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.
Because of the length and richness of Dr. Timothy Trumper’s answers, his interview will be posted in six parts (you can read part 1 here). 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’s part 2:
2. Why do you believe it is important for the doctrine of adoption to be recovered?
Well, the general answer is that the recovery of adoption would contribute markedly to the completion of the church’s theological task. More specifically, it would show Christians of a Reformed persuasion how they can even out the largely unrecognized lopsided features of their theology in a manner reflective of the balance of Scripture, the earlier example of Calvin and, to some degree, the Westminster Standards. Allow me to explain.
First, 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.
This more balanced approach to the expression of the Bible’s doctrine of salvation promises dividends for the level of joy among our ranks. Remember, it was the experience of joylessness among McLeod Campbell’s parishioners that first spawned his early-nineteenth century protest against Westminster Calvinism — a protest repeated recently along more orthodox lines by Jack Miller (I refer to World Harvest Mission’s Sonship Discipleship Course). Whatever we think of these initiatives, they share an important nugget of truth; namely, that the recovery of adoptive sonship is relevant to our reflection of the victory of the gospel. We are, says Paul, hyper-conquerors through Christ who loved us! The apostle’s language of adoption helps us express this.
Second, 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.
Note in this regard the three biblical occurrences of the form of address “Abba, Father” (Mk. 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). First, it is used by our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane, then twice by Paul in connection with adoption. With its combination of Aramaic (“Abba”) and Greek (“Father” [patēr]), the prayer indicates the international make-up of God’s family. Racial differences remain but cease to be the defining factors of who we are.
Third, the recovery of adoption would balance our sense of individualism with a greater awareness of the importance of Christian community. In years to come we may look back and conclude that the call for the balancing of the individual and corporate or communal aspects of salvation has been the single most important contribution of the so-called “new perspective” on Paul. What I do not see lasting, however, is N. T. Wright’s redefining of justification in terms of membership of the covenant community. For to obtain this redefinition he has had to overlook the specifics of Paul’s language in Romans 8 and Galatians 3-4, opting to translate huiothesia as “sonship” rather than “adoption”. That said, I do not see opponents of the new perspective successfully refuting it until they begin to supplement their repetition of the classic Protestant doctrine of justification with due attention to adoption. This is because adoption, replete with its corporate or communal implications, constitutes a major way the NT balances out the individual and communal aspects of the gospel. Freed lawbreakers may retain, for a short while, a family-like bond; but, in the norm, it is brothers and sisters who will maintain the stronger and longer-lasting connection. The combination of adoption and good parenting is one way the gospel explains the strength of this connection, for it tells of a heavenly Father who not only brings us near to himself, but also near to each other.
So why is there, then, such a deplorable lack of unity in the church? Could it be that the acrimony, sectarianism, and racism is due in part to the fact that we live more like freed convicts than as siblings? While it is true that siblings fall out, there remains typically a strong underlying commitment to each other. If, then, we revised our understanding of the church, regarding it more as a family, would we not witness increased levels of commitment to each other? As things stand, we tend to walk away from each other rather than face the spiritual challenges of reconciliation. Ecclesial and/or institutional politics, which hijack biblical processes, sometimes give us no alternative. In such instances the church ceases to be the place of healing that it ought to be. She has, in fact, aped the world.
Fourth, the recovery of adoption would help us even out our views of God. He is not only our Judge but our Father. The language of Fatherhood, however, has become in the twenty-first century as odious as the thought of God’s justice became to Victorian liberals. While many men are wonderful fathers, the female chauvinism of the day, the reality of paternal absenteeism and — worst still — of paternal brutality, have combined to bring the notion of fatherhood into disrepute. The recovery of adoption could, I imagine, challenge this significantly.
First we must overcome the cultural objections to the idea of divine paternity. We call God “Father” because this is the language the Spirit has given us in Scripture and by his indwelling in our hearts. As maternal as is the Bible’s depiction of God’s Fatherhood (e.g. Is. 66:13), Scripture never tells us to address God as “Mother”. According to Paul, it is the church that is, from one angle, our mother (Gal. 4:26). Secondly, the substitution of the language of Fatherhood for Motherhood would solve little. For every heavy-handed father who renders the language of divine paternity psychologically challenging, there is a screeching mother who, given the opportunity, would present the same challenges to the concept of divine maternity. Thirdly, church history teaches us that those with poor or limited experiences of human fatherhood have found the idea of God’s heavenly Fatherhood highly attractive. I think of Calvin whose emphasis on the Fatherhood of God may well have been influenced by his estranged relationship to his earthly father. I think of Robert S. Candlish, leader of the Free Church of Scotland after the death of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), whose interest in the Fatherhood of God was, at one level, likely influenced by the early loss of his father. More recently Thomas Smail has stated categorically that his interest in the Fatherhood of God was shaped by the father he never knew. How much more attractive, then, does God’s heavenly Fatherhood become when it is mirrored, albeit palely, by an earthly father? That was John McLeod Campbell’s experience. Mine too.
In short, the recovery of adoption holds out the possibility of a fresh appreciation of the notion of fatherhood. For adoption teaches us of our heavenly Father who, in his motherly fathering, is the perfect pattern of human parenting.