Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Avoiding Heresies - Adoptionism

This week's topic, Adoptionism, represents a change in focus from the previous four classes. Those four dealt with the church's developing (chronologically and theologically) understanding of the two natures of Jesus' Christ and their union. Now, switching gears, we look at that theological thread that attempts to explain Jesus' divine Sonship through adoption, a thread which has stretched through every century from the second through the current.

Adoption (hence the name) might be an over-statement of the errant theological explanations for Jesus' Sonship, as the various historical attempts that have been ruled heretical and labeled "Adoptionist" don't always involve adoption. More generally, any attempt to say that Jesus became, grew into, was chosen for, earned, or developed in his divinity can be categorized as Adoptionism. The orthodox position, therefore, asserts that Jesus was fully the divine Son of God from the moment of the Incarnation.

It's easy to like the Adoptionist perspective as it explains pretty well (though heretically, as we'll see below) how a human being can be called the Son of God. Jesus Christ, identical with the second person of the eternal Trinity, didn't exist from before time. Jesus had a birthday (not 12/25/00, but close to it). The Son of God did not (no, 00/00/00 doesn't count). How, then, can Jesus Christ be the Son of God unless he was chosen to be at some point in his life (even in utero)?

For me, the most exciting part of Adoptionism was a renewed emphasis on the Virgin Birth--a doctrine that has been out of favor among intellectuals for centuries (especially after the Unitarian movement and S. T. Colridge took hold in 19th-century Christian thought). If we discount the Virgin Birth (and to be honest it's a pretty far-fetched claim), then how else does Jesus become the Son of God except if God adopted him as such at some point after the conception? That means that people like me, who are more interested in avoiding Adoptionism than worrying about the Virgin Birth, actually get a fresh and double-dose of orthodoxy as I can't really figure out how to side-step Adoptionism without clinging to the Virgin Birth.

Why does Adoptionism hurt our faith? Why is our understanding of who God is diminished if we use an adoptionist explanation? In other words, why does this matter? The central problem with Adoptionism is that it (like all the other heresies we've studied) undermines salvation. If Jesus was chosen/adopted as God's divine Son (assumed by the second person of the Trinity) at some point in his life, then we are left with a savior who achieved something in order to become divine. We all hope to have our human nature yoked to the divine nature, but, if Jesus only got there by being perfect, sinless, or super-human, then we can only get there through the same. That is, unless Jesus was the divine Son of God from the very beginning, we again get an Incarnation that doesn't really matter--a God who doesn't become one of us in order to save us but a God who waits on humanity to achieve salvation on its own. And that's just empty hope.

The slide show below addresses the various forms of this heresy throughout the centuries, and it highlights several scriptural passages that cause problems for both sides of the orthodox/Adoptionist "debate." Most notable among them is Mark 1, some manuscripts of which omit the term "Son of God" until the moment after Jesus' baptism--the classic proof-text for the Adoptionists.


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