Jesus is the Son of God… but exactly do we mean when we say that?
The answer may not be as simple as we may think. After all, Jesus isn’t the only person in Scripture referred to as God’s son—Adam, is God’s son (Luke 3:38), Israel (corporately) is God’s son (Ex. 4:22), Solomon is God’s son (1 Chron. 28:6), the Israelites (individually) are “sons of God” (Deut. 32:8), as are peacemakers (Matt. 5:9) and even the angels, in some sense (Job 2:1).
“So in what way is Jesus’s sonship like, or unlike, any of these?” asks D.A. Carson in Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed. “Why should we think of him as God’s only Son?” (Kindle location 84)
Carson knows there’s good reason to understand Jesus in this sense—after all, how we understand Christ drastically affects our understanding of the Christian faith. If we get Jesus wrong, everything else collapses. And, as Carson points out, this necessarily includes understanding his sonship.
Carson’s examination of this important title is focused on the following areas:
1. “Son of God” as a christological title
2. “Son of God” in select passages
3. “Jesus the Son of God” in Christian and Muslim contexts
In section one, Carson’s goal is to remind readers that in the Bible “‘son(s) of God’ can refer to a diverse range of beings” not simply the second person of the Trinity (location 369). Thus it carries with it a diverse range of meanings, all of which are only understood within their context.
Yet this also helps us get a better handle on the ways in which “son of God” is applied to Christ—sometimes as a catchall for various ideas (such as his role as the great high priest), often as a link to the promised Davidic king, sometimes as a reference to Jesus’ role as the true and greater Israel, and most stunningly as overtly transparent assignments of divine status to Jesus and of his preexistence:
In [numerous] passages (e.g., Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22; John 14:9; 17:1–8; 1 John 5:20), Jesus is not the Son of God by virtue of being the ultimate Israel, nor is he the Son of God by virtue of being the Messiah, the ultimate Davidic king, nor is he the Son of God by virtue of being a perfect human being. Rather, he is the Son of God from eternity, simultaneously distinguishable from his heavenly Father yet one with him, the perfect Revealer of the living God. (location 541)
This is where much of today’s debates are centered: Jesus’ sonship in concert with his preexistence. The idea that Jesus is eternally God’s son—and the idea that God has a son—is inflammatory to many, especially to Muslims who see it as an affront. A robust understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God allows us to better avoid the heresies of Arianism, Sabellianism (modalism) and tritheism; it also helps us to engage with the Muslim and explore his “deeper criticism of the incarnation: the absolute distinction between God and his creation must not be breached” ( location 1243).
Where some have attempted to skirt the controversy over sonship language by expunging it from translations (replacing it with “Messiah”), Carson reminds us that we lose something crucial when we do:
So what is being lost? “Messiah” conjures up anointing, as well as kingly and priestly offices; “Son of God” conjures up family identity, engendering (whether biological or as a metaphor for appointment), a relationship of love, and filial loyalty. (location 1322)
Simply, we’re left with a smaller view of who God is. One who is significantly less personal, one who is far more aloof. But this is not the God of the Bible. There we see a God who comes into human history, who engages with his creation by taking on the form of man in order to redeem humanity.
Simply, if we lose sonship we lose the gospel.
But not only that, when we set aside this language we lose our connection to the church universal and become something other and deadly to the soul. As Carson writes,
It is not a light thing to stand so aloof from the authority of those early councils and creeds that reflect so much sustained thought regarding how to think about God. This does not mean that those early councils and creeds necessarily got everything right. Nevertheless, the kind of biblicism that learns nothing from the great councils is in danger of becoming cultic. (location 1484)
While by no means is Jesus the Son of God an exhaustive study of the significance of this key title of Jesus, Carson’s concise examination is an important look at a neglected topic, and it’s one I would commend to any serious student of God’s Word.
Title: Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed
Author: D.A. Carson
Publisher: Crossway (2012)