Orthodoxy is in the Details

Orthodoxy is in the details. It’s not enough for our folks to simply read the Bible. I want to encourage them to pay attention to the details of context, word choice, and sentence structure. Far too often we are quick to assume we understand a text without having the hard work of exegesis. But to be faithful to the theology of Scripture we must pay attention to the details in Scripture.

One particular example has often proved helpful in stressing this point with the seminary students I used to train. Romans 1:1-4 poses to conservative Evangelical Christians a serious question about the nature of Jesus. In our church we affirm the Orthodox confession of the Triune nature of God. But strangely enough, Romans 1:1-4 can seem to suggest that Jesus did not become the “Son of God” until after his resurrection from the dead. Here’s what the text says:

Paul, a servantof Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord

According to Paul, then, Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God…by his resurrection”. This is a serious issue for us, and the solution to this theological dilemma is found in the details.

When we speak of Jesus as the “Son of God” we often limit our focus to his earthly life. But Orthodox Christianity has long held that Jesus was the “Son” even before his incarnation. Jesus is the eternal Son of God, both before his incarnation and after his resurrection. Eternal sonship is significant because it preserves the distinctions of the persons of the Trinity and prevents us from falling into heresies like Modalism and Sabellianism. The doctrine of Eternal Generation declares that the Son of God was the Son from all eternity, that He has always been begotten of the Father. It claims that the Sonship and Fatherhood of God (and parenthetically The Holy Spirit-ness), respectively, are part of the very nature of the Godhead.

Scripture indicates the ontological trinity in a number of ways, many evidencing Christ’s role as Son before his incarnation. For example it describes the ontological Trinity in the act of election, creation, and the sending of the Son into the Word. Each act is a description of the Father and the Son (and sometimes the Holy Spirit) before the Son’s incarnation. Yet there are still some scholars today who will appeal to the Bible to deny the pre-existence of the Son, most turn to the epistles of Paul, some to this particular passage in Romans 1.

The particular difficulty of this passage, in relation to eternal generation, is its apparent linking of divine sonship with the resurrection. The “linking” suggests that Jesus became the Son of God as a result of His resurrection, a troubling issue for anyone who holds to the eternality of Christ. A variety of interpretations have arisen to explain the “link”. Two interpretations stand out in particular as significant.

The first interpretation identifies the contrast as one between Jesus’ human and divine nature. So the parallel expressions “according to the flesh,” and “according to the Spirit of Holiness” refer to the human nature and the divine nature respectively. In verse 4, the Greek word translated as “appointed” should really be translated as “shown,” it is said. This interpretation has a noble pedigree. It was the accepted understanding of Chrysostom, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and Robert Haldane. It seems like a good interpretation, but the common translation of the Greek word “Oristhentos” as “appointed” is no longer accepted. New Testament scholar, Tom Schreiner writes:

The first interpretation is almost universally rejected today. The assigning of an improbable meaning to the word [“orizein”] shows its inadequacy. This word does not mean “to declare” or “to show.” In the [New Testament] it consistently means “appoint,” “determine,” or “fix”.[1]

So it would seem that a more accurate translation of the Greek does not allow for an interpretation in which the resurrection “showed” Jesus to be what He all along was, namely the Son of God. The link between the resurrection and divine sonship is not accurately resolved here.

The Second interpretation takes aim at the “link” by offering a different distinction. Paul is not here distinguishing between the two natures of the Christ, but between two stages of the ministry of Christ. On earth, pre-resurrection, Jesus was the son of David in the flesh. But post-resurrection He was the Son of God in power. So, it would appear, by virtue of His “resurrection from the dead” Jesus was “appointed the Son of God in power.” Stated simply like this, such an interpretation should raise up immediate red flags for Protestants who hold to the eternality of the Son. Because of the dangers of false teachings like Adoptionism, it is important that we pay attention to the details of this passage, or we will completely misunderstand the very nature of Jesus.

One way in which we can avoid this heresy is to note the subject of the entire passage is the Son. So, as Douglas Moo words it, “It is the Son who is appointed Son.”[2]  Paul’s own language states that the Gospel is concerning God’s “own Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the Son of God in power.” The Son of God is descended from David, and the Son of God is appointed to be the Son of God in power. Paul clearly has in mind here a pre-existent Christ. Moo states that the “appointment” has to do with a change, not in essence, but in function. An interpretation dealing with a change in function brings us closer to a compatibility with Eternal Generation, but there is an even more pressing phrase.

No other phrase in this passage is as crucial to the preservation of the Pre-Existence of the Son as is the phrase “in power.” These two simple words indicate that Jesus was not made the Son of God by virtue of His resurrection from the dead, but that He was made Son of God “in power” by virtue of His resurrection. Tom Schreiner explains:

The appointment of Jesus being described here is his appointment as the messianic king. In order to make this point clear an explanation of the phrase [Son of God in power] is necessary. The title [Son of God] in verse 3 is a reference not to Jesus’ deity but to his messianic kingship as the descendant of David (cf. 2 Sam. 7:14; Ps. 2:7…). In addition, most commentators rightly argue that the words [in power] modify [Son of God]. The joining of the words [in power] to [Son of God] signals that Jesus did not become the Son of God or the Messiah at His resurrection. When He lived on earth, He was the Son of God as the seed of David (v. 3). Upon His resurrection, however, he was enthroned as the messianic king.[3]

The new dimension was not His sonship but His heavenly installation as God’s Son by virtue of His Davidic sonship. In other words, the Son reigned with the Father from all eternity, but as a result of His incarnation and atoning work He was appointed to be the Son of God as one who was now both God and man.[4]

This phrase “in power,” then, stands out as quite significant for affirming the eternal sonship of Christ in this passage. The details make a difference.

The Bible as a whole presents its Christology in two ways: (1) Jesus is Lord by virtue of who He is- the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity; and (2) Jesus is Lord by virtue of what He does. This passage, in particular, is focusing on the second of these two Biblical emphases. Schreiner clarifies that “The title [Son of God] in verse 3 is a reference not to Jesus’ deity but to His messianic kingship as the descendant of David.”[5] The emphasis of Romans 1:3-4 is on Jesus’ resurrection which designates Him the Son of God in the second of the two Christological expressions of the New Testament (Jesus is Lord by virtue of what He does).

When it comes to stressing for our people the importance of every word of Scripture, and even the very placement of those words, this passage can go a long way. A simple misunderstanding, a simple assumption that we understand what “Son of God” means, can lead us to ignore immensely important information in this passage. If orthodoxy is found in the details, then I want to stress those details for my people and encourage them to pay attention to them too.

Dave Dunham is associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, MI. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

[1] Schreiner, Baker Exegetical Commentary: Romans. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 42.

[2] Douglas Moo, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).48.

[3] Schreiner, 42.

[4] Ibid. 39. 

[5] Schreiner, 42.

3 Responses to “Orthodoxy is in the Details”
  1. David Kelly says:

    Dear SOPC,

    Very interesting and helpful post on Romans 1:1-4. It was only a few weeks ago that I read through and meditated on that text, in Greek, too. Thanks for the challenge. I few thoughts on a few somewhat minor details. First, would it be possible to “fess up” and offer a name rather than “SOPC” for an author? Secondly, I assume that the bracketed English in the quotation references are the blog’s author’s English translations of an original commentary’s Greek text. It might help to footnote that since there appears to be a somewhat large number of brackets. I endorse and encourage translating the text in this way for the English readers since even transliteration might not be as helpful. Thanks for the challenging blog and keep up the good work.


    Dave Kelly

    1st Baptist, Wellston

    • Dave, our apologies for inadvertently omitting the name of the author. We also apologize to Dave Dunham, the author. It has been corrected. And thanks for the helpful comments. Maybe Dave can clarify. Thanks again for all of your support!

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  1. […] of this content was taken from my article “Orthodoxy is in the Details” at The Southern Ohio Pastor’s Coalition […]

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