Jesus the Son of God by D.A. Carson

In Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed, Dr. Carson presents a Biblical investigation and evaluation of the title “Son of God,” and specifically the title “Son of God” as it is used to refer to Jesus.

He breaks up the short book into three chapters.

In chapter 1, “‘Son of God’ as a Christological Title,” he investigates the various Biblical uses of “Son of ___,” then focuses  specifically on “Son of God,” and then focuses even more specifically on how the “Son of God” title is employed in reference to Jesus. Clearly, many “Son of ___” uses do not express a biological relationship, but presume some other kind of relationship or shared trait. Having established this point, Carson teases out its implications for the use of “Son of God” in reference to Israel’s kings who are called “Sons of God” and eventually the ultimate “Son of God” in this sense–Jesus.

In chapter 2, “‘Son of God’ in Selected Passages,” Carson directs his attention to two texts–Hebrews 1 and John 5–in order to illustrate exegetically what the New Testament authors meant when they referred to Jesus as the “Son of God,” at least in these texts.

Finally, in his last chapter, “‘Jesus the Son of God’ in Christian and Muslim Contexts,” Carson seeks to help us think rightly about this title, “Son of God,” in our own Christian context as well as in the context of translating this phrase in the muslim world. This latter objective is of particular importance in light of recent debates centering on Wycliffe Bible Translators, SIL, Missions Frontiers, etc. and their translation policies. The debate centers on how to translate “Son” and “Father” language in reference to the Godhead in muslim contexts where such language is grossly offensive and easily misunderstood.[1]

The following well summarizes the first two chapters of the book:

Owing not least to the Trinitarian confessionalism that we have inherited from the fourth century, “Son of God” as a christological [referring to the theological study of the person of Christ] confession is in many Christian minds primarily associated with the second person of the Godhead. It has become a fixed datum. This is not so much wrong as too narrowly focused–or, better put, some New Testament passages use Son of God terminology to ascribe to Jesus the attributes that were so important in third- and fourth-century christological debates, but many New Testament passages use Son of God terminology in rather different ways. Sometimes it functions much as it did when it referred to Israel as God’s Son, only now, in effect, Jesus is the ultimate Israel. Sometimes “Son of God” is associated with Jesus’s status as the anointed Davidic king, the Messiah, with particular emphasis on his kingly authority. Sometimes the expression focuses on his earthly ministry; sometimes it presupposes his origins in eternity past.

In short, in the New Testament “Son of God” is not a terminus technicusas the Latins say–a technical term that always carries the same associations. It always presupposes some sense of deriving from God, or of acting like God, or both, but the domains of such acting are pretty diverse.[2]

Although recognizing the complexity of the issue, Carson’s stance on the translation debates can be summarized as follows:

By avoiding language that might make some think of a grotesque sexual union between God and Mary, there is a huge danger that one hides the ready ways in which Jesus is in fact spoken of as God’s Son, ways that include his preexistence, his relationship with the Father in eternity past, his becoming a human being while still remaining God, and so forth.[3]

Might it not be wiser to preserve the biblical imagery and include a note to unpack the metaphor, especially if the price of abandoning the metaphor is as high as we have seen it to be? Moreover, just because a language does not yet use a certain metaphor, it does not follow that speakers of that language cannot understand the metaphor when it is used, especially if there are some helpful explanatory notes. The very nature of metaphor is that it enables us to see something in categories normally reserved for something else.[4]

For Carson, this is not merely a translation issue; no language or culture naturally has the categories for many “Son of God” uses. Yet that is the category that is used in scripture, it is used for a reason, and it is our job to learn and teach others why. Eliminating this language from translations entirely short-circuits that endeavor.

Notes

[1] For more on this debate see the following:

“The Son and the Crescent” by Collin Hansen via Christianity Today <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/february/soncrescent.html&gt;

“That By All Means I Might Win Some: Faithfulness and Flexibility in Gospel Proclamation” by D.A. Carson via The Gospel Coalition <http://thegospelcoalition.org/resources/entry/That-By-All-Means-I-Might-Win-Some>%5D

[2] Pg. 73-74.

[3] Pg. 102.

[4] Pg. 100-101.

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