In Acts Luke tells a story about the mission of the early church first to Israel, then to the nations. The risen Lord Jesus features prominently in this story both as the content of the church’s preaching and as one who is dynamically involved in the direction and oversight of that mission.
Nothing suggests, as far as I can see, that Luke thought this story depended on the premise that Jesus was God. It’s an invasive hypothesis. The remarkable status and role of Jesus in the story is fully accounted for by the claim—made principally on the basis of Psalm 110:1—that the God of Israel has exalted the “man” Jesus to his right hand and given him the authority and power to judge and rule over Israel and the nations that he would otherwise have reserved for himself.
There is no conflation of identities involved in this, only the transfer or delegation of “lordship”. God gives authority to his anointed king to reign at his right hand until the last enemy has been destroyed. When Jesus is revealed to the apostles and disciples, it is not as God himself but as the Son of Man—the representative of suffering righteous Israel who has now been vindicated and given the kingdom.
This is not an argument against Trinitarianism. It is an argument against the abuse of interpretation by a practice of indisciplined, theologically motivated proof-texting in disregard of context. It is an argument against the obfuscation of Luke’s dominant political-apocalyptic narrative about kingdom and the nations. It is an argument against a hermeneutic that assumes that the New Testament is a uniform witness to a set of ideas drawn up under vastly different intellectual conditions.
The Church Fathers rightly and necessarily, in my view, constructed from the New Testament’s identification of Jesus with the creative Wisdom of God a model of the godhead that would work in the post-Jewish, post-apocalyptic environment of the Greek-Roman world. But that doesn’t permit us to read this model back into arguments and narratives devised for an entirely different purpose.
OK, but what about the virgin birth? Doesn’t the virgin birth prove that Jesus was God, or at least something “a bit more than a normal human in Luke’s eyes”?
I’ve written about the virgin birth in Matthew in a number of posts. My argument, briefly, is that Matthew regarded the miraculous birth of Jesus as a sign that God was with his people at a time of crisis to save them from the consequences of their sins.
Luke makes no reference to the Immanuel prophecy. He has a different perspective.
The angel tells Mary that her son “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32–33). That is the kingdom theme. It has its counterpart in Peter’s Pentecost sermon. It says only that Jesus will be given David’s throne and will rule over Israel forever.
Mary is a virgin, but the Holy Spirit will “come upon” her and “the power of the Most High will overshadow” her. This is not incarnation language: it is the language of God’s presence in the midst of his people.
Therefore, the child will be called holy, the “Son of God”. According to Luke, to say that Jesus is the “Son of God” means that he is the Christ:
And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ. (Lk. 4:41)
“Son of God” means only that Jesus has been chosen and anointed by God to perform a decisive kingdom-historical task: proclaim the coming kingdom to Israel, suffer rejection, rule as Israel’s king. He is the servant anointed to carry out God’s purposes (Lk. 3:22; cf. Is. 42:1), whose vocation as “Son of God” is then tested by Satan in the wilderness (Lk. 4:3, 9).
The phrase “Son of God” is found only once in Acts, on the lips of Paul:
And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” … But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:20, 22)
So Paul likewise understands “Son of God” to mean Messiah—the anointed ruler who would save and rule over his people in the age to come. This is confirmed by his testimony at the beginning of Romans. Jesus was “descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:3–4). Presumably Psalm 2 is operative here:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Ps. 2:7–9)
As with Psalm 110:1 we have a clear distinction between YHWH and the “Son of God” who has been given the nations as his heritage. No invasive hypothesis required.
So I stick to my guns.
Luke sees in the miraculous birth of Jesus “proof” of the fact that Jesus is the Christ, Israel’s Messiah, and that he will rule over Israel and perhaps also over the nations forever, “and of his kingdom there will be no end”—at least, not until the last enemy has been destroyed and the authority to rule is given back to God. Acts gives us Luke’s perspective on the historical outworking of that conviction.
In his comment Peter made the point that “the writer of the Gospel of John equated Jesus with OT Wisdom”. Agreed. But Luke is not the writer of the Gospel of John. He had other fish to fry.