Does it mean that God had physical union with a woman (Mary), and Jesus, the Son of God, was the result?
Is it a metaphor? Jesus calls the sons of Zebedee, James and John, ‘Sons of Thunder’, a phrase that describes their character. Is ‘Son of God’ a similar kind of metaphor?
The title ‘Messiah’ often comes together with ‘Son of God’. Do they mean the same thing?
The Roman emperors called themselves sons of god. Is the Bible copying this, so as to help us understand who Jesus is?
Or is it something else?
Let’s look at these alternatives in a little more detail.
Christian theologians and Muslims are agreed that is it repulsive and blasphemous to speak of God having physical, sexual union with a woman. In addition, to suggest that Jesus is the literal Son of God as a result of physical union between God and Mary would mean that we have two Gods: God and Jesus, just as I am separate from my father and my son is separate from me. And so we reject this idea. We firmly believe in one God.
The Sons of Thunder had (we assume) thunderous tempers. If I describe Ahmad as a son of the desert I am suggesting he was born and raised in close proximity to the desert, that the desert is the thing that defines who Ahmad is, his character, the essence of who he is. It is a metaphor. If we treat the term ‘Son of God’ in the same way, we are treating the word ‘Son’ as a metaphor. Jesus is not the biological son of God, no more than James and John are the biological sons of thunder, but ‘God’ defines who he is, his character. This is useful, but I suggest that ‘Son of God’ is more than a metaphor.
In a moment of divine enlightenment Peter exclaims, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’ (Matt. 16.16) Yes, that’s right, Jesus tells him, and it was my Father in heaven who revealed that to you. The two terms ‘Messiah’ and ‘Son of God’ are certainly closely related, and both are used of Jesus, but that does not make them synonymous.
Both terms have their roots in the Old Testament, in particular in 2 Samuel 7.13-16 where God promises David a son, saying, ‘I will be his father and he will be my son … your throne will be established for ever.’ But ‘Messiah’ means more than that: literally it means ‘anointed’ and in the Old Testament three different types of people were anointed: prophets, priest and kings. Jesus was all three.
The term, ‘Son of God’ also has a wider meaning. The Son of God has existed from the very beginning. Hebrews 1, for example, speaks of him as the creator and sustainer of the universe. It tells us that he is ‘the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being’ – and then goes on in chapter 2 to describe how he became fully human in every way so as to identify with us in our humanity.
‘Son of God’ was a title well-used by the Roman emperors. The good news in the imperial cult was that Caesar, the son of god, was lord over the whole world. The Good News of Jesus parallels this closely: Jesus, the Son of God, is Lord over the whole world.
There may be some useful parallels that we can draw between Caesar and Jesus. But there is a whole lot more to the term ‘Son of God’ than simply confrontation and rebuttal of the imperial cult. Additionally the Old Testament use of the terms ‘Son of God’ predates Caesar by about a thousand years.
Having looked at these other possible interpretations of the term ‘Son of God’, some of which are more useful than others, I would like to suggest tomato soup as a useful way of understanding what ‘Son of God’ means.
When it comes to tomato soup we are not dealing with metaphors. ‘Tomato’ describes the content and nature of the soup, its substance, its quintessence. ‘Tomato’ is the essence; ‘soup’ is the form. The tomatoes are still tomatoes but they have been chopped, combined with other herbs and spices, boiled, stirred and seasoned. They are now tomato soup: the tomatoes are still tomatoes but their form or nature has changed.
Transfer this process to Jesus. Soup of Tomato. Son of God. Tomato Soup. Godly Son. God is still God but his form or nature has changed.
God is a complex being. We shouldn’t try to reduce him to something that is easy to understand. What is the Trinity? ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ What is that? It is how we experience God: he is the Creator of heaven and earth, he is the Man from Nazareth who lived and died and rose again, he is the Spirit that inspires and prompts us. But as systematic theologians from Justin Martyr (c100-165AD) onwards have found, it does not make for tidy theology. God is complex – we can never even begin to really understand him. In fact the more we understand of God, the more we realise that he is beyond understanding. He is bigger and greater and wider and deeper than we can ever comprehend. And so we worship him.
If you’re reflecting on the Scriptures and come to that term, Son of God, think tomato soup and you can’t go far wrong.
a longer version of this article can be found at academia.edu