May 25, 2008

Jesus the Son of God

Hello, Dr. Craig!

First of all, I'd like to introduce myself. I'm from Pakistan basically, and it's been a spell that I'm listening you and watching your debates with intellectuals whose beliefs are on the contrary to yours. I am literally thrilled by your standard of epistemology, reasoning, and knowledge. Good news is that I have embraced Christ Jesus and trying my best, day-by-day, to walk in Him.

I saw your debate with the Muslim scholar, namely Dr. Badawi, and saw him objecting that the central Christian word, i.e., "Trinity" is not recorded in the Bible. But that was arbitrary argument from Dr. Badawi's side because he knows that the word "Tawheed"--which is the central word for the concept of God in Islam and is one of the pillar among 5, upon which the religion of Islam is erected, DOES NOT exist in the Qur'an even. So, does that make that word unacceptable for Muslims? No. Likewise, if a Muslim objects the concept of Trinity merely because it's not written by name in the Bible, literally, then that Muslim has to abandon and revoke the concept of Tawheed, literally even, since it doesn't exist in the Qur'an just as Trinity.

As usual, you formulated your arguments in a very compelling, coherent and eloquent manner and Dr. Badawi couldn't address those issues. That was quite evident.

My question to you is: "Jesus is called God's Son in the Bible just like other righteous people. So, what makes Jesus different than others when it comes to the entitlement of son-ship of God?"


I'm thrilled that you've come to believe in Christ Jesus as your Savior and Lord, M.! (I've abbreviated your name just in case you're still in Pakistan.) You are correct that the validity of a theological concept doesn't in any way depend upon the vocabulary used to express it. The question you raise is an important and interesting one which I address in the third edition of my Reasonable Faith. I'll draw upon that discussion in answering your question here.

As I mentioned in the debate with Dr. Badawi, we have good historical grounds for thinking that Jesus understood himself to be and claimed to be the Son of God. First, Jesus' parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard (Mk 12.1-9) tells us that Jesus thought of himself as God's only son, distinct from all the prophets, God's final messenger, and even the heir of Israel itself. Notice that one cannot delete the figure of the son from the parable as an inauthentic, later addition, for then the parable lacks any climax and point. Moreover, the uniqueness of the son is not only explicitly stated but inherently implied by the tenants' stratagem of murdering the heir in order to claim possession of the vineyard. So this parable discloses to us that the historical Jesus believed and taught that he was the only Son of God.

Second, Jesus' self-concept as God's Son comes to explicit expression in Matthew 11.27 (cf. Lk 10.22): "All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him." Here Jesus claims to be the exclusive Son of God and the only revelation of God the Father to mankind. This saying tells us that Jesus thought of himself as God's Son in an absolute and unique sense and as having been invested with the exclusive authority to reveal his Father God to men.

Finally, Jesus' saying concerning the date of the consummation: "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32) again speaks of the Son in terms implying uniqueness.

On the basis of these three sayings, we have good evidence that Jesus thought of himself as the unique Son of God. It's true that Jewish kings were referred to as God's sons (II Sam 7.14; I Chron 17.13; 22.10; Ps 2.6-7; 89.26-27), and in Wisdom literature the righteous man could be characterized as God's child, having God as his father (Wisdom 2.13, 16, 18; 5.5; Sirach 4.10; 51.10). Such generic usage is, however, irrelevant to Jesus' claim to divine Sonship, given the uniqueness and exclusivity of his claim. Jesus thought of himself as God's Son in a singular sense that set him apart even from the prophets who had gone before.

But what was that sense? We mustn't conclude too hastily that the title was an implied claim to divinity. It might be that Jesus thought of himself as God's unique Son in the sense that he was the promised Messiah. The Jewish pseudepigraphal work IV Ezra 7.28-29 speaks of Messiah as God's son but nonetheless as mortal. The Dead Sea scrolls also show that the Messiah was thought to be God's son (4Q174; 4Q246; 1QSa 2.11-12). The uniqueness of Jesus' Sonship could be a function of the uniqueness of the Messiah.

On the other hand, it must be said in all honesty that these Jewish texts do not even approach the sort of absoluteness and exclusivity claimed by Jesus of Nazareth in the sayings mentioned above. There's nothing in Dead Sea texts to suggest that the Messiah would be the unique son of God. Being the Messiah might set Jesus apart from all the prophets who had come before him and make him the heir of Israel, as claimed in the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard, but being Messiah would not give him exclusive knowledge of the Father and absolute revelatory significance, as claimed in Mt 11.27. Moreover, the saying in Mk 13.32 not only discloses Jesus' sense of unique Sonship but also presents us with an ascending scale of status from men to angels to the Son to the Father. Jesus' sense of being God's Son involved a sense of proximity to the Father which transcended that of any mortal man (such as a king or prophet) or any angelic being.

Such an exalted conception of God's Son is not foreign to first century Judaism. The New Testament itself bears witness to this fact (Col 1.13-20; Heb 1.1-12). In IV Ezra 13, Ezra sees a vision of a man arising out of the sea who is identified by God as "my Son" (13.32, 37) and who proceeds to subdue all the nations. Ezra asks,

'O sovereign Lord, explain this to me: Why did I see the man coming up from the heart of the sea?'
He said to me, 'Just as no one can explore or know what is in the depths of the sea, so no one on earth can see my Son or those who are with him, except in the time of his day' (IV Ezra 13.51-52; cf. 13.26).

That there are other persons presently with the Son prior to his earthly appearance suggests that the Son is a pre-existent, heavenly figure. This becomes quite clear in 14.9 when Ezra is told that his own life is about to end and that he is going to be with God's Son until he is revealed at the end of time: "You shall be taken up from among men, and henceforth you shall live with my Son and those who are like you, until the times are ended." It's intriguing that there is a differentiation made between the pre-existent Son and the righteous, human dead like Ezra who are with him. The Son is clearly set apart as a supernatural figure.

Moreover, as I show in Reasonable Faith, the title "Messiah" itself was also a title that could be infused with connotations of divinity. Titles like "the Son of God" and "the Messiah" were multi-valent and therefore inherently ambiguous without a context. In order to understand the meaning that Jesus invested in such self-descriptions we need to look at the context of his whole life and proclamation, and when we do, it becomes clear that he was claiming superhuman status.