Asking the right questions about what “Son of God” means
What does it mean when Jesus says he is “Son of God”?
Jesus claimed to be God’s son. He claimed to be both equal and subservient to God. This mystifies theologians today, because they find it hard to reconcile these two things. It isn’t supposed to be that hard.
Let us ask not how Jesus can call himself “Son of God”. Instead, ask how Jesus’ self-designation as “Son of God” helps us to understand what the Jewish community expected of their sons. This, in turn, helps us to comprehend Jesus’ sonship. Because in the first century, a son is both subservient and equal with his father.
This article is an analysis. It will be satisfying for a student of theology, but probably tedious for anyone else!
I offer an alternative, more accessible article for those who just want to know what I’m talking about. It takes what is learned in detail here, and creates a simple parable out of it so that it is able to be readily understood.
Scholars suggest a range of metaphors and frameworks within which to understand all the implications of Jesus self-designation as “son of God”. Some are more useful than others, and none is sufficient by itself to resolve an apparent tension between Jesus’ equality with God on one hand, and his apparent subordination to God on the other, both expressed within the “son of God” appellation.
Finally, however, it becomes more fruitful to begin with the “sonship” motif itself, and allow the Biblical use of it to inform our understanding of the cultural expectations of Jesus’ community with respect to their first sons. By approaching the question in this way, “equality” and “subservience” are terms which are conditioned by the sociological concept of sonship, and do not finally represent any unresolved tension.
Key functions of patron/client relationships in the 1st Century (evidenced by surviving letters of introduction) were:
|Type of access||Evidence of Jesus claiming this access|
To grant access to the patron, acting on his behalf
|1:12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God5:26-27 “For as the father has life in himself, so he has granted the son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the son of Man.”10:7b “I am the gate for the sheep.”14:6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me.”|
To communicate in place of the patron, as a substitute for the patron’s presence
|1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only son, who came from the father, full of grace and truth.14:9b “Anyone who has seen me has seen the father. How can you say, ‘Show us the father’?”|
To be received as though he were the patron himself
|3:36 Whoever believes in the son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.5:23 “that all may honour the son just as they honour the father. Whoever does not honour the son does not honour the father, who sent him.”|
To make the patron “known”
|1:18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the father, has made him known.16:15 “All that belongs to the father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”|
Although this was true for all authorised representatives, it was even more so for the son (particularly the first born) – to have met with the son was to have met with the father himself. As an apprentice to his father, the son could only do what he observes the father doing: he has learned his craft at the father’s side, and continues his work according to the pattern he has learned and with the authority he has been given.
(MacBride, T. Χαριν ἀντι χαριτος: Patronage in the prologue to John’s gospel. MTh Thesis, 2006.)
Jesus is portrayed in the Fourth Gospel prominently as “Son of God” (eg. 1:34), and this attribution has a range of possible meanings, including the clear implication that it represents equality with God (5:18). The Evangelist and other Biblical authors had no apparent trouble reconciling this equality with the Father on one hand, and subordination to the Father on the other. This question has the appearance of an unresolved tension, but only because we, of later a time and different setting, do not assume the same sociological role for first sons as did the Hebrew people.
The term, “υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ” (“son of God”), is “a rich, multilayered title whose meaning defies simple explanation” (so Hansen), but it was not presented as being complex in the New Testament. It is only later commentators who have struggled with it. Following Vos, Ladd presents four possible meanings, which are distinct but not necessarily exclusive of one another: “naturalistic”, “moral-religious”, “messianic”, and “theological”.
Ladd presents the “naturalistic” meaning, not as the “crass literalism” of biological procreation, but rather as, “the immediate creative activity of God”. This is helpful because Muslims commonly object to the “Son of God” title on the grounds that in Arabic, “the word ibn (‘son of’) carries biological connotations”, which in turn implies sexual relations between the Father and Mary. The Qur’an explicitly makes the link:
How could [Allah] have a son when He does not have a consort, and He created all things?
However, Ladd inexplicably conflates the two concepts by citing Luke 3:38, in which procreated Seth is “τοῦ Ἀδάμ” (“of Adam”), in “approximately the same sense” that divinely created Adam is “τοῦ θεοῦ” (“of God”). He likens this to Exodus 4:22-23 and Malachi 2:10, which appear instead to be examples of his “moral-religious” category. The Stoic philosophy behind Acts 17:28 is, Ladd rightly notes, a “theology of creation, not of redemption”, and is surely not the basis for Jesus’ unique designation as “Son of God”. He suggests a helpful link between Adam’s creation and the “immediate creative act of the Holy Spirit in the body of Mary”. Mohammad makes an equivalent observation (Surah 3:59), in considering the Virgin Birth. Although the special act of creation may be a valid parallel, it could be said that Adam’s “sonship” is actually on the basis of Ladd’s “moral-religious” relationship, and hence Jesus’ is also. This would make the “naturalistic” category potentially obsolete as a framework for understanding Jesus’ sonship.
The “moral-religious” meaning is a sociological designation. It describes sonship in terms of the “special loving relationship” between people and God, either individually or corporately. God was the fictive “father” of the nation Israel in the Old Testament, and this was expressed as a metaphor (Ex 4:22-23; Deut 32:6; Isa 64:8; Mal 2:10; Jub 1:24), and also as a simile (Ps 103:13; Mal 3:17). In Intertestamental writings it takes a form reminiscent of Jesus’ vernacular (Sir 23:1, 4; cf. Jn 17:1, 5, 11, 21, 24, 25), and possibly prefigures Jesus’ experiences (Wis 2:12-20). Psalm 2:7 does not contain “mixed … metaphors of adoption and begetting” (from Frankforter), but rather, a consistent sociological motif of Fatherhood and Sonship, approximately under Ladd’s “moral-religious” category. This moral-religious concept is directly related also to the basis by which gentile believers are to be considered “sons of Abraham” (Rom 4:11-12), and therefore also children of God (Rom 8:14-17), in the New Covenant. Also in keeping with this aspect of sonship, conversion, particularly in the Forth Gospel, is presented as a matter of special “birth” into the divine family (Jn 1:12-13; 3:3-8). However, two important qualifications are required: Firstly, although forming part of the basis for comprehending it, the special birth motif is not limited to a moral-religious, or merely sociological inclusion in the people of God, but also ontologically involves “a more explicit sort of supernatural intervention”, as well; and secondly, Paul’s term “υἱοθεσία” (“adoption”) and cognates (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) is not equivalent to this special birth (contra Ladd and McGrath), because “adoption” is something which had always been a provision for the Israelites (Rom 9:4), and in any case is not experienced until the Eschaton (Rom 8:23). “Adoption” therefore relates to an as-yet-unrealised eschatological phenomenon for the faithful, and not directly to individual conversion, which instead is by “birth”.
For more detail, see this article:
Ladd’s suggestion of a “messianic” meaning relates to the expression in 2 Sam 7:14, “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”, which is arguably more closely related to the moral-religious category above because it refers to the role of king, not to Jesus himself, since the threat of punishment for “iniquity” cannot apply directly to Jesus (Heb 4:15); this Father–Son relationship is being promised to David’s ongoing progeny, including Jesus, in their capacity as kings. Ladd reflects on how weak and tenuous the links are, under a “messianic” interpretation, with any Old Testament messianic designations. He suggests that such links ultimately rely on Psalms 2 and 89, concluding only that we must remain “open to the possibility” of a messianic connection. But Ladd overlooks Nathanial’s exclamation, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn 1:49), which invokes this “king” concept directly in connection with “son of God”, and in a messianic New Testament context (cf. 1:41, 45). Contrary to Ladd’s view that “the purpose of the Fourth Gospel is to demonstrate that Jesus is both the Christ and the Son of God”, the terms “Christ”/”Messiah” and “son of God” are used virtually as synonyms in the Fourth Gospel (11:27; 20:31), just as they are in the Synoptics (Matt 16:16; 26:63; Mk 14:61; Lk 4:41), and John 5:27 employs the messianic “son of man” designation, when referring to the “Son of God” (cf. 5:25). The messianic connection is therefore not being established by the Gospels, but instead is already assumed. Michaels makes a more robust case for describing a “messianic” nuance to “Son of God” without appealing to the Davidic Covenant at all, but instead referring to Jesus as “God’s unique Envoy or messenger”, whose messianic mission was “to reveal the God of Israel … as Father, in particular as his father”. Michaels cites Bultmann’s observation that in the Fourth Gospel the believer exchanges, “his Whence, his origin, his essence”, and it could be said that in the Fourth Gospel narrative, Jesus is presented as “son of God” in this particular sense: his “Whence” is God (Jn 3:2, 8:42, 16:27, 16:30). This forms a profoundly messianic understanding of the term “υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ”.
Finally, as a “theological” designation, “son of God” is understood to imply that Jesus “partakes of the divine nature”. John 1:14 effectively claims that, “Jesus as the Son of God, the Logos, was personally pre-existent, was himself God, and became incarnate for the purpose of revealing God to human beings”. Michaels finds that humanity’s union with God is the “end of the story” of the Fourth Gospel, achieved through the mission of the Son as “a kind of parabola”, going from heaven to earth and back again, and along the way uniting God’s son with believing humanity. This unity is not only “unity of purpose and desire”, but also “a metaphysical unity of nature” (so Tenney). This aspect of Jesus’ designation as “Son of God” is a thoroughly theological one.
Ladd lists another view from Bultmann, in which Jesus is depicted as a “divine man” of Greek tradition. In this understanding Jesus would therefore be depicted as one more among many other “theioi andres” of antiquity, who use miracles to establish their divine authority. In Biblical terms this would roughly equate to a “man of God” motif, which would at best parallel Jesus with the likes of Elijah (cf. 2 Ki 1:10, 12), or Moses (Deut 33:1), and therefore present him merely as another prophet; but from the very first verse, the Fourth Gospel is presenting Jesus as no mere prophet: He “was God” (1:1). It also fails to account for why such a divine man should be reported as refusing to provide miracles when asked (Jn 2:18, cf. Matt 4:3, 6; 12:38, etc). In fact, when evaluating Christian claims it seems that it was the Jews who demanded signs, not the Greeks (cf. 1 Cor 1:22), and in response Paul preached “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23), not “Christ the miracle worker”, to both groups. The “divine man” suggestion is unconvincing. It arises from a mid 20th Century trend of New Testament interpretation called “de-mythologising”, by which the New Testament was interpreted as though it had imported foreign mythology. More recent research into Hebrew New Testament antecedents has “convincingly debunked” such interpretations (so Kay).
Of the options available, it seems that the category, “naturalistic” is not a particularly helpful one. Anything it contributes to the meaning of “son of God” is potentially better placed in another category, and it is the one under which the most dire misunderstandings and difficulties arise, even including controversial Bible translations attempting to eschew the phrase. The other three substantive categories, moral-religious, messianic, and theological, are complementary and each contributes a helpful nuance to the term “Son of God”, and the “divine man” category is of no use. This leaves us contemplating God’s fictive, sociological son, as God’s unique envoy in the capacity of Messiah, who was pre-existent as ὁ λόγος and in some real sense in unity with the divine, made flesh by a special act of creation, but in no way biologically procreated from God.
Although it ostensibly provides some important implications for Sabbath doctrine (5:17; cf 5:20, 36), in the narrative context the primary purpose of John 5:18-47 is to explain the Christological implications of Jesus’ sonship, rhetorically in response to 5:12, “who is the man…?”, including questions of equality with, and subservience to God. Jesus’ hearers interpreted his reference to God as “Father” as a claim of equality with God (Jn 5:18; cf. 10:33), but he also described himself as completely dependent on the Father (5:19), claiming not to do anything “on my own” (5:30; 7:17, 28, 8:28; 12:49; 14:10). He also claimed delegated authority (5:21-22, 26-27), and a role as the vicarious representative of the Father (5:23; cf. 3:35). Michaels describes Jesus’ sonship in terms of “God’s unique Envoy or messenger”, in his introductory remarks, but as an “apprentice” in much of his detailed commentary on John 5. In that latter section the “agent or representative” aspect gives rise to “an ironic twist”, because one does not pay honour to an apprentice. The “agent” aspect is useful in understanding the vicarious nature of Jesus’ sonship, and the “apprentice” aspect helps when considering his subservience in “doing” and “working” (5:17, 19-20, 30, 36). The apparent need for two somewhat different metaphors, neither of which is “son”, underscores the difficulty of reconciling these aspects of Jesus’ self-description under the “Son of God” appellation.
In the cultural context of the modern Western sociological milieu there is no type of relationship in which one person is both equal and subservient to another person in quite the same way Jesus describes his sonship. In the modern Western setting, sons are not considered equal to their fathers, and when they attain majority they are not expected to be subservient either. Other models of delegation also fall short of equivalence: In military, corporate, and political delegation it is sometimes appropriate to equate the reception or rejection of a delegate with an implicit reception or rejection of the sender (cf. 5:23-24, 38, 43), but this type of delegation always provides for a limited delegation of a subset of the authority of the sender, and does not elevate the delegate to the sociological status of the delegator; Schedule 2 of the Powers of Attorney Act 1998 (Qld) provides that under this instrument a person can act on behalf of another for personal, financial, and other specific matters, and this power of attorney finds a close parallel with Jesus acting “in my Father’s name” (5:43), but has no particular bearing on the honouring or “receiving” of the one who “sent” the attorney (cf. Jn 13:20). Marriage is also one in which there is equality and subservience, but it is arguable that the subservience is mutual (Ephesians 5:21), even if the particular expressions of subservience are gender conditioned (vv22-29), and Jesus’ relationship with the Father did not include mutual subservience. Ultimately, it should not be surprising if the type of relationship which happily encompasses both equality and subservience in the terms represented in Jesus’ example, and which best fits all of Jesus’ Father/Son terminology, is that of a son, in 1st Century Jewish thought.
Jesus’ references to father/son relationships in his own parables and sayings must at least indicate something about his self-designation as “Son of God”. For example in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the relationship between the father and the eldest son is emotively invoked by the father, “all that is mine is yours” (Lk 15:21). This is more than a reference to material property; it also refers to social responsibility. In terms of the story, the son is committing a social transgression by differing from his father’s will. The eldest son is more than an “agent” of his father: he is in some way a projection of the father in the community, or ought to be by social convention. This concept is in keeping with the nature of God’s promise to David in 2 Sam 7:14, in which the singular “son” clearly refers to the ongoing firstborn-son line of David in perpetuity. It should be noted that this is notwithstanding that, “so that God’s purpose of election might continue” (Romans 9:8-13), the sociological “firstborn son” may sometimes be other than the biologically firstborn. This is the case with Solomon, who was not born first (2 Sam 3:2), but nevertheless the sociological first-sons of David will carry on the inherited Davidic identity and legacy, and therefore the associated covenant implications, for all time. In Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Lk 20:9-19; Mk 12:1-12; Matt 21:33-46), Jesus contrasts other messengers with the owner’s son, highlighting the expectation that “they will respect him” (Lk 20:13; cf. Mk 12:6; Matt 21:37). This reflects that in Jesus’ world, “the notion of ‘agency’ was intrinsic in sonship” (so Green). This goes beyond the perfunctory agency of a Power of Attorney, extending also to “respect” (Lk 20:13). In fact, the Biblical narrative is replete with examples of whole tribes and nations being referred to corporately as their progenitor; not least, “Israel”.
It is axiomatic in Jewish thought that in some real sociological way the identity of a father is represented and perpetuated in his heir, and by extension also in all of his offspring. Therefore Jesus did not need to introduce, “new content” under that designation (contra Erickson/Ladd). Jesus draws on assumed cultural knowledge when discussing the claim of the Jews, “Abraham is our father” (8:39). Jesus says that what they do, “is not what Abraham did” (8:40), and therefore he attributes their “fatherhood” elsewhere: their actions indicate that their father is “the devil” (8:42-44). In this exchange Jesus is making a revealing statement about his use of the term “father” with respect to its culturally loaded theological and sociological implications: It parallels his statement that a son does, “only what he sees the Father doing” (5:19).
Far from “subordination” in a Western sense, which implies inferiority, Jesus’ use of the sonship motif directly implies equal authority as a matter of definition (10:30). The restrictive aspects of the relationship relate to the scope of his behaviour (5:19). This behaviour must, since a son is a projection of his father, be in keeping with the Father’s anticipated behaviour, and this can accurately be called “obedience”. Only within this set of behaviours may he culturally be considered a true, ideal first son, and therefore be entitled to the privileges of sonship expressed in, “all that is mine is yours” (Lk 15:21). This sociological inheritance is the fuller meaning of “heir”. Philippians 2:5-11 even reveals the socio-ethical basis for this, in that the humility and obedience of the son (vv6-8) validate his sonship, and precipitate his exaltation (vv9-11). As the true archetypal son, and therefore the projection of the identity of his father, he rightly exercises any and all of his father’s prerogatives and enjoys the respect due toward his father.
Instead of trying to reconcile Jesus’ equality and subservience with the Father using other constructs, the Biblical account provides the ideal motif within which to understand them: sonship. Any apparent difficulties are due to cultural differences between the reader and the implied reader. Rather than some kind of novelty or anomaly, Jesus’ sonship can fruitfully be used as the archetype and ideal of the cultural expectations which lay on first-sons in his milieu.
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