“Son of God” in Systematic Theology
One danger must be addressed before we move on. Systematic, dogmatic, and polemic theology have largely come to identify the ascription “Son of God” with Jesus’ divinity. Most systematic theological treatments of the title “Son of God” take it to refer to Jesus’ essential or substantial oneness with the divinity of the Father. A few examples from Reformed and Lutheran theology will illustrate this.
First, toward the beginning of his locus on “The Doctrine of Christ,” the Lutheran systematic theologian John T. Mueller writes under the subheading “The True Deity of Christ” that “Scripture ascribes to Christ— a) The name "God" (theos, John 1:1) and "Son of God" ( Matt. 16:16), and these not in an improper sense, in which they are applied also to creatures (1 Cor. 8:5; John 10:35), but in their proper, or metaphysical sense, so that Christ is said to possess not only divine functions, but also the one divine essence" (John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics [St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1955], p. 256.)
This nice, neat division between the name as applied (improperly?) to creatures and metaphysically to Jesus as possessing the one divine essence gives the impression that the biblical phrase “Son of God” has some fixed technical meaning equivalent to its traditional use in trinitarian theology. Of the two biblical proof texts offered by Mueller, John 1:1 probably fits with this specific technical sense. One might wonder, however, how Mueller would exegete Matt. 16:16 in order to prove that Peter’s confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” references Jesus possession of the “divine essence.” Mueller’s statement illustrates the problem with technical theological terms like this. They tend to constrain and limit a reader’s openness to the rich semantic possibilities of biblical words and phrases.
Similarly, the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck uses “Son of God” to refer to Jesus’ ontological union with his Father. Bavink’s initial discussion of the name “Son of God” carefully notes the redemptive historical origin of the term in Israel’s corporate life, especially the theocratic origin of the term during the time of the Davidic Kingdom. Quickly, however, Bavink moves from the historical to the metaphysical. Referencing Psalm 2:7, Bavink explains,
With a view to David this refers to the decree of God of which mention is made in 2 Sam. 7, and with a view to the Messiah—of whom David is a type—Heb. 1:5; 5:5 interprets it as referring to eternity, in which Christ as the Son was generated by the Father, that is, in which he was brought forth as the effulgence of God’s glory and the very image of his substance. Moreover, according to Acts 13:33; Rom. 1:3, the second person of the trinity was declared to be the Son of God with power, by the resurrection of the dead. (Herman Bavink, The Doctrine of God, trans. by William Hendriksen [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eermans Publishing Company, 1951], p. 269).Aside from Bavinck’s questionable explanation of Heb. 1:5 and 5:5, the other two texts he cites (Heb. 13:3 & Romans 1:3 [4?]) appear to say that Jesus became Son of God by God’s appointment at his resurrection/ascension. For Bavinck, the verb orizo in Rom. 1:4 must mean “declare.” Bavinck goes on to clarify what he means by “Son of God.”
But the name Son of God when ascribed to Christ has a far deeper meaning than the theocratic: he was not a mere king of Israel who in time became an adopted Son of God; neither was he called Son of God because of his supernatural birth, as the Socinians and Hofmann held; neither is he the Son of God merely in an ethical sense, as others suppose; neither did he receive the title Son of God as a new name in connection with his atoning work and resurrection, an interpretation in support of which John 10:34-36; Acts 13:32, 33; and Rom. 1:4 are cited; but he is Son of God in a metaphysical sense; by nature and from eternity (p. 270).This passage illustrates well the ever-present semantic temptation theologians are faced with when they exegete biblical texts. Because various heretics and heresies have advocated erroneous senses in which Jesus “became” the Son of God at some point in his temporal existence, Bavinck succumbs to the temptation to reject any sense in which Christ might have been so designated in time and history. Clearly Bavinck is not comfortable with understanding “Son of God” as a honorific title given in connection with his atoning work and resurrection. The resurrection can only declare or manifest to the world what as already true—that the second person of the Trinity is Son of God in a metaphysical sense from eternity. Whether this is the meaning of orizo in Rom. 1:4 remains to be seen.
At this point, we should note again the temptation to read into Paul’s words the precise systematic theological meaning that has come to be associated with this common New Testament christological ascription. For our purposes, we can note here that the designation “Son of God” or even “Son” does indeed refer to Christ’s divinity and essential unity with the Father in many places in the New Testament (e.g., John 1:14, 18; 3:17; 1 John 4:10; Heb. 1:2), and especially in Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 8:6; Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:6ff.; Col. 1:13, 16-17).
I am not denying Jesus eternal divine sonship. Everyone should be clear about that. What I am denying is that this phrase does not always refer to this reality in every place it is found in Scripture. I believe that even in the epistle to the Romans Paul sometimes uses “Son” with this "metaphysical" nuance (Rom. 1:3; 8:3; 32). But even so, it would be difficult to prove, even in these passages where the context (the Father’s sending his Son) favors the “systematic theological definition” that Paul intends to exclude any reference to the incarnate Christ.
It is extremely doubtful that the Apostolic authors intended everything that post-Nicea orthodox theologians mean when they speak of the eternal “Son of God.” This is because in response to various christological and trinitarian heresies the technical theological phrase “Son of God” has been assigned a very precise meaning based on a large number of New Testament texts bearing upon the larger question of Jesus’ essential divinity, some of which do not even use filial language. Thus, the meaning of the technical theological term “Son of God” has been built up from passages that do not necessarily use the phrase itself.
In systematic theology the phrase now functions as a kind of short hand, an abbreviation, if you will, of a theological composite of teachings centering on questions concerning the divine nature of the Son in relation to God the Father. There is nothing wrong with this. But it does complicate the exegete’s work and naïve readers are often prone to making such a basic category mistake when they come across familiar theological terms in the Bible. We must recognize that in systematic theology we have developed technical phrases and titles that have a precision not found in the New Testament writings. Traditionally “Son of God” has come to refer almost exclusively to Jesus divine nature. Theologians use other terms and phrases that designate his humanity. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), things are not so neat and tidy in the New Testament.
But now, the question before us is this: what does Paul mean by "Son of God" in Rom. 1:4? Our investigation will proceed in three stages. First, we will examine the immediate context and the language of Rom. 1:4. Second, we will survey the Old Testament background, concentrating on the connection between Rom. 1:4 and the Davidic covenant (1 Sam. 7; Ps. 2; Ps. 89; etc.). Finally, some modest conclusions will be outlined and the significance of our findings will briefly surveyed.
To be continued.