Forty-Year-Old Light on How to Translate “Son of God” for Muslims
Writing in 1972, J. I. Packer sheds light on the contemporary debate over how to translate the term “Son of God” in Muslim contexts. A common Muslim misconception is that Christians believe Jesus was God’s Son by procreation with Mary, so that there are at least two gods — the Son and the Father.
Motivated by a desire to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks for Muslims, some have advocated translating the Greek behind “Son of God” in a way that does not carry such biological connotations. That means avoiding such Father and Son language. But historically, the problem of ambiguity in Jesus’ Sonship has been solved by context and teaching, not translation.
What Packer contributes to the debate is the observation that the apostle John already faced this ambiguity when he wrote his Gospel. And he points out that the way John dealt with it was not by rejecting the terms Father and Son, but by making clear in the context what they mean. My conviction is that we should take the risks John did, and let the New Testament context do its work the way he intended.
Packer writes, “John knew that the phrase ‘Son of God’ was tainted with misleading associations in the minds of his readers. Jewish theology used it as a title for the expected (human) Messiah. Greek mythology told of many “sons of gods,” supermen born of a union between God and the human woman.”
But, Packer observes, “John wanted to make sure that when he wrote of Jesus as the Son of God he would not be understood” in those wrong ways. He wanted “to make it clear from the outset that the Sonship which Jesus claimed . . . was precisely a matter of personal deity and nothing less.”
To make sure of this, he did not reject the language of Father and Son. Instead, Packer says, he wrote his famous Prologue (John 1:1–18). “Nowhere in the New Testament is the nature and meaning of Jesus’s divine Sonship so clearly explained as here.”
- In the beginning was the Word. “Here is the Word’s eternity. He had no beginning.”
- And the Word was with God. “Here is the Word’s personality. The power that fulfills God's purposes is the power of a distinct personal being, who stands in an eternal relation to God of active fellowship.”
- And the Word was God. “Here is the Word’s deity. Though personally distinct from the Father, he is not a creature; He is divine in himself, as the Father is.”
- All things were made by him. “Here is the Word creating. . . All that was, was made through him.”
- And the Word became flesh. “Here is the Word incarnate. The baby in the manger at Bethlehem was none other than the eternal Word of God.”
Now after showing us who the Word is, John reveals him as “God’s Son. “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). “Thus John . . . has now made it clear what is meant by calling Jesus the Son of God. . . [It is] an assertion of his distinct personal deity.” (J. I. Packer, Knowing God [London: InterVarsity Press, 1973], 48–50.)
The difficulties of Bible translation are enormous. My veneration for men and women who have given their lives to it is deep. The debt we owe them is profound. I also have spoken with Muslim background believers who are risking their lives for believing the truth that Jesus is the Son of God. Some feel betrayed by the removal of this language from the Bible.
J. I. Packer shows us that the potential misunderstanding of “Son of God” was there from the beginning. The remedy for it was not the rejection of the term. The remedy was the New Testament itself — in all its controversial and self-interpreting fullness.
In addition to context, there are teachers. The ascended Christ gave teachers to his church to explain things (Ephesians 4:11). And he sent us to the nations to proclaim and to teach (Matthew 28:20). And if we are to teach like Paul (five hours a day in the hall of Tyrannus in pagan Ephesus for two years, Acts 19:9–10) we will need a solid, accurate, reliable text that can bear rigorous scrutiny.
Lord, raise up an army of translators and teachers like this.
[This article also appears in the March 10th issue of World Magazine.]