The New Testament idea of God’s begetting, which has anticipations in the Qumran sect and in the baptismal movements of the Jordan area, incorporates a familiar Jewish term. John 3:3, 7, for example, speaks of begetting “from above” (thus paraphrasing the name of God which the Jews piously avoided). Christians of the Johannine type believed that thereby the living God himself had entered into history, had encountered man in his innermost being, and had recreated him. This concept, which neither orthodox Jews nor Gnostics could understand, is a unique feature of Christianity.
By repeating the initial word Jesus gives special significance to his statement in John 3:3: “Amen, amen, I say to you; unless one is begotten from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus is here demanding from Nicodemus a thoroughgoing change of life, a “turning around,” as the precondition of seeing the kingdom of God—the very thing that Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, found it difficult to do.
According to John 3:5, a second “amen” word, God’s begetting is effected by water and spirit, that is, by baptism and a true understanding of God. John attaches most weight to the gift of the Spirit which brought enlightenment and understanding.
Mysticism, philosophy and sacramental traditions have always misunderstood the mystery of the Spirit of God, and we should not allow ourselves to be guided by them. Jesus himself shows what is meant, for he is the one who actually possessed the Spirit, was conceived by it, lived in its power, and by it was made perfect. Thus the Johannine proclamation of God’s begetting is exclusively centered in Jesus Christ. John shows how life led by the power of the Spirit is life lived in simple obedience to the word of the Father (John 4:34)—the way of faith, love, righteousness and of turning from evil.
The full implication of the Johannine position is seen when compared with that of the Teacher of Righteousness who had previously established in Qumran a religious community which set itself off sharply against its environment. Here the disciples of Jesus remain in the profane world without being able to protect themselves, but sustained by an invisible reality and by their communion with God. God’s begetting in John is related to the apostolic idea of “re-begetting” which appears in a hellenistic tradition. There is the same emphasis on a new beginning: “Blessed be the God … who … begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3; cf. 1:23).
Here apparently is a vivid picture which had its setting in Christian baptism and depicts the salvation which, granted to the Church by the Word, can set the individual and the Church in a new existence. The latter is, however, secondary to the Word and to the salvation which determine it. Easter is now presupposed. The Church is sheltered by its steadfast faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
But the Church must not declare the Word and the salvation otherwise than it occurred within the scope of the apostolic tradition. The language may vary, the course of history may require other forms of expressing the proclamation, but the power of the Spirit remains to preserve the historic ground of revelation from false claims and dangerous reconstructions. The preservation of the new existence is at stake. In New Testament times the Church was still neither old nor worldly.
The Pauline conception of salvation as justification presupposes that the sinner is pardoned. With that promise God created a new cosmic situation for mankind. But Paul accepted also the principle: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation …” (2 Cor. 5:17)—a sentence with a doxological note.
The concept of God’s begetting in the thought of John, however, is the strongest wav to emphasize the spiritual source, power and objective of the Christian status, and to delimit it from other possibilities, for the two opposites—begetting by God and descent from the devil—are possible, and run right through the middle of the Church. The individual’s attitude toward sin determines his position (1 John 3:4–12). Thus the Church is not closed off from the evil one: it must prove itself in and through struggle to be “children of the light.” Thus Johannine thought presupposes a tremendous power within the Church to detach itself from everything contrary to the Spirit of God, not in order to disengage the Church from the world (Bultmann), but to testify to the Spirit of God in the decisions of earthly life.
While justification tends to stress the solidarity of men under the Cross, and to praise exclusively the grace of God, God’s begetting underscores the contrast between spirit and flesh. That finally only God himself can distinguish the “children of light” from the “children of darkness” is basic to the New Testament.
The Development of the Dogmatic Tradition. For Martin Luther the center of the New Testament was justification; upon it the preaching of the Gospel converged; by it was shaped the life of the Church. Rebirth was nothing other than this very justification. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, said Luther, He imposed no new law upon men—his concern was that man should become new.
Fundamentally the various Lutheran creeds rest upon these insights of Luther. It is notable, however, that the Formula of Concord admits another view which extends rebirth beyond justification to include the renewal subsequently worked by the Holy Spirit in those justified by faith. Thus rebirth is conceived as a consequence of justification.
That brings with it the danger of subjectivizing the concept of rebirth until it no longer describes the act of God upon man, but rather what happens in man. The question then rises whether one can take seriously the close relation of rebirth and justification in Titus 3:5 f. Some scholars, considering that the grace in baptism must be something other than the grace in justification, seek a way to reinterpret it sacramentally—a dangerous step dictated by practical exigency, but fraught with difficulty. Even those movements which want to help the Church, such as Pietism, shift the main importance from justification to conversion and rebirth—a shift evident also in the theology of Erlangen.
The creeds of the Reformed church are less troubled by these problems. In them the development of faith in man stood from the beginning more In the center of dogmatic consideration. In view of concern, moreover, to make divine election certain, rebirth helps in the understanding of salvation. Further, the justification of Jesus Christ is imparted to an individual. Thus both rebirth and justification are interdependent corollaries. Methodism, with its insistence on an authentic experience of conversion and rebirth, is nearer to the Reformed than to the Lutheran tradition.
However, in nineteenth-century Lutheranism the question of the assurance of faith took on theological urgency. Upon my answer to the question, Have I been born again?, depends the confidence with which I may call myself a Christian. When doubt assails, says Frank, a man can appeal to the experience of his rebirth. His new “ego” finds assurance within his own self.
Again and again voices have registered their misgivings about subjectivizing faith, and have recalled the Church to the objectivity of God’s saving acts in history. But their concept of objectivity often hurried too quickly over unrest arising from re-thought of theological statements, from scientific and philosophical knowledge, and from life’s own problems with faith, and is to be regarded with as much reservation as the struggle of pious people for subjective assurance.
In the apostolic message God’s begetting, rebirth and the new creation were referred hack to a “turning around” and to the gift of the Spirit of God. But these doctrines were largely left out of consideration in the development of dogmatic theology and of church history. Fear of enthusiastic fanaticism was a restraining factor from the outset of the Reformation, and only after revival movements accentuating conversion and the gift of the Holy Spirit let a new sense of reality break forth, were these decisive concepts of the Bible grasped anew.
J. T. Beck of Tubingen renewed interest in such biblical concepts as repentance, conversion, rebirth and justification. He stressed the new creation of man, and spoke of reception of and begetting by the Spirit. A man does not get a new soul in rebirth; his soul is recreated by the Spirit. Philosophical motives dominated for the most part in Beck’s day, but he relied on the Bible and tried to relate its individual themes to the total picture. He knew that a coherent view of biblical grace was represented in every biblical concept.
Emil Brunner, of the dialectical theology school, emphasizes that the picture of the new creation can be understood only in terms of revelation and of faith. Of himself man suffers from “sickness unto death” (Kierkegaard). Sinful nature leads to despair, but sin and despair are in the last analysis the same, for we suffer from an inner contradiction which none but the Creator can overcome.
The different views of Protestant theologians show the confusion of method in which we find ourselves. We see fundamentally that only where biblical statements are acknowledged is rebirth given earnest consideration. Reformation theology has tended to push justification into the foreground and to append rebirth to it, but this distracts from the significance of Johannine theology which speaks deliberately and insistently of God’s begetting. Seldom is the revolutionary power in the contradiction between spirit and flesh, between child of God and child of the devil, even taken seriously.
We should have the courage to separate justification and God’s begetting, as they originally were, and to let each achieve its full significance apart from the other. Their forced and false association has hurt both.
New Reflection of the Present. Rabbinical-Jewish existence is represented by instruction, law and circumcision; primitive-Christian and Johannine existence, on the other hand, was characterized by the action of the Word at the end of time which disclosed itself in “water and spirit.
While justification puts grace and forgiveness in the foreground, the connection of water and spirit expresses the power of God which penetrates into this world of conflicting forces. That occurred primarily in Jesus himself who was declared by the voice of God to be begotten of God (cf. Ps. 2:7; Mark 1:11). Jesus’ begetting by God sustained his life and constituted his messianic mission. The begotten one of God represented the concealed and future Messiah of Israel. For us also, to be called of Jesus assigns us a destiny which we must lay hold of and follow through.
In the process the individual is not left to himself and not merely referred back to the word of the Law of Israel, but is put under the impact of the Word which occurred in the fullness of times.
Of course, God’s begetting makes a historical start. It may pass through the most varied crises and be threatened with death. Yet it is empowered and sustained of God so that it can penetrate through weakness and defeat and everything that would hinder or obstruct its way.
The difficulty within theology lies in the fact that with rebirth one tends to concentrate upon the arrival of life, when the New Testament speaks of the Holy Spirit as the power of God which must make its way. The doctrine of justification cannot, therefore, substitute for the tradition of God’s begetting, but the relation is one of healthy tension rather than of contradiction.
Unfortunately the Christian church has lost the sense of God’s begetting in favor of rebirth as an experience happening arbitrarily and psychologically: that misunderstands the major stress in the biblical concept. Perhaps the idea of sexuality connected with begetting is offensive to many a person, but this is an essential element of the Bible—it takes us back as nothing else can to the ground and process of life.
The concept of God’s begetting stands as a radical rejection of every philosophical devaluation of the idea of God. God creates and effects reality, is not that reality itself, nor is he subordinated to it, as existential theology affirms (Tillich, Fuchs). We should not capitulate to such theology which subordinates the message of the Bible to philosophical theories, but rather examine existential contentions in terms of the Bible.
The Johannine statements concerning God’s begetting are intended to make us as Christians strong over against all that is natural and worldly, and that does not submit itself to the claim of God. They are intended to enlighten us in opposition to those theological streams which no longer live from God, but direct their attention to the existence of pious or impious men. For God is the actual center of theology, upon whom everything depends. He is not a term for that which lies beyond human limitations, or a description of human transcendence (Bultmann).
Here we reach the sorest point in the whole of the present discussion, and one which inevitably confronts us with the question, Do we still believe in a creating and begetting God?
Bibliography: O. Michel, “Von GottGezeugt,” in Festschrift für Joachim Jeremias; K. Barth, Die Lehre von der Versöhnung (Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, IV); J. T. Beck, Vorlesungen über christliche Ethik, I; E. Brunner, Die christliche Lehre von der Kirche vom Glauben und von der Vollendung (Dogmatic, III).
Professor of New Testament
University of Tubingen
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