Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Was Jesus “the Son of God” Prior to His Incarnation?

     The apostle Paul affirms: “but when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, having been born out of woman, having been born under [the] law” (Gal. 4:4).1 Does the fact that “God sent forth his Son” suggest Jesus was the Son of God prior to his incarnation? R. Y. K. Fung argues: “It is to be observed that Christ was already Son when God sent him, that it was not the sending which made him the Son of God; in other words, his Sonship is to be understood not merely in a functional sense but in an ontological sense” (Galatians [NICNT] 181-82). But is this a valid inference, and is it consistent with overall biblical teaching? 
     There are only three references in the OT to Jesus as “Son” (Psa. 2:7, 12; Dan. 7:13), all of which are predictive messianic prophecies. The formal title “the Son of God” does not occur in the Hebrew scriptures.2 There are eleven verses in the OT alluding to God as “Father” (Deut. 32:6; 2 Sam. 7:14; 1 Chron. 17:14; Psa. 89:26; Isa. 9:6; 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:4; 31:9; Mal. 1:6; 2:10), though not as the Father of a Son but of the nation of Israel.3 And one of these passages (Isa. 9:6) is actually a messianic prophecy applicable to Jesus Christ!
     Paul connects the sending forth of God’s Son with the occasion of “having been born of woman.” In Luke’s account of the birth narrative, the angel Gabriel proclaims to Mary: “And behold you will conceive in [your] womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. This [one] will be great and will be called Son of [the] Most High …. [the] Holy Spirit will overshadow you; therefore also the holy [one] being born will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:31-35, emp. added). The future tense of this proclamation indicates that Jesus was recognized as “Son” in conjunction with his human conception and birth, not before.
     The fact that “Jesus Christ” is said to have been “sent” (John 17:3) does not mean that he was known as “Jesus Christ” prior to the incarnation (cf. Matt. 1:21). The expression “God sent forth his Son,” therefore, does not necessarily imply previous recognition as God’s Son. To speak of “the Son of God” being “manifested” (1 John 3:8) is comparable to saying that “Jesus Christ” was “manifested” (2 Tim. 1:9-10; 1 Pet. 1:13, 19, 20), neither of which imply prior existence as either the Son of God or as Jesus Christ.
     Paul appears to be making a proleptic statement, i.e., using current language to describe something in the past. For example, Moses speaks of “Bethel” as he records Abraham’s entrance into the land of Canaan (Gen. 12:8), even though the place was not actually named Bethel until several decades after the arrival of Abraham (Gen. 28:10-19). At the time the historical narrative was transcribed, the place was known as Bethel and thus so designated in the text. In John 11:1-2, in the account of Lazarus’ illness and subsequent death, Mary is described as the one who anointed the Lord’s feet (an act for which she was known at the time of writing), although chronologically this did not occur until a few months later (John 12:5).
     Paul’s employment of the term “Son” to designate the one sent forth from God “resonates with the surrounding verses, in which he states that believers are also ‘sons of God’” (L. A. Jervis, Galatians [NIBC] 109). In relation to God, the significance of the designation “the Son of God” is twofold, suggesting: (a) subordination of role or position (cf. John 14:28); and (b) equality of nature and essence (John 5:17-18; 10:24-33; 19:5-7). While the latter was in place prior to the incarnation, the former was not (cf. Phil. 2:5-7).
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 When Nebuchadnezzar said “the appearance” [wə-rê-wêh] of the fourth person in the furnace “is like” [dā-mêh] “a son” [lə-ḇar-] “of gods” [’ĕ-lā-hîn] (Dan. 3:25, cf. ESV, N/ASV, etc.), it is highly unlikely that the pagan king had any concept of “the Son of God” (N/KJV) in the NT sense. The pre-incarnate Christ would not be manifested as the Son of God for another six centuries. Nebuchadnezzar was simply trying to explain what he saw as “a divine being” (ISV), perhaps an “angel” (3:28). Elsewhere in the book of Daniel the same terminology is used with reference to pagan “gods” (2:11, 47; 5:11b; cf. most translations of 4:8, 9, 18; 5:11a, 14).
     3 An apparent exception is 2 Sam. 7:14 and the parallel account in 1 Chron. 17:14, where David is reassured that after his death God will take his place as Solomon’s father, in the sense of exercising special care for him. In addition to the fact that the Davidic king represents the Davidic kingdom (i.e. the people of God), this passage seems to have messianic implications, as it is later quoted in Heb. 1:5 to discount angels from the role of divine sonship, establishing Christ’s superiority over them. In the OT “fatherhood” is just one of several metaphors describing God’s relationship with his people; cp. “husband” (Isa. 54:5; Hos. 2:16), “shepherd” (Psa. 23:1; Isa. 40:10-11), “vinedresser” (Isa. 5:1-7), “shelter” (Psa. 61:3-8), etc.

Image credit:

No comments:

Post a Comment