The historian A. J. P. Taylor began his book The Course of German History (1945) with the bold claim: “The history of Germany is a history of extremes.” Debate has long ensued whether the claim was warranted, not least because it was made in the fraught climate of World War Two.
Less debatable, it seems to me, is the equally striking claim that the history of the doctrine of adoption is a history of neglect. This claim will be central to our unfolding consideration of the doctrine’s theological history. Before demonstrating in postings to come the validity of the claim, we take a moment here to explain why some may be inclined, initially, to dismiss it.
First, there’s the happy fact that those adopted by the Father possess the Spirit of Christ. Not only does the Spirit unite the redeemed sons of God (huioi) to the natural Son (huios), he places in the hearts and on the lips of the sons of God the name “Father.” It’s the universality of the language of Fatherhood among members of the family of God (Abba and Pater) which creates the impression that the siblings of Christ have as much of the theology of adoption as its Spirit. This impression, however, is misleading. Fondness for the thought of God’s Fatherhood does not guarantee in-depth study of the grace of adoption.
We’ll discover, for example, how the eighteenth-century Methodists and the nineteenth-century Brethren had much of the Spirit of adoption but wrote little of the doctrine’s theology. Their piety had a certain filial or familial feel, but they appear not to have dug deeply into its theological underpinnings. The same trend is prevalent among the rank and file of the church. Christians pray and sing to the Father, but tend to know few details about adoption. Rarely do they hear comprehensive sermons on the doctrine, and if the teaching of the theologians who have afforded adoption attention is anything to go by, there is no guarantee that the faithful hear sermons which accurately reflect the biblical data. (See the forthcoming adoption nuggets dipped in biblical theology).
Secondly, the neglect of adoption is obscured by the inclusion of huiothesia in the scholarly lexicons. If we were to consult these alone, we might conclude that adoption has been treated as adequately as any other biblical theme. Yet there is a marked contrast between such entrances on the one hand and the writings of the theologians and the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the church on the other. The doctrine of adoption has typically gone missing between the examination of the biblical data and the expression of devotional piety. Interested scholars know the relevant data and the family of God at large is familiar with the vocative “Father,” but theologians and preachers have not followed through sufficiently or precisely enough by developing and maturing a theology of adoption comparative to our doctrines of justification and sanctification. Understanding the neglect of adoption is, accordingly, the first step to the overhaul of this disparity.
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