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Who Is Jesus?
Son of God? Messiah? Prophet? Teacher? What?

Calling Jesus the "Son of God" is understood to be the distinguishing affirmation of the Christian faith. Yet within the wider Christian family there is a range of opinion about what this title actually means. In order to clarify the issues at stake, let's look at the origins of the title, how its meaning has changed over time, and how different Christians understand it today.

Origins of the title

Most Christians would be surprised to learn that "Son of God" is a title with a long history in the ancient world. Many gods and goddesses where believed to have children. The title did not originate within the imagination of early Christians, or even within the minds of biblical writers.

Nor is Jesus the only "Son of God" mentioned in the Bible. For example, Psalm 2, is thought to have been used as part of the coronation ceremony for the Kings of ancient Israel. In it the Psalm writer declares:

    I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, "Thou art my Son, today I have begotten you."
Christians will find these words familiar. They appear again in the New Testament. When Jesus is baptized by John, a voice taken to be that of God announces: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

Understandings of Jesus change over time

Clearly, the title is used in different ways by different writers at different times. For example, within the first decades after the death of Jesus, Christians began to affirm that Jesus was the "only" Son of God. The gospel of John goes even further, suggesting that Jesus was not born, but rather was present with God at the Creation. Over time it became more common to affirm that "Jesus is God."

Not everyone was happy with this evolution of thought, however. Many wanted to retain a Jesus who was fully human, a man born like the rest of us, with the same temptations, weaknesses and humanity as any of us. And these Christians found support for their view in the Bible. Right alongside the words that proclaimed the divinity of Jesus, were those suggesting his humanity.

Jesus as fully human

There are numerous passages that suggest that Jesus needed to learn and grow like the rest of us, that he suffered real pain, and was limited in his knowledge, just as all humans are. For example, in the letter to the Hebrews the author compared Jesus to a priest of ancient Israel and says:
    In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

Likewise, the apostle Paul suggests that all people can become, by a gift of God's grace, "the Sons of God." As he puts it in his letter to the Romans: "All who are led by the Spirit of God are Sons of God."

Fully human and fully divine

Wanting to maintain an understanding of Jesus as being fully human, while also proclaiming his divinity, church fathers came up with a short phrase that captures it all. As approved in a doctrinal statement adopted at the Council Chalcedon in 491 C.E., Jesus was said to be "fully human and fully divine."

Did this end debate about the nature of Jesus? No. But it did define a set of parameters within which Jesus is understood. Henceforth, explanations of Christ's divinity cannot be framed in a way that makes him out to be anything less than fully human, and at the same time, explanations of his humanity cannot be drawn in such a way as to compromise his divinity.

Diversity in the Christian family today

Still, within the Christian family today there is a range of understandings of the title "Son of God," and more than that, a variety of opinions about his identity. For some Jesus actually is God, the second person of the Trinity, fully divine in the sense of being with God from and for all eternity. For others, Jesus is divine precisely because he was fully human. Jesus was a man who, being led by the Spirit of God, became the Son of God in the same way that Paul said any person could when living in harmony with God's will and purpose.

There are, of course, strengths and weaknesses with all definitions of Jesus. Those who think "Jesus Christ is God," risk defining Jesus in such a way that he can no longer be fully human, while those who focus on his humanity risk the loss of his distinctive stature within the Christian tradition.

Bottom line:

For the health of the Church and for the vitality of its tradition, Christians need to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God in such a way that he continues to be seen as both fully human and fully divine. Within this tension Christianity remains a living and evolving faith.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles P. Henderson.