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The Need for Religious Harmony

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42 The Review of Religions – February 2005 The concept of Jesus(as) as ‘Sonof God,’ although formulated in 323 A.D., has been under close scrutiny for its e fficacy and origin. Scores of scholars have thoroughly reviewed all the connotations of its usage and have arrived at the conclusion that the expression ‘Son of God’ is a metaphoric expression suggesting Je s u s ’ closeness to God – a title of veneration with no implied literal meaning. This expression was used for angels, kings, pious elites, Israelites, and many other righteous men. In the literal sense, it was never applied to J e s u s( a s ) during his life. In his zeal for spreading the Gospel message to Greeks (who professed three Gods), Paul created the idea of trinity to attract Greeks to C h r i s t i a n i t y. The phrase ‘Son of God’ is clearly a later inter- polation that has no basis in the Bible. Several reputable theo- logians from various countries of the world attest to the metaphoric usage of the phrase. We present a number of excerpts from the writings of these scholars. This modern understanding, when compared with Islamic teachings, finds concordance rather than p a r i t y. We hope that our Christian readers will re-evaluate these findings and arrive at their own c o n c l u s i o n s . TRADITIONAL BELIEF: Jesus Christ is the only begotten ‘Son of God.’ He is the second deity in the Tr i n i t y. C O N T E M P O R A RY BELIEF: The phrase ‘Son of God’ is a metaphoric expression denot- ing the strong love and affection God had for Jesus. as ‘Son of God’ From The Muslim Sunrise 2004 Issues 1-3 ‘Metaphoric Light ,Literal Darkness’, Christian Theology and Modern Scholarship; (Published by the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam, USA) JESUS (as) By Anwer Mahmood Khan – USA 43The Review of Religions – February 2005 This phrase does not imply that Jesus is the literal son of God. Several scholars have studied the phrase ‘Son of God’ in the various connotations recorded in the Bible and have attempted to understand it using its traditional parlance. In light of their investigations, they have arrived at the understanding that this phrase is a metaphoric expression of the closeness of God with J e s u s( a s ). Most of these scholars are of the opinion that the traditional meaning of the expression ‘Son of God’ that was formulated into the Apostles’ Creed in A.D. 325 at Nicea has evolved, and Jesus( a s ), initially considered human, has attained this Christological image of C h r i s t . R e v e rend Raymond Bro w n , Auburn Distinguished Professor of Biblical Studies at Union Theological Seminary, considers ‘Son of God’ to be a post- Crucifixion expression. The term was never used by Jesus(as) during his life. He writes: “When we turn to the use of ‘the Son of God’ by or about Jesus in his lifetime and its possible appearance in AD 30/33 in Jewish inquiries made about him, there is far less evidence than there was for ‘the Messiah.’ In ancient near Eastern and Greco- Roman polytheism, rulers, heroes and wonderworkers were entitled ‘son(s) of god’ because mythically or liter- ally they were thought to have been begotten through a g o d ’s mating with a human being. In Israelite thought angels could be called figuratively ‘sons of God’ (Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6; Ps. 29:1; Dan. 3:25[3:92]). God speaks of Israel as ‘my son’ (Hosea 11: 1); and a pious individual could be referred to as ‘Son of God’ (Wisdom 2:18) or a`son of Most High’ (Sirach 4 : 1 0 ) . ”1 After describing the diff e r e n t usages of the expression ‘Son of God,’ Rev. Brown concludes that the conventional usage of Jesus as ‘Son of God’ occurred JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 44 The Review of Religions – February 2005 after the crucifixion event. He writes: ‘Thus there is reason in the Gospels, read perceptively, to think that unlike ‘the Messiah’ the title ‘Son of God’ was not applied to Jesus in his lifetime by his followers’ or a fortiori by himself. It was a revealed early post-ministry insight. This would mean that the High Priest’s question phrased in Mark 14:61, “Are you … the Son of the Blessed [=God]?” was not the formulation in a Jewish investigation of Jesus in AD 30/33.’2 Reverend Brown compares the two titles ‘Son of God’ and ‘The Messiah’: ‘Overall then, if Jesus was accused of Blasphemy in AD 30/33, it is not likely that the sole or even principal basis for that accusation was that the followers hailed him as the expected Messiah of the House of David. It is unlikely that this title [‘Son of God’] was used of Jesus during the lifetime by himself or by his fol- lowers.’3 The foregoing tends to negate the use of the expression ‘Son of God’ by Jesus(as) in his lifetime or by his followers. The expression is clearly a later addition to the Gospels. If this opinion is factual, then it could rule out the expression’s divine efficacy and render it but an ordinary expression of veneration. This would, in turn, deny the literal sonship of Jesus(as). Another English scholar, John H i c k , Professor Emeritus at Claremont School of Graduate Studies and Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Research in the Humanities at the University of Birmingham, has written several books in the field of re-evaluating Christian dogmas. His book The Metaphor of God Incarnate includes the following description of his work: JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 45The Review of Religions – February 2005 ‘In this major theological work, John Hick refutes the traditional Christian under- standing of Jesus of Nazareth as God Incarnate, who becomes a man to die for the sins of the world and founded the church to proclaim this. Hick, editor of The Myth of God Incarnate, o ffers an intriguing alter- native view. He argues “that Jesus did not teach what was to become the Orthodox Christian understanding of him; that the dogma of Jesus’ two natures, human and divine cannot be presented satisfactorily; that the traditional dogma has been used to justify great human evils, that the idea of divine incarnation is better understood metaphorical than as literal, that we can understand Jesus to be our Lord and the one who has made God real to us; and that a nontraditional Christianity based upon this understanding of Jesus can be seen as one among a number of different human responses to the ultimate transcendent reality we call God.’”4 In the third chapter of his book, Hick writes: ‘A further point of broad agreement among the New Testament scholars is even more important for under- standing the development of Christology. This is that the historical Jesus did not make the claim to deity that later Christian thought was to make of him; he did not understand himself to be God, or God the Son, incarnate… But it is extremely unlikely that the historical Jesus thought himself in any such way. Indeed he would probably have rejected the idea as blasphemous; one of the sayings attributed to him is, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:18).’5 Explaining his thesis, Hick further writes: JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 46 The Review of Religions – February 2005 ‘And my thesis concerning the Christian doctrine of incarnation is that as a literal hypothesis it has not been found to have any accept- able meaning. Every content that has been suggested has had to be rejected as mistaken or, in traditional ecclesiastical language, heretical. Indeed, the basic heresy has always been to treat religious metaphor as literal metaphysics.’6 The last sentence of the above quote is quite intriguing. We have noticed that what most scholars have done is simply look to the Scriptural text, the time and environment it was composed, and compared it with the verbiage and language of that time; objectively evaluating these expressions of veneration, these scholars ultimately adjusted the true meaning of these expressions in the light of modern understanding. It is important to point out that historically there were two d i fferent cultural settings: a Jewish one and a Greek or Hellenistic one. The same expressions have had diff e r e n t perspectives and meanings in the two cultures. Paul, who was a zealous preacher of the Gospel, wanted eagerly for the Greeks to join the fold of Christianity. To satisfy the Greeks, he managed to compromise basic ideologies. At the time, the Greeks held beliefs in three Gods, and since Jesus taught the Unity of God, the concept of trinity was a convenient tool to win the sympathies of the Greeks. As such, the ‘sonship of Jesus’ was construed literally in spite of a dearth of evidence in the New Testament pointing to that c o n s t r u a l . M a rcus J. Borg is Hendere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture in the Philosophy department at Oregon State University. He is one of the modern scholars who have brought forth new meanings to the age-old dogmas. His book Jesus: a New Vi s i o n published in 1987 made the bestseller list. He also edited Jesus at 2000. In the second JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 47The Review of Religions – February 2005 chapter of Jesus: A New Vi s i o n, B o rg raises the question of how a Jew from Galilee turned out to be the ‘Son of God’ and concludes that the expression was historically understood as metaphoric, but has now been transformed into a principle Christian doctrine. He writes: ‘What becomes the dominant way of speaking about Jesus in the Christian tradition – Jesus as Son of God – provides an excellent illustration of this (con- ceptual development – author) process. Son of God began as a relational m e t a p h o r. Within Judaism by the time of Jesus, it had a number of meanings. In the Hebrew Bible, it could be used to refer to the king on the day of his coronation: “ You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Ps 2.7). It could also be used to refer to Israel as a whole: “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11 . 1 ) . According to Jewish tra- ditions near the time of Jesus, this metaphor could be used to refer to other Jewish persons. What all of these have in common – the king, Israel, a Spirit person – is a relationship of intimacy with God. Thus to call Jesus Son of God was to speak of an intimacy of relationship between Jesus and God. As Son of God developed in early Christian tradition, it moved from being a relational metaphor to being a biological metaphor in the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. In these stories, ‘Jesus is conceived by the Spirit and, if the texts are read literally, is Son of God’ became conceptualised. Specifically to call Jesus Son of God became an ontological and doctrinal statement about the ultimate status of Jesus, reaching its climax in the Nicene Creed. There, in the language of fourth century Christian theology, with strong undercurrents of Hellenistic philosophy, JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 48 The Review of Religions – February 2005 Jesus is spoken of as “the only begotten Son of God,” “true God of true God,” and “of one substance as the F a t h e r.” Metaphor became doctrine.’7 In the next two paragraphs, Borg describes the timing of this transformation when this metaphoric expression under- went change. In A.D. 50, Paul wrote of Jesus(as) as ‘descended from David according to the flesh, and designated Son of God in Power by his resurrection from the dead’ (Rom. 1.3-4). Further: ‘This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ’ (Acts 2:36). Here God made Jesus both Lord and Christ after Crucifixion. Borg continues: ‘As the New Te s t a m e n t developed, Jesus’ status as Son of God was pushed further and further back into his life. According to Mark, our earliest Gospel, Jesus at his baptism heard a voice declaring him to be the Son of God. According to Matthew and Luke, written some twenty years later, Jesus was Son of God from his conception. And in the first chapter of John, that which became incarnate in Jesus was “from the beginning.” Thus, Jesus’ status as Son of God was finally pushed back into the time before his life. Again we see the process whereby Son of God undergoes a development that moves metaphor to ontological claim.’8 B o rg also compares the characteristics of these two figures of Jesus( a s ) before and after Easter and explains that the peasant Jew who was a beloved of God and showed the way became God Himself or God- the-Son, the second deity in the concept of Trinity. Hans Kung is a renowned German Theologian. He has been Professor of Dogmatic and Ecumenical Studies at the University of Tu b i n g e n , G e r m a n y. Kung revisited the JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 49The Review of Religions – February 2005 Nicene and the Chalcedony Creeds that spelled out the belief that Jesus(as) is the only begotten Son of God, made from the same substance and hence the second deity in the Godhead. Kung suggests that these do not carry any literal weight and have been outdated with the passage of time. What they simply mean is that God was present in Jesus(as) and revealed Himself through Christ – essentially a role that all prophets of God display. Kung opposed the physical resur- rection of Jesus( a s ) and simply equates this resurrection to the exaltation of Jesus’ spiritual status. Most contemporary scholars opposed Kung and u rged him to retract his ideologies. In response, Kung wrote another book entitled Nothing But the Truth in which he responds to the allegations levelled against him. The ecumenical church leaders, he maintains, view Jesus’ Christology from above or descending from God, while he observes it from below where Jesus(as) as man rose to spiritual excellences by obeying God and loving mankind. Excerpts from his book On Being a Christian are reproduced below. Discussing the expressions used for Jesus(as), Kung writes: ‘All these metaphors are meant to express both the unique relationship of the father to Jesus and of Jesus to the father as also the unique relationship of Jesus to men: his work and his significance as God’s revealer for the salvation of the world. Hence it is obvious why talk about Jesus Christ always easily turned into talk to Jesus Christ, why faith and profession of faith were always accompanied by acclamation, invocation, prayer.’8 Jesus(as) as a Messenger of God turns into deity because ven- eration and talk of Jesus turns into talking to Jesus. Bishop John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal Bishop of Newark, JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 50 The Review of Religions – February 2005 New Jersey, has written many critical books that attempt to re- examine traditional dogmas and boldly refute their current import. He urges the Church administration to rethink their stance on these fundamental beliefs that no longer are able to sustain awakened rational minds. He further asserts that if this traditional cloak will not be changed the collapse of Christendom is imminent. He coins the term ‘Christians in Exile’ for all those believing Christians who cannot repeat the A p o s t l e ’s Creed with honesty and from their hearts. They pay lip-service to their beliefs with no verification from their hearts. Concepts of trinity, the sonship of Jesus( a s ), resurrection, the physical ascension of Jesus ( a s ) and his return must be re- examined according to Bishop Spong. In his book, W h y Christianity must Change or Die, Bishop Spong writes: ‘[Jesus] is first called God’s “only son.” Does this mean none of the rest of us is or can be the son or daughter of God? That kind of exclusive claim has been made throughout the ages with great power by the Christian Church. It is part of our religious mentality, no matter how limited and ungodlike it makes God seem to be. This phrase also seems to suggest that none of the other religious systems of the world can offer its people a point of connection with the Divine. Many Christians have also made exactly that claim, and its effect for centuries has been to fuel a quite unholy attitude of religious imperi- alism. This arrogant claim also denies our own modern experience. I have met holiness in Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, which I am not willing to deny or to denigrate. So what does the phrase “God’s only Son” mean to those of us who cannot and will not be bound by the religious prejudices of the past?’ 9 In Rescuing Bible fro m F u n d a m e n t a l i s m Bishop Spong JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 51The Review of Religions – February 2005 explains that the ‘Son of God’ expression is a metaphor and cannot be taken literally. Andrew Harvey is a mystical scholar and has authored more than thirty books. In his book Son of Man, Harvey sketches the mystical path of Jesus ( a s ) t o Christ. Regarding the Sonship concept, he writes: ‘Modern scholarship also makes clear that there is no firm evidence to suggest that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah, or as “the unique Son of God”; the only title we can safely say he gave himself is Son of Man. (as in Matthew 11:19). He likely used this generic term to identify himself with those he was addressing and to emphasise that he shared with them a common destiny and destitution… The Saviour icon, in other words, is a later “inspiration” of the early Christian Church, reeling under the impact of Jesus’ life and of trans- mission of his mystical force and essence that continued after the crucifixion and resurrection; it has nothing to do with Jesus’ own vision of himself and of his mission. Jesus’ self-under- standing did not include thinking and speaking of himself as the “Son of God,” and his message was not about believing in him. ‘Knowing Jesus in this way challenges the beliefs not only of all fundamentalist churches but also of all those who place emphasis on Jesus Christ as the unique and all powerful saviour; the historical Jesus never claimed for himself such an honour, never saw himself in such inflated and exclusive terms, and never interpreted his crucifixion as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Such interpretations repre- sent the visions of later followers and have nothing authentic about them (except the wonder and enthusiasm that prompted their evo- lution in the first place).’10 JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 52 The Review of Religions – February 2005 The following are various opinions of scholars who have construed ‘Son of God’ to mean a ffection and love for Jesus rather than the biological Sonship of God. Maurice Wiles denounced the concept of Sonship of Jesus along with six Anglicans in their works published as Myth of God I n c a r n a t e. Wiles dismisses Biblical references that allegedly deal with the Divinity of Christ or his Sonship as is recorded in John’s Gospel. ‘These are later interpolations and have no origins in Christianity what- soever,’11 argues Wiles. James Dunn, an eminent British Theologian in his book Christology in the Making writes: ‘In the Roman world of the New Testament period, “divine” and “son of God” and even “God” were used more or less inter- c h a n g e a b l y. Heroes were frequently called “divine” in Homer, and from Augustus onwards ‘divine’ became a fixed term in the imperial cult, “the divine Caesar.” At the other end of the spectrum it could mean simply “pious”, “godly”’.12 Geza Ve r m e s, another theologian, pens his views in his book Jesus and the World of Judaism thus: ‘“Son of God” was always understood metaphorically in Jewish circles. In Jewish sources, its use never implies participation by the person so-named in the divine nature. It may in consequence safely be assumed that if the medium in which Christian theology developed had been Hebrew not Greek, it would not have produced an incarnation doctrine as this is traditionally under- s t o o d . ’1 3 Islamic View Say He is Allah, the One, Allah the Independent, Besought of all. He begets not JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 53The Review of Religions – February 2005 nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him.’ 14 This is the cardinal doctrine of Tauhid or the Unity of God as taught in the Holy Qur’an. In the chapter ‘Maryam’ (named after M a r y, the mother of Jesus( a s )) , Allah categorically rejects the Sonship alleged to God in Christianity. He says: That was Jesus, son of Mary. This is a statement of the truth concerning which they entertain doubt. It does not befit the majesty of Allah to take unto Himself a son. Holy is He. When He decrees a thing, He says, ‘be’ and it begins to take shape and comes into being. Said Jesus, ‘Surely Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him alone, this is the right path.’15 In the same chapter, in verses 89- 93, we read: ‘And they say, “The Gracious God has taken unto Himself a son. Assure d l y, you have indeed uttered a most hideous thing. The heavens might well nigh burst thereat, and the earth cleave asunder, and the mountains fall down in pieces, because they ascribe a son to the Gracious God. It becomes not the Gracious God that He should take unto Himself a son.”16 H a d h r a t Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad( r a ), in his commentary on these verses, writes: ‘The dogma that Jesus is the Son of God is so hideous that the heavens, the earth and the mountains might well break into pieces and fall asunder at its enormity. The belief is repugnant to heavenly beings (al- Samawat) because it is against Divine attributes and against all that they stand for. It is revolting for human beings on the earth (al-Ard), because it offends against the dictates of human nature and man’s intellect and reason recoil in sheer disgust from it.’17 JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ 54 JESUS(as) AS ‘SON OF GOD’ The Review of Religions – February 2005 We sincerely invite all the Christians of the world to reflect on the contemporary views of some Christian scholars as these views might bring forth an era of reconciliation between Islam and C h r i s t i a n i t y. End Notes l. Raymond E. Brown, Death of M e s s i a h Volume One (New York: Doubleday Publishing Group, 1994), p. 482. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid., p. 492 4. John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate, (London: SCM Press Ltd. 1993), back cover. 5. Ibid., p. 27 6. Ibid., p. 106 7. Marcus Borg, Jesus at 2000 (Oxford, United Kingdom: West View Press, 1998), p. 13-14. 8. Hans Kung, trans. By Edward Quinn, On Being a Christian (New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Co., 1984), p. 444 9. John Shelby Spong, W h y Christianity Must Change or Die (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998), p. 73, 82. 10. Andrew Harvey, Son of Man (New York, Putnam Penguin Inc., 1999), p. 6. 11. Maurice Wiles, Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM Press, 1977) 12. James Dunn, Christology in the Making (London: SCM Press, 1980), p. 41. 13. Geza Vermes, Jesus and the World of Judaism ( L o n d o n : SCM Press 1983), p. 72. 14. The Holy Qur’an, translation by Malik Ghulam Farid, London: Islam International Publications, 2002. 112:2-5. 15. Ibid., 19:35-37. 16. Ibid., 19: 89-93. 17. Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad, Invitation to A h m a d i y y a t (London: Islam International Publications, 1980).