Part 3 – God the Son – Week 4

Part 3 – God the Son – Week 4

What last week’s reading on the attempt to re-interpret Jesus Christ as a mere man who was then transformed – or rather ‘deformed’ – into God by the early Christians has shown us, the core of Christian and Christological faith lies in the belief in the Divine Sonship of Jesus. But far from being a Hellenistic imposition, Ratzinger argues, this idea came from within Biblical and Israel’s faith itself, and was in turn expressed in the two main Christological titles that dominate the Gospels: ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son.’ In today’s reading we explore the meaning of the first of these, tracing its development from Old Testament ‘king’ or ‘royal’ election theology, to one based on hope in the future, and finally to its fulfillment in Christ on the Cross.



“The expression “Son of God” stems from the “king” theology of the Old Testament, which itself rests on the demythologization of oriental “king” theology and expresses its transformation into the “Chosen People” theology of Israel. The classical example of this procedure […] is provided by Psalm 2:7, and thus by the text that at the same time became one of the points of departure of christological thinking. In this verse the following oracle is delivered the king of Israel: “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you ‘Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.’” This dictum, which belongs in the context of the enthronement of the kings of Israel, stems, as we have said, from ancient oriental coronation rites, in which the king was declared the son begotten of God, though the full scope of the notion of begetting seems to have been retained only in Egypt. […]

‘When the formula was taken over by the Davidic court the mythological sense was certainly set aside completely. The idea of a physical begetting of the king by the Godhead is replaced by the notion that the king becomes son here and now; the act of procreation consists in the act of election by God. The king is son, not because he has been begotten by God, but because he has been chosen by God. The reference is not to a physical event but to the power of the divine will that creates new being. In the idea of sonship so conceived, the whole theology of the Chosen People is now also concentrated. In older passages of the Bible (Ex 4:22, for example) Israel as a whole had been called Yahweh’s firstborn, beloved son. When in the age of the kings this description is transferred to the ruler, this means that in him, the successor of David, Israel’s vocation is summed up; that he stands for Israel and unites in himself the mystery of the promise, the call, the love that rests upon Israel.

Then there is a further point. The application of the oriental ritual of coronation to the king of Israel, as it occurs in the psalm, must have seemed like a cruel mockery  in the face of the actual situation of Israel. When people called out to pharaoh or to the king of Babylon at his enthronement, “The nations are your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession; you shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel, there was some sense in it.” Such words corresponded to these King’s claims to world power. But when what was meaningful for the great powers of Babylon and Egypt is applied to the king on Mount Zion, it turns into pure irony, for the kings of the earth do not tremble before him; on the contrary, he trembles before them. Mastery of the world, declared as it was by a petty prince, must have sounded almost ridiculous. To put it another way, the mantle of the psalm, borrowed from oriental coronation ritual, was far too big for the shoulders of the real king on Mount Zion. So it was historically inevitable that this psalm, which seen from the angle of the present must have appeared almost unbearable, should grow more and more into a profession of hope in him of whom it would one day really be true. This means that the “royal” theology, which had first been transformed from a theology of begetting into one of election, now went through a further change and turned from a theology of election into a theology of hope in the king to come. The coronation oracle became more and more a reiteration of the promise that one day that king would come of whom it could rightly be said: “You are my son, today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage.”

At this point the new application of the passage by the original Christian community begins. The words of the Psalm were probably first applied to Jesus in the framework of belief in his resurrection. The event of Jesus’ awakening from the dead, in which this community believed, was conceived by the first Christians as the moment at which the happenings of Psalm 2 had become a factual reality. The paradox is certainly no less striking here, for to believe that he who died on Golgotha is at the same time he to whom these words are addressed seems an extraordinary contradiction. What does this application of the Psalm mean? It means that people know that Israel’s royal hope is fulfilled in him who died on the cross and, to the eye of faith, rose again from the dead. It implies the conviction that to him who died on the cross, to him who renounced all earthly power (and this must be heard against the background of the talk about kings trembling and being broken with a rod of iron!), to him who laid aside the sword and, instead of sending others to their death (as earthly kings do), himself went to his death for others, to him who saw the meaning of human existence, not in power and self-assertion, but in existing utterly for others—to him and to him alone God has said, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” In the crucified Christ those who believe see what the meaning of that Oracle, what the meaning of being chosen is: not privilege and power for oneself, but service to others. In him it becomes clear what the meaning of the story of being chosen, what the true meaning of kingship is. It has always aimed at standing for others, at being representation. The representation, the standing as proxy for others, now acquires a changed meaning. It is of him the complete failure, who no longer has an inch of ground under his feet as he hangs from the cross, for whose garments lots are drawn and who himself seems to be abandoned by God, that the Oracle speaks: “You are my son; today—on this spot—I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage at the ends of the earth your possession.”

  1. Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2004 [1968], 216-220.



  1. Reflect on the different meanings of the title ‘Son of God’ and all that it signifies: the long history of Israel’s kingly line and identity as the chosen people, on their hope for a Messiah, and on the fulfillment of these promises in the person of Jesus. Know that as a Christian you are – in Christ – heir to this history, heir to these promises, heir to the faithfulness of God. Renew your trust in God’s presence and providential care in history as a whole and in your own personal history: He truly is leading all things to their fulfillment, all things to their fullness in Jesus.


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