How We Forgot What Sonship Means

In last night’s post on the subject of relationships and intimacy in the modern world, I suggested that the modern form of society has led to a shift in our ways of perceiving relationships, which affects the way in which we understand some of the most primary relationships mentioned in Scripture. Perhaps a more concrete example of the way in which these changes may affect our understanding of relationship with God might help here

When we hear the expression ‘sons of God’, we tend to think of the intimacy that can exist between fathers and sons in young childhood. This is the most intense form of father-son relationship that most of us have experienced. However, if this concept is more clearly shaped, as I believe that it ought to be, by the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son, as manifested in Christ, our concept of sonship might be significantly altered. This relationship is not primarily that which exists between a younger child and his father (although hints of such a relationship may not be entirely absent), but that which exists between two adults. In fact, in Galatians 4:1-7 Paul might even suggest that it is only mature adults that can truly be called ‘sons’, and that the category isn’t truly appropriate to those who are still in their minority.

Christ’s sonship is characterized by his performance of the work of his Father, trusting and obeying his Father, bearing the name of his Father, being sent by, speaking, and acting in his Father’s stead, imitating his Father’s example and bearing his image, guarding and maintaining the rights, interests, and property of his Father, receiving a marriage feast that the Father is preparing for him, and entering into the inheritance and blessing of his Father. Intimacy is certainly not absent from this picture, but the place of this intimacy must be understood in terms of the emotional intensity of the relationship that could exist between fathers and their adult sons in a society where sons tended to remain in the same area and work under their fathers’ leadership in the property and trade that they would one day inherit and in which they would succeed their fathers.

As relationships between fathers and sons are seldom so strong or formative into adulthood in today’s society, we use our understanding of an intense emotional relationship of intimacy between fathers and their infant or very young sons to characterize our filial relationship to God. However, in the first century Jewish context in which Jesus lived an intensely powerful relationship between fathers and their adult sons were not uncommon (such close relationships appear at several points in the parables and gospel narratives), and the power of such relationships did not primarily consist in some generic ‘intimacy’ or in the intensity of emotional connections.

As our understanding of the relationship of sonship has been transformed as society has changed, and we read modern notions of sonship back into the scriptures, one of the effects is to infantilize our understanding of our relationship with God. Being sons of God becomes associated with passive emotional attachment detached from active discipleship. This infantilization encourages the loss of the place of the mind and the marginalization of the virtues of the mature person (courage, strength, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, etc.) within our understanding of the Christian life. Sonship becomes an almost entirely internalized concept of felt intimacy, rather than an outward looking concept of representation and commission. It becomes a private bond, rather than a bond that is lived out in a manner that is essentially visible to the whole of society. It can also become a narcissistic connection, rather than one that celebrates the broader familial bonds within which it includes us. It can become detached from the context of entering into inheritance.

If all of this is correct, then reading the Scriptures in terms of our modern form of relationships has had a powerful effect upon our understanding of one of the most central of its truths, arguably distorting and reducing it to a significant extent.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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10 Responses to How We Forgot What Sonship Means

  1. David McKay says:

    Alastair, I appreciate this insightful post. Do you have any links to your sources for this stimulating explanation of υἱοθεσία, to share?

    • Sorry, David. It was a random example plucked from my head to illustrate the suggestion that I made in the previous post: I wasn’t relying on any sources in particular. I think that a close study of the relationship between Christ and the Father in the gospels will support its claims, and the characterization of son-father relationships elsewhere in the gospels and the Scriptures more generally will substantiate the broader points about the fuller concept of sonship in the social and historical context.

  2. I often wonder how our theology today relates back to the Reformation. For example, the Bible which started the Reformation, Luther’s Bible, did not contain the phrase “sons of God” – it had only the phrase “children of God.” Has Reformation theology been completely abandoned these days? Are we in a new era of theology that has no roots in the Reformation?

  3. Erm, Suzanne, isn’t that rather a stretch?

    Tyndale’s Bible is quite happy to speak of us being ‘sonnes of God’, as is the Geneva Bible. In fact, Tyndale seems to use the expression more than later translators. There are good theological reasons why the expression ‘sons of God’ is preferable in many contexts. The theology of our adoption and new birth is not built around the more generic concept of being children of God, but around the Sonship of Christ (e.g. Galatians 4:6). Our status as Christians is a participation in his status. This goes for all of us, male or female. We are ‘sons’ of God and the younger ‘brethren’ of Christ, the firstborn Son (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:10-11).

    • But I think your post (which I love) gives us good grounds to say that Suzanne makes an excellent observation of what must be called a weakness in Luther’s translation – perhaps leading to an unhappy influence on German theology.

  4. Ahmed says:

    Thanks for sharing. I was recently reading Ridderbos who views, for example, John 1:18 not so much as a Son sitting in the Father’s lap (although this was the view of Athanasius for example), but rather as an image of the Son and Father reclining at a table enjoying the “adult” relationship you speak of, i.e., while the Son and Father are distinct, they are equals.

    • Good example, Ahmed. The close parallel with John 13:23 means that this particular reading has much to commend it. [That particular connection is also interesting as it parallels Christ’s relationship with the Father as his exegete with the Beloved Disciple’s relationship with Christ, as his exegete].

    • It also uses almost exactly the same expression as Luke 16:22-23, which refers to Lazarus being in the bosom of Abraham.

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