Son of God

views updated


The concept is first considered according to its Biblical employment (with attention given here to the relevance of other Near Eastern usage); it is then treated for its significance in subsequent theology.


The term son of God was used (1) in the ancient Near East to express a variety of relationships of man or the world to God or the gods; (2) in the Old Testament for the people or the king as chosen and called to special intimacy with God; (3) in later Judaism for the pious or just;(4) in the New Testament of Jesus as the chosen, the Messiah, and Son of God in a new sense illumined by His teaching and especially by His Resurrection, and given theological precision by the Epistles of Paul and the Fourth Gospel.

In the Ancient Near East. Here theophoric names expressive of a man's relation of sonship to a particular god were widespread: e.g., Ben-Hadad, meaning son of (the god) Hadad; Bar-Rekub, son of (the god) Rekub; Abiel (1 Sm 9.1), meaning (the god) El is my father; Abiah, Yahweh is my father (1 Sm 8.2; 2 Chr 13.20); Abibaal, Baal is my father. These names were meant to express confident trust in the god's fatherly protection, the sonship being conceived, at most, as adoptive.

When appropriated by kings, the term son of God was frequently understood to express a really divine character in its bearer. This was particularly true of the kings of Egypt, who called themselves the sons of Ra; the Ptolemies took the title θες κ θε[symbol omitted]ν (god of the gods). By New Testament times the Roman emperors had taken over the Near Eastern practice. Inscriptions from Pergamum, Magnesia, and Tarsus give Augustus and his successors the title son of god, θεο[symbol omitted] υός (divi filius ).

There was a growing tendency to attribute divine qualities to exceptional men. A prophet or a wonderworker of the Hellenistic world was called a divine man or son of god. In this way in the hermetic literature, a man who undergoes a rebirth may become "a god, a child of god." Counter to this seeming devaluation of the transcendence of the god, certain philosophical circles spoke of the created cosmos, or of its archetype, or of the logos, as the only true son of godusing the title in a clearly metaphorical sense for the mediating or emanating essences through which the supreme god creates the world, through which he may also be known. Nevertheless, the distinction between the divine and the human spheres eventually wore thin ["Man on earth is a mortal god; god in heaven is an immortal man"; Corpus Hermeticum 10 (key).25].

In the Old Testament. The king was understood in the Old Testament to stand in a special relation of sonship to God, and although the title son of God is never given to the king explicitly, Yahweh is frequently depicted as calling him "my son" (2 Sm 7.14; 1 Chr 22.10; Ps 2.7), "my firstborn" [Ps 88 (89).28]. This unique relationship was rooted in Yahweh's choice (1 Chr 28.6) and was acknowledged

at the king's enthronement: "You are my son; this day I have begotten you" (Ps 2.7). The king was thus understood to sit on Yahweh's throne (1 Chr 29.23), to be His representative and the witness of God's love and care for His people (2 Chr 9.8). Although divine wisdom is sometimes attributed to the king (2 Sm 14.20; 1 Kgs 3.12, 28), and a court poet goes so far as to call him 'ĕlōhîm, "god" [in the same sense that the judges are so called in Ps 57 (58).2; 81 (82).1, 6], the king was never given divine worship in Israel, and the Prophets felt free to criticize the ruler as one who was himself subject to God's judgment (2 Sm 12.512). Hence, the tendency to exalt the king as God's son was tempered by that other more ancient tradition according to which the people of Israel itself is God's son in virtue of Yahweh's choice, deliverance, and covenant (Ex 4.22; Jer 31.9; Hos 11.1; Wis 18.13; see sons of god).

In Later Judaism. The Israelite in later Judaism who practiced the virtues, especially generosity to the poor, was "like a son to the Most High" (Sir 4.10); but

notably the title described the just man who excited the envy and malice of the wicked and was subjected by them to revilement and torture to try his patience (Wis2.1518); or the just whom God's fatherly providence chastised for their own good (Psalms of Solomon 13.8;17.30; 18.4). At this period the royal Psalms [Ps 2; 44 (45); 71 (72); 109 (110)] were interpreted as referring to the messiah, and although the earlier idea of the king as son of God could be implicitly transferred, nowhere is the Messiah directly called the son of God. (In 4 Ezra7.28, "my Son, the Messiah," is probably not original; and at any rate 4 Ezra is not pre-Christian.) There is hesitation (evident in the Aramaic translations of the Old Testament) in using this title even for the king or for the people for fear of its polytheistic connotations. Consequently, at the time of Jesus, Son of God was not a common title for the Messiah, although it is used at times in the New Testament in this sense (Mk 12.3537; 14.61; Lk 4.41). Judaism never attributed a divine nature to the Messiah; the son of man (Dn 7.1314) was interpreted in Enoch (ch. 46, 48, 52) as the Messiah, but was given preexisting, heavenly traits, quite out of keeping with the traditional earthly character and origin of the Davidic Messiah. When the rabbis said that the Messiah existed eternally with God, they meant merely that God knew from all eternity who the Messiah would be.

In the New Testament. In contrast to the Old Testament usage, the title Son of God in the New Testament differs both in frequency and in content. For the purposes of the present discussion, it is not possible to leave aside such other usages as "the Son," "His Son," "a Son," "My Son," "My beloved Son," and "the [His] only-begotten Son." Treatment will be made here of the New Testament depiction of Jesus' consciousness of His divine sonship, the conception of the primitive Christian community of His sonship, the theological clarifications of St. Paul, and the Johannine development.

Jesus' Consciousness of Divine Sonship. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus, who frequently calls Himself Son of Man, never applies to Himself the title Son of God. Others, however, use it frequently of Him (nine times in Matthew; five times in Mark; six times in Luke). From this it does not follow that the conception of Jesus' divine sonship derived uniquely from the faith of the Christian community. The Synoptics attest that the primitive Christian faith in the divinity of Jesus was rooted, not merely in the fact of the Resurrection, but also in the illumination this brought concerning Jesus' own statements and deeds during His public ministry, which His Disciples at first did not adequately understand. That Jesus conceived of Himself and presented Himself as the Son of God in a unique and preeminent sense appears repeatedly in the Synoptic tradition. An allusion appears in the Parable of the Vinedressers, in which a qualitative difference is stressed between the servants and the son, the heir (Mk 12.112 and parallels). If this is discounted as merely stressing the preeminence of the Messiah over His fore-runners, the same cannot be said of the question concerning the origin of the Messiah: if David calls his son Lord, how can He be merely his son? (Mk 12.37). Jesus' deliberate usage of "your Father" when speaking of His Disciples' relation to God, as contrasted with "my Father" when speaking of His own (Mt 7.21; 10.3233; 11.27;12.50; Lk 2.49; 10.22), and the conspicuous absence of the term "our Father" applying to both together evidence a clear distinction between the two. The passage of Mt 11.27 (parallel to Lk 10.22) is important in this context: "All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and him to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." The statement portrays a claim to a knowledge by Jesus of God in His personal relationship, a knowledge that the Son alone possesses and that corresponds to the Father's personal knowledge of the Son, a knowledge that the Son alone can communicate. Particularly interesting is the logion of Mk 13.32 concerning the Last Day: "But of that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." The authenticity of this passage can hardly be questioned, for a community bent on exalting its Lord would scarcely have constructed a saying in which He confesses ignorance. In this text Jesus uses "Son" of Himself, not as men or angels are sons, but as He alone stands as Son in His distinctive relationship with God.

Primitive Christian Concept of Jesus' Divine Sonship. Although Jesus was conscious of His divine sonship, this divine sonship in the strict sense was not so clear from the beginning to His contemporaries or His Disciples; hence the importance of distinguishing the meaning of the term Son of God when used in the original life situation of Jesus and the enriched meaning perceived by the Evangelist, in the redaction of the account. At the more primitive stages of the New Testament tradition, the title Son of God frequently is used or is shown to be understood in less profound senses. (1) It is not always clear what the term means when spoken by the demons; it may mean only man of God (Mt 8.29 and parallels; Lk 8.28; Mk 3.11; Mk 1.25 and parallels: the Holy One of God), but in Lk 4.41 it clearly means the Messiah. (2) Used by the centurion at the Crucifixion, it seems to have meant only a just man (cf. Mt 27.54 and Mk 15.39 with Lk 23.47). (3) In the infancy narratives the child to be born shall be called the "Son of the Most High" [Ps 81 (82).6] because the "Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father" (Lk 1.32), i.e., He will be the Davidic Messiah; and He will be called the Son of God because He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High (Lk 1.35). The "Son of the living God" in Peter's Matthaean confession (Mt 16.16) seems to modify Mk 8.29, in which Peter confesses Jesus' messiahship. (4) In the accounts of the baptism and the Transfiguration of Jesus, the voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be God's only-begotten Son reveals the highest point of intimacy with the Father. The two events are connected certainly with Jesus' messianic mission (see also Mt3.17 and parallels; 17.5 and parallels). (5) In Mark's account of the trial of Jesus, the high priest asks "Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" (Mk 14.61). Is the second title an appositive of the first, or does it mean the divine sonship in a higher sense? Matthew's version of the question has "Christ, the Son of God" (Mt 26.63). Luke's version makes two separate interrogations: "If thou art the Christ, tell us" (Lk 22.66), and after Jesus' prophecy concerning the Son of Man, "Art thou, then, the Son of God?" (22.67). Luke seems clearly to distinguish the two titles. The evidence that Son of God was not a current title for the Messiah, that the claim to mere messiahship could hardly have been a pretext for the accusation of blasphemy, and that the teaching of Jesus (which John assures his readers was a major object of the trial: Jn 18.19) had laid much more stress on the religious nature of His mission than on His earthly sonship of Davidall this points to the fact that Son of God, particularly as qualified by the Son of Man statement in the context, was understood by the Sanhedrin to be something quite beyond messiahship, namely, Jesus' claim to an intimacy with God given to no other mortal.

It was in the Resurrection that the Disciples recognized Jesus as "the Son of God in power" (Rom 1.4), and thereafter the title is charged with a new significance. In their report of the earthly life of Jesus, which Mark entitles "the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1.1), the Synoptic Evangelists portray His divine power more by what Jesus did than by what He said. That the demons are subject to Him (Mt 8.2834 and parallels) is proof that God's royal power is manifest in Him (Mt 12.28). He assumes the divine prerogative of forgiving sinners on His own authority (Mk 2.5, 7). He is not bound to the limits of Scripture and tradition in His teaching, as are the Scribes and Pharisees, but teaches with full authority (Mk 1.22; Mt 7.2829), not hesitating to improve on the divine law (Mk 10.112; Mt 5.2148). His word abides forever (Mk 13.31), a claim which the Old Testament had reserved for the word of God (Is 40.8).

The Resurrection of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit strengthened the originally weak faith of the Disciples (Mk 8.1721; 6.5152; Mt 14.33) and clarified what had originally been a stumbling block for them (Mk8.32), namely, that it was indeed the divine plan for Jesus to enter His glory by way of suffering and death (Lk 23.26, 46; 1 Pt 1.11), that in order to fulfill the prophecies concerning the Messiah and the conception of the glorious Son of Man, He would first fulfill those that told of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh (Acts 4.27, 30; Mk9.12; 10.45; Mt 17.12; see suffering servant, songs of). The Resurrection thus appeared as the reversal of the judgment of the Sanhedrin and as the instatement of Jesus in the fullness of His glory as Lord and Messiah (Acts2.36; 5.31). As this glory is something strictly divine, the term Son of God now connotes the enthronement in a royal dignity that is also divine. To Christ are now applied statements reserved to Yahweh in the Old Testament: salvation through invoking the name of Jesus (Acts4.10, 12); coming at the end of time to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10.42;17.30). The consciousness that such a dignity belonged to Christ by right and by preexistence becomes clearer, but it is St. Paul who gives the theological precision.

St. Paul's Theological Clarifications. In the Pauline Epistles, Lord is the preferred title for expressing the divine glory of the risen Christ. Paul does not hesitate to transfer to the Person of Christ this title reserved to Yahweh in the Old Testament: "God has exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name [in the Old Testament this could only be Yahweh], that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess, to the glory of God the Father, that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Phil 2.911). It is in the same vein that in Rom 1.4 Paul states that God's Son was "constituted Son of God by an act of power in keeping with the holiness of his spirit, by resurrection from the dead." From Paul's doctrine elsewhere, it can be seen that this text does not imply that Jesus became Son of God at the Resurrection, but that the Resurrection manifested His divine sonship and instated Him in its fullness. (1) Christ's lordship, like Yahweh's in the Old Testament (Is 40.2226; 45.1824), is associated with creative power (1 Cor 8.16; Col 1.1317). He was "begotten before every creature" (Col 1.15). (2) The "sending" of the Son implies His preexistence (esp. Gal4.4; cf. Rom 8.3). (3) Christ "was in the form of God from the start" (Phil 2.6). The noun μορφή and the participle [symbol omitted]πάρχων make it clear that Christ possessed the divine character essentially before His entry into time. (4) The Trinitarian texts (e.g., Eph 4.46; 1 Cor 12.46; 2 Cor 13.13) put the Son on the same level as the Father. In the prayer of 2 Thes 2.1617, the Lord Jesus Christ is addressed before the Father, and the plural subject is preceded by a singular intensive pronoun ("himself") and followed by singular verbs (see also 1 Thes 3.11). The Resurrection is the full expression of Christ's divine sonship, while at the same time it gives Him the power of becoming the principle of resurrection to His members, who are adopted sons of God (Rom 8.11). Hence, Paul gives precision to the Synoptic theology, but he takes for granted that he is not introducing anything novel into the Christian tradition (1 Cor 15.11; Rom 1.14). It is even probable that the passage of Phil 2.611 is a primitive hymn of a Palestinian Christian community incorporated by St. Paul in this letter. Nevertheless, in Paul the divinity of Christ is always considered in relation to the Father, who remains the first principle (1 Cor 3.2223; 11.3;15.2427).

Johannine Development. In the Gospel of St. John, twice the title Son of God means nothing more than Messiah. Thus Nathanael's confession of faith, "Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art King of Israel!" (Jn 1.49) regards the two as equivalent (see also 11.27). Or again "the Son" may be related to the concept of Son of Man and His mission (3.1417). However, in ch. 5, the strife with the Jews begins over Jesus' curing on the Sabbath and "calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God" (5.18). The climax of the accusation comes in 19.7: "We have a Law, and according to the Law he must die, because he has made himself the Son of God." The title here goes beyond messiahship and affirms the uniqueness of relationship between Son and Father that the entire Gospel of John describes. With the Synoptics, John portrays Jesus distinguishing "my father" and "your father," adding "my God" and "your God"(20.17). But in John alone in the New Testament is the term only-begotten (Son) used of Jesus (1.14, 18; 3.16,18). "The Father is in me and I in the Father" (10.38); seeing Jesus is seeing the Father (14.9), and Father and Son are embraced in one act of faith (12.44), because "I and the Father are one" (10.30). The Jews interpret this as blasphemy, "You, being a man, make yourself God"(10.33).

On the preexistence of the Son of God, John is clearer than any other New Testament author. If some of the statements (8.56; 12.41; 17.5, 24) can be interpreted as describing merely the glory that was foreseen by Abraham or Isaiah or that was predestined by the Father from all eternity, the same cannot be said of statements such as 6.63: "What then if you should see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" and 8.58: "Before Abraham came to be, I am." The intentional contrast here between an existence that had a beginning and one that transcends time and history, coupled with the use of the divine name revealed to Moses, witnesses to a claim to full divinity, and the Jews are shown to understand the claim by their attempt to stone Him (8.59). Similarly, in the words of the Baptist, "After me there comes one who has been set above me, because before me he was"(1.30), the stress is on the verb relegated to the end of the clause, which predicates a transcendent existence to Christ. The progression of faith in the Disciples is climaxed in Thomas's post-Resurrection confession: "My Lord and my God!" (20.28).

The prologue is a synthesis of Johannine theology of the Son of God. Calling the preexisting Son the word, the text in swift strokes attributes to Him eternal preexistence ("In the beginning was the Word"), personal distinction from the Father ("and the Word was with God"), and divine nature ("and the Word was God"1.1). Then it evokes His role in the creation of absolutely everything (1.2). He is the principle of all being, the source of all life, and the light that enlightens every man (1.49). Then, touching on the shadow of rejection by His own, which will lengthen as the Gospel unfolds, John goes on to portray the gift of "becoming sons of God" given to those who received the Word when He came (1.1112). The Word was made flesh, and in His human nature "we saw his gloryglory as of the only-begotten of the Father" (1.14). Glory in John expresses the manifestation of the divine nature of the only-begotten Son of God, which takes place already during His earthly life (2.11). It is the mission of the only-begotten to reveal the Father (1.18), and this expression of the Father to men partially explains John's choice of Word as Jesus' title in the prologue. But the term Logos is more than functional. "His work is to reveal God to men, but this is itself founded upon the very nature of Christ; before all revelation He was already in a certain sense the Word of God (just as the sapiential books say of Wisdom that she was Wisdom in God even before the work of creation), He was in a certain sense the expression of the thought of God" (M. É. Boismard, 94). The prologue thus prepares and introduces the theme of the whole Gospel, namely, that the entire earthly career of Jesus is a projection on the plane of time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father.

The history of the term Son of God illustrates the attempt of the early Church to articulate a new experience for which it continually found the Old Testament and Hellenistic vocabulary and thought patterns inadequate. But other tools it did not have. It would be naïve to expect a Nicaean definition of those who first sought to translate into human words their experience of incarnate divinity. "Divinity is felt before it is named, and when it is named, the words are inadequate" (V. Taylor).

Bibliography: a. gelin et al., Son and Saviour, tr. a. wheaton (2d ed. Baltimore 1960). j. de fraine, Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 226470. v. taylor, The Names of Jesus (New York 1953) 5271. j. lebreton, Dictionnaire de la Bible, supplmental ed. by l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928) 4:102534. e. huntress, "Son of God in Jewish Writings Prior to the Christian Era," Journal of Biblical Literature 54 (1935) 117123. m. j. lagrange, "Les Origines du dogme paulinien de la divinité du Christ," Revue biblique 45 (1936) 533. c. p. ceroke, "The Divinity of Christ in the Gospels," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 24 (1962) 125139. b. m. f. van iersel, "Der Sohn" in den synoptischen Jesusworten: Christusbezeichnung der Gemeinde oder Selbstbezeichnung Jesu? (Novum Testamentum Supplement 3; 1961), with extensive bibliography. m. j. lagrange, Évangile selon saint Jean (8th ed. Paris 1948) cxlivclx. m. É. boismard, St. John's Prologue, tr. carisbrooke dominicans (Westminster, Maryland 1957). c. h. dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge, England 1960) 250262.

[g. t. montague]


The place of Son of God in christology is the subject that will now be considered.

Christology. Concerned with the theological analysis and synthesis of the Church's faith in Jesus Christ, Christology is controlled by the dogmatic definition of the Council of chalcedon, 451: "one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, proclaimed in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation" (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer 302). In the classical theology of the West this statement of the Church's doctrine about Jesus Christ is developed by using the categories of formal ontology; the concepts of Person and nature are used, according to the analogy of proportionality, to interpret the formula of Chalcedon. Son of God within this setting is seen as the subject possessing, though in different manners, the divine nature and the human nature. From this position are drawn the soteriological consequences of the satisfactory and meritorious value of Jesus Christ's earthly actions, especially of His voluntary death; it also follows that Jesus Christ is the object of the supreme form of worship, adoration. The static character of the categories employed by classical Christology make for intellectual clarity in the theological statement of Son of God, and in this way the problems raised by Son of God can be appreciated. But these categories do not easily lend themselves to the interpretation of the significance of Son of God, which is the point of interest today (Leeming, 696).

Investigation into the origins of prescientific Christology, especially into the Christology of the New Testament writings, reveals an essentially dynamic approach to the understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ. The conclusion reached by C. H. Dodd (123) is that even in its developments New Testament Christology goes back to a primitive body of testimonies from the Old Testament, seen as declaring "the determinate counsel of God," now fulfilled in the events that constituted the life of Jesus Christ. J. Jeremias (30) takes this same dynamic approach to the understanding of the Person of Jesus Christ beyond the apostolic kerygma about Christ to the historical Jesus. In the very way in which Jesus speaks of God as abba, Father, this author (27) sees Jesus bearing witness to Himself as Son of God precisely because of the unique way in which He knows God: God has revealed Himself to Him as only a father can reveal himself to his son. Modern theologians, using existential categories (here given the precise meaning of the categories thrown up by the philosophic analysis of spiritual, personal being), are working to interpret the Christological formula of Chalcedon in such a way that Son of God is seen in a dynamic way. The purpose of this endeavour is not to replace classical Christology but to carry it through to another dimension.

Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique: Tables générales (Paris 1951) 25482655. r. sch nackenburg and r. lachenschmid, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 9:851857. o. cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament, tr. s. c. guthrie and c. a. m. hall (rev. ed. Philadelphia 1963). c. h. dodd, According to the Scriptures (New York 1953). j. jeremias, "Abba": The Central Message of the New Testament (London 1965). k. rahner, "Current Problems in Christology," Theological Investigations, tr. c. ernst (Baltimore 1961) 1:149200. b. leeming, "Reflections on English Christology" in a. grillmeier and h. bacht, Das Konzil von Chalkedon: Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3 v. (Würzburg 195154) 3:695718. r. schnackenburg, "Der Abstand der christologischen Aussagen des N.T. vom chalkedonischen Bekenntnis nach der Deutung Rudolf Bultmanns," ibid. 675693.

[e. g. hardwick]