‘Son of God’ is a title used for Jesus in the New Testament and in the early Church. In the Old Testament, this phrase was used to describe the King of Israel, but in the Gospels it highlights Jesus’ unique relationship with God and for the evangelists it is the preeminent title for Jesus. Mark brings his Gospel to a climax with the centurion’s confession at the foot of the cross that ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (15:39). Key events in the New Testament (for example Jesus’ baptism, the transfiguration and miracles including the Resurrection) emphasise him as the Son of God.
To call Jesus the Son of God is not to suggest that Jesus was somehow related to God, but that Jesus is God. It was not enough to say that Jesus was like God in some of the things that he did and said, or that he became like God in his own nature — or, in the Greek of the time, that he was homoiousios (of a like nature or substance). Jesus had done what only God can do: he had brought people from wrong to right (from sin to salvation) and from death to a new life beyond death. So, people felt, he could not have done that unless he was of the same nature or substance (homoousios) as God; the Nicene Creed therefore continues, ‘… begotten, not made, of one being (homoousios) with the Father; through him all things were made’.
It was not enough for the New Testament writers to present Jesus as a teacher of wisdom, or a liberator of the people. He had achieved what only God had the power to do. Christians believe in a ‘perfect conjunction’ of Jesus’ two natures, as termed a ‘hypostatic union’ by the early Church. This idea is dealt with in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation. For Christians today, being the Son of God is central to Jesus’ authority and role.
The miracles of Jesus could be regarded as evidence of this unique relationship with God; Jesus’ power to walk on water, his power to drive out demons, to recreate sight, speech and even life, are things that only God can do, reinforcing the message that Jesus is God’s Son. By being able to work miracles, Jesus confounded the mechanical orderliness of the universe with his authority and the power of God. As stated in the Catechism, “Jesus accompanies his words with many ‘mighty works and wonders and signs’ which manifest that the kingdom is present in him and attest that he was the promised Messiah”.
One example is Mark 6:47-52 when Jesus’ disciples were in a fishing boat struggling against the wind. According to Mark, Jesus, who was on the land, ‘saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them… he went out to them, walking on the lake.’ Fearful and seeing Jesus the disciples cried out and Jesus said, ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’ Jesus climbed into the boat and the wind died down.
Such accounts of Jesus’ miracles, if interpreted in a literal manner as a rupture with nature, would offer evidence of Jesus’ divinity. However, this ‘evidence’ would require a leap of faith, and as events open for critical enquiry a consideration of the Gospel writers intentions would need to be considered. There is, of course, no empirical grounding to call such accounts ‘evidence’ in the typical sense of the word, and moreover, as Hume’s Essay on Miracles argued, because we have no present day, direct experience of miracles ourselves, it is not possible to trust the accounts of Jesus walking on water, or any other miracle given by New Testament writers because they are so far removed from human experience. Therefore, the miracles certainly can’t prove Jesus’ divinity, but neither can they make probable that he is the Son of God.
Edward Schillebeeckx identified an alternative way in which Jesus’ miracles can be interpreted. He regarded the miracle stories as a means of spiritual consolation, in which, for example, the literal account of Jesus’ calming the storm and easing the disciples fear can be metaphorically understood as Jesus being a source today for calm in Christians lives, so that they do not live in fear of the troubles they may face. This interpretation retains the miraculous power of Christ, but offers subjective affirmation of faith rather than objective confirmation that he is the Son of God.
- T. Wright offers another, symbolic approach to miracles, allowing them to be interpreted as both individual spiritual renewal and a simultaneous renewal of the people of God. He focuses on Jesus’ healing miracles that often included those who were outcasts and marginalised. In this sense, Jesus is reuniting socially excluded, ritually unclean, separated groups back into a relationship with God: the blind, deaf and dumb, lepers, the woman with an issue of blood, tax collectors, sinners and so on. Interestingly Wright’s interpretation demonstrates a greater authority than simply power over the natural world; Jesus is able to gather the community of all Israel for the renewed covenant and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is inaugurating God’s Kingdom on Earth, and in the case of Jesus walking on the water, he steps into the boat and joins them and brings calm, a foretaste of his Kingdom. If the miracles were to ‘prove’ the divinity of Christ, then it is this interpretation that offers most weight, although again, it is a matter of personal faith.
The Gospel of John (who refers to miracles as ‘signs’), in the account of Jesus restoring a man who was born blind, records Jesus himself making a link between a miracle and who he is: “this happened so the works of God might be displayed in him. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:3-5). This miracle account focuses more on blindness as a faithlessness and restoration of faith through Jesus rather than simply on an incredible miracle that confounded the power of God. Jesus says, “For judgement I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” The action of curing blindness links to Jesus’ wider purpose, and this offers weight to Wright’s interpretation of the miracles as a renewal of the people of God.
To consider whether the miracles offer evidence of Jesus being the Son of God is arguably to simplify their real meaning and purpose. For many theologians, the miracles are not so much indicators of Jesus’ divinity as special moments of insight into his teaching on the nature of the Kingdom of God. That Jesus is or is not the Son of God is fundamentally a matter of faith, rather than a series of events open to critical enquiry, and as such the focus on the miracles should be concerned with how they can offer strength to that faith rather than whether they are simply historical facts or not. Perhaps it is better to regard the miracles as parables, rather than as a challenge to faith, and this means seeing them as dramatic signs that can illustrate his teaching and understanding of God.
Author: A Meredith