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On the usage of the phrases "son of God" and "sons of God" in the Bible

Since we have established in our previous article that "son" is used with a great variety in the scriptures, and also in the Semitic languages similar to the Hebrew of the Old Testament, we will now examine more particularly the use of the phrases "son of God" and "sons of God." Moses Stuart notes that the singular phrase "son of God is only used in the Hebrew Old Testament in Dan. 3:25. Upon attempting to immolate Daniel and his friends, Nebuchadnezzar says that he saw an additional body in the fire which he refers to as a "Son of God" or as a "son of the gods." Such language referes to some sort of supernatural being or angel. Stuart prefers the latter rendering "son of the gods."

The plural "The sons of God", used in Gen. 6:2, 4, according to Stuart, most probably refers to those falsely professing the true religion. He rejects its application to angels present in the patristic writers, as well as its application to princes and noblemen, as the Targum of Onkelos and many other commentators have done. He does note, however, that "sons of God" does seem to refer to angels in Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7.

In Hos. 1:10, 11:1, it obviously refers to holy and pious members of the covenant. Exodus 4:22, 23 uses the phrase "Israel is my son, even my first born" to refer to Yahweh's adoption of Israel, and Paul's reference to Israel's adoption in Rom. 9:4, Stuart makes, probably bears this sense. The same is true of its usage in Deut. 4:1.

Ps. 82:6 does use the phrase to refer to magistrates. More significantly for us, the phrase is used in Lk. 1:32 of Jesus by Gabriel. The language is used commonly in the New Testament. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." Likewise, those who bless their persecutors are sons of God. Stuart notes that the good seed are the "sons of the Kingdom", and the saints are the sons of God. Those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God by adoption.

God will be a Father to Christians, and they shall be the sons and daughtyers of the Lord Almighty; those who have faith in Christ Jesus are the sons of God; Christians are exhorted to be harmless, that they may be the sons of God without rebuke; the Father's great love has made Christians the Sons of God; they are now the sons of God, but will be advanced in holiness and happiness hereafter(Stuart).

Even in its appellation as applied to Christians, the meaning is clearly varied. Sometimes it is used with reference to adoption, and at other times it is used with reference to resembling the character of God in our own person. Moses makes the important point that the phrase is used of a generic multitude rather than of singular saints.

When God calls Israel his Son and his first born, (in Ex. 4:22, 23 and Hosea 11:1,) the singular number is plainly generic, or a noun of multitude; just as the name Israel or Judah commonly is. It is rather remarkable, that in botht he Old and New Testament, this usage should reign without exception. At least, after di ligent investigation, I have not been able to find an exception, when it is applied simply to the character of a saint, or a professed disciple of Judaism or Christianity. Man of God we find applied to designate a prophet, and perhaps a pious man simply; but a child of God, or son of God, in the singular number, and with a singular sense, is applied by the sacred writers themselves, only to Christ; witht he exception of a single instance, which I shall soon notice. And this appellation we find given to him, both in prophecy and in history(Stuart).

The exception to which Stuart refers is that of Lk. 3:38, where Adam is referred to as the "Son of God." The reason for this, according to Stuart, "is the immediate derivation of Adam from the creative power of his Maker"(Stuart). In other words, Adam was not derived of physical or biological progeny. He was instead immediately created by divine fiat.

One of the reasons the elect are referred to as children of God as to do, on the one hand, with God being the final and ultimate cause of our existence (Heb. 12:9) and also because, as we have seen, that through adoption, we have spiritual resemblance to God as we attempt to imitate Him. It is perhaps on both grounds that we are enjoined in our prayer to refer to God as our Father in Heaven. The notion that God is the father of all humans because from Him we were originated is common in the Old Testament.

Thus Moses, predicting the future corruption and perverseness of Israel breaks out into remonstrance with them; "Do ye thus requite the Lord? O foolish and unwise! Is he not thy father, that redeemed thee [from Egypt?] [though here the usage of "father" might have reference to their sonship as adoption, as per Ex. 4:22, 23]. Hath he not made thee?" Deut. 32:6(Stuart).

Stuart likewise points to Isa. 64:8, where humans are referred to as the work of His hands, and on these grounds, He is our Father. Likewise, Malachi: "If I be a father, where is my honour?"

Lest we think that all of this language can be explained away as referring to adoption, Stuart also notes that God is no less the Father of the Gentiles in a creational sense (Rom. 3:29, Acts 17:26, 28).

Stuart notes that just as the appellation "sons of God" is applied to the pious, so also son of the devil is applied by Jesus to the Pharisees, contradicting their own self-identification with Abraham. The ground of their identification with the devil, Jesus notes, is their devilish behavior, on the one hand, and what is wanting in their identification with Abraham is the fact that they are not behaving like Abraham, on the other. Likewise, those who are genuinely children of God can be denominated such because they reflect the person, habit and disposition of God Himself, as Christ makes abundantly clear in His Sermon on the Mount.

Stuart makes the point t hat we are denominated children of God in Rom. 8:17 on the grounds that, because of our adoption, we partake of the inheritance of Christ, and are "joint heirs" with Him. The Holy Spirit's regenerating work births us into union with Christ, and on these grounds we are denominated children of God on a double account, namely, that we become joint heirs of Christ's inheritance along with Him, and we begin to resemble the Person of God in our behavior. Of course, the metaphor of creational birth for spiritual regeneration is crucially operative here as well (Jhn. 1:12, 13).

But why are angels referred to as "sons of God"? Stuart explains:

Angels are the ministers and vicegerents of the Deity, to execute his will. They are of a rank elevated far above men, in their present state; and their appearance to men, in ancient time, was no doubt, attended with striking indications of splendour and glory. To call them sons of God, as specical representatives of the Deity, and bearing a high resemblance in holiness to him, was very natural to a Hebrew(Stuart).

Likewise, its usage as applied to kings and magistrates:

that kings and superior magistrates should be called the sons of God, or the sons of the most High, can create no wonder in the mind of any one, who has attended to the usus loquendi of the word son. The idea of a king or chief magistrate in the East was, and still is, very different from that which we form in a land of Christian freedom. Prostration in the dust before kings and nobles, is the common token of respect paid by all inferiors. The subject feels that there is an immeasurable distance between him and his prince. Hence the highest titles of honor and reverence are applied to him. Sons of the most high, spoken by a Hebrew to designate princes, would mean elevated to the highest dignity, controlling with absolute sway; and thus bearing a resemblance to God, in respect to the dominino which he exercises as Lord of the Universe. It is on this same ground, that the Hebrew Scriptures call kings or princes, gods...a title perhaps of a still higher nature, than sons of God; but perfectly in accordance with the oriental views of the station and majesty of an absolute monarch. Being once applied to such a personage, it would naturally pass to his vicegerents; and so we find it used by the Hebrew writers(Stuart).

The function of this preliminary account of the usage of the phrases "son of God" and "sons of God" in the Scripture as a preface to a more positive critique of the doctrine of the eternal generation of Christ, the Son of God, is intended to note how easily one might think of commonsense reasons for the application of such a title to Christ by means of this phrase, as opposed to the highly counterintuitive notion of "eternal generation." Indeed, nowhere does the Scripture actually explicitly say that he was generated from eternity, and apart from such explicit statements, it is easy to think of other reasons for which He might have been denominated the "Son of God." We have seen that it is used of kings in the Old Testament, and it is clear that Christ's ascension to the Davidic throne following His resurrection is one of the ways in which it is explicitly applied to seen (cf. Acts 13:33). He is also referred to of as the Son of God by virtue of a commonsense creational birth by the Holy Spirit(Lk. 1:32-35). Indeed, v. 35 says explicitly that His literal birth by means of the Holy Spirit was the (or at least one) reason for His being called the Son of God. In our next article, we will look more in depth at the contrast between what might have been meant by the usage of the "Son of God", positively, and negatively, why and how the notion of eternal generation is utterly absent in Scripture.

Stuart, Moses. "Letters on the Eternal Generation of the Son." Andover. 1822.