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

Since, to my knowledge, there is no source to which we may go to compare in full the arguments for the naive- and critical-realist readings of Paul on adoption, we have begun to identify the respective cases which may be made in favor of their literal and metaphorical approaches.

The naive-realist could, I’ve posited, defend the  literal reading on four grounds:

1. Paul’s view in Ephesians 3:14 that “every family in heaven and on earth is named” from the Father. This process, we note, is top down not bottom up, meaning that the naming ~ a matter worth exploring ~ comes from God and not from man.

2. The absence of a definitive identification in the New Testament of the societal practice influencing Paul’s language of adoption.

3. The absence in Calvin, to my knowledge or remembrance, of the categorization of adoption as a figure of speech.

4. The freedom the literal reading affords us to expound Paul’s uses of huiothesia on his own terms; that is to say, without having to:

A. Identify throughout, and without available guidelines, the influence of Semitic, Greek, or Roman practices of adoption.

B. Determine how the possible influence of background and the actual teaching of Paul’s letters correlate.  

In short, the naive realist proceeds to a straightforward exposition of Paul’s use of huiothesia, believing adoption to begin with God and not man. The parallels between God’s adoption of the believer and man’s adoption of another are explained in terms of the vestiges of the divine image in man. Although fallen, man has gotten his societal practices of adoption from God. In a nutshell, God’s adoption is archetypal (original to him), but man’s is ectypal (derived from his). Thus, to the naive realist the concern to identify the social practice of adoption influencing Paul ~ whether Semitic, Greek, or Roman ~ is largely irrelevant.

The Case for a Metaphorical or Critical-Realistic understanding of Adoption

We would be naive ~ excuse the pun! ~ to think that the critical-realist has no response. Three main arguments come to mind, each forming a step in the journey from the literal to the metaphorical reading of Paul’s use of huiothesia.

Firstly, the critical-realist stresses that the ways of God are ultimately beyond the language of man. Accordingly, the literal reading of adoption is very limited. While God and man view the same grace of adoption, they do so very differently. Whereas God considers adoption from his infinite, eternal, and all-knowing vantage point as the dispenser of this grace, man requires revelation in order to learn of it. Once he has, he can only ponder the grace from a finite, temporal, and limited perspective, and, in contrast to God, as one who is a potential or actual receiver of the adoption. Certainly, the perspectives of God (the adopter) and man (the adoptee) overlap, but, argues the critical realist, we get above ourselves if we think of a literal reading of Paul’s references to adoption as a full or exhaustive account of what God has done in accepting his people. We can know of adoption only to the degree that God has spoken of it, and to the extent we have experienced it. The naive realist would not disagree.

Secondly, I anticipate the critical realist claiming that God’s revealing of adoption is accommodated to our human capacities. Those familiar with John Calvin will immediately recall his belief that God accommodates his interaction with man to human sinfulness on the one hand and to human limitations on the other. Thus, notwithstanding Calvin’s silence about how we are to read Paul’s language of adoption, his general thought opens up the possibility that Paul’s use of huiothesia is accommodated to our limitations. On this understanding, the language of adoption is God’s baby-talk version of how he accepts believers as his children. He has not actually adopted us, but by describing our acceptance in terms of adoption, God is able to convey to us in a graphic and powerful way what his embrace means to him and to us. The baby-talk, then, enables God to get through to us, despite our mental and spiritual limitations, the genuine truth of acceptance in Christ. Without the language of adoption (or of other comparable metaphors or models), we would be left with the bare concept of acceptance, and unable to speak of its wonder except in the briefest, dullest, and most repetitive way. The concept permits us to say “I am accepted in Christ!”, but that’s about all. Its metaphorical garb ~ in this case the rich teaching of adoption ~ enables us to say so much more, and in ways which light up the mind and grab the heart!

Thirdly, the critical realist would have us remember that the metaphors or models of Scripture are consistent with what we know of the Bible. Holy Scripture is God’s Word, but it possesses both divineness and humanness. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and yet the Spirit made use of the differing life experiences and styles of writing of the authors who contributed to Scripture. It follows that there is no contradiction between the influence of the Holy Spirit on Paul, and his depiction of the believer’s acceptance by God in terms of a societal practice of one ancient form or another. Accordingly, a metaphorical reading of Paul’s use of huiothesia is both legitimate and feasible. Adoption is such an appealing motif because it decorates the wonderful fact (but bare concept) of our acceptance in Jesus. A product of the inspiration of the apostle Paul, adoption also grants us increased insight into what the acceptance means for those united through faith to Christ.

All this begs the question “Which reading shall we endorse, the literal or the metaphorical?” It’s a tough call! Each case compels, but each raises questions meriting further consideration. Do join me in praying for further light, and in pondering whether we are obliged to embrace one reading to the exclusion of the other.


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