Jesus the Son of God:
A Christological title often overlooked, sometimes misunderstood, and currently disputed
by D. A. Carson, Crossway, (Nov 7th 2012); 128 pp. Reviewed by Bunyan Towery[i], ISBN 978-1433537967
D. A. Carson’s survey of the term Son of God comprises three chapters of sound thinking and engaging prose. You will be tempted to skip chapters one and two in order to head right to chapter three (his evaluations). Do not give in to the temptation. It is well worth your time–it does not take much time to read a book that is slightly more than 100 pages in length–to work through the broad understanding of the Christological title (chapter one) and the exegesis of Hebrews 1 and John 5:16-30 (chapter two). Both chapters plow some important ground for the harvest of chapter three.
Carson refers to two late works, Peterson’s Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ (Crossway, 2012) and Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Baker, 2011). Carson’s work adds to these by thinking “about how the Son-language works as applied to Jesus–that is what it actually means” (16). It is here that this little book is very helpful.
Chapter one surveys the various uses of son, sonship, son[s] of God, and then Jesus the Son of God. It is not an exhaustive investigation of all the uses, rather a representative appraisal. One of the more significant thoughts in this chapter is the relationship between a father and son. Carson writes, “your paternity was responsible for much more than your genes; your father provided much more than school fees. He established your vocation, your place in the culture, your identity, your place in the family. This is the dynamic of a culture that is preindustrial and fundamentally characterized by agriculture, handcrafts, and small-time trade” (20). Here Carson has laid some important groundwork for understanding Jesus as Son.
Discussing Son of God, Carson offers four categories to consider. First is the large grouping of passages in which son seems to fit no one particular or technical meaning; Carson calls this category “the catchall.” These are uses of son that are ambiguous as to what exactly they reveal beyond Jesus as the Son of God. Or perhaps more precisely, the catchall category contains those references that are not technical; they do not lead the reader to see just one meaning. Many on the Biblical Missiology website may grimace at this category–rather hoping to make each of the references into more definitive statements about Jesus’ divinity–but Carson’s nuanced scholarship weathers the storm. The second of the four categories handles Jesus as son in reference to his role as the Davidic King. This is followed by the third group: references to Jesus as the fulfillment of Suffering Servant and as Israel, but not as a king. Finally, Carson presents “the most stunning Christological sonship passages . . . those that assign transparently divine status to the Son, or speak, with varying degrees of clarity, of his preexistence” (40).
Whereas chapter one is a shotgun of categories, chapter two is a laser that focuses on two passages: Hebrews 1 and John 5. I will not belabor you with the details, but I will go right to the heart of the matter. In discussing these two passages Carson’s aim is to help the reader see “the exegetical pieces that would be forged into what would one day be called Trinitarianism.” I appreciate his work on these passages; it is lucid and practical. The chapter is enlightened exegesis, making me wonder why those on the insider movements (IM) side of the discussion have yet to produce such solid exegesis.
Carson’s final chapter, “‘Jesus the Son of God'” in Christian and Muslim Contexts,” handles the subtitle of the book: A Christological title often overlooked, sometimes misunderstood, and currently disputed. This chapter’s tone is irenic and amiable to those proponents of IM, yet there are some sobering warnings. His six evaluations (pp. 91-109) provide admonitions and cautions to all of us:
- “We should all recognize the extraordinary diversity of ‘son of’ expressions in the Bible. Probably they should not all be handled the same way” (91). Carson concludes it is better “to render the original more directly” and explain with notes when necessary. I did not read this as a concession to the new translations (i. e., It is preferable to translate son as son and father as father, which is essentially the WBT/SIL statement), but merely an acknowledgement that this is a complex concept in which it is best to translate the familial terms as familial terms with the explanation found in textual notes when necessary.
- The second caution is directed toward the awkward work of Rick Brown. Carson finds Brown’s evidence flawed in three areas, but the following statement summarizes his evaluation: “The result of the logic being deployed is a systematically unfaithful translation” (97).
- Next, Carson rues the pragmatism that drives the new translations.[ii] Of course many of the readers of the Biblical Missiology site, Chrislam, and other such works are aware of this charge against the proponents of IM. Carson believes “a very good argument can be advanced for consistent renderings that reflect “Son” and “Father” (100) as opposed to the pragmatic underpinnings of the new translations.
- Substitution of Son of God with another phrase minimizes the reader’s appreciation for the reality that Jesus is the Davidic King, Israel, Messiah, and Incarnate Deity. “[T]he richest theological loading of the expression ‘Son of God’ as applied to Jesus springs from passages that deploy the expression to cross-pollinate distinctive uses. This fact constitutes a driving reason to translate ‘Son of God’ and ‘Father’ expressions consistently” (107).
- Penultimately, Carson urges more translators to obtain training in exegesis and hermeneutics–training that only enriches one’s linguistic abilities and skills.
- Finally, Carson encourages those involved in new translations to reconsider their labors for three reasons: a) such translations forge a disconnect between new believers and the church at large or the historical orthodox church; b) Muslim converts’ voices appear to be negative toward the new translations, which are viewed as impositions upon new believers by Westerners; and c) “One wonders if at least some of the tensions over Bible translation springs from the commitment on the part of some to provide adequate translations without simultaneously providing missionaries and pastors” (108-109). In other words, poor (or absent) discipleship has accompanied the distribution of new translations.
D. A. Carson has done mission work among Muslims a great service. Missionaries involved with Muslims will benefit if they add this book to their “must have” list.[iii] In fact, why not buy two and give one to your favorite IM proponent?
[i] Bunyan Towery is the penname of a former missionary among Muslims and university professor, but now serving as pastor of discipleship in the central United States church.
[ii] Carson’s irenic tone is evidenced throughout his work, but especially here. He does not refer to the translations as Muslim-Idiom or Muslim-Compliant, rather as the new translations.
[iii] My own personal must-have booklist for understanding the problems of IM:
- David Coleman, A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm from Four Perspectives: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology and Ecclesiology (William Carey International University, 2012).
A dissertation reworked for publication, this is a lengthy examination and evaluation of IM. I mostly appreciated his evaluation from the perspective of a theology of religions.
- Ÿ Georges Houssney, Engaging Islam (Treeline, 2010).
George shows us how to do work among Muslims in a positive manner.
- ŸJosh Lingel, Jeff Morton, and Bill Nikides, Chrislam: How Missionaries are Promoting an Islamized Gospel (i2 Ministries, 2011).
A thorough critique and analysis of IM from various perspectives.
- Jeff Morton, Insider Movements: Incredibly Brilliant or Biblically Incredible? (Wipf & Stock, 2012).
A little book that exegetes the passages alleged to support IM.
Thank you for a very helpful, reflective and accurate review! I finished this book a few weeks ago and walked away feeling refreshed by all that Scripture has to teach us about son-of-God language. Particularly clarifying was Carson’s exegesis of Hebrews 1 and John 5, demonstrating how crucial this Christological title is to the deity of Christ. As always, we must be careful to incorporate all that Scripture teaches on a given topic, before concluding and implementing a missiological strategy. Carson’s first chapter helps define that for us, especially with the discussion around this particular title for Christ.
As with Coleman’s thesis, I can only pray that those who promote the IMP, as well as contextualized translations, heed the wisdom and warnings of this book.