There are four tendencies in the theological history of adoption which support the claim that the history is one of neglect.
Firstly, there’s the almost or entire omission of adoption by many theologians. These include the apostolic fathers, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd, Thomas Chalmers, George Hill, William Cunningham, Abraham Kuyper, Louis Berkhof, and G. C. Berkouwer. Such theologians have not denied the Fatherhood of God, they have just not afforded the Father’s adopting grace any notable mention in their theological discourse. Remarkably, they seem oblivious of this omission, even when writing profusely on regeneration, justification, or sanctification.
Secondly, there are those whose mention of adoption is largely hidden in their writings. The breadth of Calvin’s redemptive-historical understanding of adoption and its close affinity to the believer’s union with Christ, likely influenced his practise of peppering allusions to adoption throughout his writings. The impression gained is that Calvin deemed it impractical and awkward to squeeze the grand theme of adoption into distinctive chapters or sections. By contrast, the Puritans were the first to include a chapter on adoption in a confession of faith (WCF 12), but did little to expand on its implications throughout the rest of the Confession. The 1200 pages on adoption in the remainder of their writings (Beeke) are also very contained, and have been overshadowed by, for example, their 30,000 titles on church government.
Thirdly, other theologians have tended to reduce the scope of Paul’s adoption model. Whereas Calvin expounded adoption in light of its relevance to both the history and application of salvation (historia and ordo salutis), the Puritans with few exceptions limited their expositions of adoption to its application. Constrained by their method of neatly systematizing the data of Scripture to run together the filial language of John and Paul, they fell short of doing justice to the redemptive-historical scope of Paul’s adoption model. Others, working from this reduced understanding of adoption, took the step of subsuming adoption under justification, claiming the former merely completes the latter (e.g., Turretin, Dabney, Bavinck). Others claimed alternatively that adoption was more like a capstone sitting astride justification and regeneration to ensure their inseparability (e.g., A. A. Hodge, Martyn Lloyd-Jones).
Fourthly, we have examples of those who excised adoption from their written theology. Remarkably, John Wesley took out every reference to the doctrine from his revision of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It likely suffered the consequences of Wesley’s attempt to circumvent the doctrine of predestination. Thomas Erskine of Linlathen gradually dropped along the wayside his references to adoption the further he progressed along his seventeen-year route from his early Calvinism to his later Universalism. In the present, the jury is out on how N.T. Wright could redefine justification as God’s declaration of membership of the covenant family with scarcely any reference to adoption. His recent rejoinder to Kevin Vanhoozer that adoption is a central idea in his work, raises more question than it answers. As in the case of Erskine, Prof. Wright consistently translates huiothesia in Galatians and Romans as “sonship” rather than “adoption.” Without this unwarranted change of translation (see James M. Scott), his creation of a new mega-model of justification (inclusive of the implications of adoption) would not have been possible. Its thirty year lifespan is a tribute to the deep-seated neglect of adoption, for N.T. Wright’s critics have been unable to see that the key to the dismantling of his redefinition lies not in the classic Protestant doctrine of justification per se, but in the recovery of a freshly biblically-sensitive understanding of adoption.
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