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I am currently in the midst of a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts; and, as several of these sermon-speeches contain language regarding the person of Christ which does not entirely fit the standard orthodox terminology, it may be helpful to define and explain the specific label Adoptionism. This label denotes the view that Jesus was only God’s Son “by adoption” and not “by nature“—in this respect it is somewhat inaccurate, since it is not at all clear that those who held “adoptionistic” views specifically thought of Jesus as being adopted. The term is also anachronistic, in a sense, as being understood from the standpoint of Nicene Orthodoxy—with the clear idea that Jesus Christ is by nature (and in substance) identical with God, being eternally generated (or “begotten” [gennhqe/nta]) by God the Father, as enshrined in the Nicene Creed. The Nicene formulation was the product of nearly three centuries of Christological reflection, interpretation, and debate; there are serious difficulties when one tries to read this orthodoxy back into the sub-apostolic and New Testament periods. Be that as it may, when one speaks of “adoptionism” in the early Church, there are two main viewpoints which ought to be distinguished:

  1. That Jesus (a human being) was in some way chosen or designated by God as the Messiah (and/or Son of God), most commonly at the Baptism. This ‘appointment’ was accompanied by miracles and powerful (salvific) actions performed by God (through Jesus), culminating in the death and resurrection.
  2. That Jesus (a human being) was exalted by God following the resurrection, being given a divine status and position in Heaven (at the right hand of God the Father)

The first view better fits the label “adoption[ism]”; the second is closer to actual language used in the New Testament (on this, see below). Some scholars would apply the label “Adoptionism” more narrowly, to specific ‘heretics’ from the second- and third-centuries (such as Theodotus, Artemon, and so forth; cf. below). On the other hand, for many (proto-)orthodox Church leaders and writers of the time, the issue was drawn in simpler, general terms—of Jesus as God incarnate vs. being a “mere man” (yilo\$ a&nqrwpo$). Interestingly, while I do not know that this stark juxtaposition actually fits the reality of early Christological disputes, it does fit the situation today! In the twentieth (and early twenty-first) century, there appears to be little interest or inclination toward Christological thought and expression beyond the simple question of whether Jesus was “divine” or “just a human being”.

Unfortunately, we have little reliable information as to what supposed “Adoptionists” in the early Church genuinely believed or taught; there is little, if any, first-hand information, and what is recorded by ‘orthodox’ authors such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Eusebius and Epiphanius, is of varying degrees of reliability. Certain Jewish Christians (such as the so-called Ebionites, or “Poor Ones”) are indicated as holding viewpoint #1 above. In the late-2nd and early 3d centuries, there were “Adoptionists” in Rome (associated with Theodotus [the cobbler]); apparently several bishops of Rome at this time were influenced by these views. In the mid/late-third century, Paul of Samosata (condemned at a Church council in Antioch in 268) gained a notorious reputation as a prime “Adoptionist”, but this association is highly questionable. Not surprisingly, heretical Adoptionists were accused of manipulating (altering) Scripture to accomodate their views (cf. Eusebius’ Church History V.28.13ff); while little evidence of this survives, there is actually indication of the opposite—that ‘orthodox’ scribes may have introduced changes to combat such heretical views. For a detailed discussion of the issue (specifically related to Adoptionism), see B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford: 1993), pp. 47-118; some of the examples he gives are more convincing than others as instances of possible intentional changes. Such modifications were not so much for the purpose of altering the text of Scripture, as to clarify the text and avoid misunderstanding/misinterpretation of key passages (such as we might find done in translations today). An obvious example would be changes meant to safeguard the idea of the Virgin Birth in verses where Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ “father” (or Joseph and Mary together as his “parents”).

The text of Scripture certainly was central to early Christological disputes, and it raises the highly controversial question as to whether there is any manner of “adoptionistic” Christology present in the New Testament itself. Upon any careful and objective study, it must be admitted that there are certainly passages, and language, which could be interpreted that way (and Adoptionists in the early Church presumably would have done so). If we consider the main question—”in what sense can Jesus be understood as God’s Son?”—and recall the two main strands of “adoptionistic” thought isolated above (#1 and 2), it becomes clear that the principal point of controversy centers on the eternal pre-existence of Jesus. Adoptionists presumably denied this point; for the (proto-)Orthdox, it was vital to the reality of both the Incarnation and the salvation brought about by God in Christ (cf. for example, Irenaeus Against Heresies IV.33.[4ff]). And, while the pre-existent divine status of Jesus is assumed in orthodox Christology, it is important to note that relatively few passages in the New Testament state or affirm this with clarity. It is attested primarily in the Gospel of John (and other Johannine writings), several places in the Pauline and Petrine Epistles, and in Hebrews; but it is hard to find, for example, in the Synoptic Gospels or Acts. In fact, one could read the Synoptic Gospels from an “adoptionist” viewpoint without much difficulty; even the Matthean/Lukan Infancy narratives, which affirm the Virgin Birth, do not necessarily indicate a belief in pre-existence.

When we examine examples of (what appears to be) some of the earliest kerygma (Gospel proclamation) in the New Testament, one is struck by a certain ambiguity of expression (judged by later ‘orthodox’ standards)—it is vivid and concise (often hymnic/poetic), full of dynamic immediacy, but lacking the kind of systematic clarity so eagerly sought after in later formulae. Note the following examples, which I believe, preserve early kerygmatic formula:

  • References where it is indicated that Jesus was “presented/designated/appointed” to special/divine status—cf. the use of the verbs o(ri/zw (“mark [out], limit, determine”, sometimes in the sense of “declare, decree, appoint”, etc) in Acts 10:42; 17:31; Romans 1:4, and a)podei/knumi (“show forth, present”, often in the sense of “demonstrate” or “designate, appoint”) in  Acts 2:22. The latter reference especially could be taken in the sense of Adoptionist view #1 above.
  • In Romans 1:3-4; Acts 2:33ff; 13:32-33, and other key passages, Jesus’ designation to divine status is connected with and follows (or is a result of) the resurrection. This could be seen as corresponding to Adoptionist view #2 above. In even more striking language, note Acts 2:36, where it is stated that God “made [e)poi/hsen] him Lord and Anointed [i.e. Messiah]”, as the climactic statement in Peter’s Pentecost speech. Later Christology would be most reluctant to suggest that in any way Jesus had been made Lord [ku/rio$].

Similarly, consider the manner in which Psalm 2 [verse 7b] was used in the early Church. In Greek the key portion reads:

ui(o/$ mou ei@ su/ e)gw\ sh/meron gege/nnhka/ se
“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”

Orthodox Christology would apply this to Jesus in terms of his pre-existent Deity, of being eternally born/begotten by the Father (as the use of genna/w in the Nicene Creed); and it is presumably meant in more or less the same way in Hebrews 1:5 (and 5:5?). However, note that:

  • In Acts 13:32-33, Paul applies it to Jesus explicitly in the context of the resurrection. In a similar way, Hebrews 1:13 cites Psalm 110:1 (apparently) in the “orthodox” sense of Jesus’ pre-existent divine status (cf. Heb 1:2-3), but in Acts 2:33ff, it is cited in the context of Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. This could be taken to imply that Jesus was ‘born/begotten’ as God’s Son only after the resurrection [Adoptionist view #2 above].
  • In several Western MSS, in Luke 3:22, the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism cites Ps 2:7b; a few scholars have argued that this is the original reading, and may have been altered (to the Synoptic parallel in Mark/Matthew) because of the possibility of misunderstanding. After all, the Western variant could be taken to mean that Jesus was (only) appointed as God’s ‘Son’ at the Baptism [Adoptionist view #1 above].

That passages such as these had an Adoptionistic ‘ring’ to them is demonstrated by the fact that a number of important variant readings can be found in the surviving manuscripts (see examples in Ehrman, pp. 54ff). How are they to be reconciled with orthodox belief affirming the (pre-existent) Deity of Christ? The best (and soundest) solution lies in the concept of progressive revelation—the idea that God only reveals truth to believers by a gradual process. This means that even the early Apostles did not necessarily have a full and complete understanding of the nature and person of Jesus Christ. The immediate emphasis in early Gospel preaching and proclamation was not a clear and consistent picture of Jesus’ mysterious nature, but rather the salvific impact of his sacrificial death, the reality of the resurrection, and his exaltation to heaven at the right hand of God (from whence he will come again to judge the World). By the time we come to the Epistles of John (c. 80-90?), for example, there is a much stronger emphasis on the need for a correct confessional formula regarding the person of Christ.

There are two other, somewhat related, terms which are perhaps worth mentioning here (I may address them in more detail in upcoming articles):

  • Subordinationism—by this is meant that Jesus Christ, in his divine person (as Son of God), is in some way—whether in terms of divine nature, power, or position—subordinate (and/or “lesser”) than God the Father. The term could also be applied to the person of the Holy Spirit, and is sometimes addressed as a proper theological, rather than Christological, question—related to the Christian view of the Godhead and the doctrine of the Trinity.
  • Kenosis/Kenotic Theory—this view is derived primarily from the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11, and would hold (with some variation) that: (a) Jesus Christ was eternally pre-existent with God the Father, but that (b) in some mysterious way, he emptied himself of deity in his Incarnation as a human being, becoming totally dependent on the Father and the power of the Spirit, only to (c) receive the divine nature/status again (with greater glory) following the resurrection and exaltation.

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