Monday 18 February 2013

Adoption as Sons of God - what does 'adoption' imply (to common sense)?


A few months ago I wrote about my discovery (in the Calvinist theology of JI Packer and Martyn Lloyd Jones) of the emphasis on our adoption as Sons of God (and joint-heirs with Christ) as being the highest promise, the greatest reward, of Christianity.

Over this time my mind kept returning to the concept (or metaphor) of 'adoption' and what it implied.

Here are the key Biblical Passages, from St Paul:

Romans 8 

14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
19 For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.
20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Galatians 4
Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,
To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.
Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

Ephesians 1

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:
According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:
Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,
To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.


Returning and re-reading these passages, I was suddenly stuck by what should perhaps have been the most obvious implication of the possibility of adoption: that in order for humans to be adopted as Sons of God and joint-heirs with Christ, it would seem that we must be of the same order of being as God and Christ - the same kind of entity. 

How else could we be adopted and become heirs? 

This cannot happen to beings of a different basic order. (You cannot adopt a lower animal as heir - a dog or a mouse - it makes no sense.)

Thus, these passages imply - by common sense interpretation - that God, Christ, Men are of the same type, or species.


Of course, in a much-elaborated form, this is an aspect of Mormon theology - often ridiculed or regarded with horror by mainstream Christians by stating it baldly as Men becoming God/s or God (the Father) being an ex-Man - yet you can see how something of this kind is a natural, common-sense, one-step inference to be drawn from three key passages in the Epistles.


Presumably there are ways-out from making this simple and spontaneous inference concerning adoption and becoming heirs, perhaps by suggesting that this refers to a post-resurrection state - yet, surely, resurrection is meant to perfect and purify us, not to change our fundamental being? (Indeed, that resurrection leaves our essential selves intact is crucial to the Christian message.)


I can see that the statement of one-ness of being between God, Christ and Man may lead, further down the inferential chain, to consequences which are apparently heretical or otherwise unacceptable - yet such 'third-level incoherence' is always the case for any theology concrete and simple enough to be relevant and useful in life. 

There is always a price to pay for re-interpreting the Bible in order to avoid obvious implications and to eliminate all contradictions (superficial and deep) in such a complex text.

Most often, in practice, potential contradictions are eliminated by ignoring most of Scripture and focusing on those which harmonize easily. 

Yet we see the very high price paid for doing this kind of thing.

The doctrine of adoption is - it seems to me - the greatest and most wonderful promise in the Bible: greater even than forgiveness of our sins (not least because adoption necessarily requires complete remission of sin).

And, rather than being one of the first and essential doctrines, known by all Christians and the basis of Hope; the doctrine of the adoption is, it seems to me, is generally ignored: at best hardly mentioned in mainstream Christian discourse.


My feeling is that Christian revival requires us to go back and read Scripture with the eyes of children, and to be reluctant to discard common sense and spontaneous understandings of what we find.

Better a deep level of possible theological incoherence, than a superficial level of theological irrelevance - which looks very much like evasion. 



PhilR said...

Analogia entis......?

Bruce Charlton said...

@PR - 1. Does it look to you like it is intended to be an analogy? Doesn't to me. Why would such an analogy be used? Are the (obvious) dangers of taking such an analogy 'literally', being flagged-up in the text? What other analogies are used for the same phenomenon elsewhere in the Bible (by which we would know it was an analogy)?

2. If you believe that it *is* an analogy for something else - could you explain that something else in a way that children and simple people (and 'sinners') could grasp?

AlexT said...

A great post Dr. Charlton. One of your better ones if i may say.
A little off topic, but you mentioned those two Calvinist preachers in your post, and i have been meaning to ask you about another Calvinist i only recently discovered, Peter Masters. I would love to hear your take on him and the London Tabernacle, as this seems to be an exceptional congregation in so many ways. A megachurch (in numbers anyway) in modern day London. Reformed in a very permissive age. Around since 1650, and yet seems to be immune to liberalism unlike so many other churches of comparable age and theology. What's going on here? Anything that could be applied by others? Or am i being too generous? Would love to hear your take on it.

PhilR said...

All I meant was that the analogia entis underpins the whole possibility of adoption you are talking about. Admittedly, I could have made that a lot clearer!

Bruce Charlton said...

@AT - thanks for the reference to Peter Masters - I hadn't heard of this church (or chapel) although I see it was Spurgeon's institution - who was reckoned one of the greatest of British preachers.

I watched 10 minutes of Masters expounding a text and my impression was that he seems like an excellent preacher in the Lloyd Jones style - super-detailed, word by word exposition of a small segment of Scripture (a verse, or less).

It is certainly encouraging to know that this very rigorous and demanding tradition retains popularity in modern London.

Bruce B. said...

I think adoption (and the implication that we are of the same type or species) just requires man made in God’s image, which you don’t need Mormon theology to believe. And if it requires more, then Catholicism/Orthodoxy supply that extra something through the beatific vision/theosis.

As somewhat of an aside, I have noticed that in the following verse of the hymn “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”:

“Thou our Father, Christ our brother”

evangelicals sometimes substitute “savior” for “brother.” I saw this for example, on an online video of one of these groups that spontaneously sing hymns in a shopping mall. Presumably they are uncomfortable with referring to Christ as our “brother.”

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - "I think adoption ... just requires man made in God’s image"

Does it? Surely you would not adopt an 'image' of a person?

I'm not sure whether theosis is relevant to this - since we are adopted as Sons of Gods even if conversion is a 'last minute' affair, without time for theosis - for example the "Good Thief" on the cross next to Chris.

Bruce B. said...

I think the “imago” in “imago dei” means something like “a reflection of God” since, like God, we have free will, an eternal spirit, love, etc. I don’t think it means we’re just an image as we commonly understand the term.
Also, isn’t adoption enabled by Jesus’ uniting of the divine and created natures? I think the Christological truths of the ancient Church are sufficient without Mormon theology.
Generally, we are adopted when we are made righteous/holy. For most of us, this involves purification from residual sin after life. The thief on the cross didn’t need such purification – he received an extraordinary infusion of grace (God’s prerogative) because of the extraordinary faith he displayed in his last moments. His experience is not the general experience.
Catholicism solved all these problems long ago. It’s understandable that Joseph Smith was bothered by Protestant deficiencies, though. I just think he should have looked to the ancient church.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I think you are evading the argument of this post by assigning the interpretation to Mormons - my point does not in any way depend upon Mormonism. I merely mentioned that it coincides with Mormonism. But any Christian reading the Bible in the way I describe might make the same inference.

I am not saying that alternative explanations such as you outline fail - they do not fail - they are merely incomprehensible, and render this aspect of doctrine meaningless to the normal Christian who is then deprived of this greatest of promises since 'adoption' is something that hardly anybody talks about in mainstream Christianity.

Why would churches *not* talk about such a wonderful promise? Surely they should be mentioning it at every opportunity? It is a doctrine which (for some people, at least) transforms Christianity from being a negative to a positive promise.

Either the preachers don't understand it because the explanations of what is meant by 'adoption' are too abstract/ complex; or else this doctrine is understood but being quietly de-emphasized/ concealed - perhaps for fear of its implications, or at least fear of the inferences that people may make.

Arakawa said...

I think the simplest analogy of 'adoption' I've heard that doesn't require stressing some kind of common species that both humans and God belong to, is the story of Pinnochio.

The puppet starts out as a mere creation of the father, but is eventually transformed to become a Real Boy, i.e. the father's son in the truest sense of the word.

There's a fundamental change in the puppet's nature when that happens, true, but a child can tell that nothing is actually lost because of it.

'Mere Christianity' paints a similar picture using tin soldiers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - yes, that is closer to the Calvinist conception - because humans are seen as worthless wretches riddled with sin, who are re-made in much the fashion of animating a puppet or toy (except that humans begin in a worse state than inert puppets or toys).

But - by this analogy - such worthless and 'dead' beings can do nothing for themselves; which leads to the fatalism to which Calvinism is prone - and (to me, anyway) a despair inducing sense of the pointlessness of mortal life and the illusory nature of free will/ choice.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine such sin riddled and corrupt puppet creatures being able to recognize truth, let alone live by it - everything has to be done *to* us, and for us - and we are reduced to mere observers...

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

Adoption is a key idea, acknowledged as such in the Catechism, as the word appears in the very first paragraph.

Adoption is the first corollary of the main tenet of the Christian faith: God became Man in Christ in order to give us divine life and make us fit to inherit his kingdom. This is what salvation is all about.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - I realize my earlier comment sounds anti-Calvinist. But I really just wanted to show that each metaphor has consequences. The metaphor of a depraved puppet/ tin soldier remade by God has consequences - many of them undesirable. In a traditional Calvinist Puritan society, these problems are counteracted by the ethic of hard work, devout practice etc - but modern Calvinists do not have this counterbalance.

Bruce B. said...

Professor Charlton,

In general, your writings seem to be tending towards the idea that Mormonism supplies something essential/missing for Mere Christianity.
You mention preachers so I assume you’re talking about Protestantism. I think some Protestants are uncomfortable with talking about adoption because they feel it puts us on an equal level with Christ (e.g. the change in the hymn lyrics I mention above). I’m not saying they deny it doctrinally. They just don’t emphasize it. Similarly, some Protestants are uncomfortable with the concept of theosis.
I don’t see how the Catholic or Orthodox doctrine on how we become like God is abstract or incomprehensible.

Bruce Charlton said...


I believe that mainstream Christians ought to look to Mormons (in a respectful fashion, willing to learn) to see what they know/ do and we don't because whatever it is makes a big and crucial difference.

"I don’t see how the Catholic or Orthodox doctrine on how we become like God is abstract or incomprehensible."

Okay - explain what you mean in no more than three sentences that could be understood by a child or a person with below average intelligence.

(I think that I personally would find this very difficult to do - but maybe you can do better!)

But the main point is that Catholic and Orthodox theosis is something that happens (among Saints, and those on the path to Sainthood) before death among those who are (already) saved (in a sense) - an increase in holiness in mortal life; whereas the status as Sons of God is something given to all who are saved, all who accept Christ's work, his 'offer' - all of God's children - including, presumably, children.

Bruce B. said...

God is righteous/sinless/perfect. We become righteous/sinless/perfect like Him.

A child can understand this.

Bruce B. said...

Your last paragraph doesn’t seem right to me. St. Paul wrote: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.”
Paul recognized the possibility of being cast away. Of losing his status as a son of God.
It seems to me that our final adoption is dependent upon theosis/holiness and not just on accepting Christ’s work.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - Well done for rising to the challenge!

But I think righteous is too abstract to be comprehensible; sinless is negative (in modern understanding it merely means *not* doing x,y,z) while perfect requires a knowledge of the nature of perfection which is typically absent.

It is hard to be exact about salvation - and indeed there are big differences among Christians on this topic. I tend to believe that salvation is something we have (we have already been given, by the work of Christ) unless we reject it - but many or most people do reject it.

I think I got this from CS Lewis, mostly. But I think of sin as something which leads us to reject salvation.

I tend not to think of salvation as something obtained by rigorous study and an examination - that would be theosis: fitting us for a higher place within Heaven, or to dwell in Heaven (to some extent) even while still on earth.

Bookslinger said...

BC, It sounds to me like you're talking yourself into Mormonism.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Bs - I have been reading Mormonism for five years, since before I became a Christian - and regard the LDS as a fully valid Christian denomination: I certainly do not rule out becoming a Mormon, just as I do not rule out becoming a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox - I regard these all as valid Christian paths.

But I have only more recently perceived the special strengths of Mormon theology (and the 'restored' interpretation of scripture) in the modern world - my second reading of McMurrinn made this clearer than it has been before.

Agellius said...

If it's the case that God is of the same species as man, i.e. if as the Mormons have taught, he's a man like us but glorified; and if it's the case that we are literal offspring of God's; then it's hard to see how the concept of adoption applies. We are sons, period, in that scenario, are we not?

I realize there's more to it than that. From what I understand, the "classical" Mormon teaching is that our Heavenly Father and Mother bore spirit children, and these children came to earth to receive physical bodies. So that these children have earthly parents as well as Heanvenly parents.

Nevertheless, they are literal parents in either case, so I'm not sure why adoption would be applicable.

By the way you left out what I consider a vital scripture passage on the topic of adoption: John chapter 1:

"[John] was not the light, but was to give testimony of the light, that was the true light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, he gave them power to become the sons of God: to them that believe in his name, who are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."

This passage clearly implies that adoption as (i.e. becoming) sons of God is a matter not of fleshly reproduction (or for that matter, likeness), but rather being born of God by believing in his name. Again, you are *born* of God by believing and it is in that manner that you become a son of God.

There is also John 3:6, in which Jesus states, "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit". This in response to the incredulity of Nicodemus, upon Jesus' telling him that "no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again". So again this shows, by a one-step inference in my view, that the rebirth by which one becomes a son of God is a matter not of the flesh but of the spirit.

I think the passages you quote also may be read in this manner. For example Rom. 8:15: "For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father." Gal. 4:6: "And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father." In addition, Titus 3:4: "But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, ... He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, ...."

[to be cont'd]

Agellius said...

Of course a recurring theme here is "rebirth", which appears to be synonymous with adoption as sons of God. And rebirth is repeatedly described as occurring through water (presumably baptism) and the Spirit. That rebirth is a matter of the spirit is also shown in the verses preceding the ones you quote from Romans 8:

"5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life[d] because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of[e] his Spirit who lives in you. 12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live."

Which again, I submit, reinforces the notion that rebirth or adoption is a matter of the spirit.

Thus, even accepting your premise that adoption implies God and man being of the same kind, it need not follow that God is material or fleshly. If rebirth and adoption are spiritual occurrences -- we are "not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you" -- then we and God are of the same kind by virtue of both existing and living in the realm of and in accord with the spirit.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - Yes, the passage in John's Gospel is wonderful - probably I should have added that.

Could you just leave aside specific Mormon doctrines, which I did not mention and don't want to discuss here - and focus on the specific point I made which was about sameness of 'species' or 'kind' then I think my point stands.

Adoption is indeed a matter of the spirit, but that which is adopted is of the same kind.

The analogy is that in society adoption is a matter of the law, but that which is adopted is another human.

Agellius said...

Well, you did mention the Mormon doctrine of men becoming gods and being of the same nature as God.

If your only point is that that which is adopted is of the same kind, I won't quarrel with that. I would quarrel with saying they must necessarily be of the same species.

In this world, certainly that's true -- though people analogously "adopt" pets, and many consider them, analogously, "children". But that's sort of to the point as well: If God is an omnipotent, purely spiritual being, then most if not all of what we can say about him must be by analogy with what we know according to our own nature.

If we take God to be literally adopting us through the usual court procedures or whatever, in other words in the exact same sense in which we always use the word "adoption", then both we and he would have to be physical human beings. But there is no reason he could not do something analogous to what we normally conceive of as adoption, and call it by that name, without being of the same "species" as we, i.e. a man.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - Than you for that mass of scripture. I shall ponder it.

My understanding of adoption as a Son of God is in terms of being an heir - jointly with Christ; presumably with the same privileges - sharing the same inheritance.

By species, I originally used quotation marks around the word - I mean of the same basic kind, but I would not like to be more precise. I think it is legitimate to leave it at that , without going any further.

However, if God, Christ, Man are regarded as being of the same basic kind, different in degree rather than nature - then it does explain some things which are otherwise hard to understand.

Agellius said...

Thank you for letting me take part in this interesting discussion.

"My understanding of adoption as a Son of God is in terms of being an heir - jointly with Christ; presumably with the same privileges - sharing the same inheritance."

I would not disagree with this as stated. The way I understand it is, that we are members of Christ's Body, with him as our Head. So whatever he has is ours in that sense. Nevertheless we don't get every privilege that he gets -- e.g. we will never be the Head but will always be members subject to the Head. And again we are sons by adoption, whereas he is one by nature, that is the Only Begotten.

"However, if God, Christ, Man are regarded as being of the same basic kind, different in degree rather than nature - then it does explain some things which are otherwise hard to understand."

I could agree that we are of the "same basic kind", if by that kind is meant spiritual beings, capable of knowing, loving and willing. However believing that God is infinite and omnipotent, I could not agree that the difference between us is merely one of degree.

George Goerlich said...

Your post immediately jumped to mind the Catholic idea of Heaven as "seeing God face to face" - now of course the Church also holds that only God can know God. The Church also holds that only the Son can know the Father... that God is mysterious to mere human understanding.

Now of course, if we are to see God face to face and to become His children, that is to specifically have a relationship with the Father which is categorically the same as what the Son has, the striking and common sense interpretation seems to reach the same conclusion as the Mormons (from within official Catholic theology). Also, Catholics acknowledge Mary as Holy Mother.

Then again, it is all is somewhat of a mystery.

George Goerlich said...

I meant also to reflect on the basic nature of the Trinity... Son in relationship to Father, and Holy Ghost proceeding from both. Something to reflect on is that Jesus sent the Holy Ghost to us (as in, a Father's love to his Son) and that we are to become sons, contemplating in total love the Father, in the same sort of relationship as the Son, then it seems we may enter a sort of direct relationship with the Trinity?

So too even with just the sacrament of communion, we take into ourselves the nature of God. So even if we weren't created as such, it seems that through Christ we do somehow partake in the nature of God.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - The Catholic idea of Holy Mother and the Mormon idea of Heavenly Mother are absolutely distinct - Mary is in some way a spiritual Mother, but Mother in Heaven is our 'literal' Mother (in some unknown sense).