Christ's Amazing Transition
Adoptionism is an early Christian heresy regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ. This false teaching advanced the view that God the Father came upon an already-existing man called Jesus of Nazareth and adopted him as his “son” after the fact of his birth and maturation (perhaps adopting him at his baptism and departing before his crucifixion). It is almost as if the Father stumbled upon Jesus while looking for someone else. Such heretical teaching hardly squares with the biblical evidence on any level. However, the heresy of adoptionism does not mean that Jesus was not adopted in any sense. Our adoption as sons of God depends upon the adoption of Jesus in its legitimate, fully biblical sense. I do not intend to say everything that can be said about the adoption of Jesus Christ nor our adoption. But take it as axiomatic that our salvation rides on the reality of Christ’s adoption properly defined and understood.
I would like us to consider two significant passages of Scripture that provide fodder for our consideration. The first is Psalm 2. While the whole psalm is relevant to understanding the prophetic foreshadowing of the coming Messiah, it is verse 7 that is particularly germane: “I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” If this ultimately relates to Jesus Christ when did God “beget” him? Is this a reference to the Son’s eternal generation or what we call the intra-trinitarian relations between the Father, Son, and Spirit? This is possible. Many in the history of the church have advocated just such an interpretation. And certainly we ought to affirm the eternal generation of the Son. There is no doubt about the truthfulness of that doctrine.
However, John Calvin in his commentary on this verse reminds us that there is an alternative and more adequate, and therefore more attractive, option. Before we get to Calvin’s observation we ought to notice something about Jesus Christ in the biblical treatment of his person and work. The New Testament’s witness to Christ runs along two distinct, yet inseparable tracks. The Son of God is considered from two vantage points: from the vantage point of his eternal existence as God the Son and from the vantage point of his redemptive-historical accomplishment of redemption as the well-pleasing and beloved Son of God-in-the-flesh. So as we read any passage about the Son in either the Old Testament or the New Testament we need to reckon with what aspect of the person and work of Christ is being addressed, the Son in his pre-existent divine nature alone or as the God-Man who is one person with two natures.
Back to Calvin on Psalm 2:7:
This passage, I am aware, has been explained by many as referring to the eternal generation of Christ; and from the words this day, they have reasoned ingeniously as if they denoted an eternal act without any relation to time. But Paul, who is a more faithful and a better qualified interpreter of this prophecy, in Acts 13:33, calls our attention to the manifestation of the heavenly glory of Christ of which I have spoken. This expression, to be begotten, does not therefore imply that he then began to be the Son of God, but that his being so was then made manifest to the world. Finally, this begetting ought not to be understood of the mutual love which exists between the Father and the Son; it only signifies that He who had been hidden from the beginning in the sacred bosom of the Father, and who afterwards had been obscurely shadowed forth under the law, was known to be the Son of God from the time when he came forth with authentic and evident marks of Sonship, according to what is said in John 1:14, “We have seen his glory, as of the only begotten of the Father.” We must, at the same time, however, bear in mind what Paul teaches, (Rom. 1:4,) that he was declared to be the Son of God with power when he rose again from the dead, and therefore what is here said has a principal allusion to the day of his resurrection (Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1:18. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software).
Calvin rightly points to the idea that Christ’s “begetting” in Psalm 2:7 points to an event in space and time and not to some eternal act within the internal being of God himself. We recognize that Psalm 2 is a royal psalm originally referring to David but finding its apex of fulfillment in Christ. If this verse points to an event in history what event is that? Was the early Christian heresy of adoptionism correct after all? Not at all! May it never be!
Psalm 2:7 typologically refers to Christ’s coronation or enthronement. It speaks to some significant occurrence in the life of Christ as the theanthropos. Calvin already points to this transition in the life of Jesus Christ at his resurrection from the dead as noted by Paul in Romans 1:4. In Romans 1:4 Paul tells the church at Rome that while Jesus was of the seed of David according to his flesh, by his resurrection he was declared or appointed the Son of God-in-power. Christ’s resurrection was an amazing transition for him from his estate of humiliation to his estate of exaltation (to use the language of WSC Q&A 23). Christ’s resurrection was his appointment as the Son of God-in-power. It was his regal enthronement. It was, to change the metaphor, his adoption. This is not the adoption of adoptionism but the adoption of a royal Son who receives his Father-King’s approbation.
It is only if the Son of God amazingly transitions from humiliation to exaltation that we can graciously transition from God’s just and holy wrath on us for our sin to his love toward us as his adopted children. In other words, we are sons of God by grace whereas Christ is God’s Son by nature and by redemptive accomplishment. Jesus’ adoption/coronation/enthronement/appointment-in-power is the basis for our adoption. There is no hope of salvation without it.
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.