Jesus is the Son of God! But do we understand the title?

Jesus the Son of God, by D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson, Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 117pp. $15.99.

“Moreover, for some time I have been thinking through the hiatus between careful exegesis and doctrinal formulations. We need both, of course, but unless the latter are finally controlled by the former, and seen to be controlled by the former, both are weakened.” (11)

‘Son of God’ is a familiar and important title for Christians to apply to Jesus, but also one that typically contributes little to our understanding of who Jesus is. In Jesus the Son of God, Carson argues this christological title is a deep and rich metaphor that should not be flattened out in our theology or lost in translation. In doing so, Carson moves the reader from text, to doctrine, and practice.

‘Son’ and ‘sonship’ (both the terms and the ideas) appear in a variety of ways across Scripture. The biblical use can refer to a biological relationship, and frequently does, but it is often also used to convey a metaphorical/functional relationship. These functional connections were used to indicate shared character traits, status, and numerous other relationships not based upon biological ties. Western culture primarily limits the use to biological relationships. And because of this, many of the functional uses are masked in our English translations (perhaps rightly so) for clarity. Carson gives several kinds of examples that help bridge the gap between cultures.

The title ‘son(s) of God’ is applied almost as broadly. Carson provides a helpful reminder that the title is not limited to Christ but is variously applied to angels, Israel, Christians and a handful of others. Some of these titles are later picked up and applied to Christ. Among the christological ‘Son of God’ uses, Carson notes three that especially stand out – as the Davidic king, the true Israel, and those that concern Jesus’ divinity.

Two passages serve as examples of how the New Testament further fills out our understanding of the title. The book of Hebrews is known for its christology, though some of the quotation formulas require work to understand. The opening chapter of Hebrews has a special focus upon Jesus as the Son of God. Carson shows how the author of Hebrews has drawn heavily upon the forward-looking sonship themes from the Old Testament to create a multifaceted christology. He then turns to the Gospels to pull a second example from John 5. When Jesus is confronted for healing on the Sabbath, he responds by claiming to be God’s son. He describes this unique relationship and also ties part of it to an Old Testament theme of sonship (‘son of God’ in the sense of ‘man’).

All of this then comes together in the last chapter. Carson makes a number of observations about the connections between exegesis and theology. He notes practical aspects concerning how our understanding of Jesus as the Son of God impacts our worship and even evangelism. Finally he uses the richness of imagery surrounding this title as a major reason to retain the title in translations.

The entire book was a great read. It was birthed as a series of lectures and so reads easily. The exegesis of the two passages is clear. Readers know how the conclusions are reached, because they have been led through the entire process. Carson’s conclusions about translation take seriously the issues while making very clear the importance of keeping ‘Son of God.’ This title needs to be explained even in Western cultures to be properly understood, a discussion I found especially helpful. Additionally, Carson’s section about the relationship between exegesis and theology was blunt, interesting, and needed. I’ll leave off with a small sampling.

The danger, on the one hand, is succumbing to the mindless biblicism that interprets texts, and translates them, without wrestling with the syntheses that actually preserve biblical fidelity, and, on the other hand, relying on confessional formulas while no longer being able to explain in some detail how they emerge from reflection on what the Bible actually says. (80)

Pick it up! You can read it in an evening.

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