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1. Distinguishing the Filial and Familial Language of Scripture (continued)

Having outlined the three basic facts of adoption ~ the uniqueness of the biblical term huiothesia, Paul’s exclusive use of it (Rom. 8:15, 23, 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5), and his utilization of the term to cover the whole scope of redemptive history (Eph. 1:5; Rom. 9:4; Gal. 4:5 [Rom. 8:15]; Rom. 8:23) ~ we now come to the unscrambling of the New Testament’s language of adoption and new birth.

This is necessary because, more often than not, theologians throughout church history have either not seen or chosen to override the specifics of the biblical language relative to each theme.  The effect of this two-way suffusion has been greatest on adoption. Firstly, because it is the more neglected of the two biblical themes, and, secondly, because its redemptive-historical contours have not been well understood. Generally, the conflation of the New Testament’s language of adoption and the new birth has required either the flattening out of Paul’s redemptive-historical unfolding of adoption, or the ignoring of it altogether in what is in effect a limiting of the scope of adoption to its application. These tendencies are very characteristic of Puritan treatments of adoption. They afford the neat inclusion of adoption in the order of salvation (ordo salutis), but they drop along the way something of the wealth of Paul’s redemptive-historical perspective and of Calvin’s exposition of it.

(ii) Basic Contrasts with the New Birth

The disentangling of conflated versions of adoption and the new birth is not as difficult as one might imagine. Consider that:

  • Whereas Paul uses filial or familial language chiefly in connection with adoption, John and others like Peter use it primarily in the context of the new birth. If John refers to adoption at all ~ and that is a big “if” ~ he does so but in passing in John 1:12 (“the right to become children of God”) and in Revelation  21:7  (an atypical use of “son” [see below]).
  • Whereas the adopted are said to have been slaves prior to their adoption (implicitly in Eph. 2:1-2; explicitly in Gal. 3:23-4:7), the new born are said to have been children of the devil (1 John 3:10).
  • Whereas the adopted become sons of God (hence huiothesia or “the placing of a son”), those born again are described alternatively by John as children of God (tekna theou).  The contrast is one of degree rather than of kind, for sometimes Paul refers to the adopted as children (e.g., Rom. 8: 16, 17, 21; 9:8), while John can refer to the new born as sons (Rev. 21:7).
  • Whereas there is at the heart of adoption a union of the Son (huios) and the sons (huioi), John distinguishes between Christ as Son (huios) and the new born as children (tekna). That said, those born anew as children of God are gradually conformed to the image of the Son. This likely explains why John eventually labels the born again as sons of God when anticipating the new earth (Rev. 21:7).
  • Whereas the adopted enter the household of God (e.g., Eph. 2:19), those born from above enter the kingdom of God (e.g., John 3:3).
  • Whereas the adoption motif is a graphic expression of the concept of divine acceptance, the new birth motif expresses the concept of regeneration or new life.
  • Whereas the motifs of adoption and the new birth have their distinctive features, the concepts they represent contribute harmoniously and coherently to the one gospel found in Scripture. The explanation of this gospel is summed up by the doctrine of salvation (soteriology).

In summary, I am not saying that the mantra “Adoption gives us the status of sons, the new birth the nature of sons” is wrong, but that the manner by which theologians have arrived at this equation has typically allowed the divineness of Scripture to absorb its humanness. To state things alternatively, the demands of a neat system of theology have led to the playing down of the history of redemption and the authorial diversity of the New Testament. These two features of Scripture are the sine qua non of a clear and accurate understanding of adoption.

[A more extensive consideration of the biblical data is found in Tim (J. R.) Trumper, "The Metaphorical Import of Adoption: A Plea for Realisation.I: The Adoption Metaphor in Biblical Usage," Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 14:2 (Autumn 1996), 129-45.]

For more from the ministry of Tim J.R. Trumper, go to: (personal); (church)

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