The term Son of God


Question & Answer

Q: By Jay
I have a question about the relationship of Progressive Christianity and Jesus. I have always been told that despite their denominational difference all Christians understand Jesus to be the son of God.  Not a man selected by God, or a special creation of God, but both God and man simultaneously in a way that is absolutely unique. From what I have read and heard Progressives see Jesus as inspirational, a great teacher and someone whose words and example should be followed.  It seems Jesus, here, is more of an inspirational philosopher like Socrates or the Buddha.  Is it fair to say that P.C.’s do not see Jesus as the son of God as it is traditionally understood?
A: By Brian D. McLaren

Dear Jay, thanks for this thoughtful question about the term son of God.

Many traditional Christians, I think, connect the term son of God with the virgin birth, as if God sent a divine or spiritual sperm to impregnate Mary, making God Jesus’s father and Jesus God’s son in an almost biological sense. If you want to read an interesting book that tells the story of how this misunderstanding led to conflict between Christians and Muslims, see Miroslav Volf’s Allah: a Christian Response (HarperOne, 2012).

Other traditional Christians frame the term Son of God primarily in Trinitarian theology, with the Son a counterpart/partner with the Father and Spirit.

Some progressive Christians affirm Trinitarian theology as expressed in the historic creeds. Others downplay or modify it, and some reject it. Personally, I find value in progressive re-articulations of Trinitarian thought in the writings of Cynthia Bourgeault, Richard Rohr, and a wide array of relational, process, and feminist theologians who take seriously the patriarchal problems embedded in father/son imagery.

In my writings, I’ve focused on two primary lines of thought. First, I’m interested in the linguistic formulation son of God. The son of formation pops up a few different ways the New Testament. For example, James and John are called Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17). In John 8:39 ff, the terms sons of God, sons of Abraham, and sons of the devil are put in conversation. This usage, I think, resonates with our familiar aphorism, Like father, like son (or like mother, like daughter). There’s a family likeness, a resemblance. In this light, son of God is roughly synonymous with reflecting the character of God.

Luke 20:36 has a similar interplay between children of God and children of the resurrection. Of special interest, a blind Jewish man uses the term son of David (Luke 18, Matthew 20, Mark 10) to refer to Jesus, as does a Gentile/Sidonian woman (Matthew 15). Both seem to be saying, “You are a great leader like King David was,” with son of again bearing the idea of resemblance.

That understanding resonates with John 1:12, where we all have the capacity to become children of God, a theme we see also in 1 John 3:2. It especially makes sense of Matthew 5:9, the beatitude where Jesus says that peacemakers will be called children of God. People who make peace resemble the God of peace.

This idea of resemblance calls to mind an insight from Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood: the scandal of Christianity was not the claim that Jesus resembles God, but rather that God resembles Jesus: nonviolent, kind, merciful, healing, reconciling, inclusive, accepting. In other words, the life and teaching of the Son made us conceive of the Father in a radically new way.

Second, I find great value in Dominic Crossan’s explorations of the political meaning of the term son of God. (God And Empire and Excavating Jesus are good places to start.)  Crossan points to stone inscriptions still visible today that demonstrate that the Caesars were seen as sons of the gods. In this way, to call Jesus the son of God is to say that his authority challenges Caesar’s.

We live in a time of resurgent nationalism, where the state and/or its leader are upheld by many as the absolute authority. To call Jesus Son of God can be, in our context as in the first century, a way of saying that we do not hold any human regime to be absolute. We believe there is a higher power, a higher authority, a higher wisdom, that relativizes any nation, any leader, any ideology, even any religion. We dare to believe that the love manifest in Jesus reflects the authentic nature or character of the Ultimate Reality, which makes Jesus a great teacher, an inspirational philosopher, and someone whose words and example should be followed indeed.

~ Brian D. McLaren

This Q&A was originally published on Progressing Spirit – As a member of this online community, you’ll receive insightful weekly essays, access to all of the essay archives (including all of Bishop John Shelby Spong), and answers to your questions in our free weekly Q&A. Click here to see sample essays.

About the Author
Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist and public theologian. A former college English teacher and pastor, he is a passionate advocate for “a new kind of Christianity” – just, generous, and working with people of all faiths for the common good. He is an Auburn Senior Fellow and a leader in the Convergence Network, through which he is developing an innovative training/mentoring program for pastors, church planters, and lay leaders called Convergence Leadership Project. He works closely with the Center for Progressive Renewal/Convergence, the Wild Goose Festival and the Fair Food Program‘s Faith Working Group. His most recent joint project is an illustrated children’s book (for all ages) called Cory and the Seventh Story. Other recent books include: The Great Spiritual MigrationWe Make the Road by Walking, and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World).

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