which ascribe qualities such as “hot”, “red”, “wet”, etc. to nouns, demonstratives point to nouns. We have two of them in English, each with a singular and plural form – this/these and that/those. This/these points to something near or pertaining to the speaker and so could be said to be first person. That/those points to something remote from the speaker and could be said to be third person. When we need a demonstrative that is second person, that is to say, pointing to something near or pertaining in some way to the person addressed we can use either this or that for this purpose. In Greek there are three distinct demonstratives, one for each person. οὕτος is the second person deictic, the one that point to something near or pertaining to the person addressed. It is also the one that is generally used when you want to point back to something that has just been said, as opposed to pointing forward to what is about to said. For the latter, the first person personal pronoun which is the definite article compounded with the suffix – δέ is normally used. Adverbs ordinarily differ from their corresponding adjectives in application rather than meaning. Think of “quick” and “quickly”. We use the word “quick” in sentences like “Bob is a quick runner” which ascribe the quality of quickness to persons or things. We use the word “quickly” in sentences like “Bob ran quickly” which ascribe the same quality to the verb rather than the noun. Adverbs can also modify adjectives, other adverbs, or even entire sentences such as “Quickly, Bob ran to the bank and took out $100 dollars then went to the store and bought himself an apple” (Bob clearly lived in a time of Trudeau-era inflation). Just as adding “ly” turns any adjective in English into an adverb, lengthening the final omicron in an adjective into an omega turns it into an adverb in Greek. This is what we see with οὕτος and οὕτως. οὕτως, therefore, in its most basic sense, is an adverb that points to verbs, adjectives, clauses, sentences, etc. in the same way that οὕτος points to nouns. It is to οὕτος, what “thus” is to “this”.
While it might seem like that clinches the argument for those who claim that that the οὕτω in John 3:16 means “in this manner” rather than “so much”, note that even in English “thus” is not limited to this meaning. It is frequently used with the meaning of “therefore” and with reference to extent rather than manner. “Bob ran thus far” would be an example of thus used with reference to extent. A familiar example is the saying frequently used in “line-in-the-sand” moments, “thus far, no further”, which is actually a paraphrase of Job 38:11. Similarly, while the οὕτως was primarily used with reference to manner, this was by no means its only use. Its second meaning, like that of its English counterpart, was “therefore”, and its third meaning, as given by Liddell and Scott, was “to such an extent, so, so much, so very, so excessively”. The first example the lexicographers give of this meaning is from the third book of Homer’s Iliad. This is where Priam, king of Troy, has summoned Helen to the walls and asked her to identify for him a particular warrior among the Achaeans who has caught Priam’s eye. It turns out that Agamemnon, son of Atreus and commander of the Greek army is the one indicated. The relevant verse is verse 169 where Priam spells out why the king of Mycenae has so caught his eye:
καλὸν δ᾽ οὕτω ἐγὼν οὔ πω ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσιν,
which means “but so handsome [a man], I have not yet seen with my own eyes”.
Although οὕτω here is modifying an adjective, καλὸν, rather than a verb as in John 3:16, it has precisely the meaning that some have foolishly claimed it cannot have in the Scriptural text.
That οὕτω had not lost this meaning by the time the New Testament was written can be seen in the third verse in the third chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. This verse begins with the question:
οὕτως ἀνόητοί ἐστε;
which means “are you so foolish?” I have never heard anybody try to argue that οὕτως means “in this manner” here. With the exceptions of one or two which paraphrase the question so that it is impossible to tell what meaning they ascribe to οὕτως, (2) the English translations all treat it as an expression of degree or intensity here. See also Revelation 16:18 which ends with the words: σεισμὸς, οὕτω μέγας – “so great an earthquake”. Here the οὕτω modifying the adjective μέγας (great) cannot be anything but the intensifier “so” as in “so much”. Other New Testament examples that I will not go into at length are Galatians 1:6, 1 Thessalonians 2:8, and Hebrews 12:21.
Now, showing that οὕτω can mean “so” in the sense of “so much” is not the same thing as showing that this is what it means in John 3:16. We have seen that its primary meaning is “in this way” or “in this manner” and, although that meaning would clearly be absurd in Iliad 3.169 this is not the case in the Gospel verse. Is there any reason for thinking that the meaning of “so much” rather than “in this manner” is what is intended in John 3:16?
The answer is a clear yes. In Greek, as in Latin and English, there is a category of subordinate clauses that we call result clauses. These can indicate such things as what would naturally be expected to follow from the action of the main verb, whether or not it actually did, and what the actual result of the action was. There are words that appear in the main clause of sentences that contain result clauses that indicate that a result clause is coming. οὕτω/ οὕτως is one such word, Then there are the words which begin the result clauses themselves. The main one of these is ὥστε which means “so that”. ὥστε is a compound of ὡς (as, so, that) which can also be used for this purpose. There is also a kind of clause called a final clause, not because it occurs last in the sentence which may or may not be the case but because it expresses the end in the sense of purpose of the action of the main verb, or, in other words the result that the doer of the action of the main verb intended. There are a number of words that can begin this kind of clause, the main one being ἵνα which means “in order that”. If you look above to the Greek text of John 3:16 you will notice that it contains both a result clause and a final clause. ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν is the result clause. The final clause is ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.
If the final clause were the only subordinate clause in the verse then those who maintain that οὕτω means “in this manner” here would have a much stronger case. However, between the final clause and the main clause, falls the result clause beginning with ὥστε. It is when it is used in conjunction with ὥστε like this that οὕτω most often means “so much” rather than “in this manner”. The two words work together to create the sense of “so much X that Y”.
One example of this from ancient Greek literature is found in the first book of Herodotus’ Histories. In his account of the life of Croesus, king of Lydia, Herodotus relates a lengthy exchange between the king and Solon, the Athenian reformer and lawmaker. Croesus asked Solon whom he judged to be the happiest man he had ever encountered. Solon, not unaware that Croesus expected to be named himself, nevertheless answered Tellus the Athenian, and gave his reasons. To the follow-up question about who the second happiest was, Solon answered that it was Cloebis and Biton, and explained why. This irritated Croesus who then asked “ὦ ξεῖνε Ἀθηναῖε, ἡ δ᾽ ἡμετέρη εὐδαιμονίη οὕτω τοι ἀπέρριπται ἐς τὸ μηδὲν ὥστε οὐδὲ ἰδιωτέων ἀνδρῶν ἀξίους ἡμέας ἐποίησας;” which means “O Athenian stranger-friend, is this our happiness so cast away into nothingness to you that you made us less worthy than ordinary men?”
Countless other such examples could be given. This is a very common construction in ancient Greek literature. Note that in the above example the verb in the result clause, ἐποίησας, is in the indicative mood, which is the basic mood of the verb, the one used when making ordinary statements about things as they are, as opposed to things which might be, which one wishes would be, etc. In result clauses a natural but not necessarily actual result is placed in the infinitive, an actual result in the indicative. When the “οὕτω … ὥστε….” construction employs the indicative in the result clause this raises the likelihood of it being used in the “so much…that” sense to near certainty and this is what we see in John 3:16 where the verb in the result clause is ἔδωκεν, an indicative aorist meaning “he gave”.
I am not going to belabour the point much further. Unlike the first two interpretive problems, this third one does not have much theological significance. Saying that God gave us His Son as our Saviour because He loved us so much does not exclude saying that the manner in which He loved us was that He gave us His Son or vice versa. Indeed, since expressions with double meanings are fairly common in St. John’s Gospel – a much discussed example is ἄνωθεν with the double meaning of “again” and “from above” which is a key element in the same discussion in which John 3:16 occurs – not a few have suggested that both senses of οὕτω are being simultaneously intended in this verse. The reason that I thought this worthy of as lengthy a treatment as I have given it is the frequency with which I have encountered the idea that in John 3:16 οὕτω means “in this manner” rather than “so much” asserted with a dogmatic authority that the facts simply do not bear out. It seems evident to me that this dogmatism comes from either a) the plethora of Bible-study tools currently available that allow people to pontificate about what “the Greek” means without actually studying it, b) the curious and utterly wrongheaded contemporary notion that the Greek of the New Testament is best studied by itself without reference to any other ancient Greek literature, or c) the combination of the two. Somebody who studies New Testament Greek and only New Testament Greek might very well be unfamiliar with the “οὕτω … ὥστε….” construction. John 3:16 happens to be the only verse in the entire Johannine corpus where ὥστε appears. Needless to say, this very common ancient Greek construction is rare in the New Testament. This, however, makes it that much more important that we pay attention to how it was used in other ancient Greek literature because when an author uses it rarely, or, as in the case of St. John here, only once, this is a good indication that it was chosen specifically because the established meaning is one that the author wished to particularly emphasize.
(1)This word is the genitive (possessive) form of αὐτός the word for “self”, which means “same” when used as an attributive adjective, and which also stands in for the third person pronoun (except when that pronoun is the subject) which is how it is used in John 3:16.
(2) The Orthodox Jewish Bible, for example, rephrases it from a question into a statement “you lack seichel”. The adverb in the question disappears completely when this is done. Seichel, if it is not already obvious, is the opposite of foolishness.