Son of God Language in the New Testament


Son of God Language in the New Testament

Colin Brown

An excerpt from an article, "Trinity and Incarnation: In Search of Contemporary Orthodoxy," by Colin Brown, D.D., Systematic Theologian at Fuller Seminary, CA (Ex Auditu, 7, 1991, pp. 83 100).

Son-of-God Language

"The crux of the matter lies in how we understand the term 'Son of God' and the questions that it poses about the relation of Jesus to the one whom he called Father and to the Spirit that came upon him after his baptism. The point is illustrated by the cheerful retort of Cornelius Plantinga to the charge that social Trinitarians are really tritheists: 'If it is tritheist to believe that Father, Son and Spirit designate distinct persons, then Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel must be regarded as tritheists. And they are good company to keep.' But to say this is to beg the question. For the claim simply asserts what has not been demonstrated. Indeed it seems to entail a systematic misunderstanding of Son-of-God language in Scripture.

"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. 7:14; cf. Ps. 89: 2627). This passage also occurs in a collection of testimonies at Qumran (4QFlor 10f.), 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. Therefore, I take the application of the title 'Son of God' at his baptism to be an affirmation of Jesus as God's Son-king in virtue of his anointing by the Spirit. Likewise C.F.D. Moule comments on the trial scene: 'In Mark 14:61 the High Priest's words, "Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?" are presumably understood by the Evangelist as a question about a Messianic claim.' The title expresses the intimate relationship which Jesus had through the Spirit with the Father as the Father's anointed representative, which is depicted in the Gospel narratives culminating in his death and the cry of dereliction, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34).

"I believe that this is the meaning that we should attach to the term 'Son of God' at the beginning of Mark's Gospel (Mark 1:1) in view of the account of the baptism, anointing and voice from heaven which quickly follows. Nor can we read the theology of later centuries into the testimony of the centurion at the foot of the cross: 'Truly this man was a son of God' (Mark 15:39; Matt. 27:54; cf. Luke 23:47, 'Certainly this man was innocent!'). In my view the term 'Son of God' ultimately converges on the term 'image of God,' which is to be understood as God's representative, the one in whom God's Spirit dwells, and who is given stewardship and authority to act on God's behalf. The designation of Jesus as 'Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead' (Rom. l: 4) is, a reaffirmation of that Son kingship with divine authority, insofar as by the resurrection the Spirit has overturned the negative verdict of the Sanhedrin in condemning Jesus to death as a blasphemer who sought to lead Israel astray.

"Let me pause here to stress what exactly I am trying to do. A social Trinitarian might wonder if this line of thought tends to diminish the personal divinity of Christ. My point is exactly the opposite. I am trying to understand how the New Testament presents Jesus as the Christ, and on that basis construct our understanding of Jesus' divinity and of the Trinity. It is not the title 'Son of God' which defines Jesus; it is Jesus who redefines the title in view of who he was and what he did.

"It seems to me to be a fundamental mistake to treat statements in the Fourth Gospel about the Son and his relationship with the Father as expressions of inner-Trinitarian relationships. But this kind of systematic misreading of the Fourth Gospel seems to underlie much of social Trinitarian thinking. Thus statements like 'I and the Father are one' (John 10:30) and those about the mutual indwelling of Jesus and the Father (John 10:38; 14:10-11, 20; 17:21, 23) are taken to be statements about inner relations of the 'persons' of the Trinity. However, the Fourth Gospel itself does not require such a reading. When read in context, the statements are evidently statements about Jesus' relationship with the Father on earth

It is a common but patent misreading of the opening of John's Gospel to read it as if it said: 'In the beginning was the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was God' (John 1:1). What has happened here is the substitution of Son for Word (Greek logos), and thereby the Son is made a member of the Godhead which existed from the beginning. But if we follow carefully the thought of John's prologue, it is the Word that preexisted eternally with God and is God. The same Word that made all things and is the light that enlightens humankind 'became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father' (John 1: 14; cf. vv. 3, 8). In other words, Son-language in John denotes the Word made flesh in Jesus, who as such speaks God's Word to human beings on earth.

"Hippolytus of Rome put his finger on the key issue when he observed that 'the Word was not a perfect Son when he was fleshless and on his own, although because he was Word, he was perfect Only-begotten. Nor could the flesh exist on its own apart from the Word, because it has its subsistence in the Word. So in this way a single perfect Son of God was made manifest.' But even this clear statement of the distinction between Word and Son contains the seeds of what was to become a source of endless problems in thinking about the Trinity. I refer to the description of the Word as 'Only-begotten.' Whereas the Fourth Gospel simply says that the Word was with God and was God in the beginning, the fathers of the second and third centuries began to talk about the generation of the Word [and then later about the premundane generation of the Son - ed.].

"Maurice Wiles has persuasively argued that the idea of 'eternal generation' was bound up with the way that the early fathers interpreted the begetting of wisdom in Proverbs 8:25 ('before the hills he begat me') and Psalm 110:3, LXX ('before the morning star I begat thee'). However, the impetus for applying the thought of begetting-to the generation of the second 'person' of the Trinity would seem to be bound up with the designations 'Son,' 'Father,' and 'person.' If the first 'person' is thought of as 'Father' and the second as 'Son' the question of their relationship is inevitable. Thus we have, in fact, two acts of begetting: one in time when Jesus was (in the language of the creeds) 'conceived by the Holy Spirit,' and one in eternity when (in the language of Origen) the unbegotten Father begat the Son 'by an eternal act.'

"Inevitably this latter formulation raises the question of whether there was a time when the Son did not exist. Origen sought to answer it with an analogy drawn from nature [why not a biblical answer from Matt. 1:20 and Luke I: 35?]. The Son's generation is eternal and everlasting in a way comparable to the brilliancy of the sun and the sun itself. However, there was a price to be paid for such a maneuver, viz. that 'eternal generation' is no longer understood as the personal activity of an individual possessing self-consciousness bringing into being another similar individual. It is, rather, a way of thinking about different aspects of the sun in which the burning of sun is perceived as light. The point was not lost on the modalists who used the same example for their own ends.

"One is left wondering whether the thorny questions of later ages might have been avoided if the church fathers had not embarked on the language of the 'eternal generation' of the Son. How things might have been different, if the fathers had kept strictly to the language of John's Prologue [i.e., if they had not abandoned the Bible or changed the meaning of the inspired words) as their paradigm for speaking of the Trinity [they would not have needed the word at all!] and Incarnation. What preexists is not the Son per se, but the Logos. In John the Logos is not begotten or generated. The Logos was with God and was God, and in the course of time became flesh as the Son."

Copyright © 2004 Colin Brown. Allrights reserved.

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