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These dippings are intended to clear away some of the muddled thinking inherited from the historic neglect of adoption. They offer us a taste of the doctrine’s substratum ~ a foundation touched on in passing in some biblical studies of adoption, but consistently omitted from theological and practical treatments. I am offering not a final word on the subject of adoption as a metaphor, but what is  to most readers a first word. I venture into this area not because I have all the answers (nor all the correct ones), but because certain questions need to be posed if the church of Christ is to dig deeper into the doctrine of adoption and to get to the key issues which help us understand the substratum.

In answer to the first question posed, we broke ranks from the assumed legitimacy of conflating the filial terms of Paul and of John (especially). This practice has been typical throughout the history of the church, but it is consistent neither with the authorial diversity of the New Testament (notably the fact that Paul alone uses the term adoption [huiothesia]), nor with the way the theological models of Scripture function.

Since, however, the discussion of the functioning of Paul’s language of adoption is rare (and certainly less than comprehensive), we have taken up a second question; namely, whether the reality of huiothesia is literal or metaphorical. The issues are complex and render dogmatism inappropriate. Remaining open to further light and making no pretensions to have offered a definitive answer, we have drawn what commonalities we can between the two readings (both regard the language of God’s Fatherhood to be divinely inspired and to convey reality), but have gone with the metaphorical understanding.

Accordingly, we come to the third question: If God’s adoption of his people is literal, what does that say of societal adoption? This question was posed hypothetically at the outset of these dippings, pending the outcome of the discussion arising from the previous question. Although we have opted for the metaphorical understanding, there is merit in perceiving how the advocate of the literal reading might answer.

He or she likely considers human practices of adoption evidence of the image of God in man. We adopt, in other words, because we are made in God’s image and after his likeness. On this understanding, God’s image in us is not simply moral (man was created possessing knowledge, righteousness and holiness) but natural. By this we mean that man, notwithstanding his Fall, retains vestiges of rationality, creativity, communality, etc. While his adoptive practices cannot exactly replicate God’s adoption ~ for he is neither God nor upright ~ he nevertheless does adopt. He cannot ordinarily adopt the children which he has brought to birth, as does God, and is not bound by one practice of adoption or another (whether Greek, Roman, contemporary, etc.), and yet he does adopt.

Advocates of a metaphorical understanding surely welcome such reasoning. We question not what the literal reading says of societal adoption, but the assumption that because man adopts, God must have literally adopted to begin with. Admittedly, this parity is simpler to grasp, and is attractive for that reason. Yet it does not answer other upcoming issues relevant to the way Paul uses the term huiothesia, nor does it prove the necessity of equating the communality of God with his act of adoption per se. God is certainly communal because he is eternally triune, and is definitely accepting because he has sovereignly and freely decreed and acted to accept sinners when under no obligation to do so. Yet, since there is nothing in Scripture (explicitly in Paul), so far as I can see, to oblige us to regard the truth of our divine acceptance as a literal adoption, it is feasible to argue that man’s practices of adoption are an unwitting and varying interpretation of his creation in the image of God, rather than a necessity of it. In this regard, the absence of the term huiothesia from the Septuagint and the uncertainty of the adoptive practices of the Hebrews ~ whether enacted essentially or formally ~ is of potential significance. The metaphorical reading, it is worth noting, considers man’s adoptive practices to be a humanly constructed expression of his imaging of God’s communality. Consistent with this, the expression varies from culture to culture and from era to era, some adopting and others not, some in one way and some in another. The apostle Paul for example, living in the first century A.D. and exposed to the Semitic and Graeco-Roman influences of his time, ran under the inspiration of the Spirit with the idea of adoption, using it to explain the believer’s acceptance with God in ways which otherwise would have been impossible, certainly in any substantive or colorful way. We believe him to have spoken the truth of our acceptance with God, but to have done so in a metaphorical way.

For all that we have discussed here, it is doubtless God has more light to shed on the functioning of biblical language. How this light is dispersed ~ whether through other minds, the ongoing recovery of adoption, or the ages to come ~ we shall see. Evidently, we peek through a glass darkly at the present, ever so dependent on the Spirit for his illumination. In this state of tension we proceed next time to answer the fourth question. We shall find, Lord willing, that the study of metaphor casts at least some light on Paul’s use of huiothesia.



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