Fundamental Question #2: Is Paul’s Language of Adoption to Be Taken Literally or Metaphorically? (Continued)
Since, to my knowledge, there is no source to which we may go to compare in full the arguments for the naive- and critical-realist readings of Paul on adoption, we have begun to identify the respective cases which may be made in favor of their literal and metaphorical approaches.
The naive-realist could, I’ve posited, defend the literal reading on four grounds:
1. Paul’s view in Ephesians 3:14 that “every family in heaven and on earth is named” from the Father. This process, we note, is top down not bottom up, meaning that the naming ~ a matter worth exploring ~ comes from God and not from man.
2. The absence of a definitive identification in the New Testament of the societal practice influencing Paul’s language of adoption.
3. The absence in Calvin, to my knowledge or remembrance, of the categorization of adoption as a figure of speech.
4. The freedom the literal reading affords us to expound Paul’s uses of huiothesia on his own terms; that is to say, without having to:
A. Identify throughout, and without available guidelines, the influence of Semitic, Greek, or Roman practices of adoption.
B. Determine how the possible influence of background and the actual teaching of Paul’s letters correlate.
In short, the naive realist proceeds to a straightforward exposition of Paul’s use of huiothesia, believing adoption to begin with God and not man. The parallels between God’s adoption of the believer and man’s adoption of another are explained in terms of the vestiges of the divine image in man. Although fallen, man has gotten his societal practices of adoption from God. In a nutshell, God’s adoption is archetypal (original to him), but man’s is ectypal (derived from his). Thus, to the naive realist the concern to identify the social practice of adoption influencing Paul ~ whether Semitic, Greek, or Roman ~ is largely irrelevant.
The Case for a Metaphorical or Critical-Realistic understanding of Adoption
We would be naive ~ excuse the pun! ~ to think that the critical-realist has no response. Three main arguments come to mind, each forming a step in the journey from the literal to the metaphorical reading of Paul’s use of huiothesia.
Firstly, the critical-realist stresses that the ways of God are ultimately beyond the language of man. Accordingly, the literal reading of adoption is very limited. While God and man view the same grace of adoption, they do so very differently. Whereas God considers adoption from his infinite, eternal, and all-knowing vantage point as the dispenser of this grace, man requires revelation in order to learn of it. Once he has, he can only ponder the grace from a finite, temporal, and limited perspective, and, in contrast to God, as one who is a potential or actual receiver of the adoption. Certainly the perspectives of God (the adopter) and man (the adoptee) overlap, but, argues the critical realist, we get above ourselves if we think of a literal reading of Paul’s references to adoption as a full or exhaustive account of what God has done in accepting his people. We can know of adoption only to the degree that God has spoken of it, and to the extent we have experienced it. The naive realist would not disagree.
Secondly, I anticipate the critical realist claiming that God’s revealing of adoption is accommodated to our human capacities. Those familiar with John Calvin will immediately recall his belief that God accommodates his interaction with man to human sinfulness on the one hand and to human limitations on the other. Thus, notwithstanding Calvin’s silence about how we are to read Paul’s language of adoption, his general thought opens up the possibility that Paul’s use of huiothesia is accommodated to our limitations. On this understanding, the language of adoption is God’s baby-talk version of how he accepts believers as his children. He has not actually adopted us, but by describing our acceptance in terms of adoption, God is able to convey to us in a graphic and powerful way what his embrace means to him and to us. The baby-talk, then, enables God to get through to us, despite our mental and spiritual limitations, the genuine truth of acceptance in Christ. Without the language of adoption (or of other comparable metaphors or models), we would be left with the bare concept of acceptance, and unable to speak of its wonder except in the briefest, dullest, and most repetitive way. The concept permits us to say “I am accepted in Christ!”, but that’s about all. Its metaphorical garb ~ in this case the rich teaching of adoption ~ enables us to say so much more, and in ways which light up the mind and grab the heart!
Thirdly, the critical realist would have us remember that the metaphors or models of Scripture are consistent with what we know of the Bible. Holy Scripture is God’s Word, but it possesses both divineness and humanness. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and yet the Spirit made use of the differing life experiences and styles of writing of the authors who contributed to Scripture. It follows that there is no contradiction between the influence of the Holy Spirit on Paul, and his depiction of the believer’s acceptance by God in terms of a societal practice of one ancient form or another. Accordingly, a metaphorical reading of Paul’s use of huiothesia is both legitimate and feasible. Adoption is such an appealing motif because it decorates the wonderful fact but bare concept of our acceptance in Jesus. A product of the inspiration of the apostle Paul, adoption also grants us increased insight into what the acceptance means for those united through faith to Christ.
All this begs the question “Which reading shall we endorse? The literal or the metaphorical?” It’s a tough call! Each case compels, but each raises questions meriting further consideration. Do join me in praying for further light, and in pondering whether we are obliged to embrace one reading to the exclusion of the other.
To follow the conversation from the beginning, go to: www.fromhisfullness.com
Yes, the orphan crisis is complicated, but there are simple steps to move us toward attainable solutions. When we think of the world-wide orphan crisis, one way to motivate ourselves to action is recognizing there really are simple solutions!
Believe it or not, we are already closer to solutions that will help orphaned and vulnerable children than we might have thought. Don’t be paralyzed by the complexity of the crisis. Be energized by simple solutions each of us can take. Each person, each church, each organization, and even each of our children can make a real difference.
Together for Adoption is working to finalize Five Simple Steps you can take that can help significantly in orphan prevention, family preservation and reunification. And when those efforts are not possible, you can have a part in facilitating ethical indigenous, domestic, and international adoption.
Your support makes the difference in helping orphaned and vulnerable children both in the U.S. and around the world. Together for Adoption exists to provide gospel-centered resources that magnify the adopting grace of God the Father in Christ Jesus and mobilize the church for global orphan care. With God’s sustaining grace and your help, we can achieve our year-end goal of $50,000 and you can contribute easily to this goal via our secure website. Thank you for standing with us. We look forward to a great year of ministry in 2015.
We are amazed and humbled to look back on the last 8 years to see what God has done through T4A. Our team begins each year unsure of what God has in store for us next. We are learning that each new year is in His sovereign, kind, and gracious hands. Looking back, we have seen God bring about:
—13 conferences (domestic and international in 5 continents)
—4 Live in the Story Events | Theological Boot Camps
—2 full-length books
—Over 1,200 posts and print articles
Many of you may not know that no member of the T4A team receives a salary. We have donated much of our own resources and time and have also relied on the generous contributions of friends and donors. By God’s grace the conferences have covered themselves.
In addition to our conferences, in 2015 we hope to continue to provide gospel-centered resources and training to churches and leaders in the US and around the world. This is where we need your help!
—online training in gospel-centered orphan care
—translate Reclaiming Adoption into Spanish
—development of resources to equip the church (both in video & print)
Would you consider partnering with us this year to help make this happen? The donating process is user-friendly, whether it is a $5 or $5,000 gift.
Yours in Christ,
Dan, Jason, and the T4A Team
By the way, our 2015 national conference is November 5-7 at The Summit Church in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Scott Crawford, longtime T4A volunteer staff member, lost his father last week to a long battle with cancer. In honor of Scott’s father, I wanted to share the beautiful eulogy that Scott wrote for his dad.
A eulogy by son, Scott Crawford
He stayed true to his wife and best friend for nearly 50 years. A covenant “to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” breached only by his passing over into the presence of the one true King…that which we celebrate today.
He parented 3 children, watching 2 of them follow in his footsteps serving their country in the U.S. military. He, along with our mother, Pat raised and supported us through thick and thin, never begrudging…always forgiving.
As the son of Pearl and Stanley, he knew of his father’s service in the Great War and his ultimate sacrifice for liberty. What may come as a surprise to many of you, he was adopted at the hospital the day he was born, never to know anything of his biological parents.
As the much younger sibling to his older, adopted brother he became an uncle at a very young age. Walt moved to the Virginia coast near Norfolk – I can still remember the trip to visit the warships at the port and spending time with my cousins, the youngest of his multiple children.
Many of you present today knew my father, Stan as a loyal, selfless, big-hearted (and light-hearted), cheerful friend. Always the jokester, dad was the eternal optimist and knew how to brighten the conversation no matter the subject matter.
Some of you came to know him as the stalwart, devoted patriot who spent 8 years of his life serving in the Armed Forces. He loved this country, the liberty and values he defended while serving and all his years after.
Lastly, revisiting this list of adjectives, the legacy dad would want to leave behind is not one of his accomplishments or accolades. He would love to tell and retell stories of his experiences, of both failures and successes. On the contrary, he would rather tell you about how his marriage covenant was a three-way covenant between himself, Pat and God. He would want to tell of how he came to know the Father, and his love for Stan. Dad would want you to know that he became a son of the living God, co-heir with Jesus the Son…of the brotherhood of the saints through his redemption and reunification into God’s family. How he has now joined friends and fellow soldiers who have also accepted the free gift of salvation and now rejoices in heaven with his Savior. My father would want you to know that the same Father that has welcomed him home is the same Father of the lost, the fatherless, the broken-hearted, the sick, the lame, the poor, the rich and everyone in between….that he loves you as well and is waiting for you to respond to His message of mercy, grace and forgiveness.
Fun picture of Scott’s father when he was the lead singer in a band a “few years” ago. Looks like they should have rivaled The Beatles!
Note: Theologically, adoption is both (1) placement in the family of God and (2) reconciliation and reunification. We’re not looking for a complete paradigm change away from child placement but a shift to include and stress reconciliation and reunification. This is not a new position for Together for Adoption (see this 2010 post). It’s not either/or but both/and. We believe making this shift to include reconciliation will strengthen the practice of domestic, indigenous, and international adoption.
But I still don’t automatically think of adoption as reunification. I think over the last several years as we’ve been talking about this conference and just praying, we’ve even been struck [with how Paul's uses 'adoption'—I realized you've said this for years, that I was even convicted that maybe I wasn't fully understanding what you were [teaching on adoption as reconciliation] last few year or something. But we’ve heard it, but as we planned this conference we thought, ”Let’s say [adoption is first reconciliation] as clearly as possible. I’d love to hear your thoughts as to way this has not been shard more clearly taught and understodd in the evangelical church?
I don’t have all the reasons, but two of the reasons is I think we grow up in a culture, and when you grow up in a particular culture, a Christian culture, you hear words being used since you’re young over and over, so that, that really shapes and informs how you think about that word. So anytime a word, um, comes to the point where that word comes to a significant difference in meaning…words, you define words by how they are used in particular contexts.
So when you hear the word adoption heard in the context of a child being placed in another family—and that’s what I’ve been hearing since I can remember—that’s how we primarily think. And then when you start looking at Scripture—and I think when of the seminal moments for me was (I left it somewhere) that book there by Herman Ridderbos, Dutch Theologian, um, he had , ah, a chapter entitled, ‘Reconciliation’, and then he said several sub- titles, sub- sections, and one of them was adoption.
So when I read that, that’s when it first clicked that there’s got to be a relationship between reconciliation and adoption. I think [Ridderbos] is one of the first to ever really think hard about how it is that Paul is actually using the world within his historical context. Because what Paul was not doing was taking the Greco-Roman practice and using that to fill in his use of the word adoption; but what he was doing was looking at all of redemptive history, Old Testament history, and Israel being God’s son, and the firstborn son, even though [the word adoption] is not found [in biblical texts] when he delivers Israel out of Egypt, [Paul’s] telling us in Romans 9:4 that what was happening there was actually setting the stage for how he’s using the word now. So he filled [the word] adoption with what he was doing redemptively to fix the problem of the fallen son of Adam (Luke 3:38).
So, I think with any, with any shift theologically in a way society uses any particular or word or words and go back 300 years, and the way they defined it then was unrecognizable to how we define it now. So I think we’re now in one of those periods, particularly when it’s given so much prominence in the media and the kind of media we have that it makes it very difficult for us to speak into it from a theological perspective and be heard.
So I think in conferences like this is where we have an opportunity kind of a family gathering to say, “Alight, let’s think hard about this, and let’s see…what is it that Paul us really thinking about? And how should that shape the way we make application to our current cultural context?
I think about one of the themes that struck me about what you said, and even as I look at the landscape right now, I think the things into which we are called as believers is we are entering into a more pluralistic society. I think the importance of what you’ve done to outline here is that we don’t need to be looking at this movement and judging Scripture by our experiences, [Don’t think this way] “This is what we’ve experienced, so let’s find Scripture that backs it up.” We need to be looking at the Word of God to help us identify what our experiences mean. Um, I and think as I’ve seen this landscape, because of this pluralistic mindset, we can easily believe we’re the bigger part of the story, and it’s all about our needs, our wants, our desires. ‘I’m the part of the story.’ ‘I’m the rescuer.’ ‘It’s what I need.’ And I think when you looked at reconciliation and redemption, and one of the things I’m thinking about is that we’ve got a class in Birmingham right now for 15 birthparents trying to reconcile to get their children back out of foster care.
And as we’ve walked through that, we’ve identified there are several families that are not going to be able to get their kids back. But does that mean our journey of redemption and reconciliation ends with those birth families? And I believe the Gospel would say, “No!”
So, I guess, what I would love for you to just clarify in the words of saying adoption—and this theology of adoption—is about reconciliation and redemption, how does the Gospel lead us, even in a adoption scenario where there is a placement to continue with reconciliation and redemption?
Adoption is always about family. So we can never forget family. So when reconciliation and reunification with all of our best efforts can’t happen, it’s an impossibility, we are still thinking family. We are still thinking [family], whether that’s indigenous adoption within the child’s country of origin; or we’re thinking—depending upon their laws of adoption or what they practice—we are thinking permanency in fostering. We always need to be thinking in terms of family.
So even if they are placed in a family that is not their family of origin, there is a reconciliation happening there. Because what did not exist before, which is the embrace of family, is now happening for that child and that family, there is reconciliation of sorts that’s happening—as real as the reconciliation with the birth family (explanatory note: a real family has been formed). So, I think that’s a really important distinction to make.
*Click the image below to “Flip the Script” with Alex Krutov, from St. Petersburg, Russia.
In this special workshop, African-American pastor Dr. Toney Parks shares advice for White couples parenting African-American children in a post-Ferguson country.
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.
Stream or download “Advice for White Parents of African American Children” for free:
Here is the first batch of free audio from our October 17-18 Together for Adoption Conference 2014.
Our primary objective for this year’s conference was to maximize our time together by providing important conversations with people who are key leaders, thinkers, and practitioners in the global orphan care and adoption movement. We worked hard to facilitate extended conversations that matter—conversations that uniquely addressed the complex spectrum of care needed for orphans globally. Every main session talk was followed by a 20-25 minute onstage conversation in which leaders within the evangelical orphan care and adoption movement discussed the topic and its implication for orphan care and adoption.
Note: Each main session talk is 25-30 minutes, followed by the panel discussion. Every panel below but the first is contained within the same mp3 file. The workshops at the bottom of this post are only those that were expansions of main session talks.
Session 1: Dan Cruver
Session 2: Jedd Medefind
Session 3: Brandon Hatmaker
Session 4: Dr. Elizabeth Bartholet (Harvard Law)
*PDF of Dr. Bartholet’s notes
Session 5: John Sowers
Session 6: Jason Kovacs
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:
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