Why you Shouldn’t Adopt Adoption Christology

Why you Shouldn’t Adopt Adoption Christology February 28, 2019

Here’s another good post by Larry Hurtado
Christological Non-Starters: Part 1, “Adoption as Divine Son”
by larryhurtado

Having spent now some forty years exploring and attempting to understand how earliest Christians understood and reverenced Jesus, it is sometimes almost amusing to see proposals presented confidently that actually have scant basis in the earliest evidence. In this and a couple of ensuing postings I’ll mention a few (and, no doubt, make proponents a bit angry, but “them’s the breaks”).

One claim is that Paul and/or other early believers saw Jesus as God’s “adopted Son,” the putative adoption posited as his baptism or resurrection. Certainly, there are reports of individuals and groups from the late second century AD and later about such ideas. These include the figure associated with a Valentinian gnostic position, a Theodotus, extracts of his thought cited and commented on my Clement of Alexandria.[1] But, if I may, where exactly do we find an “adoption” of Jesus by God stated in Paul, or in other earlier texts?

One attempted answer is that it happened at Jesus’ baptism, as related in the Synoptic Gospels. Proof is alleged in the divine voice: “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” But the first thing to ask is this scene one of adoption or an acclamation? As widely recognized, the statement in the baptism scene draws upon (and may allude to) Psalm 2:7, “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” It’s commonly thought that the Psalm originated to celebrate the installation of the Judean king, at whose coronation he was “begotten.” This divine “begetting” has sometimes been taken as a metaphorical statement that the kind as adopted by God, but this has been challenged more recently.[2] But, whatever the case, if the Synoptic writers wanted to make it clear that at his baptism Jesus was likewise supposedly adopted as “son”, why didn’t they just include the full Psalm statement? Instead, the baptism scenes all simply affirm Jesus’ divine sonship, without any reference to “today I have begotten you,” which looks more like an acclamation and commissioning of Jesus as royal Messiah, not an adoption.[3]

Certainly, the terminology of adoption was readily at hand. Verbal forms, from huiotheteō or huiopoieō, and noun forms such as huiothesia, for example. Indeed, Paul does use this last term, but only to refer to the action by which God makes believers “sons” (Galatians 4:5; Romans 8:15). That is, Paul uses adoption terminology in what theologians term “soteriological” statements (concerning the salvation of believers), but not in “christological statements” (concerning the work or status of Jesus). So, if early figures such as Paul wished to affirm Jesus’ adoption as divine son, why didn’t they say so, equally explicitly, in the terminology readily available to do so?

And that brings us to Romans 1:3-4, the Pauline text to which appeal is sometime made. But, here again, it bears noting that the text says nothing about adoption. It portrays Jesus as born from “the seed of David,” and “declared/affirmed [horisthentos] the son of God in power” at his resurrection (presented here as the first to experience the general resurrection “of the dead”). The term, horisthentos, is a form of a verb used variously to refer to separating or designating something or someone (for some special use or significance), but never for adoption. Further, the emphasis in the statement appears to be that as of Jesus’ resurrection he is thereafter the son of God “in power,” which likely refers to the well-known belief that Jesus’ resurrection involved at his exaltation to function as God’s plenipotentiary.

It is sometimes claimed, however, that the belief in Jesus as adopted divine Son was initial and early, but was then superseded by belief in his “pre-existence,” such as is reflected already in Paul’s letters, written ca. 50 AD and thereafter. Anything is possible, of course. But this supersession would have to have been very early, and any “adoption-christology” rather short-lived. For, by common scholarly consent, Paul underwent his “revelation of God’s Son” within a couple of years at most after Jesus’ crucifixion. And, moreover, by common scholarly judgement he was initiated into a Jesus-movement that already held the basic christological convictions that are reflected in his letters (e.g., that Jesus had been glorified and given a status second only to God, and that in some manner he was already “there” from, and the agent of, creation). Indeed, I suspect that he was reacting against such convictions in his previous opposition to the Jesus-movement. So, in any case, if there was an early adoption-christology, it would have been very short-lived, and, it appears, it left scant explicit trace or impact. It would have been an abortive non-starter. So, certainly as far as Paul knew (and he did get around quite a lot!), whether in Jerusalem or his own assemblies, Jesus was reverenced similarly as designated “Lord”, not as adopted Son.

To be sure, the powerful ignition factors in the explosive development of early Jesus-devotion included particularly the experiences of the risen and exalted Jesus. In that sense, Ehrman is correct to refer to an early “exaltation” view of Jesus, as having been given a new place of unique status “at the right hand” of God. But, by all indications, the view that Jesus was exalted to a new status/role by God (e.g., Philippians 2:9-11) went fully hand-in-hand with beliefs that Jesus was God’s “Son” by right all along, so to speak, with no adoption involved. To appeal to an ancient practice for rough comparison, when an ancient king elevated a son to the position of co-regent and successor, this wasn’t an adoption. It was the conferral of a new status, to be sure, but the person didn’t thereby become a son. He was already a son, who was designated with a new explicit role, and obedience to the reigning king required that this designated son be acknowledged and honoured by the king’s loyal subjects also. Just so, earliest Jesus-followers stressed that God had exalted his Son, given him divine glory and “the name above all names,” and now required him to be reverenced appropriately.[4]

[1] R. P. Casey (ed.), The Excerpta Ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria, Studies & Documents, 1 (London: Christophers, 1934). Esp. 33.1.

[2] See, e.g., Adela Yarbro Collins and John J. Collins, King and Messiah As Son of God: Divine, Human, and Angelic Messianic Figures in Biblical and Related Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), esp. 19-24.

[3] See, e.g., Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 150, who proposes that the divine voice “appoints” Jesus as Messiah.

[4] For a more detailed critique of “adoption Christology” proposals, see Michael Bird, Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). For more on the historical importance of the place of Jesus in earliest devotional practices, Larry W. Hurtado, Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018).

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