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Monday, 2 January 2017

Jesus: Son of God, God the Son, or both?

This post is dedicated to Ruth Sutcliffe on the occasion of her birthday. Please check out Ruth's blog, R Sutcliffe Theologistics, if you haven't already done so.

1. A polemical slogan
2. Is the term "God the Son" scriptural?
3. "God the only Son" (John 1:18)
4. Conclusion

"God the Son" is a term used in orthodox Christian theology to refer to the Second Person of the Trinity, who became incarnate of the virgin Mary as Jesus of Nazareth. The term also features prominently in Christadelphian anti-Trinitarian polemical literature, where it is frequently used in a slogan that sets it in antithesis with the term "Son of God." The slogan appears designed to concisely depict the non-biblical excesses of Trinitarianism.

Examples of its use abound. A Christadelphian pamphlet by Fred Pearce is entitled, Jesus—God the Son or Son of God? Pearce's pamphlet gives very little attention to the term "God the Son" itself, however, apparently regarding it as self-evident that "the Biblical teaching gives no support to any such doctrine."

A different pamphlet by John Thorpe bears a similar title: Jesus ChristSon of God not God the Son. Thorpe explains,
While Jesus is frequently referred to by the term “Son of God" in the Bible, he is never referred to as "God the Son". The two phrases have different meanings, and the title "Son of God" does not imply the title "God the Son". There is no Scriptural justification for ever using the term "God the Son" to describe Jesus.
Yet another pamphlet, a broader introduction to Christadelphian teaching, contains a subsection entitled "Son of God not God the Son" which states:
The idea of a pre-existent "God the Son" in heaven changes the vital experience of Jesus as the independent, responsible Son of man who was also Son of God, and so takes away the true significance of his life and his death as the atonement for sin, achieved once for all.
The antithesis has even made it into statements of doctrine, such as that which sometimes features at the back of The Christadelphian Advocate magazine:
Jesus Christ is the Son of God (not "God the Son", a phrase not found in scripture), begotten of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke extends this slogan beyond the Christadelphian community to include all biblical unitarians:
Biblical Unitarians are united in our belief that Jesus is the Son of God and not God the Son.
Two claims are implicit in this slogan and the literature that uses it. The first is that the term "God the Son" is not scriptural, in contrast to "Son of God," which is scriptural. The second is that the terms "God the Son" and "Son of God" denote antithetical, mutually exclusive concepts. In this blog I want to briefly consider the validity of these objections.

If by "scriptural," we mean "used explicitly in Scripture," then the concession must be made that neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament ever uses the term "God the Son" (e.g., ὁ υἱὸς ὁ θεός or θεός υἱὸς in Greek). However, surely our criteria for what is theologically sound cannot be limited to what is "scriptural" in this narrow sense. In expressing doctrine, must we limit ourselves to terminology that Scripture itself uses? I doubt that the reader found any reason to object to my use of the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" in the first sentence of this paragraph. And yet Scripture never uses these terms in the way in which I have used them here—namely, to denote a twofold division of Scripture. Nor is there any semantically equivalent term the Bible uses to denote this twofold division of Scripture. Nor does Scripture ever use the term "canon" (or any equivalent term) to denote the list or set of books that belong to Scripture. All of this terminology for Scripture is extra-biblical and post-biblical, and yet Christadelphians and other non-trinitarian sects use them freely and would struggle to express their beliefs about Scripture without them.

Hence, the question that needs to be asked is not whether the term "God the Son" is scriptural in this narrow sense of appearing explicitly in Scripture, nor even whether there is any equivalent term that is "scriptural" in this narrow sense, but only whether the term "God the Son" is consistent with Scripture. A good case can be made that it is.

The term "God the Son" conveys two convictions about Christ: (1) that he is "the Son" in some sense; (2) that he is "God" in some sense. If both of these ideas are biblically sound individually, then there is no obvious reason why they should be unsound when combined into a single term. Now, it is obvious that the New Testament frequently uses the term υἱὸς ("Son") for Christ. This appears commonly in the designation ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ("the Son of God"), which appears in all four Gospels (e.g., Matt. 4:3, 16:16, Mark 3:11, Luke 22:70; John 1:49; 20:31), in Acts (9:20), in Paul's epistles (Rom. 1:4; Gal. 2:20; 2 Cor. 1:19), other epistles (Heb. 4:14; 6:6; 1 John 3:8; 4:15) and in Revelation (2:18). This designation has undoubtedly been influenced by Christological interpretation of passages such as 2 Sam. 7:14, Ps. 2:7 and Hos. 11:1. It also appears in the designation ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ανθρώπου ("the Son of man"), probably derived ultimately from Dan. 7:13, which is largely confined to the Gospels (e.g., Matt. 8:20; 10:23; Mark 2:28; 8:38; Luke 5:24; 12:8; John 3:13; 9:35; but cp. Acts 7:56; Heb. 2:6; Rev. 1:13). Of course, the theological import of each of these designations would be a study in its own right.

Another fascinating use of "Son" terminology for Jesus is the stand-alone designation ὁ υἱὸς ("the Son"), in which Jesus' status as Son of God is shortened and absolutized: he is "the Son" par excellence, just as God is "the Father" par excellence. This designation appears in three distinct units of Synoptic tradition: the so-called Johannine thunderbolt (Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22), a saying of Jesus within the Olivet discourse (Mark 13:32; Matt. 24:36), and the baptismal formula of Matt. 28:19.1 In all three of these sayings, "the Son" is juxtaposed with the "the Father" (and, in Matt. 28:19, also "the Holy Spirit"), reflecting a remarkable closeness and union. Familiarity has desensitized the modern reader to the boldness of designating God and a human being simply and jointly as "the Father" and "the Son," which must have been jarring to first century Jewish ears. The designation ὁ υἱὸς recurs frequently in the Johannine tradition (e.g., John 3:35-36; 5:19-23; 6:40; 8:36; 14:13; 17:1; 1 John 2:22-24; 2 John 9), and is also used once by Paul (1 Cor. 15:28; "his Son" appears numerous times) and appears in Hebrews (1:2, 8). The remarkable closeness which the designation expresses is aptly captured in the saying, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), which renowned scholar Richard Bauckham regards as an allusion to the Shema` (Deut. 6:4); Jesus is saying "that he and the Father...are one God."2

"The Son" is clearly a designation for Jesus that is scriptural in the narrowest sense, used alongside "the Father", who is also frequently designated "God the Father". If Jesus is also called "God" (θεός), then it would be a natural extension of New Testament teaching and terminology to designate Jesus as "God the Son," even if no New Testament writer takes this step explicitly.

In fact, it is uncontroversial that Scripture refers to Jesus using the term θεός, even if the number of references is small and most of them are disputed on text-critical or exegetical grounds. In Murray J. Harris' monograph on New Testament references to Jesus as God, he concludes that this word is applied to Jesus seven times in New Testament (John 1:1, 18; 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Pet. 1:1), while acknowledging that "the NT customarily reserves the term θεός for the Father" and that "As used of the Father, θεός is virtually a proper name."3 Of these seven instances, John 1:18 may be disputed on text-critical grounds (but see below), while John 1:1, Rom. 9:5, Tit. 2:13, Heb. 1:8 and 2 Pet. 1:1 may be disputed on exegetical grounds. By "may be disputed" I mean it is syntactically possible to read the referent of θεός in these texts as other than Christ; I do not mean in every case it is exegetically defensible. Even if one, against the grain of contemporary scholarship, rejects the application of θεός to Jesus in all of the disputable cases, one is left with the indisputable instance of John 20:28. Hence, it remains uncontroversial to assert that ὁ θεός is—in the narrowest possible sense—a "scriptural" way of referring to Jesus, even if it is not a common designation for Jesus. (And we have reached this conclusion without even considering designations that are tantamount to referring to Jesus as God, such as ἐγὼ εἰμί in John 8:58).

It is noteworthy that three of the seven references just mentioned, if accepted, refer to Christ as θεός in conjunction with denoting God as θεός (John 1:1, 18; Heb. 1:8). Hence there are two distinct figures referred to as θεός, and these are the same two distinct figures who are—by these same writers and others—designated "the Father" and "the Son." Thus, taking the biblical term "God the Father" as a model, it is quite consistent with the collective biblical witness to refer to Jesus as "God the Son." To do so is not antithetical to the designation "Son of God," as the Christadelphian slogan suggests. In fact, "God the Son" can be thought of essentially as shorthand for "God the Son of God", a designation which captures, as John 1:1-2 and Hebrews 1:8-9 do, that the one so designated is both God in some sense and distinct from God in some sense.

Before concluding I want to go one step further and suggest that there is a term used explicitly in Scripture which is semantically very close to "God the Son." This is the term μονογενὴς θεός in John 1:18.

Now those who (like me) were raised on the King James Version of the Bible will be by default biased in favour of the reading "the only begotten Son" here, which translates ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς. The reality is, however, that most New Testament scholars today agree that θεός, not υἱὸς, is the original reading here. This is not due to Trinitarian bias but to consistent application of the methods of textual criticism. Bruce M. Metzger's Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition) classifies the reading μονογενὴς θεός as a "B" on a certainty scale from "A" to "D", based on the deliberations of the Editorial Committee of the United Bible Societies' Greek New Testament.4 This nomenclature is explained as follows:
The letter {A} signifies that the text is certain, while {B} indicates that the text is almost certain. The letter {C}, however, indicates that the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text. The letter {D}, which occurs only rarely, indicates that the Committee had great difficulty in arriving at a decision.5
Hence, the "B" decision indicates that the Committee regarded the reading μονογενὴς θεός as "almost certain," and that the Committee did not have difficulty reaching a decision about which reading was best. The decision is primarily based on external evidence, i.e. manuscript data, since the reading μονογενὴς θεός or ὁ μονογενὴς θεός is found in the two earliest extant manuscripts of the Gospel of John (P66 and P75), as well as in Codex Sinaiticus (א) and Codex Vaticanus (B) among the early codices. Of the most highly regarded early manuscripts, only Codex Alexandrinus (A) supports the reading ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς, although this reading has far greater support among later Byzantine, Caesarean and Western manuscripts.

The claim here is not that the text-critical issue is certain or undisputed. One member of the UBS Committee, Prof. Allen Wikgren, had a dissenting opinion published in Metzger's Textual Commentary, where he suggested, "At least a D decision would be preferable," implying that he considered the θεός/υἱὸς decision very difficult. Moreover, one of the world's most respected textual critics, Bart D. Ehrman, argued in his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture not only that ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς is the original reading but that the substitution of θεός for υἱὸς was a deliberate corruption intended to enhance biblical support for the deity of Christ.6 This sensational claim has not obviously gained support in the academic community. Ehrman's arguments have been critiqued, for instance, by Burkholder, who observes that early Alexandrian Church Fathers like Clement and Origen do not seem very interested either in defending the reading μονογενὴς θεός or in using it to prove Christ's deity, which we would expect them to do if this reading were manufactured there in the heat of theological controversy. Burkholder adds that, given the generally accepted date of c. 200 C.E. for P66,
any thought that the Christological debates of Nicea and the repudiation of the Arians would have provided some kind of theological impetus to alter Joh 1,18 is profoundly anachronistic. Nicea is far too late to be of relevance here. P66 effectively limits the time period of concern to the first two centuries7
It is thus defensible to go Wikgren's route and call this an inscrutable text-critical problem, or to go Ehrman's route and call this an orthodox corruption of the original reading ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς (though to do so as a matter of dogmatic necessity would be rather suspect). However, it must be conceded that most scholars regard μονογενὴς θεός as the original reading. This is reflected in the NA28 and SBL Greek critical texts, most modern English translations as well as in several recent journal articles relating to this text.8

What is more, the renderings of John 1:18 in several recent studies and translations yield something very close to "God the Son": "the only Son, God" (NABRE), "God the only Son" (NRSV);9; "the only begotten God" (NASB), "the one and only Son, who is himself God" (NIV), "(the) only Son, who (in addition to the Father) is God".10 Indeed, although the meaning of μονογενὴς in the Johannine writings is disputed (as to whether it means something like 'unique' or 'only' or 'only begotten'), if the reading μονογενὴς θεός is adopted then virtually any translation will support the notion of "God the Son," since the one described as "God" here is "in the bosom of the Father," a filial relationship.

In summary, current scholarship on the text and meaning of John 1:18 supports the idea that this text calls Jesus something semantically equivalent to "God the Son." Consequently, it can hardly be maintained dogmatically that the term "God the Son" is unscriptural even in the narrow sense of the word.

We have seen that both the designations "the Son" and "God" are undoubtedly applied to Jesus in Scripture, which—taken in concert with the intimate "oneness" between "the Father" and "the Son" and the designation "God the Father"—provides a rather clear scriptural rationale for the designation "God the Son," even if Scripture itself does not use this designation. This designation is not antithetical to the more familiar biblical term "Son of God"; it could in fact be thought of as a shorter form of "God the Son of God." Furthermore, we have seen that one can reasonably claim—with the backing of most contemporary New Testament scholars—that John 1:18 calls Jesus something very similar to, if not essentially identical to, "God the Son."

Hence, contrary to Christadelphian polemic there is Scriptural justification for using the term "God the Son." Moreover, the terms "Son of God" and "God the Son" need not and should not be set in opposition to each other. The slogan "Son of God or God the Son?" actually presents a false dilemma, because it implies we can only confess one of these Christological titles, whereas it is possible—and, according to orthodox Christology, correct—to confess both. Indeed, it was probably reflection around the first title that gave rise to the second, and this development in early Christology can be observed within the New Testament itself.


  • 1 From a source-critical perspective it appears in Markan, Q and special Matthew material. Combined with 1 Cor. 15:28, this independent attestation lends credence to the idea that it was used by the historical Jesus himself.
  • 2 Bauckham, Richard (2008). Jesus and the God of Israel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 104-106.
  • 3 Harris, Murray J. (1992). Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker, p. 298. One might also add Ps. 45:6 and Isa. 9:6 to the list as OT instances that may be read messianically.
  • 4Metzger, Bruce M. (1994). A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edn). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, pp. 169-70.
  • 5 Metzger, op. cit., p. 14.
  • 6 Ehrman, Bart D. (1993). The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 78ff.
  • 7 Burkholder, Benjamin J. (2012). Considering the Possibility of a Theological Corruption in Joh 1,18 in Light of its Early Reception. Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 103, 64-83, here p. 68. This comment is not a refutation of Ehrman, who had not claimed the alteration of John 1:18 occurred amidst the Arian controversy.
  • 8 E.g., Morgen, Michèle (2007). Le (Fils) monogène dans les écrits johanniques: Évolution des traditions et élaboration rédactionnelle. New Testament Studies, 53, 165-183, here p. 178 n. 32; Fennema, D. A. (1985). John 1.18: 'God the only Son'. New Testament Studies, 31, 125-135; Boyarin, Daniel (2001). The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John. Harvard Theological Review, 94, 243-284, here p. 283; Pendrick, Gerard (1995). ΜΟΝΟΓΕΝΗΣ. New Testament Studies, 41, 587-600, here p. 594.
  • 9 Cf. Pendrick, op. cit., p. 595 n. 39.
  • 10 Fennema, op. cit., p. 128.

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