on 22 May 2013
What do we mean when we say that Jesus is the "Son of God"? Maybe you have pondered this and it has never quite made sense. You wouldn't be alone, the question is a common one; and especially with current controversies over how the title should be translated in Muslim contexts, a voice of sanity is needed. D. A. Carson is such a voice, and intends for his book Jesus the Son of God to "foster clear thinking" (p12) on these issues.
Jesus the Son of God
This book is split into three chapters, which were originally delivered as three talks at RTS.
First, Carson surveys the variety of relationships that "son" language can imply and splits them into three broad categories: biological, hypothetical, and metaphorical. Next, Carson shows that angels, Adam, Israel, and Christians are all called "son[s] of God" in Scripture with varying metaphorical meanings. Finally, Carson addresses passages where Jesus is seen as "the Son of God". Is His sonship different? Are there distinct meanings when the term is applied to Jesus? Carson identifies four main categories:
1) Where no distinct meaning can be readily discerned from the context (the "catchall")
2) Where Jesus's role as the promised king in the line of David is portrayed (John 1:49)
3) Where Jesus is seen as the true, obedient Israel (comparing Hosea 11:1 with Matt 2:15)
4) Where Jesus is identified as divine (John 5:23; Heb 1:1-3; John 1:1, 14)
In the second chapter we zoom in and examine two texts closely, Hebrews 1 and John 5:16-30, in order to see "what the New Testament writers meant when they declared Jesus to be the Son of God" (p42). The insights in this section are too many to list in this review; in both texts Carson digs deep and traces Old Testament connections and expectations, and examines Jesus's sonship as Messianic King, and also His unique divine sonship. In both texts we see that Jesus's sonship, and thereby His relationship with the Father, is utterly superior and unique compared to all others.
In the last chapter, Carson then applies these collective observations to the current translation debate in Muslim contexts. For those unaware of the issue, I would recommend this Christianity Today article from 2011 as a starting point. As a world-renowned Biblical scholar, Carson's wisdom on this issue is much appreciated. He carefully leads the reader through a complicated issue, avoiding oversimplification on either side, and ultimately appeals for the title to be retained (but explained) in Bible translations for Muslim contexts, lest too much be lost in the process.
There is much to commend in this short book. Firstly, Carson's expertise must be recognized in dealing so ably with this topic and making it so approachable. Many others would require far more space to cover the same ground, and lacking the clarity as we find in Jesus the Son of God. There were a few times where Carson's language may be a little difficult for the average reader; in his more popular-level works Carson at times seems to forget his audience and slip into academic-speak for a paragraph or two. This should not turn off any readers though, as there is a gold mine of insight available to all in this small book.
I doubt anyone will be calling me for my opinions on how to translate "son of God" language in Muslim contexts anytime soon, but I am grateful for Carson's thoughts on this topic. I am sure many will take his input seriously, and I hope it will advance the discussion.
Some may think this book is purely for an academic or missional audience, but it is not so! This topic is for all Christians, and Carson constantly draws the reader to understand our Lord better, and thereby worship Him more. Carson avoids creating a stereotypically dry academic work. This is doxological, not dry. It is crucial that we understand this Biblical title better so that we can be better readers of our Bibles.
My biggest complaint is admittedly unfair: I wish this were a full-length treatment on the subject. I know I shouldn't criticize an author for not writing the book I wanted them to write, but this is a bit of a tease and left me hungry for more. I hope that a Biblical scholar will pick up the gauntlet and run with this idea. I am not entirely dispassionate in this request, since I am currently planning a Bible College class that examines Christological and Soteriological titles. A book like this that examined "Son of God" language more thoroughly throughout the Bible would be very welcome!
Anyone who is interested in the title "son of God", and/or how it ought to be translated in Muslim contexts needs to pick this up.
More broadly, anyone interested in better knowing Christ and the Word should read Jesus the Son of God. Seriously, reading 128 pages by a solid Biblical scholar to better understand how the Bible speaks about Jesus? Do you really need me to try and convince you?
[Many thanks to Christine Bradley and IVP UK for providing a review copy of this book!]
on 14 May 2013
D.A. Carson, `Jesus The Son of God: A Christological Title Often
Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed', IVP
(Nottingham: England), 2012.
This is a nicely presented and well written book. It originated in
three lectures the author gave at the Reformed Theological Seminary,
Jackson, Mississippi in March 2012. It is a slim book of 117
pages. The few footnotes are where they belong (at the bottom of the
page they are referenced on). There is no bibliography, but it does
have a General index and a Scripture index.
The book has the following structure:
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
Some books are the distilled essence of years of study and reflection,
benefit from having been taught on numerous occasions, and have many
insights to impart, and do so with wonderful economy, without tedious
repetition. Others have only one or two things to say, and spend tens
or even hundreds of thousands of words to do so. This book is most
definitely one of the former.
The first chapter starts with a reflection what son-ship means in
pre-industrial society where children tend to gain their identity and
trade from their parents. This leads to a reflection of the diverse
biblical use of "son of" language, much of which reflects this
"functional" usage. This is based on the original languages, and a
helpful table shows how this "son of" language is often lost in modern
translations, such as the NIV and ESV, which smooth out such alien
idioms. The chapter goes on to survey the Bible's use of the "Son of
God" term for beings other than Jesus; and the Bible's use of the
"Son of God" term for Jesus. Carson is aware of the various nuances
the term has in different contexts, and does not conflate them into a
flat reductionistic category.
In the second chapter Carson selects just a couple of interesting and
illustrative texts where Jesus is called the Son of God, and does just
enough to draw out their profound witness. The two texts are Hebrew 1
and John 5:16-30. Hebrews 1 affirms that Jesus is greater than the
angels, and does so in part by quoting Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel
7:14. Psalm 2:7 is elsewhere also used to argue that Jesus did not
take on the high Priestly role by himself, and that Jesus had to be
raised up. Carson in a wonderful section unpacks the Bible's Davidic
typology to show how these are legitimate readings of these
passages. He goes on to show how Psalm 45 is used by the writer of
Hebrews to testify to the divinity of the Jesus, the Son of God.
Carson uses the passage in John to explore John's profound portrayal
of Jesus as the eternal Son of God. He draws attention to John's
teaching which point both to the true deity of the Son, and his
carefully drawn subordination to the Father.
The third chapter starts by drawing some conclusions from the first
two chapters: namely, 1) that "Son of God" terminology is not a
terminus technicus (technical term) that always has the same meaning;
2) attention must be paid to the biblical theological trajectories
through the Bible if the "Son of God" language is to be understood
correctly; 3) the relationship between exegesis of the biblical "son
of God" passages and the systematic theological category of "Son of
God" is complex; 4) the "eternal generation of the son" is convoluted
territory; 5) understanding Jesus as the son of God should impact our
evangelism, 6) and our worship. The chapter then rehearses the
different models of "Christ-centred communities", from c1 (foreign
language, foreign concepts and foreign culture), to c5 (indigenous
language, concepts and culture, only rejecting a small number of
indigenous practices and beliefs seen as incompatible with confessing
Jesus is Lord). Carson portrays the debate in missionary circles over
whether or not to use the Son of God language (which is open to
misunderstanding in the Muslim context) is seen part of the debate
over the legitimacy of the c5 model of churches. Carson draws a few
lessons from the earlier chapters for this debate.
This book is profound, masterful, and timely. Don Carson is a
respected biblical scholar who has a real gift for distilling his
insights in digestible teaching for the entire church. This book is
Carson at his best. It is a book that will repay repeated
readings. Buy, read, be blessed.
on 26 January 2013
The recent debates about the titles used to describe Jesus in missionary contexts are overviewed and dealt with in a carefully exegetical and pastoral manner. Highly recommended for all seeking clarity about what the Bible, and Hebrews in particular, mean when they give Jesus the title of Son of God.