Begotten Not Made

John Lucas

John Lucas

I was pleased to find that the Oxford philosopher JR Lucas was a fan of The Master and his Emissary, and he sent me a number of his papers over the years.  Most are still accessible but this gem was possibly never published. Before he died I asked if I could quote from it in my new book, and post the paper on the net.  He was agreeable to both propositions, so here it is. It is short but says so much that is of core relevance to my current work.


Most English translations of the prologue to St John’s gospel follow the Authorised Version and end with “the word was made flesh…”. But εγένετο (egeneto) is much better translated as ‘became’. Why had the Authorised Version plumped for ‘was made’? Because in Latin, ‘I become’ is fio, whose past tense is factus sum. The earlier translations had been from the Vulgate, and had been followed by the translators of the Authorised Version, who had a policy of following earlier translations where possible. But there is a great difference. Verbum factum est, the word was made flesh, suggests a maker. ὁ λόγος σαρξ εγένετο (ho logos sarx egeneto) suggests a natural, inherent process. The Nicene Creed is explicit on the difference. γεννεθεντα οὐ ποιομενον, (gennethenta ou poiomenon), ‘begotten, not made’. ‘The word became flesh’ is better, but still fails to give the full sense of the Greek. λόγος (logos) has the sense of ‘reason’ or even ‘rationality’, and ‘flesh’ has a sense of excluding bones and skin, which σὰρξ (sarx) does not. ‘Reason got embodied’ is too colloquial for the Authorised Version, but would be a good rendering in modern English. (‘got’ is not etymologically connected with ἐγένετο, but, even without the prefix ‘be-‘, is used of generating race horses.)

The distinction between becoming and being made continues through the Middle Ages down to the present day. Dun Scotus was a “becoming” thinker. He sought explanations, arguing for the existence of God as the ultimate explanation, with the universe evolving in an intelligible way. (He also coined the term haecceitas, thisness, to express the uniqueness and importance of the individual.) William of Ockham, by contrast, was a “maker”. He emphasized the importance of the will, and the power of an omnipotent God to do whatever he liked. We can see him as the spiritual progenitor of the Atomists’ point-particles placed in a uniform and featureless space wherever God wanted them to be according to the inscrutable counsels of omnipotence. “In the beginning,” Newton said, “God created atoms and the void”. Atomism is the minimalist pluralist extreme of metaphysical systems. The opposite, maximalist monism, was articulated by Spinoza, and in modern physics is represented by Einstein’s General Theory, which posits one, enormously complicated spacetime, whose intricate curvature determines the gravitational movement of matter, which itself is merely the knottedness of the field structure of spacetime.

Some of the difficulties in understanding the issues involved is due to a confusion in the sense of ‘reason’. I find the concept of conjugation helpful. First-personal reasons are those I might have for doing something: I gave him a helping hand because / many years ago he showed me kindness / I admire the stand he is making / I know he has been having a bad time. Any of these would explain my action, make it intelligible, and show that it was not just an arbitrary exercise of will. But none of them obligated me. I was not bound to help him, as I would have been if I had promised, or if I were related to him in some special way. In some circles I am obliged to return a favour, in a feudal society I am bound to support my liege lord, in many societies I am bound to help my kinsmen and dependants in need. Then my reasons are not just ones that are adopted by the first-person-singular me, but ones that can be expressed in the second person plural as being mandatory on you, whoever you may be. In the Middle Ages the Schoolmen discussed the correlative concept of merit, and distinguished congruous from condign merit. William of Auxere gives the example of someone who might be appointed to be a bishop. He might be a very suitable appointee, having many desirable virtues and abilities. In that case he would have congruous merit. But he would not have condign merit: he has no right to be appointed, and if he was not, he should not be indignant. Granted this distinction, we can see how God could have his reasons – reasons which, in Leibniz’ phrase, incline but do not necessitate – without his freedom of action being circumscribed. The counsels of divine omnipotence do not have to be inscrutable. The word was not just made flesh, but rather reason got embodied, as consonant with the nature of divine love.