Adoptionism

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 the 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 [lit. caused you to be {born}]

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.

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

The term “Orthodoxy” can be defined, more or less accurately, as “right/correct opinion”. The verb o)rqodoce/w (orthodoxéœ) is relatively rare (but can be found in Aristotle, Nic. Ethics 1151a.19), from o)rqodo/co$ (orthodóxos, also rare). Neither word occurs in the earliest Christian writings (New Testament and Apostolic Fathers, etc); in fact, even the underlying component words are relatively rare in the New Testament:

    • The adjective o)rqo/$ (orthós, “straight, [up]right”) and the related adverb o)rqw=$ (orthœ¡s, “straightforward, rightly, plainly”) are used only 6 times combined, and in the sense of a “right/correct” saying/opinion only in Lk 7:43; 10:28; 20:21. Heb 12:13 uses the adjective according to the Hebrew idiom of making one’s paths “straight” (in the religious/ethical sense of “walking straight”), and note the similar compound verb o)rqopode/w (orthopodéœ, “set foot [i.e. walk] straight/right”) in Gal 2:14, as well as o)rqotome/w (orthotoméœ, “cut right/straight”) in 2 Tim 2:15 as a reference to correct teaching. Both noun and adjective are used more commonly for “right/straight” teaching and Christian ministry in the Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius Eph 1:1; Herm Sim 2:7; Diognetus 11:2, etc) and e.g. Justin Martyr (1 Apol 4:8; 2 Apol 2:2; Dialogue with Trypho 3:3; 5:2; 67:4, etc).
    • The noun do/ca (dóxa) is derived from the verb doke/w (dokéœ), which itself has a fairly wide range of meaning, “think, suppose, imagine, consider, recognize” and, more abstractly, “seem (to be)”. So, the noun do/ca primarily means “thought, opinion”, but in the more specialized sense of “consideration, recognition”, etc., it came to be used regularly for the “esteem, reputation,” etc. with which one considers someone/something, and so more specifically for “honor, glory”, etc. It is almost always in this latter sense that the noun and related verb doca/zw (doxázœ, “esteem, honor, give glory/glorify”) are used in the New Testament. However, the verb doke/w occurs more frequently in the ordinary sense of “think, suppose, consider”.

By the end of the first century, and in what are usually considered the latest (anywhere between c. 65-100 A.D.) New Testament writings, there came to be a greater emphasis upon safeguarding “correct” teaching and tradition against ‘false teachers’ and opponents, as can be seen vividly in the Pastoral epistles (esp. 1 Timothy), 2 Peter, Jude, and the epistles of John (note esp. the strident partisan identifications and credal tests in 1 John). As Christianity continued to develop over the next two centuries, a greater number of divergent beliefs and sects arose often with contrasting (or contradictory) and competing viewpoints, ranging from fundamental issues of cosmology and theology (such as the nature of God and the person of Christ) to specific details of Church practice (such as the dating/celebration of Easter). Church leaders and theologians of various stripes sought to defend the “correct” position, usually on the basis of: (1) interpretation of Scripture, and (2) the reliability of inherited tradition. This multifaceted (historical) Christianity is normally described, in relation to orthodoxy (“correct belief/thought/opinion”), by one of two terms—”heterodoxy” or “heresy”.

Heterodoxy simply means “other thought/belief/opinion”, and today is typically used to reflect the (apparent) diversity of belief and practice, especially in the first three centuries of the Church, in contrast to Christianity as the established religion of the Roman Empire (both in the West and Byzantine East), from the early-mid 4th century through the end of the Middle Ages. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a different, but related sort of Protestant “Orthodoxy” developed (mainly that of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches), which extends, at least formally and in theory, among (most) Protestants to the present day. The term heresy has a far more negative (and odious) connotation, and, for that reason (as well as its history of spiteful application), is avoided (and/or used with great caution) by thoughtful Christians today. It is a transliteration in English of the Greek ai%resi$ (haíresis), derived from the verb ai(re/w/ai(re/omai, “take, choose, select (for oneself)”, and fundamentally means “something chosen/taken”, as, for example, a (religious) way of life, a partisan or communal affiliation, a belief, and so forth. The word is used in the New Testament in Acts 5:17; 15:5; 24:5,14; 26:5; 28:22; 1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20; 2 Peter 2:1. The related noun ai(retiko/$ (hairetikós) generally means “one who takes/choose, is capable of choosing,” etc.; it is used in a negative (partisan) religious sense in Titus 3:10, a meaning preserved in English by the word “heretic”, i.e. one who has chosen the wrong religious belief, affiliation, etc.

What is the basis for establishing “orthodoxy” over and against either “heterodoxy” (diversity of beliefs/practices) or “heresy” (choice of the wrong belief, etc)? Historically this has been both defined and recognized according to a number of standards or factors, such as:

    • Teaching and/or edicts by influential or authoritative persons
    • Consensus forged through argument and debate over time (as in various Church councils, etc)
    • Interpretation of the authoritative (and formative) religious texts (Scriptures)
    • Acceptance/adoption of (written) formulas of belief (i.e. Creeds and Confessions of Faith)
    • Isolation/emphasis on what the majority of believers hold in common (fundamental and/or ecumenical principle[s])
    • A defining (hierarchic) organizational structure

For many Christians, including the majority of Protestants, the belief, variously expressed, is that the canonical Scriptures should be the ideal for establishing “orthodoxy”, as in the Reformation slogan sola Scriptura—Scripture alone as the authority of religious faith and practice. Unfortunately, this ideal is greatly complicated by the differences of interpretation which attend many key passages; there are many other profound difficulties as well, such as the weight and force given to one passage over another, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, whether a teaching is culturally conditioned or meant to be applied to all believers through history, and so forth. A much simpler (and popular) approach toward establishing “orthodoxy” is the adoption of written creeds—statements of belief (credo, “I believe…”), whether in the form of a Confession of Faith or a Catechism for instruction of new believers. And yet, here again there is great difficulty, for history has proven (rather decisively) that the establishment of each new creed, however well intentioned, is likely to result in at least as much (or more) division than unity among believers. This is especially true the more detailed and extensive the creed is; the best creeds tend to be those which are the simplest, such as the so-called Apostles’ Creed, and which clearly evince an irenic and peace-loving spirit. Among the many Protestant creeds, the most beloved and widely accepted are the Augsburg Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, both largely free of the worst and most destructive polemical characteristics of the period. A faithful and effective creed (in the best Christian sense) ought to be limited to as few “essential” points of doctrine as possible, allowing freedom for discussion and debate on more difficult or controversial matters. As Church historian Philip Schaff has put it well: “a surplus of orthodoxy provokes skepticism”; to which I would add that it (unnecessarily) promotes and instigates division as well.

From the standpoint of the New Testament, of course, the ideal of Church unity is found in the presence of the Spirit at work in the hearts, minds, and lives of believers—uniting us to God (and Christ) as well as to one another. And, while this is true enough—and ought to be the goal and focus of faithful believers around the world—it is, admittedly, more readily expressed at the level of the intimate relationship between individual believers (“where two or three are gathered”); within a larger corporate or institutional setting it is much more difficult to realize.