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

Conservative theologians are united in their belief that God’s adoptive grace in Christ is a reality ~ indeed, a wonderful reality!

Some think or assume Paul’s references to adoption are literal, which is to say that God has actually adopted his people. Others understand the references to be metaphorical, meaning that God has not actually adopted us. Rather, by speaking of our divine acceptance in terms of adoption we have been equipped to articulate our acceptance in a way which otherwise would not be possible (other than by an alternative metaphor perhaps).

The former perspective illustrates what philosophers call naive realism, and the latter critical realism. While the terms unfortunately sound pejorative ~ seeming to imply naivete of the mind or criticism of Scripture~ they help us to identify the choice of perspectives on offer. We consider them in turn in the Adoption Nuggets which follow.

The Case for a Literal or Naive-Realistic understanding of Adoption

When we say that God has literally adopted his people, we mean that his adoption of us is archetypal. On this understanding, adoption is a procedure which originates with Him and not with us. Accordingly, adoption among humans is derived or ectypal, which is to say that societal adoption replicates God’s original action in some way, albeit on a scale reflective of our humanity and context.

A number of factors may  be posited in support of this literal view of Paul’s language of adoption.

Firstly, there is the explicit wording of Scripture. Writes Paul in Ephesians 3:14: “. . . I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”. Since “every family” is named from the Father, our adoption into the household of God, mentioned earlier in the epistle, must be original to God (see Eph. 1:5 and 2:19). From this standpoint, adoption is not a metaphor, but a statement of fact and of seminal divine action.

Secondly, we must take account of the fact that Paul never states, when using huiothesia, which human or societal practice of adoption he has in mind. If he were utilizing the language of huiothesia metaphorically, would he not tell us explicitly which had influenced his description of God’s acceptance of us?  Since he wrote in Greek he naturally uses a Hellenistic term for adoption, but this does not imply that Paul’s use of huiothesia (the placing of a son) is shaped around Greek adoptive practices. In fact, his use of huiothesia in Ephesians 1:5, Romans 9:4, Galatians 4:4-6, Romans 8:15-16, and 22-23 suggests he fills the term with theological content correlating to no human practice exactly. Is it not more likely, then, that the societal practices ape the divine action, than that Paul is depicting the divine action in terms of an unidentified or unsettled societal practice?

Thirdly, our greatest theologian of adoption, John Calvin, never, to my recollection, refers to adoption as a metaphor. Since my studies of Calvin on adoption have been comprehensive rather than exhaustive, it is possible that there is some undiscovered place in his writings in which he explains how Paul’s language of adoption functions. Yet, in the absence of any explanation to date, it is plausible to argue that the reformer understood adoption to be a literal reality. Certainly, this reading of Calvin is more weighty than any given claim, actual or hypothetical, that he was  insensitive to the humanness of Scripture. After all, throughout his writings Calvin acknowledges a number of literary tools found in Scripture: metaphoraefiguraesimiltudines, or comparatines. Since he does not, so far as we know, categorize the language of adoption in any of these terms, we ponder whether the best explanation for this is that he understood Paul’s references to adoption to be literal.

Fourthly, this view frees us from having to determine whether Paul’s teaching on the subject was influenced by Semitic, Greek or Roman practices. Instead, we have a straight run at investigating the coherent context and content of Paul’s uses of huiothesia. Gone are the obligations to figure out a number of uncertainties. For example:

1. The identification of the societal practice influencing Paul’s understanding of adoption (which was, fundamentally, a reading of redemptive history).

2. The discerning of the specific elements of the identified societal practice Paul utilized.

3. The junctures at which he wove in the elements into his teaching of adoption.

4. The correlation between Paul’s clear redemptive-historical understanding of adoption and the elements of the societal practice from which he draws.

Those circumnavigating these complexities note how Paul takes us back beyond any ancient adoptive practices to God’s eternal predestining of us to adoption (Eph. 1:5). Since adoption began in the mind of God, why, the naive realist asks, should we feel obliged to understand our adoption in Christ in terms of the action of human community? After all, we are given so little in Scripture to help us do so.

Evidently, the naive realist has a case to be answered. Since there are two sides to every argument we will consider next time, Lord willing, the metaphorical or critical-realistic point of view. No matter where the argument ends up, all doubtless agree that God’s grace of adoption is not only a wonderful reality but one that is most profound. The words of Augustine come to mind: “If you can understand it, it is not God.”


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

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