Monday, January 22, 2007

Adoptionism: Ancient Heresy, Postmodern Possibility 

Adoptionism Through the Centuries
By [Flannel Christian]
History of Christian Thought I
January 2007

Description and Definition of Adoptionism

Adoptionism, in a broad sense, is a Christology in which Jesus, as (a) man, is the adoptive Son of God. What precisely is meant by that varies among successive proponents of the theory. It is fundamentally an attempt to wrestle with the scriptural and doctrinal divinity-and-humanity of Jesus. The general idea is that the humanity of Jesus, in order to be genuine, must have a human (i.e. not divine) origin, and the divinity of Jesus must have a similarly divine (i.e. non-earthly) origin. In order to preserve Jesus’ humanity and still recognize his special status as part of the godhead, some Christians began to use the illustration of parental adoption – the human part of Jesus is God’s Son by adoption, rather than by an original relation. The adoptionist idea seems a natural response to the mystery posed by Jesus’ spiritual eternal-ness and contrasting finite human existence: If Jesus was with God from the beginning, we don’t think of Jesus’ earthly body as having existed somewhere from the beginning, so whatever it is that came about in the unique, historical, embodied person of Jesus that wasn’t there before… that, that was plain old earthly, and is what was “adopted” by God as fully divine. At root, it must be noted, this heresy is grounded in an expression of divine love, overcoming the barrier (in the Hellenistic worldview) between the Supreme God and earthly creation – the unbridgeable gap between human and divine was closed by God bringing into God’s holy family someone from the outside. The question of orthodoxy rises in the nature of Jesus’ unified divinity and humanity, not in God’s desire and acting to embrace creation through the person of Jesus Christ.

The orthodox position holds that the unity of Christ’s full humanity and full divinity does not leave room for the “adoption” of Jesus’ earthly self. Jesus is a unity, so his humanity is fully graced with his divinity (and vice versa), and in so doing redeems all humanity (and creation). “Adoption” implies that the adoptee was at some time a stranger to the adopter, and the idea that any part of Jesus (he being “fully divine”) could have ever been a stranger to God was anathema.

Historical Instances of Adoptionism

In the mid-3rd century, the Bishop of Antioch, Paul (“of Samosata”) was the target of several synods – the first of which acquitted him of any heresy, the second and third of which ended less favorably for him. A questionable figure in many ways (Eusebius 243-4), his adoptionist heresy was akin to dynamistic Monarchianism. (Catholic Encyclopedia, PS 1) The Son or Logos existed as the wisdom of God and worked through the prophets and most highly in the “Son of David” who was born of the Holy Spirit. Christ is essentially a man with his own personality, while the Son is one with God. Union of two Persons is possible only by agreement, and in living without sin and suffering and striving, Jesus became one with God’s Will and Intention, and thus redeemed humanity. For Paul of Samosata, the earthly Jesus could be described as having existed for eternity in the sense of predestination only: no one believes Jesus’ body existed for eternity – the totality was unique to the Incarnation. If Jesus had been God by nature, Paul claimed, there would have been two Gods, which cannot be.

Paul’s teaching was condemned because it presented Jesus as simply a divinely inspired man, and not as the incarnate Word and Son of God. The orthodox position chose mystery and the preservation of Jesus’ unified and full humanity-and-divinity over a reasonable (not-mysterious) teaching that placed Jesus as less than fully divine and “both denied his [Paul’s] God and Lord, and also did not preserve the faith.” (Eusebius 242-3) IT must be noted that in the listing of heretical charges, Paul’s Christology was hardly mentioned; Paul was more likely deposed for fiscal and personal indiscretions.

Despite the condemnation and expulsion of Paul, Antiochene thinkers apparently continued to wrestle with adoptionism, because in 428, Nestorius, another Antiochene, would revive the adoptionist heresy. He began a preaching campaign against the use of the term Theotokos – or “Bearer of God” – in reference to Mary, Jesus’ mother. Nestorius’ claim was that Mary had been (only) the bearer of Christ, and should therefore be honored with (only) Christotokos. While Nestorius admitted the unity in Christ, he distinguished between the two “natures” involved in that unity. The followers of Nestorius would amplify his words to the point of adoptionism: the human nature of Jesus was by virtue of its association with the divine nature adopted into the Godhead. Nestorius was apparently outnumbered, outgunned and less articulate than his mostly Alexandrian critics, and was deposed. Even after the Church condemns “Nestorianism,” resulting in those still loyal to Nestorius fleeing East, the division between the “two natures” continued, passed on to the Persian Church, which had become autonomous in 410 and which received the refugees with open arms. (Catholic Encyclopedia, N&N 8; Bell 10.)

The survival of the “two natures” understanding in Persia is thought by Richard Bell, writing in The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment, to have partly prepared a way for the rise of Islam in spreading the ideas central to the three monotheistic religions; and aiding the spread of Islam particularly in Egypt and Syria where Islam found a bitterly divided Church. (11-13) The idea that Jesus the man could be “adopted” and guided by the Spirit of God would fit well into the Arabian religion’s worldview; Christianity’s maintaining any degree of separation between Jesus and the Son of God would have aided in the general acceptance of Islam’s claim that something similar (and even more glorious) happened to Mohammed. From a political perspective as well, the Persian and Euphrates valley Churches were doubly divided from the rest of Christendom by different political allegiances and creeds; and the attempt to impose the Chalcedonian formula spread divisive partisanship in Egypt and Syria, making the cultural and military advance of Islam all the easier.

Eighth century Spain and France saw a resurrection of adoptionism in the archbishopric of Toledo (then under Islamic rule) and the bishopric of Frankish Urgel. That the origin of this Hispanicus error, as it was called, was in Islamic-ruled territory may be significant: Nestorianism was largely an Eastern heresy on the opposite side of Europe, but Nestorian thought survived under Muslim rule, and the combined dominance of Islam and persistence of Nestorianism surely blunted Elipandus’ (the archbishop of Toledo) orthodoxy. (Catholic Encyclopedia, A 1) This revival of adoptionism again applied the distinction of Jesus’ two natures onto Jesus’ whole person, distinguishing between the divine eternal Son and the earthly adopted Son. In one of the largest assemblies in the history of the church, a council denounced adoptionism as heretical and forced the bishop of Urgel, Felix, to swear never to use the term “adopted son” in speaking of Christ. Elipandus, under Muslim rule, was beyond the reach of ecclesiastical and secular Western rulers, and maintained his heresy but didn’t break formally with the Church. The council indicated a basic fallacy of adoptionism, which applies the word “son” to a nature and not to a person. (Carson 119)

The Spanish heresy left few traces, and it is doubtful that Abelard’s similar thinking in the 12th century can be traced to it. (Catholic Encyclopedia, A, 3) However, several thinkers in the Middle Ages, including Abelard, articulated a renewed adoptionism. Again, following the line of thinking that if Jesus’ humanity (necessarily limited and finite) was part of the nature of the divine being, then that would mean there is a finite quality in the Trinity. Since this contradicts faith and reason, as articulated by the Church, “the union between the Logos and His human nature could only be external and accidental.” (Carson 119) This theory also resembles Eutychianism and Apollinarianism in that Jesus’ human nature would have to have been guided and directed [and thus largely subsumed] by the divine nature only “externally” in union with the human. The undertones of Eutychianism are evidenced by the papal response. Pope Alexander III reiterated the orthodox position that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, emphasizing: “as He is truly God, so He is also truly man, composed of a rational soul and a human body.” (Carson 119, my emphasis) Later, in the 14th century, some Scotists taught that Jesus was both the natural and adopted son of God because Jesus received the fullness of sanctifying grace. While granting the hypostatical union of the Father and Son, these Scotists believed there was room for another filiation, resting on grace, the grace of union. (Catholic Encyclopedia, A 3) It was at this point that orthodox defenders responded that “adoption” implies that the one being adopted be a stranger to the one adopting, which in the case of Jesus’ full divinity could not be. By the 14th century, it seems, genuine adoptionism had been played out, and any condemnation levied against the Scotists was over the semantics of a word with a heretical history. However, to a certain extent the history of adoptionism has been the story of a particular struggle to understand grace.

Adoptionism and the Twenty-first Century

Adoptionists throughout history have generally looked to Jesus’ baptism as the moment of adoption of Jesus by God. Some scholars question whether Paul “the Apostle” was an adoptionist of a different stripe, locating Jesus’ adoption in his resurrection. (Ehrman, OCS 48-9) This would fit well with Paul’s emphasis on the immediacy of coming Kingdom – the process of the rising dead had already started with the rising of Jesus after death.

A humorous adoptionist perspective of Jesus in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 resembles this Pauline narrative (with obviously different motives – meant largely as a critical indictment of present and historical Christianity). In chapter 5 of Slaughterhouse, some characters discuss the (fictitious) science-fiction novel The Gospel From Outer Space. The story goes: aliens from another planet visited earth and saw how violent it was, particularly on the part of Christians whose central religious text was the story of a man himself being killed but who was, in fact, the Son of God. The lesson Christians seemed to take from the story was to watch out who you kill – you better not kill somebody well connected. (No tears are shed or darkness leveled for the crucified non-sons-of-God that fateful day, after all.) So an alien decided that this story was the reason Christians are so cruel, and wrote a new gospel in which Jesus, a vagrant, lowly, homeless man – essentially a nobody – was adopted by God just before he died, illustrating that everyone should be nice to everyone, because you never know who might become a child of God. Vonnegut (a nominal Jew) is writing in jest, of course, but only in part. He is wrestling with the issue of grace, particularly with the role of grace in human life, and with the seeming inability of the Gospel narrative to persuade people to be kinder to their enemies.

While explicit adoptionism is rare in Western Christianity today, it is echoed in the twenty-first century in very low Christologies and in theologies of universal salvation and redemption. The question posed by adoptionism is: Was Jesus essentially like we are (and thus do we see discipleship as taking on ourselves some degree of role of Jesus), or was Jesus fundamentally different than we are (i.e. divine in a way that we can never be, and thus he had done something that – more than our individual inability to have done or personal shortcomings – we as human beings are incapable of doing)? If Jesus was something that we can similarly approximate, that is an empowering thought: we can be agents of grace and transformation in the world. But it also begs the question of the unique role of Jesus – what, if anything, remains of his divinity? If Jesus was fundamentally different, and we can never resemble or approximate him, it lifts up the salvific role but leaves precious little to guide human action – what, if anything, remains of his humanity? Since we are committed to confess the presence of both full humanity and full divinity in Jesus, what is the relationship between them – and in a broader sense, what is the relationship between the divine and our humanity? How can we meaningfully speak of God’s act of redemption of humanity and creation? This struggle to understand and articulate a doctrine of grace and divine love is, in my opinion, at the heart of adoptionist descriptions of the relationship of Jesus the man to the Son of God.

In areas of the church (specifically the Community of Christ) where low Christology dominates (coastal North America, Australia, Northern Europe, as possible examples), adoptionism might be attractive as a way to articulate our Pelagian instincts of acting for our own salvation, growing toward God through (at least partly) our own effort. Vonnegut above, as a fiction writer and even more so as a Jew, is not offering a new Christological doctrine, but a literary device, casually offering a radically new way to look at the Christian heritage and human relationships. This might be a helpful model for the church in approaching the “adoption” of Jesus’ humanity – there are all kinds of apocryphal stories people share to explain to themselves or illustrate to others the mysteries of Christian dogma. When Saint Patrick pointed to the clover leaf as an illustration of the trinity, no one believes he was encouraging people to worship clover – it was an allegory, a literary device that served to illustrate a doctrine principle.

The Church might now be able to approach the idea of adoption as an allegory, a myth, a literary adaptation, if you will, as a way of talking about God’s expansive love for all: through Jesus God adopted humanity, and we are all thus children of God. This would preserve Jesus’ full-humanity/full-divinity and the Incarnation’s role in redemption. Adoption, in fact, doesn’t just affect the child. In this case, when God Fathered Jesus, God was also making Mary and Joseph part of God’s family. They’re not God’s in-laws or cousins, but they are family – and Jesus’ brothers and sisters, too, and cousins and distant relatives are all now related to God… with Jesus as the Son of God, humanity is adopted into God’s family.

The doctrine principle at the heart of adoptionism is that God has embraced our humanity, in spite of our limitations and shortcomings, and in so doing has extended God’s grace and love to all people and creation. We are all part of God’s family now, related through the complex web of family trees and relationships to God godself – and since we’re related to God, who is in turn related to everyone, we are related to everyone. We should treat everyone as a member of our family.

This turns adoptionist priorities on their head, making the question of Jesus’ adoption of virtually no interest. The key questions and implications of a literary employment of adoption-language are our relationship to the divine and our relationships with the rest of humanity and creation. Since “adoption” isn’t being advanced as doctrine – or even as a way to primarily explain Jesus’ relationship with God – it directs the devotee’s desire to understand the broad workings of grace in a direction that will examine precisely that principle, rather than mire her in orthodox Christological minutae. Whereas adoptionism was in previous centuries a dangerous shoal ready to shipwreck the unwary Christian voyager – a literary employment strips adoptionism of such importance, and therefore actually moves closer to the heart of the matter.

Bibliography of Sources Cited or Consulted

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Bell, Richard. The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment. London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1968.

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Catholic Encyclopedia. “Paul of Samosata.” Available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11589a.htm. Internet: accessed 14 January 2007.

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Piney.com. “Epistle to Paul of Samosata by Malchion.” Available from http://www.piney.com/MalchionSamosata.html. Internet: accessed 14 January 2007.

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Stevenson, James. Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the history of the Church A.D. 337-461. New York: Seabury Press, 1966.

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