Friday, August 12, 2005

The two stages of Jesus' sonship

In yesterday's post I made the perhaps surprising claim that Romans 1:3-4 is not really a contrast between the human and divine natures of Jesus. It is, rather, a reference to the way in which he moved from a "fleshly" stage of human existence to a "Spiritual" stage of human existence. In this way (as I also began to explain) Jesus shows what God always intended for human beings: a move from a merely fleshly stage of existence to a fully Spiritual stage. To understand what happened to Jesus is to gain a glimpse into our own destiny as those believe in Jesus and hope for the same human destiny.

But so far I haven't given you more than a number of bald assertions, without any real support for this position... Let me spell out some of the reasons for this interpretation now. I'll begin with some observations on the sonship of Jesus in this passage.

It is first of all important to understand that the contrast is not between Jesus as the son of David (human king) and Jesus as the son of God (divine king). The contrast is between Jesus as the Son of God according to the flesh (as a descendant of David) and Jesus as the Son of God according to the Spirit (by his resurrection from the dead).

We know this because in the Old Testament the son of David is, by definition, the "son of God." This is perhaps most clear in 2 Samuel 7, where the son of David (Solomon is most immediately in view) the one of whom God says, "I will be his father and he will be my son." Here's the larger passage.
12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.
In this passage (and others like Ps 2) it is the descendants of David who are considered the sons of God.

It is important to say, of course, that calling the descendants of David "sons of God" was not intended to mean that they were divine. It simply meant that God had graciously given David and his descendants the fundamental right of sonship in the ancient world: inheritance. The Davidic kings were sons of God insofar as they were his heirs, inheriting the right to represent his rulership in the land. So when Paul calls Jesus the "son [of God], a descendant of David according the flesh," he's simply invoking the thought of 2 Samuel 7 and claiming that Jesus is the rightful Davidic king--or "son of God."

What then does the second half of the contrast mean, that Jesus "was declared to be the Son of God in power, according to the Spirit... by his resurrection?" Perhaps surprisingly, this is still a reference to the human kingship of Jesus, now come to its climax in a startling way. One key here is the language of being "declared" to be the Son of God. Most naturally, this word (in the Greek) implies that Jesus was designated or appointed the "Son of God in power" at a particular point in time. Of course, if "Son of God in power" refers to the divinity of Jesus, that would imply that Jesus became divine at some point (perhaps along the lines of the deification of Roman emperors). That view denies the eternal divinity of Jesus and has been rightly condemned by the church.

So, in what sense was Jesus designated the "Son of God in power" at his resurrection? It seems best to continue to understand "son of God" along OT lines (as human kingship) and then give full weight to the fact that he became the son of God "in power" by virtue of his "resurrection from the dead." In other words, the human kingship of Jesus, already his as a birthright, was completed and fulfilled at his resurrection when he was glorified as a human being and raised as a human being to sit at the right hand of God the Father. Again, this is not to deny the divinity of Christ. That's crucial for our understanding of who he is. It is simply to say that in Romans 1:3-4 Paul is talking about Jesus's movement from being the anointed but not yet enthroned human (and Davidic) king during his life to being the exalted, glorified, and enthroned human king upon his resurrection from the dead.

Furthermore, this is precisely the pattern Paul explicates for those who belong to Christ later in his letter to the Romans. We'll talk more about Romans 8 and the way in which it applies this pattern to believers in the next post.

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At 9:48 PM, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

This does so much to clear up the confusion I had about "son of God" language and Jesus since I was a child. Even then I had trouble with my Sunday School teacher's definition of "Son of God" as a reference to divinity when I read my New Testament.

At 3:26 PM, Blogger B-Wildered said...

This perspective has certainly transformed my understanding of what it meant for Jesus (and, ultimately, those who belong to him) to be fully human. Jesus' kingship is more than simply human, of course--but not less.

At 7:12 AM, Anonymous Ryan said...


I just wanted to say that I'm enjoying your posts. Believe it or not, at least 2 people in Kalamazoo, Michigan are reading your writings! Keep up the good work, brother.


At 7:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy the way you explain Bible passages. When I finish reading your comments I think, "That really makes sense." Thanks for making it clear.

Greensboro reader

At 10:57 PM, Blogger B-Wildered said...

By way of a later note, it may be helpful to compare and contrast my perspective with that of Richard Gaffin in his good book Resurrection and Redemption. I couldn't agree more with Gaffin in his assertion that "Romans 1:3 and 4 do not contrast two co-existing aspects (the two natures) in the make-up of Christ's person... Instead, the contrast is between two successive phases in Christ's history, implying two successive modes of incarnate existence" (p. 112).

But Gaffin blunts the force of his own reference to "the economic rather than purely ontological character of the designation 'Son of God'" (p. 112) by interpreting the "Son of God" title as if the "preexistent, eternal sonship is in view" (p. 106). For Gaffin "the subject of Romans 1:3a is the preexistent, divine Son of God, and... the divinity of Christ is already present at this point" (p. 106).

On this reading "the basic thrust of verse 3... is that the preexistent Son of God became a man" (p. 106) and "verse 4 teaches that at the resurrection Christ began a new and unprecedented phase of divine sonship" (p. 111).

However, this interpretation of "Son of God" in Romans 1:3-4 fails to take into account (1) the influence of 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 2 on Paul's understanding of the title and (2) the way in which Paul returns to the programmatic pattern of Christ and applies it to believers in Romans 8.

At 8:14 AM, Anonymous Albert Lee said...

I think the interpretation depends on what "declared" really means. Does it mean "positively recognized," in which case it would seem that the traditional interpretation is more plausible, or does it mean as you say "appointed" or "became."

My understanding of the verse would rest upon that particular, especially since that verse for me is not vital in understanding the reality of our future glorification.

At 9:27 AM, Blogger B-Wildered said...

Here it may be helpful to quote one from whom I have learned much, Richard Gaffin (at Westminster Theological Seminary). This is from his book, Resurrection and Redemption:

"What then is the meaning of _horizo_ used here to describe the resurrection? It has been customary in translating this verb here to force a decision between 'declare' and 'appoint.' The former was chosen by most of the older commentators. This, however, rested almost entirely on the conviction that 'Son of God' has exclusively ontological significance and therefore cannot describe wht Christ is by virtue of an installation or appointment. More recent interpretation, recognizing this title to be a messianic designation of exaltation, has adopted the latter alternative. Beside fitting well here, this is the uniform meaning of the word elsewhere in the New Testament (Luke 22:22; Acts 2:23; 10:42; 11:29; 17:26, 31; Heb. 4:7). Still, a declarative force is difficult to eliminate entirely..." (p. 117).


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