How would you deal with the question: “When did the Son of God exist?” Notice that it’s not asking “when was the Word created” or “Is Jesus eternal?” The question is specifically asking about the Son of God and doing that assuming a whole bunch of things about what it means to be the Son of God.
Admittedly the question likely arises because of the ambiguity of the term. Son of God can mean anything from the progeny of deity to the socio-political terminology used in the Old Testament. The waters are further muddied by Christians coming along with their big theological boots, stamping around and saying things like “we believe in the only Son of God eternally begotten or generated of the Father”.
Was Jesus the Son of God in the flesh and is He the Son of God now?
Yes, just about everyone answers. The texts are pretty clear in this respect. In the nativity announcement Luke records that the son Mary was to give birth to would be called the Son of God (Luke 1). The Baptist when he sees Jesus at the beginning of His ministry says “This is the Son of the most high God (Jn 1:34). When Jesus was on trial and used the very elusive statement “Son of Man” the Jewish leaders asked Him if He was the Son of God, Christ answers that their words are correct (Lk 22:69-70). Peter, recalling the transfiguration eventÃ‚Â pens the words which he heard that Jesus is the Son-of whatever voice was speaking (2 Peter 1:17). Post resurrection and as a summarizing point for writing the Gospel, John says that he wrote it to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:31). Luke records Philip (Acts 8) and Saul (Acts 9) preaching that Jesus is the Son of God.Ã‚Â John, in the epistles, has the belief as Jesus as Son of God as confessional to being in God-in John’s writings meaning “being In the Faith” (1 Jn 4-5). In the Book of Revelation, the image is of Christ proclaiming He is the Son of God to the churches (Rev 2).
Son of God before Birth of the Son of God.
Too many people take the term to mean “Son of Deity”. Pagans often had gods copulating with women and giving birth to a mini-God (ie: Herekles, Minos, etc.) but the Jews saw that sort of thing not only as stupid but sheer idolatry.
So when you have Ugaritic mythology talking about the Sons of El as mini-Gods of whom El is the Head God, the Genesis account has the beneha-elohim (Sons of God) as beings that actually do something wrong (with the daughters of men) and it is only Elohim Yahweh who creates and acts and moves and judges things as Good or Constantly Wicked. Beneha-elohim are very minor players in the story, but I deal with the interpretative issues in another post.
My point from the Son of God usage in this section is that they are not listed as born; they are listed as being Sons of God, before the incarnation. If someone wanted to they could argue that The Ultimate Son of God was one of this group (like some belief systems do). I personally wouldn’t argue this point and think it opens up a path to lots of mistakes, but it doesn’t legitimately make it possible that Christ’s Sonship is pre-incarnation.
Titular Functional Sonship
Of course, I wouldn’t exclusively go the previous route. What I would do is take that and then further reflect on Sonship throughout the Old Testament from which I would draw the conclusions that “Son of God” language doesn’t necessitate birth, progeny, same family, can depend on a single attribute or function of the father and is sometimes even the result of declarative action (such as in Psalm 2, 2 Samuel 7, Ruth 4, Exodus 4, Gen 48, Hosea 11). I’ve argued for this reading of Son of God in another post but the gist of it is that the term has wide usage.
Jesus was using the term “Son of Man” that also had cetrain (yet narrower) usage in the Old Testament, but it wasn’t popular enough to garner the kind of suspicion (?) that “Son of God” would bring (so you have passages like John 10 where folk ask Jesus to speak plainly and tell them if he’s the actual Christ-Anointed-Son-of-God). But it is upon asking Him directly (Luke 22:66-71), if He’s the Son of God, when Jesus answers “Yes I am” that the Jewish leaders say that they have no further reason to hold court, and carry him off to Pilate.
They have in their theological an eschatological connection with Son of God language in the Old Testament that culminates with The Ultimate Son of God who has certain divine prerogatives: for instance judgment of the world.
The Sent Son, the Eternal Word
So for me, one of the tightest relationships between Christ’s Titular Functional Sonship and preexistence would be His own usage of the terminology in light of what the Son of God was to accomplish in redemptive history.
This one was to be the figure that comes with judgment, which would set affairs in order, who would reestablish Jerusalem as central, who will uphold the Law, who would judge the nations with equity and in so doing also being the lifeblood of the nations flocking worship to God.
So when Christ speaks of Sonship he says things that the Father gave the Son (Jn 3:16), that the Son came into the world (Jn 3:13 Son of Man), that the Son was sent (Mk 9:37, Jn 3:17)
And in addition to that sending language there is also the statement Christ employs to undergird His Sonship in John 5.
Christ looks back to the Sabbath keeping practices of the Jews and the debate of God working on the Sabbath, and makes the connection for them that both He and His Father work on the Sabbath and not only that, have been working up until now:
1) The Son does nothing on His own, only what the Father does
2) The Father loves the Son and shows the Son all things
3) The Father raises the dead and gives life; so does the Son
4) The Father doesn’t judge, judgment given to the hands of the Son
5) Believing in Christ and the One Who Sent Him
In so doing, He establishes that His Sonship is based on equality with the eternal God and coexistence with the eternal God for redemptive purposes of God. Staying within the metaphor of a Father-Son relationship in the carpenter shop: how can the Father teach the Son to Create Life if the Son isn’t at creation creating Life?
This is why John’s introduction (John 1) becomes one of the greatest ties to Christ’s eternal Sonship taking up themes that have rippled throughout the New Testament (Phil 2:6-11; Col 1; Heb 1:2-3). The Word is in the beginning with God, and is actually also God; the Word creates everything; the Word emptied Himself and becomes flesh; this Word-Become-Flesh is witnessed by other people who point him out-specifically the Baptist who says, in more words “This is the Son of God who was sent into the world to take away the sins of the world” (John 1).
In the end I find that the connection to the Son is one of Title, Function (doing things only God does), Equality, Preexistence (with the Father at the beginning), and sentness (in subjection to the Father, although equal to the Father). My answer to the question: “When did the Son of God exist” would be the instant the omniscient, eternal, preexistent Godhead decided to send the Word; necessarily The Son Always Was The Son of God slain before the Foundation of the World.