The Meaning of “Son of God”: A Muslim Critique – Christology Part 1

Author: Ungaran Rashid
Publisher: IIUM Press, 2021.
ISBN 9789674910945
No. of pages: 128
Price: RM 45.00

[This book is a revised version a thesis in fulfilment of the requirement for the degree of Master of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Heritage (Uṣūl al-Dīn and Comparative Religion) at International Islamic University Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur].

Muslim scholars’ critique of the Christian teaching of the deity of Christ would be more credible if it engages with the origin of divine Christology in its historical context rather than relies on dogmatic assertions of Islamic doctrine. As such, this book is a commendable attempt by a Muslim scholar to engage with Christian scholarship based on historical criticism of primary sources and critical analysis of concepts of Christology.

For Christians, “Son of God” describes the filial relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father. However, Muslims reject the Christian understanding and assert that “He (Allah) begot no one nor was He begotten” (Sura 112 – Abdel Haleem translation). Dr. Ungaran Rashid, assistant professor at International Islamic University, Malaysia, argues that the way to resolve this conflict of interpretation is to examine the term “Son of God” from the main source, which is Jewish Scriptures (Ungaran’s term for the Old Testament).

Drawing heavily from the study by Adela Yabro Collins and John Collins, Kings and Messiah as Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Eerdmans, 2008), Ungaran concludes that “the term “son of God” in the Jewish understanding is God’s appellation to whomever he loves and is in this regard primarily addressed to the anointed king (messiah king) to show that this king has a special relationship with God, but certainly not parity with God… Thus, in Jewish understanding, there is no perception that the son of God is a part of God or an incarnation of God. This understanding is quite different from Christian teaching that states that the son of God is God himself who became man, as mentioned in the previous chapter and will be explained further in the next chapter. [p.65]

Ungaran reiterates the same conclusion in his reading of the New Testament:

From the Gospel of Matthew – The term “the Son of God” as applied to Jesus (PBUH) in the Gospel of Matthew has three meanings. First, Jesus (PBUH) is the one who is appointed by God and strengthened by the spirit of God to carry out God’s mission. Second, Jesus (PBUH) is the Christ or the Messiah, determined by God to be a king and priest. Third, Jesus (PBUH) is the true Israel who could overcome every temptation of Satan who tried to foil his efforts to carry out God’s mission. It is significant to note that in the Gospel of Matthew there is not impression given that the son of God is the offspring of God or even God himself who became a man. [p. 70]

From the Gospel of Mark – Jesus professed ignorance of the time of his second coming in Mark 13:32. “By his own admission, the Son, in this respect, Jesus (PBUH), did not have the ability to predict the future if God does not declare it to him; the Son did not have knowledge otherwise known as the quality of omniscience. Thus, the title “the Son” in this passage should be understood as the agent of God who is limited and does not have the ability or knowledge that is equal to that of God.” [p. 71]

From the Gospel of John –Ungaran asserts that John 5:18-20, where Jesus says that “the Son can do nothing by himself but only what he sees the Father doing” must be read from the the perspective of “the sender” and “the sent” or the “authority” and the “agent”. In this regard, since Jesus is an agent sent by God, he cannot be equal to God.

“In terms of the agency of Jesus (PBUH), this itself is not mentioned explicitly in the Gospel of John, but Jesus’ testimony in 13:16, “I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, not is a messenger (apostolos) greater than the one who sent him,” demonstrates that he is an agent of God. The word apostolos in the Greek tradition was not solely used in religious terms, but also employed in general to mean “an agent.” By making such a statement, it is apparent that Jesus (PBUH) was announcing that he was not equal to God and that he never claimed to be on par with God.” [p. 78]

John 1:1 – It is important to note that in the Greek text, there is a clear difference between the term theos in the two phrases. In the second phrase, theos is written with a definite article. The inclusion of the definite article cause theos to be translated in its highest form namely “the supreme deity” which in English is, “God.” However, in the third phrase, “the Word was God,” theos does not contain the definite article. This is very significant difference and greatly alters the translation if one ignores the different meaning it conveys. The absence of the definite article conveys a “lesser intensity” of meaning and therefore dictates that the translator must choose from the alternatives, “a divine being”, or “a divine in nature.” [p. 93]. One possibility is James Moffat’s translation, “The Logos existed in the very beginning, the Logos was with God, the Logos was divine.”

From Paul’s writings – In Romans 1:3-7 “Paul connects the term “Son of God” with Jesus (PBUH) about his resurrection from the dead, thereby it distinguishes Paul’s “Son of God” to the “Son of God” of the Synoptic Gospel. If it refers to Acts 13:33, it seems that Paul explained that the inauguration of Jesus (PBUH) as the “Son of God” took place in the resurrection of Jesus (PBUH), whereas in the Synoptic Gospel the coronation occurred in the baptism of Jesus (PBUH)… Thus, for Paul, Jesus’ sonship was in some sense a function of his resurrection. [pp. 79-80]

Ungaran’s conclusion:
“The teaching on God’s incarnation is not found in any other writing in the New Testament. Besides, Jesus (PBUH) was not considered to be God until almost three centuries after he was taken to heaven,” [p. 95]

“Son of God” in Indonesian Christology is a term developed by the church fathers that has a different meaning to the term “son of God” which is mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures. In Indonesian Christology “Son of God” is believed as God who became human, on the contrary, in the Jewish Scriptures, “son of God” is understood as the Messiah or the Saviour King. This difference eventually distinguishes the doctrine of God in Christianity to the doctrine of God in Judaism, which is the root of Christianity. Nevertheless, the different understanding between Christianity and Judaism does not mean that the epithet “son of God” for Jesus (PBUH) is a false or fraudulent title. Jesus (PBUH) is called “son of God” because God has chosen him as the Messiah who will establish the kingdom of God.” [pp. 106-107]

We welcome Ungaran’s study on the “Son of God” as an invitation to Christians to dialogue. However, we shall go beyond giving a point by point response to Ungaran and offer an in-depth analysis of how the Christological titles that point to the deity of Christ originated from the teaching and self-consciousness of Jesus himself, the encounter between the disciples and the resurrected Christ, and the experience of divine presence in the worship of the early Christian community. We shall demonstrate how biblical Christology rests on sound historical foundations and provides compelling evidence for belief in Jesus who as the Son of God Jesus is also fully God and fully man.

* I shall post a series of responses beginning from June as I am busy preaching every week until end of May.

Comment on Ungaran Rashid’s methodology (Added on 19 Aug 2021)

Ungaran Rashid relies on the methodology of “titular Christology” which applies a diachronic analysis of various Christological titles to map out the evolving meaning of the titles in the history of Judaism and early Christianity. This methodology was popular fifty year ago, but it seems to have fallen out of favor among contemporary biblical scholars because of its inherent limitations. Some of the criticisms levied at titular Christology include that fact that it is based on faulty linguistics, that it deals with Christology in a piecemeal manner and that it does not respect both the formal grammar and material contents of Christology. Leander Keck elaborates,

“To begin with, title-dominated study of NT Christology reflects an inadequate view of language, because it assumes that meaning resides in words like “Lord”…Concentration on titles cannot deal adequately with christologically important passages in which no title appears, whether they be narratives or sayings in the Gospels or discursive arguments in the Epistles….[for example in Rom. 9:5] neither the etymology of Christos nor the history of pre-Christian messianic hopes and messianic claimants is relevant for his construal of Jesus. Nothing the apostle says about the identity and significance of Jesus for the revelation of God’s righteousness depends on a christological title. In fact, concentrating on titles does not lead one into Paul’s Christology but right past it…

In title-dominated study of NT Christology, the identity and significance of Jesus in relation to the OT is objectified and concentrated in a way that shortchanges the truly significant christological issues. Title dominated Christology has nothing to contribute, for example, to understanding Paul’s dictum that “Christ is the telos of the law” (Rom 10:4), however telos be understood. [ Leander Keck, Why Christ Matters: Towards a New Testament Christology ( Baylor Uni. Press, 2015), pp. 10-12.

For this reason, [my response from] the current series of posts on divine Christology is premised on an alternative Christological framework which is demonstrably better than “titular Christology” as it engages the biblical texts as they actually exist and incorporates the full range of biblical data on Jesus (Christological titles, Jesus’ discourse, historical narratives, early church doxology and paraenesis, etc.) in order to arrive  at an adequate construal of Jesus’ identity and significance.

The above comment is taken from:

Historical Origin of Divine Christology Part 5. The Son from Pre-existence to the Consummation of Creation

Related Post:
Is Zakir Naik is too Stubborn to Understand Jesus’ Claim to be God?

One thought on “The Meaning of “Son of God”: A Muslim Critique – Christology Part 1”

  1. It is something positive for Ungaran to see the concept of “Son of God” in the Messianic sense of the word, of which it truly is, as evidenced by numerous OT/NT passages concerned; The negative side of it is that its Biblical meaning/ significance has been sabotaged by Quranic/ Islamic biases in that regard, as also followed by Ungaran.

    There are of course also ample evidences for “Son of God” in the Ontological/Trinitarian sense of the word which Islam has hitherto rejected, unfortunately, as the two are inherently linked, particularly in Christ as the “Unique-monogenes Son of God.”

    I find the following two books most helpful in affirming/defending Jesus Christ who is the “Unique-monogenes Son of God” in both the Messianic as well as the Ontological/ Trinitarian sense of the word: (1) “Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus” Vol. 2, by Michael L. Brown (Baker Books, 2000; I bought it at Salvation Book Room in Subang a few years back); (2) “Jesus Divine Messiah-the NT Witness” by Robert L. Reymond (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1990. My strong commendation for both titles. God bless.

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