Jesus, the Son of God
It is well known that the Qur’an denies that Jesus can be thought of as God’s Son.
At street level, many Muslims think Christians believe that God somehow impregnated Mary, and that the Trinity is made up of God, Mary and Jesus. They find the construction bizarre, not to say blasphemous, and, of course, they are right.
Aware of these Muslim sensibilities, some sectors of SIL/Wycliffe, Frontiers and other organisations have pursued Bible translations that have replaced many references to God as the Father and to Jesus as the Son. Intense debates about this surged into public view in an article written by Collin Hansen for Christianity Today in 2011. SIL/Wycliffe have issued a variety of statements, the most recent, in February 2012, indicates that all publication of these new translations will be suspended until further discussions have taken place. My own restricted aim in what follows is to offer six evaluations on the translation of references to Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ in Scripture.
Diversity of connotation
We should all recognise the extraordinary diversity of ‘son of’ expressions in the Bible. Probably they should not all be handled the same way. Yet the diversity of ways in which we translate Hebrew expressions such as ‘son of oil’ and ‘son of quiver’, for example, does not by itself warrant similar diversity in the ways we render ‘son(s) of God’.
My sister served as a missionary to a tribe in Papua New Guinea. How does one render, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ for people who have never seen lambs or sheep and have no word for such animals? On the other hand they were accustomed to sacrificing pigs. So would it be wiser to render John 1.29, ‘Look the Swine of God who takes away the sin of the world’? Doubtless one could make a case for such a rendering. But sooner or later Bible translators for this tribe would run into texts that talk about fleecing sheep and still others that designate pork an unclean food. What initially seems an easy fix begins to generate many problems.
On any reading of the evidence, the associations of the expression ‘Son(s) of God’ are complicated, theologically laden and inescapable. Why should it not be better, then, to render the original more directly, perhaps with explanatory notes?
Render it as ‘Messiah’
In one of his earlier papers, part of which he has now rescinded, Rick Brown, one of the premier thinkers for the new translations, rightly points out that one of the uses of ‘Son of God’ in the Bible is bound up with the appointment of the Davidic king, the Messiah. In such cases, it is frequently found in parallel with ‘Messiah.’ (e.g., Luke 1.31-33; 1 John 5.1,5; Matthew 16.16). ‘This establishes’, Brown insists, ‘that Jesus and Matthew saw these as synonyms…’ This reasoning, in Brown’s original view (which he has since repudiated), justifies substituting ‘Christ’/‘Messiah’ for ‘Son of God’ where the latter is likely to cause umbrage.
But this argument is flawed. First, Brown is fully aware that when two expressions are said to be synonymous, it rarely means they are completely interchangeable. If that were the case, then ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16.16) really means, ‘You are the Messiah, the Messiah’.
Second, why do Mark and Luke report less of the total of Peter’s confession than Matthew reports? If it is because it is ‘adequate’ to preserve only ‘Messiah’ and not ‘Son of the living God’ for their own theological interests and priorities, that means, of course, that for Matthew’s purposes it is not adequate to leave out ‘Son of the living God’ — that’s why he left the expression in.
Third, Brown’s analysis leaves out of consideration the biblical-theological trajectories of the Davidic king motif and of the ‘Son of God’ terminology of the Old Testament. Biblically informed readers pick up on the associations, say, of 2 Samuel 7.14, Psalm 2.7, Isaiah 9, Psalms 89, 110. It is not a responsible riposte to say that the envisaged Muslim readers of the new translations are not biblically informed so they could not conjure up biblical trajectories. That may be true, but it misses the point. For, once biblical translations are adopted, they become standard for the rising Christian community that would then be saddled with translations that fail to preserve the biblical trajectories which make sense of the pattern of the NT use of the OT.
It is argued that traditional renderings are bad translations because, for Muslim readers, they convey mental images of physical begetting, sexual union and biological sonship that are deeply offensive to Muslims. This is an important argument, not one to be set aside lightly. If traditional translations convey things that are not true, surely we are duty-bound to do our best to provide translations that do not convey what is false.
But it is often pointed out, correctly, that the deepest Muslim umbrage is not taken at expressions that have been falsely understood, but at expressions that have been rightly understood. The incarnation itself is deeply offensive, however it was brought about.
Another pragmatic appeal is that of the remarkable success of these new translations. It is hard to test the figures that circulate, but thousands have been converted, in some sense, through these new translations. Yet when certain tests are made, 46% of such converts avow they prefer to read the Qur’an than the Bible and 72% continue to think of Muhammad as the final prophet. How many of these conversions are spurious?
In Scripture, distinguishable uses of ‘Son of God’ can be used side by side, held together by nothing more than the expression itself, with the result that the entire conception of ‘Son of God’ is enriched.
For example, in Matthew 1-4, Jesus is the Son of God in that, like Israel the son of God, he recapitulates much of Israel’s experience — being called out of Egypt and being tested in the wilderness. But the latter event is preceded by the declaration of the voice from heaven at Jesus’s baptism: ‘This is my Son, whom I love’ — almost certainly picking up on the Davidic/kingly use of sonship, which in any case is certainly further developed in Matthew’s Gospel. There is no point asking: ‘OK, then, which kind of son is he really?’ The point is that Jesus is the perfect Israel and the perfect David, and the two notions are held together by the one rubric, Son of God.
In other words, the 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, for otherwise these crucial intracanonical links will be lost to view.
A personal word
I have had the privilege of working with SIL/Wycliffe personnel on three continents. I am a huge admirer of their work. But I have to say that not many of them are trained in exegesis, biblical theology or systematic theology. No one can be an expert in everything, but I hope that some of these diligent workers will begin to see the importance for Bible translation of the considerations I am advancing and will pursue advanced theological training.
Where is this leading?
I have three observations. First, the new approach to Bible translation is in danger of cutting off its ‘converts’ from the history of the confessionalism of the universal church. It is not a light thing to stand aloof from the authority of those early councils and creeds. Second, a considerable literature has arisen from Muslim-convert believers who are aghast at these developments, arguing on both technical and personal grounds that these new translations are the product of Westerners who are imposing their work on local churches. Third, the spread of the gospel in the early church saw the dissemination of Scripture along with the provision of missionaries and pastors. One wonders if at least some of the tensions over Bible translations spring from providing translations without simultaneously providing missionaries and pastors.
This article is a heavily edited version of the last chapter of Jesus, the Son of God by D.A. Carson, which has just been published by IVP (£7.99, ISBN 978 1 844 745 999), and is used with permission.
Because it is so heavily edited, many details and nuances have had to be dropped from the original and we would, therefore, encourage interested readers to buy the book.