The “Son of God” Translation Controversy and a Few Helpful Comments by D. A. Carson

By Kenneth Berding Nov. 20, 2012 11:24 a.m. Theology, Apologetics, Ethics, Evangelism, Missions, New Testament, Old Testament

I just returned from the Evangelical Theological Society annual meetings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where I picked up a copy of D. A. Carson’s new little book, Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed (Crossway).  On the taxi ride from the airport to the conference, I briefly tried to share the Lord with a taxi driver named Hassan.  We were about a minute into the conversation when Hassan commented rather ardently, “We Muslims believe that Jesus is a prophet, and not the son of God.”  I explained to him that Christians don’t believe that God had physical relations with Mary that led to her pregnancy, as many Muslims assume and consider blasphemous.  The problem for dialogue with Muslims like Hassan is that many Muslims think that is precisely what we Christians mean when we use the expression “Son of God” in reference to Jesus—which, of course, we don’t.  So what if you were a Bible translator in a Muslim country and knew that many of your readers would make the same assumption that Hassan did about the expression “Son of God”?  Perhaps you should change the words “Son of God” to something else that is proximate in meaning but less offensive.  Or maybe you shouldn’t…

If you haven’t heard, there is a vigorous debate currently raging on this topic among Bible translators working in Muslim countries.  It’s not as simple as saying, “Well, the Bible uses the terminology ‘Son of God’ repeatedly, so we should too.”  What if the terminology itself creates significant misunderstanding and thus is a block to gospel proclamation?  Can’t we simply insert something else like “Messiah,” since “Son of God” often carries with it messianic overtones in the Bible?  Or how about “Beloved of God” or “the Son who has a special relationship with God”?

D. A. Carson has provided some good reasons to hold on to “Son of God” in our translations, despite possible misunderstandings.  The first chapter of this short three-chapter book surveys the range of usage of the expression “Son of God” in the Bible.  The second chapter delves deeper into two New Testament passages, Hebrews 1 and John 5:16-30, to lay bare some of the internal logic of those passages.  In this second chapter, Carson is trying to model a “thick” reading of those two passages that takes into account the reverberations of the Old Testament in the New Testament.  It is Carson’s contention that many translators are not sufficiently familiar with the Bible’s own intertextuality to “hear” resonances from one passage to another.  Many of these resonances, Carson contends, would have been heard by the Bible’s first readers and are often crucial for proper interpretation of the expression “Son of God.”

Chapter three is entitled:  ‘Jesus the Son of God’ in Christian and Muslim Contexts.  Let me lay out for you Carson’s six main foci early in the chapter, employing his own subtitles.  There is a lot of wisdom packed into these observations.

  1. Not all uses of “Son of God” are the same.
  2. Biblical trajectories are important if we are to understand how “Son of God” commonly “works.”
  3. The relationship between the exegesis of the biblical “Son of God” passages and the categories of systematic theology is not a simple one.
  4. The “eternal generation of the Son” is especially convoluted territory.
  5. Understanding Jesus as the Son of God ought to have a bearing on our evangelism.
  6. Understanding Jesus as the Son of God ought to have a bearing on our worship.

Carson then carefully walks through an evaluation of those who would promote replacing the expression “Son of God” with something else and recommends consistently leaving it as “Son of God.”  Here are a few considerations I found helpful in Carson’s discussion:

  • Carson contends that it is right and well to recognize that “son of” expressions are used in a variety of ways in the Bible.  But he adds that one must consider what might be lost when dispensing with theologically rich expressions like “Son of God.”  If such “loss” is in fact theologically significant, as seems to be the case in some of the “Son of God” passages, translators might want to take a long pause before jettisoning “Son of God.”  For example, since the expression sometimes carries with it overtones of preexistence—something that is important for anyone with a high Christology—translators need to tread carefully on such high and holy ground (my metaphor).
  • Carson argues that just because the expression “Son of God” carries strong messianic overtones in many New Testament passages, this does not entail treating “Son of God” and “Messiah” as synonyms that can be inverted at will.  Having the same “referent” is not the same thing as carrying an identical meaning.
  • Carson suggests that the biblical trajectories from Old Testament to New Testament that lead to the employment of the expression “Son of God” in the New Testament need to be factored in more strongly than they often are in discussions among translators.  Look up passages like 2 Samuel 7:14, Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 9:6, and Psalms 89:20f and their New Testament parallels and ask yourself whether this point is significant or not.
  • Carson says that there is no language or culture—or individual in any culture—that is quite prepared for what the Bible asserts about Jesus through its use of “Son of God terminology.  It isn’t as though American culture is going to “get” it right away, and Iranian, Egyptian, or Indonesian cultures aren’t.  Everyone faces a rather steep learning curve when it comes to understanding “Son of God” in the Bible.  People in the first century faced a significant learning curve; and people will today.
  • Carson suggests that a translation that avoids using “Son of God” will make it difficult for new converts to connect with the history of confessional Christianity, including early councils and creeds.  This will cut off new converts from their historical roots.  I would add to his observation that new converts who have never been exposed to the language of “Son of God” get cut off from fellowship with modern Christians worldwide who regularly employ this expression.  Ironically, removing a familial term (“Son of God”) could lead to removing familial unity (“brothers and sisters in fellowship with one another”).

There is a lot more in this little book, but I wanted to share with you a few nuggets from a seasoned New Testament scholar who wants to help you wrestle through a difficult—but truly significant—question for evangelism, theology, and Christian unity. 

By the way, you can pray for Hassan.  He was excited when I told him that I wanted to send him an Arabic Bible so he could read it for himself.  Perhaps he will personally come to know Messiah Jesus the Son of God as he reads about him in the Bible, God’s Holy Word.

Comments

  • Joe Hellerman Nov. 21, 2012 at 7:51 PM

    What a cool post, Ken! Your passion for the lost and your passion for NT exegesis/translation all rolled into one. I am so glad you're teaching at Biola/Talbot. Our students really don't know how good they have it. Or maybe they do! :)

  • Tim Nov. 23, 2012 at 9:53 PM

    Can you imagine how gleeful the devil would be if believers started editing out "Son of God" from their writings and conversations because Muslims object to it or have initial misunderstandings? It's similar to believers who wish to edit out Jesus is the only way to God because secularists, pluralists, and others object strongly to this concept. This capitulation or compromising of God's Word is horrendous, even for the sake of alleged decisions. Will they publish a translation with no "Son of God" present for Muslim peoples?

  • Scott Nov. 26, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    Tim: not sure from your post if you're aware that believers are indeed publishing Bible translations that, as you say, "edit out" the phrase 'Son of God'. Carson's book refers to Wycliffe's doing exactly that. Other agencies are doing it as well. You can read more at http://biblicalmissiology.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/LostInTranslation-FactCheck.pdf

    And you're right: it is a capitulation, and it is compromise.

  • Dave Halverson Dec. 3, 2012 at 3:36 PM

    Thanks for this post!
    As a missions pastor, this issue, along with the on-going Insider Movement controversy, is one which causes great concern. I look forward to reading Carson's treatment of the issue.

  • Heidi McLaughlin Feb. 21, 2013 at 6:24 AM

    This discussion continues to be a difficult one. I wonder what the author of Matthew, who crafted a gospel specifically for a Hebrew audience, would have thought of the discussion of crafting a gospel for a Muslim audience, and how he would have gone about that. We must ask the Lord that those who are currently working on this matter listen as carefully to the Holy Spirit as the author of Matthew did.

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