The Son of God
Christian usage of the word “God” in our day is usually reserved for a reference to the one God of the Bible. Yet, in the times of the biblical authors, the term was used much more freely, even to describe human beings or angels. There are only two instances in which the word “god” (Greek: “theos”) is used of Jesus for certain in the New Testament. (There are seven other highly disputable texts: Jn 1:18, Rom 9:5, Tit 2:13, 2 Pet 1:1, 1 Jn 5:20, Acts 20:28, 2 Thes 1:12). These have been widely doubted as identifying Jesus as “God” by textual analysts for a variety of reasons. Trinitarian Christopher Kaiser notes that “explicit references to Jesus as ‘God’ in the New Testament are very few, and even those few are generally plagued with uncertainties, of either text or interpretation” (Christopher Kaiser, The Doctrine of God – London: Marshall Morgan & Scott, 1982, p. 29). Trinitarian William Barclay agrees: ‘On almost every occasion in the New Testament on which Jesus is to be called “God” there is a problem either of textual criticism or of translation’ (William Barclay, Jesus as They Saw Him –Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978, p. 21.) It is often said by Trinitarians that these instances qualify as the best proof that the biblical writers believed the man was nothing less than the one and almighty God, and that this is the central most overwhelming revelation of the New Testament. Our suspicions are raised, however, when, in the over 1,327 occurrences of the word “god,” only two of them refer to Christ. The lack of evidence for consistent application of the word “God” to Jesus is widely considered, even by Trinitarians, to be problematic. One scholar writes:
“For example, Jesus never used the term “God” when referring to Himself, none of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) ever explicitly gives the title “God” to Jesus, no sermon in the Book of Acts attributes the title “God” to Jesus, no existing Christian confession(s) of Jesus as “God” exist earlier than the late 50s and, although there are seventeen texts that are considered to be possible “Jesus-God” passages, only four of them appear in the approximately fifty Greek New Testament manuscripts that predate the fourth century. Also, and perhaps the biggest obstacle in ascribing the title “God” to Jesus, the existing New Testament manuscripts differ in all potential passages that explicitly call Jesus “God.” (Brian J. Wright).
Furthermore, “god” is found to be used just as many times of other persons in the New Testament, once of Herod (Acts 12:22), and another time of Satan (2 Cor 4:4).The standard lexicons provide these usages of the Greek word “theos”: “a god or goddess, a general name of deities or divinities, whatever can in any respect be likened unto God or resemble him in any way, God’s representative or vice-regent, magistrates and judges.” (Strong’s) Looking back to the Old Testament, we find that the Hebrew for “god” (el or elohim) is used in this same way for other men or angels (Ps 45:6; Ps 82:1-6; Ex 7:1). In Psalm 8:5, the Hebrew text refers to “elohim” (god), but when the passage is quoted in the New Testament, the Greek says “angels”. Similarly, in the Septuagint version of Job 20:15, the Hebrew word “god” (el) was even replaced with the Greek “angel” by the Jewish scribes. Because the title “god” is often found in the biblical documents describing kingly persons with god-like authority, such as human judges of Israel (Jn 10:34) or angels (Ps 8:5), many popular English editions of the Bible even translate “god” as “judge” or “ruler.”
Identifying other beings who were not Yahweh as “god” did not pose a “theological problem” for either the ancient Hebrews or the New Testament Jews. As mentioned previously, the biblical principle usually at work here is known as “the law of agency.” When God imparts his authority to his agent, that agent may himself be called “God,” and may speak and act as God on his behalf. Again, Moses and the judges of Israel were addressed as “God”: “Then Yahweh said to Moses, ‘See I have made you God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall be your prophet’” (Ex 7:1). “I said, ‘You are gods, you are all sons of the Most High’” (Ps 82:6). Exodus 22:8 also speaks of the human rulers of Israel in this way; the Hebrew refers to these persons as “God” or “the gods,” but the Amplified Bible translation makes it clear: “the house owner shall appear before God, the judges as His agents, to find whether he stole his neighbor’s goods.”
There are in fact many “gods” mentioned in the scriptures, though for the nation of Israel, there is clearly only one true God, the others are evidently gods in a representational, derived, or secondary sense. The Apostle Paul even defines which god is the true god of the New Testament community: “There are many gods, but for us there is but one God, the Father” (1 Cor 8:6). Indeed, as Christ agreed, “the Father” is “the only true God” (Jn 17:1a, 3). It is this great God who designates certain other persons, those whom he has directly authorized or inspired, as “God.” Christ himself explains the principle:
Jesus answered them, has it not been written in your Law, ‘I said you are gods’? If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said ‘I am the Son of God’?” (Jn 10:34-36).
Jesus being called “the Son of God,” or even “god,” does not mean that he is to be identified himself as Yahweh. Certainly Christ is the supreme agent of God, but he is no more Yahweh than Moses is, according strictly to the language involved. Nevertheless, the claim persists that the New Testament clearly identifies Jesus as the one God due to the use of “theos” to describe him.
Hebrews 1:8, which applies the classic Psalm 45:6 to Jesus, is a prime citation in this popular argument: “But of the Son He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of his kingdom’” (Heb 1:8). Certainly the writer identifies Jesus as “God” in this passage. However, the original Psalm the writer is quoting was evidently addressing the human king of Israel at that time:
I address my verses to the king… Grace is poured upon your lips, therefore God has blessed you forever… Your throne, O God, is forever… you have loved righteousness, therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joy above your fellows… King’s daughters are among your noble ladies; at your right hand stands the queen…(Ps 45).
As the king of Israel, this man was representationally “god”. He sat on God’s seat of authority over the nation (see 1 Chron 29:23). Of course, this pattern applies directly to Jesus as the Messiah, the ultimate king of Israel (Jn 1:49). It is also important to note that the very next verse applied to the Son in Hebrews says that the Son, like the human king to whom the hymn was originally addressed, actually has a God himself: “Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of joy above your fellows” (Heb 1:9). This reference to the king’s own God serves as a helpful mechanism for achieving a better view on his exalted status. Jesus, as king of Israel, may be recognized as “divine,” but that “divinity” is diffused through a subordinationist prism, and ultimately reflected back onto his God as a representational divinity.
The writer of Hebrews furthermore argues here that because Jesus had “loved righteousness,” his God had now highly exalted him, making him even superior to the holy angels (Heb 1:4). In the next chapter of the epistle, it is even argued that Jesus has now been deemed worthy of even more glory and honor than Moses (Heb 3:3). This, of course, is an entirely pointless argument if both the writer and the other Christians at that time believed Jesus was Yahweh. It would have gone without saying that God was greater than Moses. Certainly the writer’s intentions are not to identify the man Jesus as “god” in the exact same sense that Yahweh is God. Nevertheless, we will here perform an in-depth examination of the surrounding context in Hebrews to prove our point.
Before verse 8 we read that the son:
- Was not speaking to the fathers in ages past (1:1-2)
- Had to become superior to angels, meaning he previously was not (1:4)
- Gained an inheritance he didn’t previously have (1:4)
- Would be considered a son to God (not God himself) (1:5)
- Was “begotten” by God (1:5)
- Is a representation of God (not God himself) (1:3)
Now, after verse 8 we read that the Son:
- Has a God (1:9)
- Has been anointed above his fellows (1:9) (God has no fellows and no need for anyone to anoint him)
- Was made lower than the angels (2:9)
- Is now crowned with glory and honor because he died (2:9) (he wasn’t crowned beforehand)
- Is the pioneer of man’s salvation (2:10) (i.e., the first to receive salvation)
- Calls men his brothers (2:11) (God does not have brothers)
- Says that he will put his trust in God (2:13)
- Was made like his brothers in every single way (2:17)
- Was tempted (2:18) (God cannot be tempted)
- Is now counted worthy of more glory than Moses (3:3) (if he is Yahweh, this should go without saying)
In light of the immediate context, how pressed are we to deduce that the writer is not describing an exalted human being, but the Almighty Yahweh, the monolithic Creator of all things? Of course, Jesus is never explicitly called Yahweh by the writer of Hebrews or by any other biblical author, but he is described as “a man” (Acts 2:22; 1 Tim 2:5; Jn 8:40) who has been invested with divine authority (Matt 28:18). Jesus is thus certainly “god” in the sense that he is a chief dignitary, a holy prince, and a powerful ruler who represents God. The Father himself had given Jesus this lordly status (Acts 2:36; Phil 2:9), and the writer of Hebrews clarifies that it is precisely because of his great service to God that he has “now been crowned with glory and honor” (Heb 2:9). Jesus has thus been made “a god” in the most biblical sense of the term.
Ultimately, the “law of agency” interpretation remains the best choice for making sense of the New Testament community’s view of Jesus while avoiding conflicts with Jewish monotheism.
Reprinted from the Restitution Herald & Progress Journal, Volume 106, Number w, February/March/April 2017/
This article is an excerpt from his book The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma