By L. Alfred James
This is the final post of a long series of posts designed to provide an intellectual pathway for moving someone (or yourself) all the way from hardcore atheism to biblical Christianity. We first reviewed several arguments for God’s existence, and then arguments for Christianity (including the resurrection of Christ). Since then, we have worked our way through the most common objections to Christianity. Today, we finish with one last objection that deserves much more attention than it commonly receives: How can Jesus be both God and the Son of God? Isn’t this proof that Christianity is contradictory? Isn’t it completely illogical to say that a man can be his own son? If so, how can Jesus be God and God’s son?
In response, it is vitally important to understand that the title “Son of God” had more than one meaning:
“Son of God” means “King of Israel”
One of the reasons for calling Jesus the Son of God was due to the fact that this was a way of saying he is the king of Israel. In the Psalms the king of Israel is referred to as the Son of God:
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. 5 He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, 6 “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” 7 I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. 8 Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. (Psalm 2:4-8)
There is a reason for this usage by the psalmist. It hearkens back to a promise that God made to King David. God told David that his lineage would be part of a royal dynasty that will last forever. Moreover, starting with David’s son Solomon, each king that comes out of this lineage will have a special relationship with God: Each one will be called the son of God. Listen to what God said to David:
When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. 15 But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.'” (2 Samuel 7:12-16)
God said that Solomon—and all of the kings who come after him—will be called “the son of God.” Because of this usage, the term “son of God” was eventually used to refer to the coming Messiah as the “Son of God.” You can see this usage when the religious leaders are questioning Jesus:
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 61 But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62 “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:60-62)
Why would the Messiah be called the Son of God? Because the Messiah would rule all of Israel, as a king. In fact, the Messiah would rule the whole world. So, it was quite natural to give him this title.
Son Means “Exact Likeness”
In first century Jewish culture, being the son of someone (begin “begotten” by them) meant that you bore their exact likeness. In one respect, this is not surprising. With few exceptions, a son ended up taking on the exact same career as his father. If your dad was a blacksmith, you became a blacksmith; if your dad was farmer, you became a farmer, etc.
But being called a particular man’s “son” also meant that you were just like them in intangible ways, particularly their character and nature. It meant you were identical to them. And this is why the Jews said it was blasphemy for Jesus to call God his Father:
For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18)
Notice that last phrase: by calling God his father Jesus made himself equal to God. Again, to be someone’s son meant you shared their essence, you had the exact same nature as them. Thus, when the term Son of God is used in this way, it means that Jesus is not just the Messiah, but he is also God.
“Son” Refers To Human Nature of Christ
The most obvious reason that Jesus is called the Son of God is the fact that he had no earthly father. As we celebrate each Christmas, Jesus was born of a virgin. God the Father and God the Holy Spirit worked supernaturally in the womb of Mary to bring Jesus into the world:
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:34-35)
There was no human male who impregnated Mary. It was God who did it. This is one of the clearest reasons why Jesus is called the Son of God.
As you can see, the title of “Son of God” has several meanings. When used of Jesus, it refers to:
- His being the Messiah, the King of Israel (and the rest of the world)
- His being just like God the Father
- His being supernaturally born of a virgin
Therefore, the title does not reflect Jesus’ origin. He existed as God for all eternity past. He was not created.
This title stems from his taking on human nature. If he had never taken on human nature, it is very doubtful that he would ever be called the Son of God.1 Therefore, there is no contradiction between Jesus being the Son of God and being God, the second member of the Trinity.
1. However, this is an open question about which Christians are free to disagree. Many brilliant and godly theologians believe the Jesus had some kind of relation of sonship to God the Father for all eternity. I personally see no need for this, and find the scriptural reasons for it very unconvincing. My view is summed up by Jack Cottrell:
What, then, of the very concept of the eternal sonship of Christ? Is the Father-Son relationship ontological and eternal, even if the concept of generation is not? The eternal sonship of Jesus has long been a traditional Christian doctrine, and some are convinced that it is essential to orthodoxy. This is not really the case, however. Not everyone otherwise orthodox in his theism has accepted it. Alexander Campbell, for example, taught that Christ was preexistent as the Logos, but his sonship began with the incarnation. “While, then, the phrase ‘Son of God’ denotes a temporal relation, the phrase ‘the Word of God’ denotes an eternal, unoriginated relation. There was a word of God from eternity, but the Son of God began to be in the days of Augustus Caesar.” The entire “relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit began to be” when the Christian system began (see Alexander Campbell, The Christian System, Chapter IV). I support this view; and I do not see any issue of orthodoxy at stake here, since nothing seems to be lost by limiting the Father-Son relationship to Christ’s incarnate state nor gained by extending it into eternity past. Especially I would argue that Christ’s deity and equality with God do not depend upon an eternal sonship relation. Extracting deity from eternal sonship is an inference anyway, and there are surely enough explicit references to Christ’s deity in the Bible to make this truth independent of this doubtful doctrine. (Cottrell, Jack. The Faith Once For All: Bible Doctrine For Today. College Press Publishing Company, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)