Son of God Apologetics: Deity, Divinity and Blessed Ambiguity.

The New Testament's use of "son of god" has been the source of confusion, confrontation and conflict in times past and present. With the ever narrowing fields of scholarship regarding these subjects, it has become evident that earlier (mostly) dogma driven views that captivated the Church were incorrect.

What is overtly disturbing however, are the Christian apologists and zealous pew occupying Christians who still maintain the false notion that "son of god" is somehow an ontological category. Never-mind the ambiguities of what god, deity or divinity may mean to them, somehow the title - with its root in the Hebraic worldview from which the NT writers hail - still finds a way to "clearly communicate" to some that Jesus, as the Son of God, just is the God of Israel. This is not the story of the Synoptics, nor is it the Jesus they describe. 

The writer of the book of Luke in his genealogy of Jesus stated at the end of chapter 3 that Adam was the "son of god." What does that mean? What is this piece that Christianity has been neglecting? What does it mean to be a "son of god"? Apparently unbeknownst to some Christians is the fact that the title "son of god" is not exclusive to Jesus. Adam was the first human "son of God," so what is special about Jesus' connection to this title?

There has been great progress in recent years on this subject, and scholars continue to investigate as more evidence comes to light. It is a wide, intriguing and important field of study, but suffice it to say, son of god is not tantamount nor synonymous to the later innovative title "God the Son."

Son of god does not point to a metaphysical or numerical identity with God, but rather a relational one. 

Far too many Christians are under the mistaken notion that the title son of god implies some strange metaphysical existence. This has large traces of Gnosticism present. This conclusion is unwarranted when deriving information from the Gospels. It severely distorts the context, reads external, anachronistic events into it and abolishes the meaning of the original authors/hearers by introducing categories alien to their worldview. Son of god was not a title reserved for Jesus alone. One need only read the rest of the Bible to know this is not the case. The real kicker is that this fact is not reliant on views of high or low Christology, liberal, conservative, Trinitarian scholars or not, but rather on its context. It was not firstly a theological title. 

"We must stress that in the first century the regular Jewish meaning of this title [Son of God] had nothing to do with an incipient trinitarianism; it referred to the king as Israel’s representative." N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 485-86.

"The psalms speak of the king as son of God, and say he is begotten, not adopted. This language is mythical and metaphorical rather than philosophical. It does not employ ontological categories. But it should not be dismissed as ‘mere’ metaphor. It was a powerful way of shaping perceptions about the special relationship between the king and his god." Collins, Son of God, 204.

"But when the One who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately thereafter consult with anyone . . . " Gal 1:15-16

"ἀποκαλύψαι τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν ἐμοί, 'to reveal his Son in me.' The language of v 16a raises a number of difficult questions and has caused a great deal of speculation. The Christological title 'Son of God,' 'his [God’s] Son,' or simply 'the Son' appears in Paul’s writings fifteen times ('Son of God': Rom 1:42 Cor 1:19Gal 2:20; “his Son” or “the Son”: Rom 1:395:108:329321 Cor 1:915:28Gal 1:164:461 Thess 1:10), which warrants Werner Kramer’s comment: 'In comparison with the passages in which the titles Christ Jesus or Lord occur, this is an infinitesimally small figure' (Christ, Lord, Son of God, 183). Furthermore, in that all of these fifteen instances are in Paul’s earlier letters (i.e., the Hauptbriefe and 1 Thessalonians, but none in the Prison or Pastoral Epistles), it can be argued that “Son of God” as a Christological title was derived by Paul from his Jewish Christian heritage (cf. ibid., 185). During the first half of the twentieth century, of course, scholars influenced by G. H. Dalman and W. Bousset tended to separate “Son of God” from its Jewish roots and to see it as a Hellenistic epiphany accretion. Of late, however, the title is being increasingly related to Jewish messianology (cf. 4QFlor on 2 Sam 7:144 Ezra 7:28–2913:32375214:9) and seen as a feature of early Jewish Christian Christology (cf. my The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity, 93–99). In Galatians the title “Son of God” or “his Son” appears elsewhere at 2:20 and 4:46, with each of these occurrences situated in a confessional or quasi-confessional portion. . . . So it may be claimed that “Son of God” is a title carried over from both Paul’s Jewish and his Christian past, and that he uses it here as a central Christological ascription because (1) it was ingrained in his thinking as a Jewish Christian, and (2) it was part of the language of his opponents, who were also Jewish Christians." R. N. Longenecker, vol. 41, Word Biblical Commentary : Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary,  (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 30.

"'Son of God' is perhaps the single most familiar christological title. Indeed, it is so familiar that many people think it is the 'real' one, with the others perhaps being metaphorical. Tracing its development illuminate the meaning of the phrase. It has a history in the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition. 'Son of God' could refer to Israel. In the story of the Exodus, Moses is told to say to Pharaoh: 'Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. . . . Let my son go that he may worship you.' Hosea says in the name of God, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.' 'Son of God' could also refer to the king of Israel. Speaking in the name of God, Nathan the prophet said about the king, 'I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.' In a psalm probably used in a coronation liturgy in ancient Israel, the divine voice addresses the king and says, 'You are my son; today I have begotten you.' In the book of Job, angels or perhaps members of the divine council are referred to as sons of God: 'One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also was among them.' One further use of the metaphor in the Jewish tradition is also worth noting. Near the time of Jesus, other Jewish Spirit persons were sometimes called 'son of God.' What do Israel, the king, angels, and Jewish religious ecstatics have in common? All have a close relationship with God. That is, “Son of God” is a relational metaphor, pointing to an intimate relationship with God, like that of beloved child to parent.” N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, pg. 151.

Dr. Colin Brown, who was senior Professor of Systematic Theology at Fuller Theological seminary (also lexicographer of NIDNTT) wrote, 

“Indeed, one may well ask whether the term ‘Son of God’ is in and of itself a divine title at all. Certainly there are many instances in biblical language where it is definitely not a designation of deity. Adam is called "the son of God in Luke's genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3: 38). Hosea 11:1 (which is cited in Matt 2: 15) alludes to the nation of Israel as God's son. In Wisdom 2: 18 the righteous man is called God's son. Nathan's prophecy to David contains God's promise to David's successor: ‘I will be his father, and he shall be my son’ (2 Sam 714; cf. Psalm 89: 26-27). This passage also occurs in a collection of testimonies at Qumran (4QFlor IOf.), indicating that the messianic significance of this prophecy was a matter of continuing speculation in first century Judaism. In Psalm 2: 7 the anointed king is addressed at his installation: ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’ (cited in Acts 13: 33; Heb. 1: 5; 5: 5; cf. 2 Pet 1: 17). This passage is the source of the identification of Jesus with God's Son by the Bat Qol (voice from heaven) after his baptism (Mark 1: 11; Matt 3:17; Luke 3: 22; cf. John 1: 34). The voice also identifies Jesus with the chosen servant in whom God delights (Isa. 42: 1; cf. also Matt 12: 18-21). In the light of these passages in their context, the title ‘Son of God’ is not in itself a designation of personal deity or an expression of metaphysical distinctions within the Godhead. Indeed, to be a ‘Son of God’ one has to be a being who is not God! It is a designation for a creature indicating a special relationship with God. In particular, it denotes God's representative, God's vice-regent. It is a designation of kingship, identifying the king as God's son… it seems to me that a complex structure has been erected upon the systematic misunderstanding of biblical language of sonship. What seems to have happened with a number of issues that we have been considering-various ways of understanding person- and Son-language, ‘eternal generation,’ kenosis, and indeed the social Trinitarian approach-is the evolution of a series interrelated protective lines of defence designed to safeguard central beliefs about God and Christ. In the course time these protective lines have come to be felt to be a necessary part of orthodoxy. Although justification was sought for them in biblical language, they moved progressively away from the testimony of Scripture.” Colin Brown, “Trinity and Incarnation: In Search of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Ex Auditu, vol. 7 (1991), 88, 92.

Because I am in a small and conservative community, when discoursing on this issue (son of god), it often ends with accusations toward me as though I inhabit some "marooned islander" position. If the average Christian is convinced by apologists, pastors or other influential Church laity that scholarship is useless and liberal, seeking to subvert true Christianity, how can this topic even be engaged on those terms? Some Christians are convinced that the Bible was designed as a "living document" which has only to be read by them, under the illumination of the spirit and exposition of their pastor, to say everything it ever needs to say or was meant to say. What's the point of a discussion where logic, reason and authentic scholarship are forsaken in favor of tradition and dogma? 

This is the difficulty of Christians who take up the mantle of an apologist with little knowledge on a subject that has been studied by countless dedicated, qualified scholars who (have) document(ed) and discuss(ed) to gain a more complete understanding of what the intended phrase or passage meant/means. What's even worse is that many of these well-intending apologists have little desire to find out. These amateur apologists seek-out those - like ancient heresy hunters - who take a position different than what they identify as "orthodox" (although that almost always works itself out idiosyncratically) and attempt to bash them over the head with the hammer of orthodox hegemony.

Unfortunately, so many have been conditioned to think that the tradition they inhabit is the “right” and “true” perspective, the set of transcendent interpretations that can prove all others wrong, therefore there is no reason to ask questions or take other options into consideration.


Dawn McLaughlin83 said...

Hi Shaun,
The cartoon says it all!! (Rhetorical for me but unthinkable for most!)


Kegan Chandler said...


Great post. "Son of god does not point to a metaphysical or numerical identity with God, but rather a relational one... Son of god was not a title reserved for Jesus alone." Exactly right. How long can Christians afford to engage this language outside of its historical-cultural context? So many Christians, unsurprisingly, have only a Graeco-Roman definition for the "son of god" title. But Jesus is not a demigod like Hercules, a hybrid god-man. Neither is Jesus like Octavian, who by declaring himself the "son of god" claims a place in the pantheon. Keep up the great work pushing us back towards the historical Jesus and his historical claims.

Petri Paavola said...

The kenosis (kenotic) heresy leads people to the same trap which took place in Paradise when satan lied to Eve and Adam. The evil satan tempted them to commit sin, promising them that if she would eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would know good and evil like God. Adam and Eve did not understand good and evil like God, from the Divine perspective, but from the human perspective. Throughout the history of man, evil satan has tried to deceive people by promising them that they would be God if only they abide by the will of satan. Of course, evil satan does not introduce himself as satan when he tries to lure people into aiming for divinity, but he lies to them, masquerading as a good angel, a spirit guide, the Holy Spirit, or God.

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