The 'Cause and Root' of Adoption

On January 31, 2017, P&R Publishing released David Garner's new book, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ. This excerpt from the first chapter (pp. 3–8) of the book offers a quick glance at themes developed in the book.[1]

Cursory enquiry of huiothesia (“adoption”) in the New Testament might lead one to downplay its theological significance. Only five times does the term huiothesia appear, always in the Pauline corpus, ostensibly defending a cursory treatment based on its infrequency and Pauline exclusivity. If adoption is so important, why does the term huiothesia draw so little ink? As more careful analysis of the term in its particular usage reveals, simplistic conclusions do not satisfy. Quantitative analysis of vocabulary serves as no adequate determiner, because the word huiothesia widely embraces multiple theological foci and vast pastoral treasure. Before giving attention to the sweeping manner in which Paul employs huiothesia, critical hermeneutical principles concerning the theological weight of biblical terms warrant mention.

Before we defend or deny a word’s importance on the basis of its etymology and regularity, other biblical, contextual, and theological criteria must take precedence. Scholars across the hermeneutical and theological spectrum discern methodological problems with noncontextual word studies. Even one whose Christology suffers from damaging, unorthodox formulations, James Dunn, astutely warns of faulty conclusions stemming from the rarity with which Jesus is called God’s Son in the Pauline Epistles (only seventeen times). Such infrequency renders feeble rationale for determining theological inconsequentiality: “word counts are an uncertain basis on which to build . . . a conclusion.”[2] As Dunn asserts, the weight of a theological concept cannot be determined by mere quantitative analysis. Such a simplistic approach would suffer from the word-concept fallacy and ignore the more important questions of how a word is employed and of how a concept can explicitly and implicitly shape an entire paradigm.

Vulnerability surfaces here for two types of interpretive error. On the one hand, there is risk in overlooking key contextual and exegetical considerations because a particular term appears rarely. In this way, brute quantitative analysis can invalidly curtail emphasis on important theological themes. On the other hand, there is a risk of importing foreign concepts into Scripture because one can presume on a particular theme, make interpretive decisions out of an imposed thesis, and force conclusions into a word, a biblical text, or even the canon of Scripture as a whole. Desire for new insight and the temptation to promote hobbyhorses can cloud interpretive judgment. Avoiding errors in either direction mandates exegetical and biblico-theological care, including the upholding of the interpretive interdependence of Old and New Testaments, particularly in their organic, covenantal structure. Westminster Confession of Faith 1.9 offers considerable wisdom with its pithy hermeneutical parameters: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” Shared intertestamental theological themes evidence the Spirit’s consistent voice in Scripture, and the church’s understanding of them. Such themes, it is important to affirm, originate by “good and necessary consequence” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6) and not just by explicit statement.

Sometimes a theme functions so predominantly, its explicit statement is unnecessary, and even tautologous. The covenants and their formative structure in Scripture offer a prime example. In fact, because of their permeating presence, the historical, hermeneutical, and theological significance of the biblical covenants renders an essential guide to the interpreter. By the manner in which it recognizes and appropriates the historic covenants (e.g., Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) and then integrates these covenants into a single covenant of grace (Gal. 3–4), the Pauline corpus substantiates this conclusion. For the apostle Paul, the biblical covenants frame biblical revelation in the Old and New Testaments, providing the structure of biblical history and theology, including Christology and soteriology.

The two-Adam covenantal paradigm organizes Paul’s entire understanding of history (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:45–49; cf. Rom. 8:18–39), from creation through redemption unto consummation.6 In short, the first Adam upon obedience to the covenant of works was to enter “life”—that is, a new quality of life, one of confirmed righteousness and divine blessing. Failing to obey and forfeiting these covenantal blessings, the first Adam established the historical and theological necessity for the covenantal ministry of the last Adam. Accordingly, Christ’s redemptive work as last Adam was exhaustively covenantal, and by faithful covenant-keeping and by enduring the covenantal curse as the chief Sin-Bearer, Christ inherited those promised eschatological blessings. The covenant Head, he secured eschatological life for all those whom he represents.[3] Further, the new covenant, though named explicitly by Paul only in 1 Corinthians 11:25 and 2 Corinthians 3:6, features prominently for the apostle, and the epochal/theological transition from the old covenant to the new covenant entirely frames his theology and that of the entire New Testament. Paul’s attention to the historic covenants in the life of ancient Israel and the realization of the new covenant in Christ exposes his covenant-hermeneutical orientation. Faithful hermeneutics must always appreciate this intertestamental continuity and interpretive reciprocity.

In Romans 9:1–5, Paul explicitly draws out this Old to New Testament covenantal development as it is integrated by the rarely appearing word huiothesia. Seeing the gospel of the New Testament drawing on the Christ-centeredness of the Old Testament (Rom. 1:1–7; Gal. 3:8; cf. John 5:39–47), Paul understands the Old Testament itself to anticipate the coming New Testament, new covenant revelation; in turn, the New Testament draws on and fulfills the Old Testament, the old covenant(s). As will grow increasingly clear from the coming treatment of Romans 9:1–5 (in chapter 6), Christ secures the benefits of redemption for those whom he represents, including the benefit of adoption, which is listed first in this Pauline summary of God’s covenantal faithfulness to his people. Old Testament adoption anticipates the coming New Testament adoption, and the New Testament fluidly draws on and fulfills its old covenant form. Old Testament events and theology, then, are the context for Pauline and New Testament theology: “Paul’s letters have their origin, their integral place and their intended function within the organically unfolding history of revelation.”[4] Methodological marginalization of this organic intertestamental and covenantal structure will ensure theological misunderstanding, and will effectively compromise any proper appreciation for the origin, scope, and meaning of huiothesia in Pauline thought.

Exegetical and theological care is indeed in order. Paul’s permeating familial and filio-Christological focus combined with his variegated yet sweeping use of huiothesia begs for penetrating consideration of its meaning. Short on recurrence, huiothesia is long on import. Adoption appeals to grand biblico-theological and covenantal themes, making its theological function noteworthy, even paradigmatic. Accordingly, as will be surveyed in the following chapters, huiothesia shoulders substantial theological weight, since it supports the filially framed resurrection of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:3–4) as the basis for the whole range of gospel graces bestowed on those united to him. The term huiothesia embodies a covenantal, Christological, pneumatological, and soteriological construction for the apostle Paul, countering the temptation to underestimate the term’s value; its infrequent appearance ought not to eclipse its theological reaches or its pastoral riches. Richard Sibbes most appropriately exclaims, “All things are ours by virtue of adoption, because we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. There is a world of riches in this, to be sons of God.”15[5]

Sibbes considers adoption here in terms of its pastoral value, and rightly so. But the primary concern in this study is to probe the bottomless theological gold mine from which these pastoral marvels draw. To change the metaphor slightly, adoption’s subterranean roots take us beneath redemption applied to the accomplishment of redemption itself in Jesus Christ, who is adoption’s “cause and root.”16 For the redeemed sons of God, adoption’s comprehensive benefits come by participation in the resurrection/adoption of Christ, and no other way. Only with a full appreciation of the Christological and covenantal contours of biblical revelation, and in particular the mutually informing role they play in huiothesia, will we begin to apprehend the world of riches embedded in this Pauline theme.

David Garner is vice president for advancement and associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.

[1] In this online excerpt, I have abbreviated, and in some cases removed, the footnotes present in the book.

[2] James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 37.

[3] G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 918; see also ibid., 174.

[4] Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 10.

[5] Richard Sibbes, Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 7 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1983), 4:502 (emphasis in original).


David Garner