Fundamental Question #2: Is Paul’s Language of Adoption to Be Taken Literally or Metaphorically? (Continued)
Conservative theologians are united in their belief that God’s adoptive grace in Christ is a reality ~ indeed, a wonderful reality!
Some think or assume Paul’s references to adoption are literal, which is to say that God has actually adopted his people. Others understand the references to be metaphorical, meaning that God has not actually adopted us. Rather, by speaking of our divine acceptance in terms of adoption we have been equipped to articulate our acceptance in a way which otherwise would not be possible (other than by an alternative metaphor perhaps).
The former perspective illustrates what philosophers call naive realism, and the latter critical realism. While the terms unfortunately sound pejorative ~ seeming to imply naivete of the mind or criticism of Scripture~ they help us to identify the choice of perspectives on offer. We consider them in turn in the Adoption Nuggets which follow.
The Case for a Literal or Naive-Realistic understanding of Adoption
When we say that God has literally adopted his people, we mean that his adoption of us is archetypal. On this understanding, adoption is a procedure which originates with Him and not with us. Accordingly, adoption among humans is derived or ectypal, which is to say that societal adoption replicates God’s original action in some way, albeit on a scale reflective of our humanity and context.
A number of factors may be posited in support of this literal view of Paul’s language of adoption.
Firstly, there is the explicit wording of Scripture. Writes Paul in Ephesians 3:14: “. . . I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”. Since “every family” is named from the Father, our adoption into the household of God, mentioned earlier in the epistle, must be original to God (see Eph. 1:5 and 2:19). From this standpoint, adoption is not a metaphor, but a statement of fact and of seminal divine action.
Secondly, we must take account of the fact that Paul never states, when using huiothesia, which human or societal practice of adoption he has in mind. If he were utilizing the language of huiothesia metaphorically, would he not tell us explicitly which had influenced his description of God’s acceptance of us? Since he wrote in Greek he naturally uses a Hellenistic term for adoption, but this does not imply that Paul’s use of huiothesia (the placing of a son) is shaped around Greek adoptive practices. In fact, his use of huiothesia in Ephesians 1:5, Romans 9:4, Galatians 4:4-6, Romans 8:15-16, and 22-23 suggests he fills the term with theological content correlating to no human practice exactly. Is it not more likely, then, that the societal practices ape the divine action, than that Paul is depicting the divine action in terms of an unidentified or unsettled societal practice?
Thirdly, our greatest theologian of adoption, John Calvin, never, to my recollection, refers to adoption as a metaphor. Since my studies of Calvin on adoption have been comprehensive rather than exhaustive, it is possible that there is some undiscovered place in his writings in which he explains how Paul’s language of adoption functions. Yet, in the absence of any explanation to date, it is plausible to argue that the reformer understood adoption to be a literal reality. Certainly, this reading of Calvin is more weighty than any given claim, actual or hypothetical, that he was insensitive to the humanness of Scripture. After all, throughout his writings Calvin acknowledges a number of literary tools found in Scripture: metaphorae, figurae, similtudines, or comparatines. Since he does not, so far as we know, categorize the language of adoption in any of these terms, we ponder whether the best explanation for this is that he understood Paul’s references to adoption to be literal.
Fourthly, this view frees us from having to determine whether Paul’s teaching on the subject was influenced by Semitic, Greek or Roman practices. Instead, we have a straight run at investigating the coherent context and content of Paul’s uses of huiothesia. Gone are the obligations to figure out a number of uncertainties. For example:
1. The identification of the societal practice influencing Paul’s understanding of adoption (which was, fundamentally, a reading of redemptive history).
2. The discerning of the specific elements of the identified societal practice Paul utilized.
3. The junctures at which he wove in the elements into his teaching of adoption.
4. The correlation between Paul’s clear redemptive-historical understanding of adoption and the elements of the societal practice from which he draws.
Those circumnavigating these complexities note how Paul takes us back beyond any ancient adoptive practices to God’s eternal predestining of us to adoption (Eph. 1:5). Since adoption began in the mind of God, why, the naive realist asks, should we feel obliged to understand our adoption in Christ in terms of the action of human community? After all, we are given so little in Scripture to help us do so.
Evidently, the naive realist has a case to be answered. Since there are two sides to every argument we will consider next time, Lord willing, the metaphorical or critical-realistic point of view. No matter where the argument ends up, all doubtless agree that God’s grace of adoption is not only a wonderful reality but one that is most profound. The words of Augustine come to mind: “If you can understand it, it is not God.”
*John Sowers’ personal invitation to join him October 17-18 in Greenville, SC.
This year’s Together for Adoption conference will give you a handle on the global orphan crisis and the primary issues with which we should be concerned. Never before have we had this many experts join us for a conference (see here, here, and here). If you’ve wanted to get a handle on the issues, this is your opportunity. We hope you’ll join us.
Together for Adoption National Conference 2014 is less than 2 weeks away! We are excited to welcome everyone to the beautiful Upstate of South Carolina to explore and consider this year’s theme: Urgency & Complexity: Biblical & Ethical Approaches to the Orphan Crisis. What’s special about this year’s conference? Take a look:
*Re-post from June 20, 2012. ”Why is your mommy White?”, a blog post from 2012, has received very significant increase in traffic over the past few days. Although I cannot be absolutely certain, I’m confident the recent events in Ferguson are the primary reason for the blog post’s increased traffic. So, I thought I would re-post that article as well as make readers aware of one workshop in particular that we are offering at our October 17-18 national conference:
“Advice for White Parents of African-American Children in a Post-Ferguson World” led by Dr. Toney Parks (October 18, Saturday, 12:15pm – 1:00pm). Dr. Parks is a 1980 Criminal Justice graduate of the University of South Carolina. He received a Masters Divinity degree from Erskine College and Theological Seminary and earned a Doctorate degree in counseling from Westminster Theological Seminary. Dr. Parks is also an Assistant Professor of Biblical Counseling & Practical Ministry at Erskine Theological Seminary and has been the pastor of the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist church since 1991.
Whatever the reason for the increased interest in “Why is your mommy White?”, I thought I would re-post the article here:
She asked my son an honest question, and he gave her a surprising answer: ”Noah, why is your mommy White?”
As I’ve written about before on this blog, my family is multi-ethnic. Melissa and I are White, our daughter is White, and our two sons are Black. We live in a fairly racially diverse neighborhood (Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics), and our children attend racially diverse schools.
My youngest (pictured below) was asked the above question a year ago when he was in 2nd grade. He was just 7 years old. My wife happened to be volunteering in the classroom that day. One of my son’s Black classmates heard him call this visiting White woman “Mommy.” So, this classmate quite understandably asked him what she had been wondering, “Noah, why is your mommy White?”
Noah’s answer was immediate and matter-of-fact. He simply replied (actually, not so simply), “That’s not a question that Martin Luther King, Jr. would ask. It’s the content of your character that matters, not the color of your skin.” Wow.
My 7 year old son could have simply answered, “Well, I was adopted by a White family. My parents are White, my sister is White, and my brother and I are Black.” That’s basically what Noah’s teacher was expecting him to say. What he did say, though, revealed that he was living within a much larger narrative—within the same basic narrative in which Martin Luther King, Jr. had lived.
The month before, Noah’s class had studied Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. Martin Luther King’s story so gripped Noah that he began to think about life differently, more deeply.
My son reminded me of something profound that day.
We have been given larger narratives in which to live, narratives that have the power to transform the way we think, talk, and live. Unknown to me (and his classmate), Noah had begun living within a larger narrative that was changing the way he viewed the world and how we are to live within it. Martin Luther King’s story was changing the way Noah thought about race relations on a very practical level. That day Noah reminded me that the narratives we live by really matter—a lot. He was the teacher and I was the student.
Since that day a little over a year ago, I have thought a good bit about how the meta-narrative of God’s Gospel-work of adoption within human history should change the way we think and live each day. “There is,” after all, as J. R. R. Tolkien writes, “no [story] ever told that men would rather find was true” (“On Fairy Stories”). Thank you, Noah, for reminding me of the importance of living within the right narrative.
Learn more about this year’s October 17-18 conference.
You do not need to know an orphan personally to change the life of an orphan for the better.
We all know this.
We live in a day when it’s never been easier to help someone who lives on the other side of the world—even if that someone is an orphan.
Well, believe it or not, it’s even gotten easier.
But before I go on about this year’s conference…
Don’t let the word ‘adoption‘ in the name Together for Adoption fool you. T4A isn’t mainly about adopting children (or even primarily about that). In Together for Adoption, adoption is mainly about God’s cosmic work of Adoption (Romans 8:23).
Biblically, adoption isn’t even mainly about our entrance into the family of God, as great and as wonderful as that is. In Paul’s thinking, adoption is mainly about our participation in the grand Story of Redemption. When God adopts us, He’s written us into the greatest unfolding Story of human history ever told—the Story that involves nothing less than the future renewal of all creation.
So…when we in the evangelical orphan care and adoption movement work to alleviate an orphan’s suffering—when we obey James 1:27 —we provide this very day a foretaste of God’s future work of the renewal of all creation. We provide the watching world a foretaste of the great day when creation “will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
This understanding of the relationship between God’s work of adoption and our care for orphans is extremely important, as it transforms not only the way we think about orphan care but also the way we practice it.
Not counting our emcee (Johnny Carr) and this year’s worship leader (Randall Goodgame), you will hear from 18 different people in our main sessions this year. Six of them will speak for 30 minutes while 12 of them will speak for 10 world-shaping minutes (if you are familiar with TED Talks, you are already familiar with the format we will use)
Each of the six 30-minute talks with be followed by a panel of key leaders within the adoption movement who will join her/him on stage to discuss the presentation and what its implementation would mean in our care for at-risk children. In addition to these onstage discussions, you’ll have the opportunity to hear our twelve 10-minute speakers expand upon their visions in smaller workshop settings. Never before have you had this many opportunities to interact with the leading thinkers out there like you will at this year’s T4A conference. Words can shape the world—and that includes the world of orphan care.
Join us October 17-18 for Together for Adoption National Conference 2014 in Greenville, SC. Learn more: http://www.togetherforadoption.org/2014
Note About the Video: The waterfall in the video is a bit more impressive than even we remembered. Sorry about all the noise during the recording. If you think about it, though, the sound of the water does “fit” contextually with the message of the video (“voice like the roar of many waters”; Rev. 1:15)… Judge for yourself!
*Video was filmed at Falls Park in Downtown Greenville.
To all our Facebook friends and Twitter followers: Whether or not you are attending our October 17-18 Together for Adoption conference here in Greenville, South Carolina, would you consider helping us spread the word via Twitter and/or Facebook status updates (or, if you have one, even on your blog)? Can’t tell you how much it would mean to us if you did.
We’ve even provided ready-made tweets to make it easy for you: http://www.togetherforadoption.org/2014/tweets/
Thank you so very much in advance!
To help you dive deeper into the critical issues surrounding caring for at-risk children, we are excited to offer workshops at this year’s Together for Adoption National Conference that cut through the noise.
Session: A Deeper Look at the Gospel of Adoption as Family Reunification
Speaker: Dan Cruver
Description: How many of us within the evangelical orphan care and adoption movement talk like this? “In the Bible, adoption is never about taking orphans and making them sons and daughters of God. It’s always about God taking the enslaved and giving them the incomparable freedom of joy-filled sonship in His household.” Not many of us talk this way and the evangelical orphan care movement is the weaker for it. Join Dan for this workshop as he expands upon his main session talk “The Gospel of Adoption as Family Reunification” and provides opportunity for continued discussion.
Session: Thriving (and Not Simply Surviving) as an Adoptive or Foster Family
Speaker: Jason Kovacs
Description: Adoption and foster care are filled with incredible joy and great brokenness. Many families find themselves on the other side of a placement and wonder what happened? In this session we will address the common challenges adoptive/foster parents face in raising children from hard places. We will provide some simple principles and strategies utilizing the best of TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention) and the gospel to not simply survive as an adoptive parent but to thrive by God’s grace and see your children heal.
Session: Adoption 101
Speaker: Laura Beauvais-Godwin (Nightlight)
Description: Nearly everyone who seeks to adopt does so, and you can too. There are at least six ways to become parents through adoption. In this discussion we will share how to select the best route based on your qualifications, desires, strengths, and the child’s needs.
Session: Faithfully Funding your Adoption
Speaker: Tami Burkett (ABBA Fund)
Description: Scriptural encouragement, practical solutions & creativity that makes you say “WOW” “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) You know in your heart that God has called you to adopt You know His Word says He will generously provide: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Cor 9:8) But when faced with $20K to $40K, the doubt creeps in. Come hear about practical solutions like grants, tax credits, fundraising ideas, and loans (if you still need one after trying these other solutions) — and where to find them! And stick around to the end to participate in a spotlight of some of the most creative — and effective — fundraising ideas from other adoptive families.
Session: Navigating Foster Care
Speakers: Lisa Prather and Ashley Lucenti (NightlightThe Bair Foundation)
Description: Not everyone is called to adopt, but we are all called to care for orphans. What about foster care? Is it right for our family? How will having a foster child affect my family? Isn’t it hard to care for a child only to have them leave your home after a short time? What are the guidelines and rules for foster parents? How do I know if I have what it takes? We will answer all of these questions and more in the Navigating Foster Care workshop.
Session: An Adult Adoptee’s Practical Discussion
Speaker: Nemili Johnson (T4A)
Description: Nemili Johnson was adopted as a toddler and has a unique perspective on adoption. She has worked to process and intimately understand the fears and concerns that adoptive parents and adoptees both feel toward various aspects of adoption. This breakout session will present a compilation of adult adoptees’ blogged thoughts, perceptions, and experiences around being adopted. Nemili will bring to light many topics which adoptive parents may be unaware of or do not yet know how to process. She will then explore ways on how to understand these adoptees’ perspectives by revealing practical components that can help parents better understand their own adoptee(s) and bring them new spiritual hope for the future.
Session: Trading in Fear for Faith as you Consider Serving
Speaker: Shelly Roberts (Abba Fund)
Description: Have you wondered if God might be calling you to care for those with special needs either through adoption or fostering? Does the thought of that have you scared silly? Whether you are considering special needs or already in deep, come be encouraged to trade in fear for faith as you serve.
Session: Older Child Adoption – Do You Have What It Takes?
Panelists: Julia MacKenzie, Jerry Tucker, and Agnes Tucker (Foster Care Panel)
Description: Most waiting children around the world and in the U.S. are older or in sibling groups. Wondering how you could manage? Afraid your child won’t bond? Worried your child will have “issues”? Come hear from our experienced panel including a teen adoptee! Bring your hardest questions and your greatest fears and we will keep it real. Panel with discussion and Q & A format.
Session: Helping Orphan via Sustainable Business
Speaker: Andy Lehman (Lifesong)
Description: This workshop will best serve any sized church orphan ministry desiring to be holistic or any entrepreneurs or business-minded individuals wanting to share their expertise to bring culture change to an orphan environment. Sharing what we have learnt from recent successes and pitfalls, we will consider how to grow sustainable agricultural business to create jobs, promote self-worth for orphan caregivers, provide future jobs for orphans as they age, and ultimately bless orphans in a holistic and sustainable way.
Session: What Great Teams Share
Speaker: Dr. Will Gray
Description: No matter why your organization exists, your success or failure will be dramatically influenced by your team’s ability to work well together and lead your organization well. The challenge? Most people are never taught how to work well on teams, or how to build great teams. In this workshop, learn the qualities that great teams share, and how to begin strengthening your own team to be happier, more effective, and more successful as they lead your organization.
Dr. Will Gray is the President of ALIGN, where he helps leadership teams work better together. He has helped more than 100 organizations with communications, identity and strategy consulting, from startups and nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies. He believes each organization has a unique identity that can help it to succeed.
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Fundamental Question #2: Is Paul’s Language of Adoption to Be Taken Literally or Metaphorically?
By challenging the admixture of the filial and familial language of Paul and John so prevalent in treatments of adoption, we have disentangled John’s terminology relevant to the new birth from Paul’s germane to the believer’s adoption in Christ. In summary of what we considered last time, the filial terms used by each apostle are similar, but bespeak different elements of our salvation. John speaks of our regeneration and Paul of our acceptance in Christ. It is, then, precisely because these motifs differ that they are distinctively-structured. They share some terms in common (notably “Father,” “sons,” and “children”), yet the motifs they shape are distinguished by Paul’s exclusive use of huiothesia (the placing of a son) on the one hand, and John’s use of gennao (to beget, to give birth) and its derivatives on the other.
With this point made, we take up a second question pertinent to our dippings into metaphorical theology: Has God literally adopted his people as his sons, or has his Spirit inspired Paul to describe our acceptance in Christ by means of the adoption metaphor or model (see later)? The question is worth posing for two reasons:
Reason #1: Interest is hard to come by.
Few interested in adoption recognize this question or go on to tackle it. Writers use the term “adoption” profusely, but either presume it to be a literal reality or a metaphorical expression. Why there has been scant discussion of the alternatives is hard to tell. I can but offer some suggestions.
First, the silence is part of a broader neglect of the discussion of the function of religious language. Surprisingly, the comprehending of how biblical figures of speech depict the reality of God’s dealings with us is largely untouched.
Secondly, Scripture seems to give us few clear indications of how its language works. This likely explains why theologians assume one of two general philosophical positions: naive or critical realism. Whereas the naive realist perceives the external world as it really is (meaning in this context that God has truly and really adopted his people), the critical realist perceives the external world as a representative reality (meaning that adoption is a way of describing our acceptance in Christ accommodated to our finite minds). Only more Bible-based discussion of the variant naive and critical realist options will tell us the degree to which Scripture speaks to the matter.
Thirdly, it seems to me there has been a fear of going beyond Scripture. In principle, this is laudable. As a strong advocate of the injection of biblical-theological concerns into the discipline of systematic theology (following the likes of John Calvin, John Murray, John Frame, and Richard Gaffin), I would not want us to veer into the realm of speculation. But there is an opposite danger, and that is of falling short of what Scripture teaches. As those called to love God with all of our minds (as well as our hearts, etc.), we must not shirk the difficult questions (to quote scholar O.T. Allis, or was it Robert Dick Wilson?). To borrow Calvin’s axiom, it is only where Scripture leaves off teaching that we leave off learning.
Reason #2: Answers are hard to come by.
The question we are taking up inquires whether adoption is archetypal to God, in which case we image-bearers have derived societal adoption from him; or, whether Paul wrote from out of his Hebrew and Graeco-Roman world, having been inspired by the Holy Spirit to describe our acceptance in Christ by means of adoption. We have said enough to anticipate that the naive realist, with his emphasis on literal reality, concurs with the former understanding of the language of adoption, and the critical realist, perceiving the world in terms of representative reality, with the latter. As we’ll see, the naive realist gets on with explicating Paul’s use of adoption in terms of its positioning in his writings and theology. The critical realist spends more time investigating the metaphorical garb ~ in effect, what is not literally true ~ but does so in order to discern from Semitic, Greek, or Roman backgrounds to Paul’s use of adoption what is actually true.
In my own writings to date I have taken more of a critical realist position, but, truthfully, by an assumption originating in the early to mid 1990s rather than by a self-conscious decision. So I revisit this issue with some humility and open-mindedness. I cannot promise dogmatic answers, but do think that the discussion helps to deepen our appreciation of the profundity of what it means, through faith in Christ, to be adopted sons, daughters, or children of God.
[A more extensive consideration of the discussion introduced here is found in 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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