Sunday, May 15, 2016

Does 'Son of God' mean 'Possesses the (ontological) Nature of God'?

I submitted the following post on another forum years ago, and decided that it might be a useful addition to my blog, though I've tweaked it a little.  Warning:  I was very long-winded!  Nevertheless I hope you enjoy it:

It is often asserted that the phrase Son of God has ontological implications, and that this is why the religious leaders sought to kill Jesus for blasphemy (see John 5:18, 10:30-39, & 19:7). There are at least three serious problems with this view:

1. There was nothing blasphemous about claiming to be a/the Son of God.  I think that a careful consideration of the applicable accounts will reveal that their problem wasn't that Jesus' claim to sonship suggested that he was ontologically Jehovah, but that his claim to be the Son of God (=the Messiah) was a preposterous lie (from their perspective).   

2. The connotation of Son of God that apologists claim the religious leaders understood (i.e. that he had the ontological nature of God) did not exist at the time Jesus claimed sonship, not from the Jewish perspective at least. The Greeks used son of god in reference to figures like Hercules (who were only ontologically 'god' in the very qualified sense that they were superhuman), but most biblical interpreters I've read (though not all) reject a connection, and for good reason, I think.  The reason that Hercules was thought to be ontologically divine in some sense was because he was conceived in their mythology to be the literal offspring of Zeus.  But the Jews rejected any notion that Jehovah literally copulated with a human female to produce his human Son, just as they would have rejected the notion that God was a sort of spirit hermaphrodite who gave literal birth to a heavenly Son. 

3. Even if, based on the prologue of John's Gospel, one could argue that the phrase Son of God had ontological implications from the apostle John's perspective, I think it's still a mistake to interpret the religious leaders' reaction to Jesus' claim to sonship according to this perspective. Why? Because even if John perceived this added special connotation to sonship as it relates to Christ, so that it were therefore a legitimate new connotation, said connotation still did not exist when the religious leaders heard Christ utter the claim to sonship!

Contrary to this, I have had it suggested to me that the phrase Son of used non-literally means possessing the nature of. For example, in his book, Why You Should Believe In The Trinity (pp. 85-88), Rob Bowman notes that at Eph. 2.1, "'sons of disobedience' means those who are disobedient." (pp. 85-88) Another interlocutor with whom I once conversed offered, 'sons of the prophets' to substantiate the claim, arguing that since the 'sons of the prophets' were prophets, so then the 'Son of God' must be God.  However, neither of these examples supports the argument, as they do not have the connotation that they are held to exemplify.  Neither 'disobedience' nor 'prophet' refers to ontological properties. The former is a term that highlights a type of behavior, while the latter is a function. It is the character of the individuals so described that makes them likely to either choose disobedience or be chosen to act as prophets.

Many other examples could be sited: 'sons of singers' were singers (function); 'sons of priests' were priests (function); 'sons of pride' were proud (character trait manifested in their behavior); 'sons of rebellion' were rebellious (character trait manifested in their behavior); 'sons of justice' were just (they behaved or judged justly); 'sons of peace' were peaceful (character trait manifested in their behavior); 'sons of the evil one' were evil (character trait manifested in their behavior); 'sons of the Devil' were devilish (character trait manifested in their behavior).  So the metaphor seems to be used primarily to highlight either the vocation/function or the character of the ones so described (or both, depending on the specific terms and the context in which they appear).

Jesus demonstrated perfect obedience to his Father by surrendering himself absolutely to His will, and thereby showed himself to be the one who perfectly reveals his Father's character and purpose. That is why he could say, "He that has seen me has seen the Father[also]". (John 14:9) Subsequently, Jesus proved to be a model for Christians to follow, and in doing so they too can reflect God's character, allowing them to be described as 'sons':

Matthew 5:43-45
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may [a]be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Luke 6:34-36
34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.[a] Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Notice that in these verses sonship is directly tied to how one treats others and that treating others as God would reflects God's attributes of love and mercy. Just as God's sons are those who imitate Him, so the Devil's sons are those who imitate him:

John 8:42-44
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. 43 Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. 44 You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

1 John 3:10-12
10 The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.[a] 11 For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.

If calling a man 'Son of the Devil' would not imply that he is ontologically 'Devil' (whatever that would mean), then calling a man 'Son of God' need not imply that he is ontologically 'God'. Biblically, the only time the phrase sons of God may have the potential to suggest that said sons are divine in an ontological sense is when the phrase refers to the angels (Job 1:6), but since most Trinitarians (including Bowman) reject that notion when it comes to angels, you must special plead for such an application in reference to Jesus Christ, who was a man, not an angel (ontologically), while he was on earth.

It seems doubtful in the extreme that First Century Jews hearing a man say that he was 'God's Son' would have understood him to be claiming that he possessed the ontological nature of God (whatever that 'ontological nature' is held to be by a given individual). It seems that such was not how divine sonship was then understood according to Jewish perspective.

From my perspective, to properly interpret John, one must consider his narrative as though it is a story that occurred in history, even if one believes that John reshaped and added to the known historical account for theological reasons.  Why?  Because John probably wrote his gospel with the assumption that his readers would believe that he was conveying true events.  We therefore don't need to even get into the debate over whether or how much of John is historical, because it was written as though it was historical, and would have been shaped by the presupposition pool that existed at the time, even if it was trying to provide fresh insights.  From a historical perspective it is definitely a mistake to interpret the Jews' reactions in light of ideas from a later time.  As stated above, the Jews were not cognizant of any enhanced nuances of 'sonship' that may or may not have been intimated by John, just as they had no inkling of the philosophical concepts that influenced the historical counsels at Nicea and Chalcedon. So, the fundamental question we must ask is this: How might a Jew in Jesus' time have interpreted his claim to sonship in light of the presupposition pool they shared as Jews?

In the book, Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Craig A. Evans and Peter W. Flint, there is some information relative to the use of 'son'. In the chapter entitled, "'And When That One Comes': Aspects of Johannine Messianism", Dietmar Neufeld offers the following:

"The title 'Son of God' is an important one in the Fourth Gospel as well as in the Synoptic Gospels. John Collins has studied the occurrence of the term in a number of passages from the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls..."

"...With 4Q246 in view, he maintains that 'Son of God' in an early Jewish context is a functional title, used of a warrior figure who will subdue the nations, restore Israel, and establish peace. It is not a metaphysical title, yet the human being given this title 'stands in a special relationship' to God; 'he is not an ordinary mortal.'" (pp. 138, 139)

Notice that in an early Jewish context, Son of God had no metaphysical connotations, but was a functional title. Neufeld goes on to quote Collins:

"The notion of a messiah who was in some sense divine had its roots in Judaism, in the interpretation of such passages as Psalm 2 and Daniel 7 in an apocalyptic context. This is not to deny the great difference between a text like 4Q246 and the later Christian understanding of the divinity of Christ. But the notion that the messiah was Son of God in a special sense was rooted in Judaism, and so there was continuity between Judaism and Christianity in this respect, even though Christian belief eventually diverged quite radically from its Jewish sources." (pp. 138 & 139, taken from The Scepter and the Star, pp. 168-69)

While I do not necessarily subscribe to all of Collins's views, the above suggests that viewing the phrase Son of God through metaphysical lenses is to diverge "quite radically" from at least some Jewish sources. As Collins points out, "There was a long process of further development between the Gospels and the Church Councils that defined the Son as a member of a divine Trinity, and this process was definitely influenced by Greek philosophy." (ibid)

As to the Jewish understanding of 'sonship', Marinus De Jonge notes that in some verses Christ's fulfillment of this role is to be understood in terms of his Davidic kingship:

"In a number of texts, we find 'Son of God' together with 'Son of David' or 'Messiah' (see Mark 12:35-37; 14:61-62; Rom. 1:3-4). Here 'Son of God' is associated especially with the period after the exaltation/resurrection (cf. also in Mark 8:38; 1 Thess. 1:9-10). This is also the case in Acts 13:33-34, where Ps. 2:7 is applied to Jesus' resurrection. These occurrences of 'Son of God' should be seen in the context of the use of the term to denote the Davidic king in the Old Testament texts (2 Sam. 7:11-14; Ps. 2:7; Ps. 89:3-4, 26-27; 1 Chron. 17:13; 22:10; 28:6)." (God's Final Envoy: Early Christology and Jesus' Own View of His Mission), p. 106, 107

In answer to the question, "What does 'Son of God' mean in Mark's Gospel?", Thomas P. Rausch observes that:

"It would be difficult to conclude that Jesus in Mark's Gospel is Son of God in more than an adopted or declared sense. There is no virginal conception in Mark, no Christmas story. Jesus is the beloved of God, the Messiah and Suffering Servant who would be revealed as God's Son. He is Son of God in a functional rather than a metaphysical sense." (Who is Jesus? An Introduction to Christology), p. 133

After considering 5 key verses in Mark's Gospel, and noting that Son of God "connotes divine appointment rather than divine nature" (quoting Robert Gundry from his Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, p. 909), Roger Haight concludes that:

"…[M]essiahship defines Jesus' status as Son of God in functional rather than metaphysical categories. It should not be construed in the sense it gained by the time of the patristic christological debates. In the end, one cannot say exactly everything that Son of God entails in Mark, but at least it means 'a unique relation to God.'"

Potential connotations of 'divine sonship' that would be likely to occur to the Jews of Jesus' time are suggested by the following comment made by Walter Kasper, in his "Jesus the Christ":

"Although the Old Testament uses the title of Son for the people of Israel (cf., among other texts, Exod 4.22-3; Hos 11.1), for the king as representative of the people (cf., among other texts, Ps 2.7; 2 Sam 7.14) or - as in late Judaism - for any devout and righteous Israelite (cf., among other texts, Ecclus 4.10), this usage is not based either on the background of mythological-polytheistic thinking or on the pantheistic background of Stoic philosophy, according to which all men in virtue of their common nature have the one God as Father and are therefore called sons of God. The title Son or Son of God in the Old Testament must be understood against the background of election-faith and the theocratic ideas based on it. Consequently, divine sonship is not founded on physical descent, but is the result of God's free, gracious choice. The person so chosen as Son of God receives a special mission within salvation history, binding him to obedience and service. The title of Son of God therefore is understood, not as natural-substantial, but functionally and personally." (p. 164)

My use of this quotation should not be taken to suggest that Walter Kasper denies that Christ is God's Son as normally understood by Trinitarians. However, his words here help to demonstrate that at the time Jesus claimed sonship the simple phrase Son of God would not lead one into the rarified world of metaphysical speculations about Christ's nature.  

It is noteworthy that, in Jesus day, "a claim to sonship would immediately imply obedience and dependence, not equality." (John's Apologetic Christology, by James F. McGrath), p. 87

Margaret Davies offers insight in this regard:

"Scripture …depicts the relationship between father and first-born son, in order to emphasize both God's loving care for his people and his people's obedient response (e.g. Exod. 4.22; Duet. 32.6, 8; 1Chron. 29.10; Ps. 103.13). Moreover, as a child is dependent on God for its existence, people are ultimately dependent on God for their existence (e.g. Gen. 1. 26). From the Johannine perspective, however, Israel's history had been the history of a disobedient son. By contrast, the Gospel is the history of the Father's obedient Son.  In modern western society the relationships of sons to fathers are different from those in the first century CE, and the differences need to be born in mind if the biblical metaphor is to be appreciated." (Rhetoric and Reference in the Fourth Gospel), p. 129

She provides some examples of how sonship was viewed during biblical times. She quotes Balsdon and Ferguson in reference to the authority of a father in Roman society:

"A father had the same legal power over a son as he had over a slave; he could put him to death (with the approval of a specially summoned family council); he could sell him into slavery. Except with his consent, his son could hold no property; his money was like a slave's, something which this father, like the slave's master, could annex at will. The exercise of the most horrendous of these powers was illustrated in Roman legend and in early Roman history; they were obsolete by (the first century CE). But the unquestioned authority of the pater familias continued; a man might be a consul, married with children, but he was still in the power of his father." (Rhetoric, p. 129)

She quotes the first-century Stoic philosopher, Epictetus (Dissertations 2.7) to demonstrate that the Greeks had a similar perspective:

"Bear in mind that you are a son. A son's profession is to treat everything that is his as belonging to his father, to be obedient to him in all things, never to speak ill of him to anyone else, nor to say or do anything that will harm him, to give way to him in everything and yield him precedence, helping him to the utmost of his power." (Rhetoric, p. 130)

After mentioning Isaac's complete subjection to Abraham, and how the Jewish tradition of honoring the father was fundamental to their worldview (Ex. 20.12; Duet. 5.16), she quotes Josephus (Apion 2.206; Dec. 165-67):

"Honour to parents the law ranks second only to honour to God, and if a son does not respond to the benefits received from them—for the slightest failure in his duty towards them—it hand him over to be stoned. It requires respect to be paid by the young to all their elders, because God is the most Ancient of all." (Rhetoric, p. 130).

Davies continues:

"This complete dependence of the son on the father, socially, culturally and economically, means that a son was the most useful agent in conducting the father's business. The son's interests were identical with those of his father (see Harvey 1987; Borgen 1968: Part II).  When the Fourth Gospel uses the father-son metaphor to depict the relationship between God and a human being, it is clear that first-
century social conventions are taken for granted." (Rhetoric, pp. 131, 132).

Similarly, John Ziesler, in his Pauline Christianity', elaborates on the biblical and 1st Century Jewish concept of sonship:

"By the Second Century, it [Son of God] came to refer to Jesus Christ as divine, but originally it was not a particularly lofty title. It is not the same as God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. Though it was not particularly common, it could be used of human beings, both in the Jewish and in the Greek world...(Hos. 11:1; Exod. 4:22; Isa. 43:6; 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7; Gen. 6:2,4; Duet 32:8; Wisd. 2:10-20; 5:1-5)...Such ascriptions did not mean that the nation or the king or the righteous man was genetically related to God. Israel rejected any idea of that. Rather, being Son of God meant obedient service to God on the one hand, and divine commissioning and endorsement on the other. In our society we tend to forget that the first thing about a son was that he obeyed his father; therefore calling Jesus Christ Son of God meant first of all that he did what God wanted. He was the obedient one… …Paul's use of the title reflects Jewish rather than pagan background." (pp. 41, 42)

In his Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament (see pp. 147-–153 for the full discussion), after stating that the world during Jesus' time was "full of 'divine men'" (e.g. the Emperor was divi filius), Alan Richardson notes that the four ways in which the idea of sonship is used in the Hebrew Bible are in reference to:

1. Angels (see Gen. 6.2; Job 1:6; 38:7)
2. The Israelite King (see 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7, cf also Ps.
3. Righteous men (see , Ecclus. 4:10; Wisd. 2:18; Pss. Sol. 13:8;
17:30; 18:4; Luke 6:35; Matt. 27:43)
4. The Nation of Israel (Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1)

Anderson suggests that the idea of obedience is involved in all four situations. He elaborates on #4 as it highlights vital features of Christ's sonship:

"'When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt' (Hos. 11.1). As throughout the OT the characteristic excellence of a son consists in obedience to his father's will, so at the very call (or adoption) of Israel, the promise of obedience is made (Ex. 24.7)...…He {Christ} is conscious of having been assigned a special mission and task by God; he conceives of his own response in biblical terms, vis. Sonship and obedience. Israel had been disobedient to the vocation of sonship: Christ becomes the sole Israel of God by virtue of his unique obedience—`not what I will, but what thou wilt' (Mark 14.36). He is therefore uniquely the Son of God. It is as the New Israel that Jesus is to be understood as Son of God, not in any Hellenistic sense of {divine man}." (ibid)

Towards the end of his discussion, Anderson specifically refers to Christ's Sonship in the gospel of John, noting that in "the Fourth Gospel the biblical character of Sonship as obedience is strongly in evidence….  The Johannine conception of Sonship is biblical in a way which has nothing in common with pagan myths about 'sons of God'." [i.e. `divine men'] (p. 152)

It is certainly anachronistic to interpret the phrase Son of God according to its use by modern Christians. Yet, how many today can hear the phrase without importing post-biblical connotations? John Reumann discusses this problem:

"'Son of God' calls to mind metaphysical terms like 'substance' and similar words deriving from Greek philosophy. The Phrases of the Nicene Creed, 'the only-begotten Son of God,… Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father,' tempt one to interpret the New Testament affirmations about Jesus in the categories of Greek philosophy…...The New Testament meant something else then such things...`son of God' would mean to stand in a moral and functional relationship to God...'" (Jesus in the Church's Gospels), pp. 289-290

These references support my contention that the phrase Son of God wouldn't have suggested ontological properties during Jesus' time, but would have been understood in a functional sense, highlighting Christ's Messianic status as one commissioned by God and his obedient response to that commission. This is not to deny that Jesus was Son of God in a way that is richer in significance than others who were so called. The idea that God was Jesus' life giver may have been involved in some contexts, along with implications of their close relationship, and of Christ's matchless godlike character. But the fundamental question that one must ask when considering the accounts such as John 5:18, 10:30-39, and 19:7 is:  How would the title have been understood by the Jews during the period of Christ's ministry?

Unless one is going to suggest that God gave the hypocritical religious leaders a divine revelation so that they understood the phrase in a manner comparable to how it was understood in later Centuries, I think one must accept the probability that they understood its meaning within the parameters of the Jewish conceptual categories extant during their time. Thus, when seeking to discern why the Jews sought to kill Jesus, we should seek explanations that do not defy historical probability. The claim that Son of God connoted ontological properties has little to recommend it.

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