The Paradox of Sonship: Christology in the Epistle to the Hebrews

Written by R. B. Jamieson Reviewed By Jared Compton

What does Hebrews mean when it calls Jesus God’s “son”? Jamieson, a pastor and author of several books, including Jesus’ Death and Heavenly Offering in Hebrews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), answers that question in this latest entry into IVP’s Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture series. With the help of some early Christians, Jamieson argues that “son” in Hebrews refers to Jesus’s divine and messianic identities and, moreover, that these two identities are related. Jesus couldn’t be the exalted son, Jamieson insists, were he not also the divine son. Readers familiar with this conversation will at once recognize that this thesis is something of a minority report. It’s far more common for modern scholars to take an “either-or” approach, insisting that “son” refers to Jesus’s messianic or divine identity, or to take a “both-and” approach, like Jamieson’s, but to insist that the two ways of speaking about Jesus cannot be (or, at the very least, aren’t) reconciled in Hebrews.

What explains these dominant ways of reading Hebrews and, at the same time, the freshness of his thesis? Jamieson begins by answering this preliminary question (ch. 1). Simply put: modern readers try to read Hebrews without all their options open. An earlier generation of readers, specifically those responsible for (or, later, who reflect) the church’s conciliar traditions, read Hebrews with additional theological assumptions and exegetical tools that Hebrews may have intended its readers to have and to use, which is to say, assumptions and tools that may shed additional light on Hebrews’s Christology. Jamieson offers three assumptions and three tools and illustrates each from patristic commentary on Hebrews: (1) Jesus is a single divine being, (2) with a human and divine nature, (3) whose human nature was added at a specific point in history. Therefore, some texts should be read as (4) addressing Jesus as he’s always been (i.e., divine) and others as what he’s become (i.e., incarnate), (5) addressing the incarnate Jesus’s divine nature and others his human nature and (6) emphasizing Jesus’s unity, by paradoxically joining one of his divine titles (e.g., “son”) to one of his human predicates (“learned obedience”).

Now, whether Hebrews intends to be read this way, whether it supports Jamieson’s thesis and aligns with this earlier generation of readers, is the open question Jamieson turns to answer in the body of his book (chs. 2–5). He proceeds along three lines.

First, he argues that Hebrews presents Jesus as the divine Son (ch. 2), appealing to four places in Hebrews that, he insists, unambiguously predicate divine qualities of the Son: 1:1–4 (esp., 1:2b, 2c, 3a, 3b, 3d and 4), 1:5–14 (esp., 1:6, 8–9, 10–12, and 13), 5:8, and 7:3. Moreover, he concludes that “son” does not merely designate Jesus’s divine identity in Hebrews but his distinct divine identity. That is, in Hebrews, “son” designates Jesus as God and distinguishes him from God the Father and the Spirit. To show this, Jamieson points, e.g., to 1:3a and, especially, to Hebrews’s presentation of Scripture as divine speech (1:2), spoken by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (see, e.g., 1:5; 2:12; 3:7).

Second, Jamieson argues that Hebrews presents Jesus as the messianic Son. Before taking this step, however, he first draws a preliminary line between the two predications, showing that Hebrews presents the one divine Son as qualifying for his messianic sonship by means of his incarnate mission (ch. 3). The Son had to first become human (2:14–16), live and suffer faithfully, die, and rise again to qualify for his priestly office and secure eternal salvation (5:7–10). It was, he goes on to argue (ch. 4), only after his incarnate mission, that this divine Son became the messianic Son. It was after his incarnate mission that Jesus sat down at God’s right hand (1:3) and inherited the name God had promised to David’s heir, a messianic anticipation Hebrews taps with its citation of both Psalm 2:7 (“You are my son, today I have begotten you,” 1:5a) and 2 Samuel 7:14 (“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son,” 1:5b). It was then and only then that the incarnate divine Son became God’s messianic Son.

Third, Jamieson argues that Hebrews presents these two categories of sonship as related (ch. 5). As he puts it, “The first [i.e., divine] is prerequisite to the second [i.e., messianic]” (p. 122). To prove this, Jamieson points to two places in Hebrews where statements are made about the messianic Son that, he insists, could be true only were he also divine: the messianic Son reigns from a place (God’s throne, 1:3) and over a domain (the universe, 1:2b) that only God can. What’s more, while it’s true that a necessarily divine messiah exceeded common Jewish expectations, this messianic “hyperfulfillment” (p. 135) was already in the OT for those with eyes to see, at least according to Jesus’s own reading of Psalm 110:1a (see Mark 12:35–37 and parallels), a text Jamieson calls Hebrews’s “messianic master key” (p. 136—despite the fact, we might add, that Psalm 110:1a is the only part of Psalm 110:1 that Hebrews never actually cites!).

Jamieson concludes that what he argues about Hebrews’s Christology largely aligns with conciliar Christology, including Chalcedon (for earlier pointers in this direction, see pp. 50, 52, 53, 64–65 n. 52, 77, 83–85, 87, 93–98, 99, 108, 113–16, 125, 126, 128–29, 130, 133, 134, 137, and 138–41). Unlike the common “either-or” or irreconcilable “both-and” approaches, Hebrews’s Jesus is a single divine being, with a divine and, “in these last days,” human nature, capable of being described as what he’s always been (divine) and what he’s necessarily become (i.e., his incarnate mission culminating in his messianic enthronement) and, in some cases and paradoxically, as a single divine being with decidedly-human predicates. Jamieson goes on to show that his thesis about Hebrews’s sophisticated use of “son” may shed light on texts outside of Hebrews (i.e., Acts 2:36 and Rom 1:3–4) and, moreover, that it provides the only adequate answer to the problem at the heart of Hebrews—“Is it worth it to be a Christian?” (p. 168). That is, only a Son like the one Jamieson describes—a Son who becomes Son—could provide everything God’s sons and daughters need for this life and the next.

The topography of Jamieson’s book is, of course, far more detailed and nuanced than this brief summary can describe. His thesis is fresh, vigorously argued, interesting and wide ranging. Biblical scholars, especially, will benefit from the attention given to patristic commentary and conciliar theology (as Simon Gathercole’s “Foreword” implies, p. viii)—not to mention the footnotes showing where all this can be tracked down! And this is to say nothing of the brief but insightful “Series Introduction” by Daniel Treier and Kevin Vanhoozer prefacing Jamieson’s book (pp. xi–xv). That said, I did want to conclude by registering two places where Jamieson’s thesis could use further strengthening.

First, I’m not entirely clear about the role conciliar Christology plays in Jamieson’s book. Does it point us to a way of reading Hebrews—an old and venerable one—that legitimizes Jamieson’s thesis? Is it retrieved to say, e.g., “Look, other trusted Christians agree with or share assumptions that point toward my reading of Hebrews” (see, e.g., pp. 20, 43–45, 47, 48, 50, 52, 138)? Or, conversely, is Jamieson’s thesis—his way of reading Hebrews—meant to legitimize the conciliar tradition? Is it retrieved to say, “Look, what these other Christians have said about Jesus or about Jesus in Hebrews is what Hebrews says—at least what I think Hebrews says” (see, e.g., p. 77)? Or, is it both? Is it that what Jamieson’s thesis asserts about Hebrews confirms and, at the same time, is confirmed by the conciliar tradition and patristic commentary on Hebrews (see, e.g., pp. 41, 42, 43, 83, 140–41, 146)? I tend to think it’s this last one, but that’s the problem—I’m not entirely sure.

What’s more, on any of these approaches, what are we to make of those places where Jamieson’s reading diverges from the conciliar tradition as expressed in patristic commentary on Hebrews (see, e.g., pp. 31, 47, 113–16, 130–31 n. 18)? Does this suggest that patristic commentary on Hebrews legitimizes his thesis, except when it doesn’t, or that Jamieson’s thesis legitimizes patristic readings of Hebrews, except when it doesn’t? If, in fact, the appeal to the conciliar tradition is meant simply to provide assumptions and exegetical options for Jamieson’s reading of Hebrews—not necessarily validation of his specific exegetical conclusions—then Jamieson’s appeal to the tradition validates his thesis only in the broadest sense. It leaves open whether Jamieson or, for that matter, the modern scholars he criticizes have read Hebrews correctly—or, at least, in line with patristic exegesis. Modern scholars, after all, might share the assumptions and tools of conciliar theology and still read Hebrews differently than Jamieson does (see, e.g., the authors listed on p. 17 n. 57, not least John Webster and Kavin Rowe). In short, there may be other reasons for the status quaestionis besides neglect of the tradition. Conversely, if Jamieson’s thesis is meant to validate the conciliar tradition, then it does so only in a broad sense. It shows that such assumptions and tools are legitimate according Jamieson’s reading of Hebrews, a reading that aligns with and at times diverges from the specific exegetical conclusions of the authors responsible for the tradition.

Second, and very much related, I’m not sure the conciliar tradition provides us with the best assumptions and tools to use for understanding Hebrews. Jamieson, of course, is right to push back on many modern accounts of Hebrews’s Christology. An evolutionary Christology must be proven, not simply assumed. And any decent bit of historical exegesis requires attending to, not simply bracketing out, the conciliar tradition. To his credit, Jamieson has done this. However, I’m not convinced Jamieson’s thesis, reliant as it is on conciliar assumptions and tools and, here and there, selected patristic commentary on Hebrews, is the approach required by Hebrews itself. After all, if Hebrews was written to dissuade Christians from giving up on their confession, then the assumptions of the conciliar tradition might be assumptions the author would hold but still not use. Τhat is, in a persuasive, apologetic context, I’m not sure it would make sense for an author to assume the very conclusions his audience doubts.

That Hebrews implies such a persuasive context is suggested above all by the letter’s exegetical method, which takes pains to show that what the author asserts was already confessed in the Scriptures his audience treasured. He takes pains to show that their Scriptures anticipated a coming, exalted messiah (see, especially, the royal psalms bracketing 1:5–13), the elevation of human beings above the angels (2:5–9), the continued availability of Sabbath rest (4:7), a Melchizedekian priest-king (5:5–6), a new covenant (8:8–13), a new sacred space (9:8), better sacrifices (10:5–10), and so forth. Why take such pains to argue from these shared premises only to abandon this approach as thoroughly as Jamieson’s thesis would require (see, especially, pp. 144–45)?

What’s more, one need not hold to an evolutionary account of early Christology to note the many points of similarity between Hebrews’s prologue and the Jewish wisdom (and, indeed, logos) tradition(s) or, for that matter, to see a trifle more restraint in what the author implies with his use of Psalm 45 and a trifle less restraint in what he implies about the extent of humanity’s dominion in 2:5. One need not follow George Caird or Lincoln Hurst or Kenneth Schenck in every respect, much less look askance at Chalcedon, to insist on the potential of Jamieson’s category of “messiah-delegate” for explaining 5:8 or the ambiguity introduced by the LXX of Psalm 102, much less to point out the Jewish precedent for angelic worship of humans (Life of Adam and Eve 13–14; Genesis Rabbah 8.10) or the fact that when Hebrews finally gets around to explaining the efficacy of Jesus’s sacrifice, appeal is made not to his divinity but rather to the agency of the Holy Spirit (9:14) and (likely related) the quality of Jesus’s life (5:7–10; see also, e.g., 1:8; 7:23–28). In short, Hebrews’s “pressure” (p. 24) may allow for the kinds of assumptions and exegetical tools found in some patristic commentary on Hebrews and in the conciliar tradition. Jamieson’s thesis is, in other words, one way to account for it. But it’s not the only way, and, in the end, I’m not sure it’s the best.


Jared Compton

Jared Compton is assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis.

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