If we think that the New Testament always presupposes the pre-existent, divine identity of Jesus as the eternal Son of God, we have to understand Paul’s statement in Romans 1:4 that Jesus “was declared (horisthentos) to be the Son of God in power” (ESV) to mean that, while Jesus was always the Son of God, the fact that he was Son of God in power was not announced until after the resurrection. There are two problems with this theological interpretation of the passage—on top of the fact that it could have been stated more simply.
1. The verb horizō doesn’t mean “declare” in the sense of saying this is what something is in itself. The underlying idea, according to BDAG, is “to separate entities and so establish a boundary”. We get the word “horizon” from it. It can mean to define or set limits to ideas or concepts; or it can mean “make a determination about an entity, determine, appoint, fix, set.” Daniel’s enemies say to Darius: “did you not fix a ruling (horismon hōrisō) that no person would pray a prayer or request a request from any god…?” (Dan. 6:13 LXX = 6:12 MT). The ESV translation “declared”, therefore, in Romans 1:4 has to be understood as a speech act: a statement that makes something happen.
Luke is especially fond of the word.
- Jesus says that “the Son of Man goes as it has been determined (hōrismenon)” (Lk. 22:22). He does not mean “declared”. He means that a decision or commitment has been made—at his baptism, or perhaps when he was tested by Satan—to go by the way of suffering.
- Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite (hōrismenē) plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). This is a plan that has been determined, decided, established by God.
- The “disciples determined (hōrisan), every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29). They didn’t say that they would do this. They made a decision; they fixed on a policy.
- God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined (horisas) allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). The word is used a number of times in Joshua for the determination of the boundaries of Israel (Josh. 13:7, 27; 15:12; 18:20; 23:4 LXX).
- Finally, and most importantly, Jesus is the man who has been “appointed (hōrismenos) by God to be judge of the living and the dead”; and God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed (hōrisen); and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 10:42; 17:31). These are not mere declarations regarding the eternal Son of God. They have to do with the divine determination of a particular man (en andri hōi hōrisen) to act as judge over the Greek-Roman world (oikoumenēn) at a particular time in the foreseeable future.
2. The context in Romans 1:4 makes it clear, I think, that horisthentos means appointed at a particular moment.
- It is not the Son who existed beforehand but the promise of the gospel (Rom. 1:1-2). The prophets foresaw that someone would be appointed Son of God in power to rule over the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12).
- The origin of the Son goes back only as far as being “born from seed of David according to the flesh” (tou genomenou ek spermatos David kata sarka). This contrasts with the parallel statement: “appointed Son of God in power according to (kata) the Spirit of holiness from (ex) resurrection of the dead.” His existence in the flesh was determined by the family line of David. His existence as Son of God in power was determined by (ex) his resurrection from the dead. What controls the meaning of horisthentos is not some act of speaking but the event of the resurrection.
The overwhelming testimony of the New Testament is that Jesus became something following his resurrection from the dead that he was not before. He was given something that he did not have before. He was given the kingdom and honour and glory. He was given authority to judge and rule over Israel and the nations. He was made Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). He was appointed Son of God in power. He was given the name which is above every name. He was given the scroll of God’s wrath to open.
This was the gospel. The man who had been sent to look for the fruit of righteousness in Israel had been violently killed, but God had raised him from the dead and had seated him at his right hand, to rule until the last enemy is destroyed. Then the first resurrected man, the second Adam, would step down from his throne, and God would be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
Occasionally, however, another narrative flashes like lightning to illuminate the solid ground of this testimony, which is that in these civilisation-changing events the creative Word or Wisdom of God became flesh in order to bring about a new creation. That is what set the early church in the Greek world on a long path in search of a christology that would transcend the apocalyptic storyline.