First off – I’m not a heretic.
Second – you probably agree with me.
I’m fully aware of all the places in scripture where Jesus is called the “son of God.” I looked at every single one of them today. Mark says his whole reason for inventing the gospel genre is to proclaim the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). In Luke, Gabriel tells Mary that her son “will be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). And the most famous verse in the gospels uses the same idea: “God so loved the world that He gave his only son…” (Jn 3:16). There are dozens of these, and they were all true when they were written.
Still, Jesus is not God’s son. At least not anymore.
Because the words don’t mean the same thing anymore. God hasn’t changed. Jesus hasn’t changed. But if we want to tell the truth in a world that hears far too little of it, we need to change how we say it.
When the New Testament was written (and for most of the next 1500 years), we thought about the relationship between father and son in a very different way. Sons were talked of as if they were an exact imprint of their father. Thrones weren’t handed down from father to son just because that’s the way Dad wanted it and he was king so you had to do what he said. It was done because the son was thought of as the same man, but in a new generation. Sons could legally stand in for their father in court, or enter contracts on their father’s behalf.
When Mark or John or Luke or Paul or Old Testament prophets called Jesus “the Son of God” they meant that Jesus was God’s presence on Earth – that he was able to put God’s plan into action and sign his name to a new covenant of grace.
When the church wrote the Apostles Creed a couple hundred years later, they wrote “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord.” They wrote this to communicate the central Christian belief that Jesus is God – that God showed up in human form and walked around in the dirt with us, all for the purpose of putting the broken things back together. That’s what the church believed about Jesus.
We still do, but we can’t say it the same way we used to.
We don’t think about fathers and sons like that anymore. We keep discovering new things about genetics and social science that drive us further away from a sense that sons are (or even should be) a carbon copy of their father. It only took us a half dozen historical epochs, but we’ve finally acknowledged that the mom has something to do with it (Happy belated Mothers Day). We also recognize the ways that culture and experience shape a person’s personality.
This means that every time we say “Jesus is the Son of God,” the people around us are hearing something completely different from what we actually mean.
And it’s not good.
There are so many pop culture father characters who expect their son to be exactly like them that I’ve gotten tired of the trope. The football coach who all but forbids his son to join the cast of the high school play, or the businessman who cuts his son off for studying art – they stand in as the guy no one is supposed to like, precisely because we all know fathers and sons don’t work like that.
I’m not saying we need to change our theology, but we do need to change our language. If it were only about misunderstandings, or theological debates, I probably wouldn’t worry about it. This is really about how we listen to the people around us, so that when we talk about Jesus, we can tell the truth in a way they can hear it. I worry about it because people need Jesus. And everyone needs Jesus in different ways at different times.
I very rarely need Jesus to lift the emotional burden of my guilt. It’s not that I don’t sin – it’s just that I don’t usually feel guilty for it (I’m an expert at self-delusional justifications for my mistakes). Much more often, I need Jesus to push me off the couch and out into the world. I need Jesus to show me how to live in solidarity with people who are hurting in life-changing, redemptive ways. So the guys on the street corner telling me “you too can be free from guilt and shame,” are telling the truth. But I’m never going to listen. Because they’ve never listened to me.
When asked about the central idea of the Christian faith, people regularly quote John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will have eternal life.” That statement is true, in its original meaning. But we all know that the “only son” in question was murdered. So non-Christians today aren’t likely to hear a description of love. They’re likely to hear that God’s isn’t much of a father. And how do you think it’s heard by people who were neglected or abused by their own fathers? Don’t you think these people need Jesus? Don’t you think it’s worth our time and work to listen first, and find a way to tell the truth so that it can be heard?
How about this?
Q: What would you say is the center of the Christian faith?
A: God so loved the world that our creator risked everything to show up in the middle of it. He became a person like you and me – a person who looked heroes and victims, the poor and powerful right in the eye and said “I have a better way for all of us.”
It’s just as true, but I think it has a better chance of being heard.
I think our language matters. I’m pretty convinced that it’s more important for Christians to live the good news than to talk about it, but talking is necessary. If you’re making your neighborhood or church look more like the Kingdom of God, it’s going to be weird and people are going to ask you why. If we spend time listening to the culture before we talk, I think we’ll have something worth saying.