As part of our blog’s adoption interview series, I’m interviewing several theologians about the doctrine of spiritual adoption and its implications for earthly adoption. I believe that the practice of earthly adoption will be significantly enriched as we grow in our understanding of what it means to be adopted by God.
Our fourth theologian interview is with Dr. Timothy Trumper (you can read the others here). Dr. Trumper is a native of Wales (UK). He was converted at the age of 15 and felt constrained to preach God’s Word while he was as a student of politics at the University of Wales. He then trained for the pastorate at the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh (1989-1993).
While studying theology Dr. Trumper he was captivated by the doctrine of adoption (Eph. 1:5; Gal. 4:4-6; Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4). As a result, he enrolled in doctoral studies at New College, University of Edinburgh. It is there that he gave himself to a concentrated study on adoption. His dissertation is “An Historical Study of the Doctrine of Adoption in the Calvinistic Tradition” (Ph.D. thesis: University of Edinburgh, 2001). Dr. Trumper taught at Westminster Seminary from 1999-2003. He is presently Senior Minister at Seventh Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, MI.
Because of the length and richness of Dr. Trumper’s answers, his interview will be posted in six parts. If you are interested in deepening your understanding of the doctrine of adoption significantly, you will want to take the necessary time to carefully read his answers. Here are a few excerpts from the interview to encourage you to read all six parts as they are published:
“The recovery of adoption would help us express what we are saved to as much as what we have been saved from. The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield summed up this imbalance by reference to what he called ‘Miserable Sinner Christianity’. Now, undoubtedly, we are miserable sinners. That is after all why we come to Christ. But is this the final word on who we are as God’s people? Surely not! The NT mentions a number of themes depicting the new standing we have in Christ, one of the richest of which is adoptive sonship. The recovery of this motif would enable us to even out our respective emphases on the retrospective and prospective aspects of the atonement. Stated alternatively, it would help us to be as forthcoming about what we are in Christ as about what we have been in Adam.”
“The recovery of adoption would help us prioritize the identities we Christians share in Christ over against other identifying factors that threaten division within the household of God (Eph. 2:19). We are not predestined (literally pre-horizoned [Eph. 1:5]) first and foremost to be male or female, Jew or Gentile (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-22), or even to be educated or uneducated, or rich or poor, but to be sons of our God. This should be our primary consciousness. This prioritization has massive pastoral ramifications. I think, for instance, of second-generation ethnic Americans who are confused as to whether their primary identity is American or Chinese, Korean, Polish, Dutch, African, Hispanic or whatever. Christians have a way out of the dilemma. They can think of themselves first and foremost as sons and/or daughters of God. For in his family, rightly understood and outworked, race and color is put in its place. Differences in both are accepted, yet neither can legitimately overshadow the ultimate basis of the unity we possess in Christ.”
“Adoption speaks of hope. This hope Paul depicts by means of the word “inheritance” (Rom. 8:17f.). Not only has God given his family members a promise of the inheritance, in granting us his Spirit he has also given us a downpayment on it (Eph. 1:13-14). We come by the inheritance not because of what we do, but because of who we are in Christ. The inheritance is, then, a free gift of the grace of adoption. This we shall come into in its fullness on the day of redemption (“the adoption” [Rom. 8:23]). From that day on we shall experience the consummation of God’s saving purposes, and shall do so as much in our bodies as in our souls.”
Here’s part one of the interview with Dr. Trumper. In it he surveys the history of the doctrine of adoption within the church. It’s lengthy but worthy of a careful reading.
1. One of your desires for the church is that she would recover the doctrine of adoption. You’ve written elsewhere that adoption has not received its due attention within the history of the church. Why do you believe that adoption has been overshadowed by other doctrines?
Yes, that’s right Dan. The recovery of adoption is a passionate desire of mine, and has been for some fifteen years now. Surprisingly, there have been real challenges in persuading Christian folk that this recovery is necessary. A number of factors have obscured the neglect of adoption. I’m thinking especially of:
1. The prevalence of the language of adoption in prayer (note in this regard that every true believer possesses the Spirit of adoption [Rom. 8: 15; cf. Gal. 4:6]) and in hymnody (notably that of the Methodists and the Brethren).
2. The inclusion of the biblical word for adoption (huiothesia: Rom. 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5) in published lexicons and theological dictionaries.
If you look more broadly, however, you’ll find that adoption is conspicuous by either its absence from or its scant attention in the theological texts, the creeds and the confessions of the church. Contrast its treatment with that of its neighboring doctrines. How seismic and mature have been the treatments of justification and sanctification by comparison!
Perhaps the major proof of the neglect of adoption is the availability of reasons that explain it. Note for a start how adoption has suffered in connection with the broader neglect of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology). By and large it is true to say that with the exception of the interest of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), soteriology did not become a subject of sustained investigation until the Reformation. The major concerns of the early church were Trinitarian and Christological. The protracted Roman Catholic/Protestant disputes over justification ensured that soteriology came into its own as a major discussion point of the Christian church. Ironically, the interest in justification that created possibilities for the development of the doctrine of adoption became the chief reason it continued to be neglected. Simply put, adoption became thoroughly overshadowed by the controversies over justification.
Calvin’s interest in adoption stands out as a notable exception (note, for example, his claim that, “the gift of adoption bestows salvation entire”). Few, however, have recognized Calvin’s fondness for the adoption motif. Several reasons account for this: 1. The intensity and protraction of the general preoccupation with justification. Recall how the Reformation was followed by the Counter or Catholic Reformation. The Decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-63), which anathematized Protestants for their views, ensured the continuation of the theological preoccupation with justification. 2. The impact of the historic neglect of adoption on the study of Calvin. Readers of Calvin have simply not been looking for his thought on the doctrine. 3. The manner in which Calvin discusses adoption in his Institutes. While eight chapters are devoted to justification none are allotted to adoption. Thus Calvin’s readers have found little encouragement in the Institutes to look at what he says of adoption. What has passed them by, however, is the fact that doctrines of wide-ranging significance, such as union with Christ and adoption, receive no chapter in The Institutes precisely because their lessons cannot be confined to one, two or more chapters.
Little changed with the subsiding of the battles of the Reformation. Before long, challenges to the classic Protestant understanding of justification began to develop within Protestantism itself. These challenges, which included Deism, Arianism and Socinianism, Neonomianism and Arminianism, and, surprisingly the influence of Wesley, ensured that justification remained the preoccupation of Protestant soteriology. I’ll spare you their details — they can be read of in my doctoral dissertation, “An Historical Study of the Doctrine of Adoption in the Calvinistic Tradition” [University of Edinburgh, 2001, ch. 6] and in ch. 1 of my forthcoming book When History Teaches Us Nothing [Wipf and Stock]) — sufficient to say that they became an effective disincentive to the sort of creative orthodoxy necessary for the inclusion of adoption within Protestant discussions of the doctrine of salvation. Note, for example, what appears to have been the deliberate action of John Wesley in eradicating every mention of adoption from his revision of the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism (notwithstanding the emphasis eighteenth-century Methodists placed on the possession of the Spirit of adoption). This astonishing action is explained best, in all likelihood, by the close connection between adoption and predestination (see Eph. 1:4-5 especially).
Accordingly, between c.1650-1830 adoption gradually became lost to view. Many individual Puritans wrote pieces on adoption, as Joel Beeke has recently shown (“Transforming Power and Comfort: The Puritans on Adoption” in The Faith Once Delivered, edited by Anthony T. Selvaggio [P&R]), but after the Westminster Assembly the doctrine ceased to occupy the place it enjoys in the theology of Calvin and in the Westminster Standards. Part of the reason for this was that the Westminster commissioners — who produced the first confession of faith to include a chapter on adoption — did little to weave the doctrine’s implications throughout them. Thus, instead of working to improve the tradition’s reflection of the theological emphases and tone of the New Testament, the subsequent tradition allowed the Fatherhood of God and adoption to fade from the everyday discussion of the theology of Calvinism. In consequence of this, Calvinism came to express the retrospective aspects of the atonement (what we are saved from) at the expense of its prospective aspects (what we are saved to), and the juridical (legal) aspects of the gospel at the expense of its relational (or specifically familial) elements. Perhaps the clearest single evidence of this change within Calvinism is found in the claim of the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century Southern Presbyterian Robert A. Webb that “Calvin wrote nothing whatsoever on adoption”! (The Reformed Doctrine of Adoption, Eerdmans, 1947). This claim tells us far more of the post-Westminster Assembly development of Calvinism than it does of the theology of Calvin.
A backlash against the lopsidedness of Westminster Calvinism was bound to occur at some point. When it did, it was led by two unlikely rebels: Scotsmen Thomas Erskine of Linlathen (1788-1870) and John McLeod Campbell (1800-72). Whereas Erskine’s protests led him eventually into Universalism, Campbell adopted (excuse the pun!) such a novel doctrine of atonement that it became impossible for Evangelicals within the Church of Scotland to take to heart his protest against the Calvinism of his day (at least, that which he experienced in Scotland). Quite the contrary, his contribution to the development of Victorian liberalism meant that his promising emphases on the Fatherhood of God and Christian sonship became linked ever after with a liberal view of theology, and were thus ignored. Even today, conservative Presbyterians, in writing off McLeod Campbell’s protest, overlook its kernel of truth; namely his highlighting of the need to balance the retrospective/prospective elements of atonement and the jusridical/familial aspects of the gospel.
This fear of Victorian liberalism has, more recently, been supplemented by a fear of Charismatic influences. The Charismatic stress on the relational (especially familial) elements of the gospel makes it difficult for the more suspicious type of mind to embrace what, in actuality, are New Testament themes. Ironically, not all Charismatics perceive themselves the way the Reformed perceive them. I think of leading Charismatic theologian Thomas Smail for instance, who, in his book The Forgotten Father, asks whether Charismatics have in fact emphasized the Spirit at the expense of the Father. Well, it’s not for me to answer that.
All I am trying to say here is that there are sufficient lessons from church history to suggest that adoption has been neglected, and that it is high time we recovered it. Reformed Christians have less excuse than anyone else in not participating in this recovery, for no tradition of theology has, to my knowledge, done as much with the doctrine in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras.
Some progress has been made in recent years. We now have available a study of the fortunes of the doctrine of adoption covering the course of the last two millennia, with special reference to the Calvinistic tradition. There are also more widely available the publication of biblical studies across a range of theological traditions, which studies afford us an opportunity to understand better the biblical data. A more mature understanding of this data and its application to the multiple issues surrounding the doctrine will further to no end the task of (re-)integrating adoption into the established content and everyday discussion of the Christian faith.