The Classical Interpretation of Romans 1:4
Why does Paul ascribe to Jesus the title “Son of God” in Romans 1:4? Is he simply borrowing a designation from contemporary Hellenistic or pagan religious culture in order to impress upon his readers a reverence for Jesus that they would be able to readily appreciate? Influential 20th century commentators have argued for this. The suggestion has been made that Paul (and other New Testament authors) utilized the Hellenistic notion of “divine men” as the “sons” of gods as one way to bridge the conceptual gap between the Greek culture and the Hebraic understanding of the Messiah.
Wilhelm Bousset, Kyrios Christos, trans. J. E. Steely (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970 [German, 1913]), pp. 91-98 and 206-10; G. P. Wetter, “Der Sohn Gottes,” eine Untersuchung über den Charakter und die Tendenz des Johannes-Evangeliums (Göttingen: Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht, 1916); W. Grundmann, Die Gotteskindschaft in der Geschichte Jesu und ihre religionsgeschichtlichen Voraussetzzungen (Weimar: Verlag Deutsche Christen, 1938); Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951, 1955), pp. 149-59; and H. J. Schoeps, Paul: The Theology of the Apostle in the Light of Jewish Religious History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), pp. 149-59.Recently, however, this theory has been rejected for many good reasons, not the least of which being, on the one hand, the absence of genuine Greco-Roman pagan parallels that would account for Paul’s view of Jesus as God’s Son or render it more intelligible to his contemporary audience, and, on the other hand, the abundance of Old Testament precedent that gives a much more satisfying explanation for the New Testament authors’ ascription of this title to Jesus.
Martin Hengel, The Son of God: The Origins of Christology and the History of Jewish Hellenistic Religion (rev. ed; Philadelphia/London: Fortress Press/SCM, 1977 [German, 1975]); J. Bieneck, Sohn Gottes als Christusbezeichnung der Synoptiker (Zurich: Zwingli, 1951); Oscar Cullmann, Christology of the New Testament, trans. S. C. Guthrie and C. M. Hall (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), pp. 271ff.The impetus for employing the language of divine sonship need not have come from pagan traditions of divinized heroes. As we shall see, Paul’s use of sonship derives from common Old Testament language and images as well as from both the history of Jesus’ own verbal interaction with the Father as recorded in the Gospels (Mark 1:11; Matt. 11:27; Luke 6:22, etc.) and the confessions made by disciples, demons, and others (e.g., Matt. 4:3, 6; 8:29; 16:16; 26:63-64; 27:43, 54; Mark 15:39; Jn. 1:34, 49; 3:18; 10:36; 11:4, 27; Luke 1:35), some of which Paul had either already read or the substance of which had been passed down to him by apostolic tradition (Acts 9:20; 1 Cor. 15:1ff.).
Many New Testament scholars have even regarded Paul’s language here in Rom. 1:2-4 as evidence of an early, pre-pauline ecclesiastical confession. If this is the case—and its far from being established—it simply underscores the primitive character of Paul’s confession of Jesus sonship and witnesses to the common confessional tradition of the original apostles and the earliest Christian communities that were founded by them. See Oscar Cullmann, The Earliest Christian Confessions, trans. J. K. S. Reid (London: Lutterworth Press, 1949), p. 55; V. H. Neufeld, The Earliest Christian Confessions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 50; and Rudolf Bultmann, The Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1 (London: SCM Press, 1952), p. 49.If Paul does not borrow extra-biblical conceptions in order to ascribe sonship to Jesus, then what does he mean by the phrase “Son of God”? Does he desire thereby to denominate Jesus’ ontological union with God the Father’s divine essence as the eternal Son? This has been a common, indeed, maybe the traditional interpretation of this passage among orthodox commentators since the early church controversies over Arianism and Adoptionism. On this interpretation Romans 1:4 refers to the historical manifestation or declaration that Jesus was truly the eternal Son of God, and the participle that begins the clause in v. 4 is taken to mean “declare” or “show.” What was true ontologically remained hidden during Jesus’ earthly ministry, suffering, and death, but was made clear and manifest when Jesus rose from the dead (as Luther explains: “Before the resurrection this was not revealed and manifested but hidden in the flesh of Christ” [Luther, Lectures on Romans, p. 148]).
According to this reading of Rom. 1:4, the resurrection did not make or even provide the occasion for him to become the Son of God; rather, it powerfully declared to the world what he was already—God’s eternal son. The pressure of polemic theology has so influenced the interpretation of Rom. 1:4 that even the phrase “spirit of holiness” has some times been interpreted as a striking way of referring to Jesus’ divine nature in contradistinction to “according to the flesh” which designates his human nature. The antithetically parallel kata-clauses, therefore, describe a contrast or distinction between Jesus’ human and divine natures. Robert Reymond suggests “that the entire clause can be paraphrased as follows: “who was powerfully marked out the Son of God in accordance with His divine nature by His resurrection from the dead’” (Robert L. Reymond, Jesus, Divine Messiah: The New Testament Witness [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1990], p. 207).
What I have outlined above we might call the "classical" interpretation of Romans 1:4. In my next post we'll begin to examine the merits of this interpretation.