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Confessing Jesus as the Son of God: In Christian and Muslim Context

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This is my summary and brief response to a workshop I attended in 2013, taught by Dr. Donald A. Carson on the subject of the Sonship of Christ in Christian and Muslim context.

Dr. Carson mentions three objectives.

Segment 001 of jesus-the-son-of-god-Carson(1) It is important to try to find how one moves from exegesis to doctrinal confessions. Some systematic theologies assume the bible and emphasize on historical and philosophical categories and don’t necessarily tie every point of doctrine back to the bible. They are one step removed from rigorous exegesis. On the other hand, the other branch of theology focuses on a historical-grammatical exegesis. Students graduating from seminaries don’t know how to put these two disciplines together. Carson’s objective of this conference is to put them together.

(2) We must ask what individual text mean by the Son of God, as in fact Son of God could mean slightly different in different context.

(3) How should we respond to the usage of “Messiah” in place of “the Son of God” and Guardian in place of “Father” in an effort to contextualize the gospel to Muslims?

To appreciate the weight of Carson’s concern, let me sketch a bit of church history.

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Son of God in Historical Context: The Eternal Generation of the Son

The 4th century debate and the subsequent formulation of the doctrine of trinity has become one of the most important creedal confessions. At the beginning of the fourth century, the church became entangled in a fierce dispute concerning the deity of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. This struggle with Arianism has further pressed the early church to develop Trinitarian doctrine. Specifically, the structure of the Creed of Nicaea underscored and formulated the church’s Trinitarian consciousness:

We believe in one God the Father all-sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God …; and in the Holy Spirit.”

However, the introduction of terms such as: essence, person, begotten has produced fierce controversies. The Athanasius Creed reads as:

The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten”. In terms of the persons, “the Father is the begetter and the emitter … the Son is the begotten, and the Holy Spirit the emission.1

NOTE 1: Gregory of Nazianzus, “Third Theological Oration: On the Son,” Oration 29.2, in NPNF

Gregory of Nyssa distinguished them on the basis of cause and that which is caused:

…Thus, the attribute of being only-begotten is without doubt in the Son. And the interposition of the Son, while it guards his attribute of being only-begotten, does not shut out the Spirit from his relation by way of nature to the Father.2

NOTE 2: This is well attested in John 5: 19-29, where Jesus compared his actions as coextensive as that of the father, and in the context, especial v.26, his sonship is a uniquely defined sonship. Particularly, Jesus’ use of the word “grant” in verse 26, is noteworthy. Dr. Carson exerts that this is an indication that this “grant “is an eternal grant affirming Augustinian eternal begetting

Likewise, the Cappadocian fathers attempted to maintain a balance between these elements in their development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Here is where Carson introduces the importance for Systematic Theology to be grounded upon Biblical theology and exegetical theology. He proposed how much of the later century’s debates, on eternal generation, were grounded in scripture and how much of it were grounded in mere speculation. To answer this, Carson begins to unpack individual texts in their context. In attempting this, I think, Carson wants us to make a legitimate connection between the “economic-functional” uses back to the “immanent-ontological”.

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Son of God in Biblical Context: Functional vs Ontological

In the Ancient world sonship is thought of in functional terms. Carson notes that often times the modern uses of this concept associates sonship with DNA, as in the CSI dramas. However in the context of an agrarian and hand-craft society, sonship determines one’s own destiny in two ways. First and foremost, this functional sonship is bound up with one’s identity. If the father is a farmer, the son inherits the vocation and becomes a farmer. “If the father’s name is Stradivarius, then the son makes violins”.  Carson then gives biblical examples in light of this functional categories. For instance, the Old Testament’s uses of “son of …” affirm this functional sense. “Son of Worthlessness” denotes that the only possible explanation for the action of the son is due to the fact that the son belongs to a worthless family. The bible also affirms that “blessed are the peace-makers, for they shall be called sons of God”. What it means is that, in so far as they act as peace-makers, they are acting like God as he is the supreme peace maker. When Jesus replied to the Jews, who claimed that Abraham was their father, he said “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.” These languages are highly functional. That is to say those who are sons act like their fathers. The second form of this functional sonship has to do with one’s preparation and the kind of training one would have. If the father is a farmer, he teaches his son how to do farming well. The son receives his vocational training from his father, just as he inherits his vocation from his father.

Next having defined sonship functionally, Carson precedes to survey the different biblical uses. First, Adam was said to be the son of God. Luke traces the families of the earth back to Adam, the son of God, who is created in the Image of God. Second, the son of God language has been used for corporate Israel (Ex 4:22; Hos 11: 1). Third individual Israelites were referred as “sons of God”, however in its plural form. Fourth, both good and evil angels are called “sons of God” in the book of Job and few instances in the book of Psalms. Fifth and the most prominent one, is that son of God language is used to refer to the Davidic dynasty, messianic sonship (2Sam 7: 12-14; 23: 5; Cf. 2Chron 17). For the first time, in the history of Israel, kingship and temple are now tied together. According to the covenant God cut with David, God will establish his kingdom and it will not be like Saul his predecessor. Here also for the first time the king is related with Yahweh as the ‘Son of God’ (Cf. Ps 2:7), ‘the firstborn son’ (Ps 89:26-27, Cf. ‎Col 1:15; Ex 4:22; Heb 12: 23) and whose dominion is described in words reminiscent to the Abrahamic promises (Ps 72:7; Cf. Ps. 80:11; 89:25; Zech. 9:10).

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Carson notes that this Messianic sonship is functional, that is to say that the Davidic king is to rule and act like Yahweh and this has become the beginning of Davidic typology. Yahweh is his father. It is also noteworthy that the king, as the son of God, is to represent Israel, who likewise is said to be “the firstborn son” (Ex 4:22; Hos 11: 1; Jer 3:19; Deut 1: 31; 8: 5; 14: 1). Just as Israel was “God’s son”, because of her election and adoption to sonship, referring to God’s choice of Israel as his covenant people (Rom. 9:4), to accomplish his mission in the world , so the Davidic King is also said to rule as God’s vice-regent. Due to time limitation Carson skips over the prophetic developments, especially after the 8th century BC, which alludes to the messiah as the “son”(Isa 9: 6), who would be both a reigning king and a suffering servant. All of these eschatological expectations are picked up by the New Testament writers and concluded that Jesus of Nazareth is that promised Messianic Son of God. Next, Carson selects passages from the New Testament to reinforce these developments.

I have found this understanding extremely lacking in our churches. On the one hand, the word “Son of God” is assumed. Our evangelistic conversation merely recites it. Our worship service never engages it. On the other hand, “sonship” is tied to our own adoption as sons. The more we know about Christ’s sonship and cherish it through our preaching and worship, the more we begin to understand our call. In my experience, I have noticed people’s hearts caught on fire as soon as I begin to explain what does sonship mean and help them connect their sonship with Christ’s. All of a sudden they begin to understand the glory of this call and what kind of love the Father has given us, so that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world doesn’t recognize us is that it did not know him but when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is and this is the ground for our hope and our motive for a continued sanctification.

Son of God in Muslim Context

As Carson clearly argued above, we all should recognize the extraordinary diversity of ‘son of’’ expressions in the Bible. Probably they should not all be handled the same way. That being said, Carson concludes “it is better to render the original more directly” and explain with notes when necessary. Substitution of Son of God with another phrase minimizes the reader’s appreciation for the reality that Jesus is the Davidic King, Israel, Messiah, and Incarnate Deity. This fact constitutes a driving reason to translate ‘Son of God’ and ‘Father’ expressions consistently”

Therefore, when we understand Jesus as the Son of God, it ought to have an effect and bearing on our evangelism. More knowledge about the true King and unpacking the theme of the Son of God can bring forth more understanding and appreciation about the doctrine of God as a whole, making it easier and pleasant to evangelize towards others who do not know Christ.

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© 2016, Samson Tilahun. All rights reserved.

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