More on God as Father: thinking about adoption

I’ve been mulling over a question Krish Kandiah asked me in relation to the excellent Home for Good project: why do we make so little theologically of our adoption as children of God? Krish pointed out the lack in worship songs, originally, but it strikes me that it is just not a big theme in any recent discussion of soteriology I know, and that this seems odd given its Biblical roots and the fact that it is just wonderful good news.

Yesterday, driving between snowy mountains on my way to a ministers’ conference, I suddenly realised I had a plausible answer. There is a significant debate, or perhaps better a linked series of debates, over what it means to name God ‘Father’ in English-speaking Protestantism in the second half of the nineteenth century. My best guess as to why the issue came to prominence then is that the influence of the missionary movement brought the fact that not all, or even most, people where (even nominally) Christian to acute consciousness, and so a theological distinction that had been latent became live again. The debates circled around the question, is God properly named the Father of all human beings – as various scriptures, perhaps most clearly Acts 17:28-9, seem to teach – or is God only Father to believers, those adopted by the Father because incorporated into Christ by the Holy Spirit? We might, with conscious dependence, call these different positions ‘general paternity’ and ‘particular paternity’.

(Obviously, in the context of an unreflective Christendom assumption that most people are believers, even if not always very good ones, this question is of academic interest only. For the mission-minded theologian, however, it is absolutely live. As I say, I suspect that this is why it suddenly flared up in a series of debates in the nineteenth century.)

Nineteenth-century universalists (or near-universalists) generally made much of general paternity, the universal Fatherhood of God, for obvious reasons; often their Calvinistic opponents denied general paternity and insisted on particular paternity only (so, e.g., George Gilfillan’s Grand Discovery (1854)); a generation later, broad church writers were interested in general paternity (e.g., Bishop Wescott’s Victory of the Cross (1888)), with similar responses. The debate died down in the early years of the twentieth century; I can see two plausible reasons for this. First, there was actually a good, convincing answer on the table, offered by James Orr – more on this in a moment – second, the theological mood seemed to have moved to a place where doubting what I have called general paternity was unacceptable, at least outside of the sort of very narrow Calvinistic enclaves that I tend to be embarrassed about liking…

Of course, if one believes in general paternity, and has no account of particular paternity, the doctrine of adoption can only be meaningless. God, who is antecedently the father of all human beings, adopts believers to be children? What can that mean? I suppose most of our loss of interest in the doctrine of adoption came from this sort of assumption, although of course it would never be articulated as such. (This is supposition; an examination of commentaries and sermons on the classic NT passages on adoption would be the place to go for evidence.)

Can we do better? Yes, but not by denying general paternity: there is Biblical basis for that doctrine, and giving it up invites us into the worst excesses of hyper-calvinism – a ‘god’ who loves only the elect, and so on.

James Orr distinguished carefully between God’s ‘fatherhood’ of all human beings, resulting from his creating them, and God’s particular ‘fatherhood’ of believers, who are adopted as children through incorporation into Christ by the Holy Spirit. This seems to me just right, and to be a derivation of some of the theology of the divine names and the Trinity I’ve been outlining in the previous few posts here. I work it out as follows (this is me, not Orr, and this gets specific and speculative …):

1. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, creates, loves, and cares for all human beings, regardless of their moral failure. Because of this, and because of Biblical texts, it is appropriate to speak of God as the ‘father’ (or indeed ‘mother’, but the Biblical data there is slightly sparser) of all human people without exception.

2. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, calls Abraham and Sarah, and from their descendants elects the Israel to be the Holy Nation, God’s own people. God shows particular care for Israel, which is expressed both in particular blessing and in particular correction; in Scripture (e.g., Hos. 11) God narrates this in parental terms, and so to speak specifically or particularly of the triune God as the father (or indeed mother) of Israel is proper.

3. Jesus calls God Father. Jesus is God the Son incarnate, and so this is first an expression of the unique triune relation that Father and Son share in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

4. Jesus teaches the disciples, and through them all Christians, to call God ‘our Father’. This is adoption: by the grace of the triune God and by faith in Jesus Christ, human beings can be joined to the Son by the Spirit, and so can meaningfully and really call the Father ‘Father’.

5. There are two primary Biblical images for this joining: the body and the bride.

6. Christians are made a part of Christ’s body, of which Christ is the head, by the Spirit, and so a corporate personality of ‘Christ-and-the-church’ is formed, which properly calls the Father, ‘Father’.

7. The church is being formed by the Spirit into the bride of Christ; as God’s law is reality, for the church to have the Father as ‘Father-in-law’ is for the church to have the Father as Father.

8. On this account, the doctrine of adoption is another way of expressing the core NT doctrine of union with Christ – no more, but no less.

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