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Fundamental Question #2: Is Paul’s Language of Adoption to Be Taken Literally or Metaphorically?

By challenging the admixture of the filial and familial language of Paul and John so prevalent in treatments of adoption, we have disentangled John’s  terminology relevant to the new birth from Paul’s germane to the believer’s adoption in Christ. In summary of what we considered last time, the filial terms used by each apostle are similar, but bespeak different elements of our salvation. John speaks of our regeneration and Paul of our acceptance in Christ. It is, then, precisely because these motifs differ that they are distinctively-structured. They share some terms in common (notably “Father,” “sons,” and “children”), yet the motifs they shape are distinguished by Paul’s exclusive use of huiothesia (the placing of a son) on the one hand, and John’s use of gennao (to beget, to give birth) and its derivatives on the other.

With this point made, we take up a second question pertinent to our dippings into metaphorical theology: Has God literally adopted his people as his sons, or has his Spirit inspired Paul to describe our acceptance in Christ by means of the adoption metaphor or model (see later)? The question is worth posing for two reasons:

Reason #1: Interest is hard to come by. 

Few interested in adoption recognize this question or go on to tackle it. Writers use the term “adoption” profusely, but either presume it to be a literal reality or a metaphorical expression. Why there has been scant discussion of the alternatives is hard to tell. I can but offer some suggestions.

First, the silence is part of a broader neglect of the discussion of the function of religious language. Surprisingly, the comprehending of how biblical figures of speech depict the reality of God’s dealings with us is largely untouched.

Secondly, Scripture seems to give us few clear indications of how its language works. This likely explains why theologians assume one of two general philosophical positions: naive or critical realism. Whereas the naive realist perceives the external world as it really is (meaning in this context that God has truly and really adopted his people), the critical realist perceives the external world as a representative reality (meaning that adoption is a way of describing our acceptance in Christ accommodated to our finite minds). Only more Bible-based discussion of the variant naive and critical realist options will tell us the degree to which Scripture speaks to the matter.

Thirdly,  it seems to me there has been a fear of going beyond Scripture. In principle, this is laudable. As a strong advocate of the injection of biblical-theological concerns into the discipline of systematic theology (following the likes of John Calvin, John Murray, John Frame, and Richard Gaffin), I would not want us to veer into the realm of speculation. But there is an opposite danger, and that is of falling short of what Scripture teaches. As those called to love God with all of our minds (as well as our hearts, etc.), we must not shirk the difficult questions (to quote scholar O.T. Allis, or was it Robert Dick Wilson?). To borrow Calvin’s axiom, it is only where Scripture leaves off teaching that we leave off learning.

Reason #2: Answers are hard to come by.

The question we are taking up inquires whether adoption is archetypal to God, in which case we image-bearers have derived societal adoption from him; or, whether Paul wrote from out of his Hebrew and Graeco-Roman world, having been inspired by the Holy Spirit to describe our acceptance in Christ by means of adoption. We have said enough to anticipate that the naive realist, with his emphasis on literal reality, concurs with the former understanding of the language of adoption, and the critical realist, perceiving the world in terms of representative reality, with the latter. As we’ll see, the naive realist gets on with explicating Paul’s use of adoption in terms of its positioning in his writings and theology. The critical realist spends more time investigating the metaphorical garb ~ in effect, what is not literally true ~ but does so in order to discern from Semitic, Greek, or Roman backgrounds to Paul’s use of adoption what is actually true.

In my own writings to date I have taken more of a critical realist position, but, truthfully, by an assumption originating in the early to mid 1990s rather than by a self-conscious decision. So I revisit this issue with some humility and open-mindedness. I cannot promise dogmatic answers, but do think that the discussion helps to deepen our appreciation of the profundity of what it means, through faith in Christ, to be adopted sons, daughters, or children of God.


[A more extensive consideration of the discussion introduced here is found in Tim (J. R.) Trumper, "The Metaphorical Import of Adoption: A Plea for Realisation. II: The Adoption Metaphor in Theological Usage," Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 15:2 (Autumn 1997), 98-115.]


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