In last night’s post on the subject of relationships and intimacy in the modern world, I suggested that the modern form of society has led to a shift in our ways of perceiving relationships, which affects the way in which we understand some of the most primary relationships mentioned in Scripture. Perhaps a more concrete example of the way in which these changes may affect our understanding of relationship with God might help here
When we hear the expression ‘sons of God’, we tend to think of the intimacy that can exist between fathers and sons in young childhood. This is the most intense form of father-son relationship that most of us have experienced. However, if this concept is more clearly shaped, as I believe that it ought to be, by the relationship that exists between the Father and the Son, as manifested in Christ, our concept of sonship might be significantly altered. This relationship is not primarily that which exists between a younger child and his father (although hints of such a relationship may not be entirely absent), but that which exists between two adults. In fact, in Galatians 4:1-7 Paul might even suggest that it is only mature adults that can truly be called ‘sons’, and that the category isn’t truly appropriate to those who are still in their minority.
Christ’s sonship is characterized by his performance of the work of his Father, trusting and obeying his Father, bearing the name of his Father, being sent by, speaking, and acting in his Father’s stead, imitating his Father’s example and bearing his image, guarding and maintaining the rights, interests, and property of his Father, receiving a marriage feast that the Father is preparing for him, and entering into the inheritance and blessing of his Father. Intimacy is certainly not absent from this picture, but the place of this intimacy must be understood in terms of the emotional intensity of the relationship that could exist between fathers and their adult sons in a society where sons tended to remain in the same area and work under their fathers’ leadership in the property and trade that they would one day inherit and in which they would succeed their fathers.
As relationships between fathers and sons are seldom so strong or formative into adulthood in today’s society, we use our understanding of an intense emotional relationship of intimacy between fathers and their infant or very young sons to characterize our filial relationship to God. However, in the first century Jewish context in which Jesus lived an intensely powerful relationship between fathers and their adult sons were not uncommon (such close relationships appear at several points in the parables and gospel narratives), and the power of such relationships did not primarily consist in some generic ‘intimacy’ or in the intensity of emotional connections.
As our understanding of the relationship of sonship has been transformed as society has changed, and we read modern notions of sonship back into the scriptures, one of the effects is to infantilize our understanding of our relationship with God. Being sons of God becomes associated with passive emotional attachment detached from active discipleship. This infantilization encourages the loss of the place of the mind and the marginalization of the virtues of the mature person (courage, strength, self-discipline, self-sacrifice, etc.) within our understanding of the Christian life. Sonship becomes an almost entirely internalized concept of felt intimacy, rather than an outward looking concept of representation and commission. It becomes a private bond, rather than a bond that is lived out in a manner that is essentially visible to the whole of society. It can also become a narcissistic connection, rather than one that celebrates the broader familial bonds within which it includes us. It can become detached from the context of entering into inheritance.
If all of this is correct, then reading the Scriptures in terms of our modern form of relationships has had a powerful effect upon our understanding of one of the most central of its truths, arguably distorting and reducing it to a significant extent.