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

Finally, we come to the point of decision. To be clear, we are not deciding whether Paul’s language of adoption bespeaks a reality or not, for as those holding a high view of Scripture we understand it does. Rather, we are deciding whether Paul writes of this reality directly ~ meaning that God has actually or literally adopted us, or indirectly ~ meaning that the language of adoption helps us to speak of our acceptance with God in ways which, apart from this language, would be either limited or impossible.

The literal reading has its attractions. It spares us a number of challenges: first, the impression that because something is metaphorical it cannot speak of reality; secondly, the uncertainty of wondering what the believer’s acceptance is in Christ if it is not, literally, an adoption; thirdly,  the complexity of figuring out what aspects of Semitic, Greek, or Roman adoption Paul had in mind when writing of adoption in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians; and, fourthly, the need to explain both Paul’s and Calvin’s silence pertaining to the nature of the language of adoption.

After weighing the issues cautiously, thoughtfully, and evenhandedly, I opt, despite these attractions, to stick with the metaphorical understanding I first assumed in print in 1996 and 1997*. Four main reasons preclude a change of mind:

1. The general reason: The literal reading does not guarantee a complete view of reality any more than the metaphorical reading.

Scripture throughout indicates that there is more to God and his ways than has been revealed. Deuteronomy 29:29 states: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” Accordingly, the literal reading can only give access to the reality of adoption to the degree God has chosen to reveal it. His understanding of the believer’s adoption remains qualitatively better than ours, for he knows considerably more about it than we do. Thus, the literal reading can give us the pure but not the full essence of what it means to be adopted. The metaphorical reading, by contrast, owns this limitation but goes one step further; namely, to say that it is because the wonder of our acceptance with God is beyond articulation that he has expressed it through the apostle Paul in terms of adoption. Accordingly, it would be mistaken to assume that the literal and metaphorical readings offer us, respectively, high and low views of adoption. Since both views hold to reality we are choosing in actuality between two high views.

2. The biblical reason. The metaphorical reading is consistent with the nature of Scripture.

On the one hand, the divineness of Scripture indicates that God is able to speak forth his truth, and that he has initiated both the revelation of his truth and the manner of it. Simply stated, God has accommodated his revelation to our finite capacities. This proverbial baby talk helps us, then, to understand God’s truth in ways we would not be able to otherwise. In this light, metaphors function as one of God’s ways of speaking to us in our own language. On the other hand, the humanness of Scripture reminds us that although the metaphor is chosen and inspired by God, it is drawn from our earthly realm. The Spirit breathed out on holy men who were located in particular times and places, societies and cultural milieu. In the mystery of the inspiration of Scripture there transpired a concurrence of God’s will and man’s experience, in which the believer’s acceptance with God (known fully only to God) became couched in terms of adoption (practiced in society by man). Thus, we may say that Paul’s language of adoption is both top down (from God) and bottom up (from man), in that order.           

3. The textual reason: Too much weight has been placed on Ephesians 3:14-15 (“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”).

Paul prays to the first person of the Godhead by means of his personal name, “the Father.” To him he attributes the naming of either  ”every family” or “all fatherhood” (pasa patria) in heaven and on earth. Clearly, the Fatherhood of God is original or archetypal and thereby the source of the derived or ectypal fatherhood of man. While God’s Fatherhood is above and beyond, prior to and determinative of, human fatherhood, there is nothing in the text to insist that God’s Fatherhood must of necessity be taken literally. Writes T. F. Torrance, “there is certainly a figurative or metaphorical ingredient in the human terms ‘father’ and ‘son’ as they are used in divine revelation” (The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996], 157). The name “Father” helps us speak of the first person of the Godhead in a way more informative and colorful than the description of him as unbegotten or unproceeding. It also guards us from thinking of God as male. The name “Father” is rather intended to express the priority, love, security, and care of the first person of the Godhead than an engendered relationship toward his children. That is why God is revealed in Scripture as Father, and yet his love is also expressed in maternal ways. Were this all a literal rather than a metaphorical reality, we might be tempted to think of God ~ dare I say it ~ in transgendered terms. When, however, we understand the reality of God and his children to be metaphorically expressed, we also discover how God can function as Father to children who are at one and the same time both born to him (John) and adopted (Paul) by him.  This is highly unusual in the literal realm, but clearly possible when understood in terms of two juxtaposed metaphors.

4. The Literary reason: Arguments from silence used to support the naive-realist literal understanding are not strong.

For Paul, the critical point is that the Father and the adoption of his sons is real, not how they are real. Paul’s point is rather that we should believe on the Son for acquaintance with the Father, than that we understand how the language of Fatherhood works when we can call God Abba.

It is more challenging to explain why Calvin attaches no literary category to the language of adoption, when, obviously, he was very familiar with various biblical figures of speech, and was not shy in identifying them (e.g., similes). At least three explanations are possible: First, that we are yet to come across a place in Calvin’s corpus where he clearly enunciates a metaphorical understanding of the language of adoption; secondly, that he simply overlooked explaining how the language of adoption functions; or, thirdly, that he believed adoption to bespeak a literal reality. If this third explanation turns out to be the case, then evidently I have taken the unusual step of differing from our hero in the faith.      

Reflecting on these four reasons for the metaphorical reading of Paul’s language of adoption, I do not doubt that there are questions to answer and points to clarify. We’ll come to some of these at least. It is sufficient for now to underline as we close two essential truths which must not be forgotten. Firstly, that Paul’s language of adoption is inspired by God even if taken from a human practice, and is therefore top-down first and bottom-up second. Secondly, that Paul’s language of adoption is expressive of reality, even though couched metaphorically. In other words, Paul speaks of our acceptance with God other than in terms of actual literal reality, but only in order that he may write of the reality of that acceptance at all. In the purposes of God, the language of adoption enables Paul to extol the wonders of the believer’s acceptance with God infallibly, powerfully, and colorfully!

In response to such a revelation we can but say, all glory be to God! The “How so?” we will come to again.


* 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), 129-145.

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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