Subbing "The Son of God": A Response to Christianity Today (Part 1)

On Wednesday night (2/2/11) I compared the Muslim and Christian understandings of Jesus from the Quran/Hadith and the Bible respectively. In short Muslims deny that Jesus is the Son of God, not so much because of who Jesus is, but because of who God is. In the Muslim faith it is blasphemous to allege that God could be anyone’s father, especially that anyone could have been conceived in the womb by Him. The word “son” naturally carries with it strong biological connotations and to think that God would or could relate to any human being biologically is heretical to the Muslim understanding of the nature of God. The Quran teaches that Jesus is at best, the messenger of Allah, one of his great prophets. Muslims believe that the Christian teaching of Jesus as the divine Son of God is a doctrinal corruption of the early church (S. XIX:29ff, S. V. 75-77, S. IV. 157-158).

In the February issue of Christianity Today, Collin Hansen, in his article “The Son and the Crescent”, reports on the controversy surrounding new translations of the Bible that make the gospel more palatable to Muslims. The translations do so by substituting the phrase “Son of God” for alternatives such as “Christ”, “beloved son who comes from God”, “Christ of God”, “spiritual son of God”, or “the Christ, the Beloved One of the Living God.” Hansen reports that these translations have been notably effective in the formation of “fellowships” as Muslim people have “found faith in Jesus.” Obviously this choice of translation has caused debate between missionaries, translators, and theologians. Rick Brown, associate area director for Sil-Erasia, a linguistic expert and international translation consultant, endorses the use of these substitute phrases for “Son of God” and compares it to what has been done with many English paraphrases such as The Living Bible. Paraphrased versions of the Bible make the Scriptures more readable. Richard Grady, missiologist for OC International is quoted by Hansen, “My father never read the Bible until he got a copy of The Living Bible.” “We are finding the same with some of the paraphrases being done for Muslim audiences.”

Is this merely a paraphrase or does substituting the use of “Son of God” in the Muslim context do serious theological damage to the gospel as revealed in the Biblical text? I would submit that at heart, our translators and missionaries are trying to do a good work and bring Muslim people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  I do not think they are intentionally trying to hijack the gospel. I fully support them in their intent. Yet, I do think that substituting or paraphrasing the Son of God in the Biblical text does serious theological damage to Jesus and the gospel.

I have two elementary aged daughters. Both of them have expressed faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, but neither of them understand the sexual side of the Christmas story. Jr. High and puberty loom large on the horizon for one of them. I dread this! Until this point when asked what “virgin” means we have been able to safely say, “Mary wasn’t married” and move on. So the question becomes does a person have to affirm or understand the nature of Jesus’ conception and birth in order to be saved? Yes and no. “No” in the sense of there were a lot of things about Jesus I did not fully understand when I was saved, but “Yes” in the sense that I do not think a saved person would or could, in good conscience, deny that Jesus is the divinely conceived Son of God.

I assert that Hansen inadvertently misrepresents the issue with “Son of God” for the Muslim people. Yes, it is blasphemous to them, but it is not because of a Biblical translation. The blasphemy is not rooted in the Biblical text, but rather in the Quran and the Hadith. These books are the source of teaching that make the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth into a divine sexual scandal. The Bible obviously represents the conception of Christ as a biological act in that a fertilized egg was implanted into the womb of Mary, but the act was more spiritual in nature than sexual. Contextually, ontologically, theologically, and linguistically there is no warrant in any of the Greek to suggest that God had sex with Mary. Again, the phrase “Son of God” is not the problem, the problem is with Muslim teaching. In his writing, Muslim historian and commentator Ibn Kathir demonstrates the misguided liberties the Quran, the Hadith, and Muslim clerics take with the conception narrative,

“Allah, the Exalted, informs about Maryam that when Jibril had spoken to her about what Allah said, she accepted the decree of Allah. Many scholars of the predecessors (Salaf) have mentioned that at this point the angel (who was Jibril) blew into the opening of the garment that she was wearing. Then the breath descended until it entered into her vagina and she conceived the child by the leave of Allah. Muhammad bin Ishaq said, "When she conceived him and filled her water jug (at a well), she returned (to her people). After this, her menstrual bleeding ceased and she experienced what the pregnant woman experiences of sickness, hunger, change of color and there was even a change in the manner of her speech. After this, no people came to visit any house like they did the house of Zakariyya. The word spread among the Children of Israel and the people were saying, `Verily, her partner (in fornication) was Yusuf, because there was no one else in the temple with her except him.' So she hid herself from the people and placed a veil between herself and them. No one saw her and she did not see anyone else.''

Instead of omitting or substituting the phrase “Son of God” perhaps a better strategy would be to confront the source of the blasphemy and to clarify the Christian understanding of the text. The substitute translation may make the text initially palatable to the Muslim people, but for the greater work of salvation, at some point, Jesus as the divinely conceived Son of God cannot be dismissed. If He is not the “Son of God” He is not the Savior. The reality of Jesus as the virgin born Son of God does not simply affect the birth narrative, it is a truth that also permeates the way we understand His teaching, His authority, and eventually His work of atonement on the cross. For Jesus to be anything other than the Son of God is a blatant corruption of the gospel.

(to be continued on Monday)


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