And if so, what does that really mean?
As we approach advent and the annual celebrations of Jesus’ birth, I think these are questions worth thinking about.
I remember a moment in my earlier days as an evangelical Christian when suddenly I was struck with doubt about whether Jesus was actually the divine Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. I’d taken it for granted as a core part of my faith, but now I wanted to know what the basis for this belief was.
And I was shaken to find that the Bible contains comparatively little that spells out Jesus’ divinity clearly and unequivocally, and even one or two passages that seem to question or contradict it.
The case against…
For example, there’s the passage in Mark 10 where someone calls Jesus ‘good teacher’ and he pulls them up on it: ‘Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone’. It can be explained from a Christian point of view, but it’s still an odd passage.
Then there’s the odd line in Hebrews 5:8-9 about Jesus being made perfect through obedience/suffering, implying that he wasn’t perfect to start off with (though I think ‘perfect’ could be translated ‘complete’).
Then there are the many references which we’ve taken as proofs of Jesus’ divinity but which may not be. All the references to him as ‘Lord’, for example, do not necessarily imply deity but may merely betoken the deepest respect and allegiance for a fellow human with great authority and power.
Even the phrase ‘Son of God’, used fairly frequently in the gospels, doesn’t necessarily betoken divinity. Adam is also referred to as the ‘Son of God’, apparently meaning that (according to Genesis) he was directly created by God without human ancestors. (It may also refer to him being made in the image of God, as the prototype human.) Jesus is sometimes referred to by biblical writers as a ‘second Adam’, implying that he is a second attempt at the original human, the founder of a renewed humanity – but not necessarily himself divine.
Jesus’ miracles are often taken as a sign of his divine power, but they are perhaps better understood simply as God’s power working through him – as with Old Testament prophets through whom God worked miracles like Moses and Elijah.
Even the resurrection itself, taken by many as proof of Jesus’ divinity, need not necessarily have that meaning (though it may). It is rather simply God’s vindication of Jesus as his chosen Messiah.
Again, we’ve tended to assume that the Messiah must be divine, and there are elements of the OT prophecies that can be read this way – but that’s not how most Jewish thinkers understood the Messiah. He was to be God’s chosen priest-king, leading his people back to God and to freedom, to the ‘promised land’, but not necessarily himself divine.
And what of Jesus’ own self-statements and claims? These are often quite ambiguous. He often calls himself the ‘Son of Man’, a title that references Daniel 7:13. But except in John’s gospel he never refers to himself as the ‘Son of God’, though others (mainly the devil and demons) do.
Jesus does however use a number of other telling phrases and titles which I’ll come on to later.
The case for…
So I’d hazard quite a strong guess that few if any of Jesus’ disciples regarded him as fully divine during his lifetime.
Nonetheless, it also seems quite clear that a sea-change in their understanding occurred shortly after the events of the resurrection and Pentecost, and that thereafter they did begin to see him as divine and co-equal with God the Father. And not just because of the apostle Paul.
So even in the earliest Christian writings we have statements like the following:
- ‘In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God… God the only begotten…’ (John 1:1)
- ‘Jesus, who though being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped…’ (Philippians 2:6)
- ‘He is the image of the invisible God… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him’ (Col 1:15, 19)
- ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’ (Revn 22:13)
It seems then that from earliest times Christ’s followers were encouraged to view and treat him as co-equal to God. Jesus (and only Jesus) could be worshipped and prayed to alongside God without blasphemy.
Perhaps the first example in the gospel accounts is in the words of ‘doubting’ Thomas to the risen Jesus: ‘My Lord and my God’. That’s not completely unambiguous – Thomas may simply have been praising God that Jesus was truly alive – but it’s a reasonable indication.
Furthermore, in light of all this a number of the things that Jesus says and does in the gospels can be read as supporting or illustrating his claim to divinity – even if his followers did not fully understand this at the time when he said and did them.
So for example, Jesus does things that normally only God does and claims things that only God claims – for example, to forgive sins, and to himself be without sin. He makes statements such as ‘before Abraham was, I AM’ and ‘I and the Father are One’ and ‘if you have seen me, you have seen the Father’.
What does it mean?
So what does it mean for Jesus to be the ‘Son of God’?
As I’ve said, for its original hearers the phrase did not imply all the theology we’ve subsequently attached to it (which is not to say that the theology is necessarily wrong). ‘Son of God’ did not initially mean ‘second person of the Triune Godhead, co-equal with the Father and of one substance with him’. Rather it implied that he was the second Adam, the prototype and founder of a new humanity – a new, redeemed, restored way of being human.
However, it seems that within early Christian thought there quickly developed an understanding that, in order for Jesus to fulfil this role and mission, he needed to be both fully human and fully divine. And furthermore, looking back at Jesus’ life, his words and his actions, the evidence was there to support this understanding. Jesus appeared to be hinting very strongly at both his divinity and humanity.
Now I may be wrong on this, but I think the case goes something like this. It’s essentially the case for Incarnation.
Long ago God had set up a redemptive covenant relationship with humanity through its representative Israel, with the ultimate purpose of redeeming all of humanity (and indeed the whole cosmos). However, Israel could not itself fulfil the divine purpose – because of its flawed humanity, it was unable to keep all the terms of the covenant, and unable to fulfil its priestly role. It could neither properly represent renewed humanity to God, nor could it fully represent God to humanity.
So the only way for God to achieve his purpose – as it seems he had always intended – was for him to do it himself. The divine ‘Word’ (or expression, or image) of God ‘became flesh’, became part of his own creation and furthermore took on humanity – true human form and nature. Only by so doing could he truly be the Messiah, the true priest-king who both perfectly represents humanity to God and God to humanity. And only by being and doing so could he truly and lastingly redeem all of humanity – lifting up humanity into divinity, restoring the original divine image and essence within us.
Or as I think Athanasius put it, ‘God became man that man might become God’.
So do I believe that Jesus is the divine ‘Son of God’, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father? Yes I do. But I don’t believe it because ‘the Bible says so’ or because it’s in the words of the Creed. Rather I believe because it’s the only explanation that makes sense to me, and the only one that covers both the biblical evidence and my own actual experience as a Christian.