A couple of weeks ago my parish priest said another homily on the joy of being adopted children of God. It is a frequent sentiment in the church and a concept older than Christianity itself, and yet these days, whenever I hear it, I find that something about it doesn’t sit right with me. I understand what is meant by the word “adopted,” and I understand the joy it is designed to convey, but I feel like the expression falls short of the relationship between God and us—God and Creation—that we attempt to describe.
Let me start by saying that I see nothing shallow or dismissible in the concept of adoption or in the family bond between adoptive parents and children, neither in contemporary nor in ancient contexts. When Apostle Paul described the believers’ rebirth into God through faith by using the term “adoption as sons,” he was referring to a Roman legal concept that, much like ours (except that it wasn’t gender-neutral), brought a young man unrelated by blood into a family and bestowed upon him all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of a natural-born son, severing his relationship to any other family. It was used, I understand, mostly for adults, as baptism then was for Christians. Paul talks about our being separated from sin and bound to God as sons. (See, for example, Gal 4; Rom 8.)
We may go deeper, to the Jewish roots of Christianity, and recall that Israelites already saw themselves as chosen children of God—in a sense, adopted—and that, in keeping with their Jewish faith, the earliest Christians looked at their teacher Yeshua in the same light. Judaism does not allow for Divinity to walk amid humans. The contemporary followers of Jesus and at least one generation of their descendants, until the concept of the Trinity began to develop, did not think they were following God Incarnate around Galilee but a man, the Son of Man, and there is a reason to believe that even the authors of the Gospel of Mark (recorded, perhaps, around the 70s CE) envisioned the Christ as a man, born to human mother and father, and so righteous that God adopted him as His own during his baptism.
Leaving historical criticism aside, there is something infinitely attractive in the idea of adoption, isn’t there? Being adopted is being chosen, picked as one’s own, and it implies mutuality and an act of will. There can be no mistake, no accident in being an adopted child, and thus no burden. An offer of love is extended and accepted, and one becomes freely an inseparable part of another. When God adopts you, you know you are wanted, and you know you are asked.
All this is good. What’s not to like? What’s there to doubt?
My problem arises from the premise on which the concept of adoption rests: that we—God’s Creation—are initially, originally separate from God. Unrelated by blood. My other problem arises from the sharp distinction this draws between Jesus of Nazareth, his nature, his relationship with God—and ours. Here, the common thinking on the topic is well summarized by Wil Pounds on AbideInChrist.com:
The term “Son of God” refers preeminently to Jesus Christ’s deity (Matt. 11:25-27; 16:16-17). He alone is one in substance and glory with God the Father. Believers in Christ, although “adopted” are never on a par with the uncreated, divine Son of God. …
We were “children of wrath” by nature (Eph. 2:3). However, those upon whom God bestows His saving grace become the “children of God.” …
This is our new standing before the LORD God. He accepts us into His family, who by nature do not belong to it, and places those who are not His sons originally into a right relationship with Him with all the privileges of that new family relationship. Jesus Christ alone is the Son of God by nature. We can never have the same relationship He has as the unique Son of God. The word “adoption” distinguishes those who are made sons of God from the only-begotten Son of God. The Holy Spirit, however, creates in the believing sinner a new nature. We have not only the new status as sons, but also the heart of true sons. Our adoption is the act of God’s pure goodness and grace of His will to the praise of His glory.
There it is: He is one with God, and we are not; he comes from above, and we come from below; he is by nature begotten of God, we are by nature children of wrath. I can’t say that in my personal theology I am a big fan of adoptionism, but with Christianity’s expanded understanding of God’s omnipresence, I would expect our exploration of our relationship with the Divine to become more nuanced, to realize the blurriness of boundaries—and, of course, we have. Through the centuries, more and more. Christianity, as few other traditions, in rational theology and in mysticism, has faced the heart-pounding reality where transcendence and immanence meet. And yet, with the old “adoptionist heresies” firmly rebuked by teaching authorities, this dichotomous language of the only begotten son of God versus adopted children of God seems to widen the chasm between God and Creation every time we say it.
I am a biblical scholar. I believe that scriptural authors, in their ages and cultures, to the limits of their own understanding, wrote from inspiration and intuitive comprehension of the mysteries they encountered. So I turn to the Bible and look for answers there.
What bothers me about the teachings like the one Wil Pounds summarized—those that rest entirely on Paul’s allusion to the Roman legal concept of adoption—is that they both suggest we are not connected to God by birth and require we be severed from the world to become children of God, counterposing God and the world. We hear a variation of similar ideas when we talk about dying to old life and rising to new life in baptism, for example. And while there is truth in that, there is, I believe, danger in simplifying the idea.
When Paul writes about this in Galatians chapters 3 and 4, he talks about us as children separated from the father, under tutelage, where heirs and slaves are in the same place and situation until the appointed time. Being for a time in bondage to the world makes the natural-born children no less flesh and blood of the father. In his metaphor, the tutors and guardians that prepare the children for future lives are the Law. Then, in the fullness of time, when the children have learned what the Law had to teach them and are ready to embrace Faith, the Messiah comes to redeem the heirs and to restore them to their proper place as sons. The Greek word is “uiothesia”: “placing as sons.” Yes, it was used to mean “adoption” for unrelated children, but that’s not exactly what Paul means. Here, we rather go from sons who behave as slaves to sons who take their proper places. It reminds me of the well-known passage from Paul’s letter to Philippians 2:5-11, which speaks of Christ Jesus being exalted to the highest place for having humbled himself and, even though he was in nature one with God, having made himself a slave obedient unto death. Then he is proclaimed Lord. Then he rises—and we with him.
Of course, this issue does not entirely revolve around the word “uiothesia,” or around Paul, and we find a deeper, more mystical explanation of what it means to be children of God, as usual, in the Gospel of John. It is he, the mystical evangelist, who talks of those who believe in the name of Christ as being born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13). From him we draw that triumphantly coined phrase “to be born again.” Jesus says it to Nicodemus in chapter 3. Except in Greek, this particular “again” (anothen) means more prominently “from above” or “from God.” It really means both, so not “adopted by”—born of God we must be and born of the world. “Flesh gives birth to flesh,” Jesus says to Nicodemus, “and Spirit gives birth to spirit” (Jn 3:6).
There is more in the Bible. There is always more in the Bible. But I am also a mystic. Exegesis aside, in my bones somewhere, down at the bottom of my bottomless soul I feel with irrefutable certainty that we are, by nature, of God in the most intimate, flesh-and-blood-and-spirit way—natural-born children. Creation is God-stuff. We are God and God is us. Inseparable. And I know that there’s never been a choice in that, it is just what it is.
We do have a choice: not what to be; how to be. We are this universe, and this universe is God, but we can embrace it or resist it, help it or harm it, flow with it or fight the flow, love or hate. Build the Kingdom of God or destroy the bits that have been built. Much like natural-born children can love or hate their families, stay or leave, say “yes” or say “no.” We shape our relationship with God, but nothing can dissolve the substantive bond into which we are born. We are one.