A World of Riches
April 24, 2011
Dr. David Garner (associate professor of systematic theology) discusses the issue of using familial language for God, specifically adoption. Read the whole article at the Reformation21 website.
As Colin Hansen recently reported in a Christianity Today article, in some biblical translations, selected vocabulary has been removed to eliminate cultural stumbling blocks.  For example, missionaries in the 1980's replaced familial language for ostensibly less offensive terms in a Bangladeshi translation of Scripture: "Messiah" for "Son of God," "Guardian" for "Father." Naturally, Muslims take offense to the sonship of Christ and the Fatherhood of God as the familial language threatens their view of the unity and transcendence of Allah. The Koran speaks without qualification: "It is not befitting to (the majesty of) Allah that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! When He determines a matter He only says to it 'Be,' and it is" (Surah 19:35). Moreover, believing Jesus' divine sonship as blasphemous, followers of Allah could never dare consider themselves God's sons.
The offense is universally recognized. What missiologists do not share is how to address it. In the wake of modern biblical and sociological studies, discerning the theological boundaries of contextualization has created an entirely new context for debate. If bread were religiously offensive (or even simply unfamiliar) to a culture, would we possess the right to exchange Bread of Life for Rice of Life? If shame-based cultures do not readily grasp legal culpability, are we free to substitute the doctrine of objective guilt with the teaching of restored honor? Is proclaiming a human messiah as the rice of life who died to remove my shame the Gospel? What are the appropriate limits for contextualization? 
Our particular purposes here are not to answer these vast, complex missiological questions. Such investigations are vital, but they are beyond our purview. It is our task, rather, to discern whether or not the familial language - specifically that of adoption - in Scripture possesses essential, irreplaceable, and transcendent theological significance.
Even a surface reading of the New Testament evidences how speaking of Jesus apart from his sonship at the very least obscures Scripture's descriptions of his eternal and incarnate identity. He is the messianic and resurrected Son of God because He was first the eternal Son of God (Hebrews 1:1-4). For our purposes here, we simply point out that sonship does not serve peripherally concerning the identity and work of Jesus Christ (see, e.g., Romans 1:1-7); rather Christ's eternal sonship provides the very structures for who he is and what he does in history. Grounded in his eternal sonship, Christ's incarnation bursts with meaning, culminating in his unprecedented sonship status attained at the resurrection (Rom 1:3-4). As Herman Bavinck puts it, though "Son of God" bears kingly significance in its fuller biblico-theological contours, "the name Son of God when ascribed to Christ has far deeper meaning than the theocratic.... He is Son of God in a metaphysical sense: by nature from eternity." 
In addressing biblical translation, Vern Poythress usefully clarifies the distinction between referent and content: "'Messiah' is not an adequate substitute for 'Son of God.' Both have the same referent, namely Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. But they do not have the same meaning."  Yet as represented by the Bangladeshi "Insider" translation, a contextualizing train continues to barrel down the tracks in many countries and contexts, its cars empty of the familial language which dominates the New Testament in its presentation of Christ, the Trinity and the Church. Besides the revelational, interpretive and epistemological questions raised by such translation substitutions, whether or not we can even speak the Gospel properly apart from sonship language is an all-important question. More specifically, does Paul's presentation of the Gospel of God require the familial terms he employs? Is adoption in the Son of God at the heart of the Gospel?
Challenges to the familial cast to the Gospel are not new and they are not only missiological. At various points since the Reformation, the familial thrust of the Gospel has found itself virtually orphaned. In part, ironically, this neglect stems from the Reformation's rediscovery of the Gospel. With the need to articulate and defend the exclusively forensic character of justification against Roman synergy and infusion, the Reformers rightly trumpeted alien imputed righteousness. As forensic justification gained its proper prominence among Protestants, Law/Gospel paradigms centered soteriology in legal language: "The Gospel is, strictly speaking, the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ."  Justification truly is a most stunning Gospel privilege that centuries of reflection have yet to exhaust.
To be fair we must note how Luther also appreciated Gospel sonship: "It is not enough to say that we are friends. No, John says we are called children of God."  For many Reformers (Calvin particularly excepted), however, familial Gospel dimensions did not permeate their understanding in a manner even commensurate with the legal blessings. Yet though some might lay surly charges, the first generation of reformers is hardly to blame for understating the filial, because their context of infusion confusion necessitated the unrelenting articulation of the thoroughly forensic character of justification.
It is also true that the offense in Islam to Christ as Son of God derives from the blasphemous idea that sonship necessitates God engaging in sexual activity for procreation.
This latter question, as popular as it has become, should itself be carefully scrutinized. Should addressing contextualization questions derive from pressing the limits of propriety? How should the unique authority of Scripture functionally shape the contours of contextualization?
Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (transl. and ed. by William Hendriksen; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 270.
Melanchthon in article IV of "Apology of the Augsburg Confession" in Theodore G. Tappert, ed. and trans., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 113.
Martin Luther, "Lectures on the First Epistle of St. John," trans. Walter A. Hansen, in Luther's Works, vol. 30, The Catholic Epistles, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 265, emphasis added.