Titles of Christ
The Lord Jesus Christ has many names and titles, including such titles as the Son of God, the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, the first and the last, and the Divine Name represented in his "I am" utterances. These titles and names encapsulate aspects of his identity.
Son of God
This title of Christ is regarded by some orthodox writers as synonymous with the credal title,"God the Son". In their minds, to say that Jesus was the Son of God is tantamount to saying that he was God the Son, but this does not follow. In fact the Biblical idea of Christ's sonship is far more down-to-earth. The credal expressions of the Trinity describe sonship in philosophical phrases such as, "of the substance of the Father, God of God, true God of true God, begotten not made", and, "begotten of the Father before all ages". But the sonship that Jesus had was more personal, a relationship between two individuals that began at a certain point in time. This relationship of two individuals cannot be accommodated by Trinitarians with their doctrine that Jesus was an incarnation of God the Son.
The New Testament basis of the title is supplied by Luke. Gabriel declared to Mary: "the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing 1 which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Lk. 1:35). The reasoning could not be more clear; Jesus is the Son of God by virtue of his Divine begettal at a certain point in time. The opposing idea, that he is the Son of God because he is the incarnation of God the Son, the incarnation of a person eternally begotten by the Father, is wholly absent from the birth narratives.
Jesus had an intimate relationship with his Father (John 1:18), and this is seen in his use of the Aramaic term of endearment, "Abba", and in his reference to God as "my Father" (for example, John 20:17). He had a sense of sonship which matches our own sense of sonship in respect of our earthly fathers. The use of abba fits the view that Jesus knew himself to be the only begotten son of a Father in heaven, a beloved son looking to a Father for support and love in his life (Mk. 14:36; cf. Lk. 11:2, RV; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). But Trinitarianism places the begettal of God the Son onto a metaphysical and timeless plane. It does not regard the birth of Jesus as the begettal of God the Son, but rather the incarnation of God the Son (cf. 1 John 4:9). However, the concept of begettal has to do with human birth, and we should accept the statement in Matthew's Gospel which says: "that which is begotten in her is of the Holy Spirit" (Mat. 1:20, mg.). The Trinitarian proposal of an eternal begettal elevates the natural process of human begettal to an eternal timeless level, but it is not reasonable to stretch the language in this way.
Obedience is a key idea of sonship. It was integral to Israel's sonship. Israel was the firstborn of God, called out of Egypt (Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1). At his call, Israel made a promise to obey God (Ex. 24:7; cf. 4:23). Likewise, Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered (Heb. 5:8), and he is declared to be the beloved Son in whom the Father was well pleased. Trinitarian theology caters for this feature of Christ's life by proposing that, in the incarnation, God the Son emptied himself in such a way that he was able to assume a full human life. This requires that the Divine attributes be laid aside in some way; but this is not logically possible. The unity of God cannot be preserved as soon as we (hypothetically) place the persons of the Godhead in different spheres. We conclude therefore that there is no substance in arguments for the preexistence of Christ that revolve around the title "Son of God".
The Wisdom of God
The pre-existence claim surrounding this title (1 Cor. 1:24; 2:7,8) is that Christ is the incarnation of the pre-existent Wisdom of God. The orthodox argument is based on comparisons between the New Testament and Jewish and Greek thought about Divine wisdom. This personified the Wisdom of God and presented Wisdom as a figure alongside God. The orthodox argument proposes that, since Jesus is presented in similar language, the apostles would have understood him to have been pre-existent in the same way. What is the orthodox evidence?
In the apocryphal books, Wisdom of Solomon (6:12-11:1), Ecclesiasticus (chs. 24 and 51) and Baruch (3:9-4:4), wisdom is personified as a heavenly figure. Wisdom was created before the beginning of the world and made her tabernacle in Israel. Wisdom was the "maker of all things", and she plays a part in the salvation of men. Hence, some commentators propose that the early Christians thought of Christ pre-existing as the Wisdom of God.
In order to counter this argument we need to show that the New Testament writers use similar language not because they agree with Jewish or Greek thought, but to express their competing beliefs. If we examine the parallels that have been put forward between the apocryphal Wisdom and Christ, there are a number of significant differences:
In any case the apocryphal Wisdom has been misinterpreted:
A full examination of the Wisdom literature is not within the scope of this article, but such a study reveals that the Jewish writers used a variety of images, pictures, similes, and metaphors when talking of Wisdom. And alongside such thought they also wrote of God as the Creator and orchestrator of all things. It is doubtful whether the Jews were presenting a view of God that embraced a subordinate heavenly being called Wisdom. One recent scholar observes: "On the contrary, for a Jew to say that Wisdom "effects all things", that Wisdom "delivered Israel from a nation of oppressors", that "love of Wisdom is the keeping of her laws" (Wisd. 8.5; 10.15; 6.18), was simply to say in a more picturesque way that God created all things wisely, that God's wise purpose is clearly evident in the exodus from Egypt and most fully expressed in the law he gave through Moses" 4. In addition to this, a detailed comparison between the Wisdom literature and the New Testament parallels shows significant differences in thought. This comes to light when we start to take into account the Old Testament background to the New Testament, as we will see in later articles.
The First and the Last
This title is used by Christ in the book of Revelation when he says, "I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea" (Rev. 1:11; cf. 1:17; 2:8). The basis of the title is to be found in Isaiah, and in those prophecies Yahweh declares His identity: "Who hath wrought and done it, calling the generations from the beginning? I the LORD, the first, and with the last; I am He" (Isa. 41:4; cf. 44:6; 48:12).
The theme behind the title is twofold: Yahweh's foreknowledge of the future and His control of the future. He challenges the gods of the nations (Isa. 41:23) to "Shew the things that are to come hereafter", so that they may be known to be true gods. But, in fact, they cannot declare the end from the beginning; only Yahweh can do this (v. 26), because He is in control. Hence, He is "the first [and] the last". The sense of this title is the same as saying that God is the one Who knows the end from the beginning and Who controls the future. 5
The background to this response of God is the challenge of Sennacherib and his emissaries to the citizens of Jerusalem. This Assyrian king, through Rabshakeh, taunted Hezekiah and those who trusted in Yahweh (2 Kgs. 18,19). Their taunt was that Yahweh was a god like those of the nations whom Sennacherib had destroyed. The counter-reasoning presented to the people through Isaiah was one that involved prophecy. Prophecy was used as a proof of the existence of God. Yahweh was God because His prophets declared what would come to pass, whereas the other gods could not predict the future. Indeed, God was the one Who was bringing Sennacherib against Jerusalem.
With this background, we can understand Christ's use of the title, "the first and the last". Christ had said to his disciples: "of that day and hour knoweth no man' no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only" (Mt. 24:36). He had also said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in His own power" (Acts 1:7). Such statements as these are consistent with the testimony of Yahweh through Isaiah: "And who, as I...shall declare it, and set it in order for Me...?" (44:7). But these statements raise the question of Christ's own knowledge of the future.
The question is resolved in Revelation, where we read, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass" (1:1). This is a book of prophecy given by the Father to His Son. This makes the Son like his Father in one respect: he can declare the end from the beginning. In addition to this, all power and authority has been given to the Son (Mt. 28:18), and therefore he can declare not only the end from the beginning, but also direct and control affairs. This makes the Son like the Father in a second respect. Because Christ has been given the revelation of the end, and because he is in control of affairs, he is also given the title "the first and the last".
By Andrew Perry
1. Why is Jesus called a "thing"?
2. Examples of the language of personification in the Old Testament include Psalm 43:3; 57:3; 85:10f; 96:6.
3. This is the key point: the Jews were monotheists. The personification of wisdom in Proverbs, and their similar personification of wisdom in the Jewish intertestamental writings, did not compromise their belief in one God.
4. J. D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making, SCM, 1980, p. 174.
5. An analogy can be made with our idiomatic saying, "he is the be all and end all", because we use this saying in many situations where one person knows he is crucial.