- The term.—The custom of adopting children is explicitly alluded to by St. Paul alone of biblical writers; he uses the word ‘adoption’ (υἱοθεσία, Vulg. adoptio filiorum, Syr. usually sīmath benayā)) five times: Ro 8:15, 23; 9:4, Gal 4:5, Eph 1:5. This Greek word is not found in classical writers (though θετὸς υἱός is used for ‘an adopted son’ by Pindar and Herodotus), and it was at one time supposed to have been coined by St. Paul; but it is common in Greek inscriptions of the Hellenistic period, and is formed in the same manner as νομοθεσία, ‘giving of the law,’ ‘legislation’ (Ro 9:4; also in Plato, etc.), and ὁροθεσία, ‘bounds,’ lit. ‘fixing of bounds’ (Ac 17:26). It is translated ‘adoption’ in Rom., but ‘adoption of sons’ in Gal., ‘adoption as sons’ (RV; AV ‘adoption of children’) in Ephesians, The classical Greek word for ‘to adopt’ is εἰσποιεῖσθαι, whence εἰσποίησις, ‘adoption.’
- The custom.—St. Paul in these passages is alluding to a Greek and Roman rather than to a Hebrew custom. Its object, at any rate in its earliest stages, was to prevent the dying out of a family, by the adopting into it of one who did not by nature belong to it, so that he became in all respects its representative and carried on the race. But, though the preventing of the extinction of a family was thought important by the Israelites, and though adoption was a legal custom among the Babylonians (Box, in ERE i. 114), it was not in use among the Hebrews. With them childlessness was to some extent met by the levirate, or in the patriarchal period by polygamy (cf. Gn 16:1ff), or at a later date by divorce. The few instances of adoption in the OT (e.g. Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter, Esther by Mordecai) exhibit a different reason for the act from that stated above, and are the result of foreign surroundings and influence. On the other hand, the custom was very common among both Greeks and Romans. It was at first largely connected with the desire that the family worship of dead ancestors should not cease—a cultus which could be continued only through males (Wood-house, in ERE i. 107 and 111). In Greece it dates from the 8th cent. b.c. It was afterwards used as a form of will-making. If a man had a legitimate son, he could not make a will; but, if he had no legitimate son, he often adopted one that he might secure the inheritance to him rather than to relatives, who would otherwise be heirs. The adopted son at once left his own family and became a member of that of his adopter, losing all rights as his father’s son. If he was adopted while his adopter was still living, and sons were afterwards born to the latter, he ranked equally with them; he could not be disinherited against his will. Roman adoption was founded on the same general ideas; it was called arrogatio if the person adopted was sui juris, but adoptio if he was under his own father’s potestas (Wood-house, loc. cit.). In the latter case he came under the adopter’s potestas as if he were his son by nature.
It appears, then, that St. Paul in the five passages named above is taking up an entirely non-Jewish position; so much so that some have doubted whether a Jew, even after he had become a Christian, could have written Epistles which contained such statements (cf. Ramsay, Galatians, p. 342). This, however, is one of the many instances of the influence of Greek and Roman ideas on St. Paul. W. M. Ramsay has endeavoured to show that, in so far as these differed from one another in the matter under discussion, it is to Greek custom rather than to ‘the Roman law of adoption in its original and primitive form’ that the Apostle refers in dealing with Gal 3:6ff., but that he uses a metaphor dependent on Roman law when writing to the Romans in Ro 4:11 (ib. pp. 339, 343; see also art. Heir). But this has been disputed.
- St. Paul’s metaphor of adoption.—The Apostle applies the metaphor to the relation of both Jews and Christians to the Father. (a) Somewhat emphatically he applies it to the Jews in Ro 9:4. The adoption, the glory [the visible presence of God], the covenants [often repeated], the giving of the Law, the service [of the Temple]. the promises, the fathers, all belonged to the Israelites, ‘my kinsmen according to the flesh,’ of whom is Christ concerning the flesh—a passage showing the intense Jewish feeling of St. Paul, combined with the broader outlook due to his Græco-Roman surroundings (see above, § 2). Here the sonship of Israel, for which see Ex 4:22 (‘Israel, my son, my first-born’). Dt 14:1; 32:6, 19f., Ps 68:5; 103:13, Jer 31:9, Hos 11:1, Mal 2:10, etc., is described as ‘adoption.’ It is noteworthy that the adoption is before the Incarnation, although it could only be ‘in Christ.’ Lightfoot (on Gal 4:5) observes that before Christ’s coming men were potentially sons, though actually they were only slaves (v. 3). Athanasius argues that, since before the Incarnation the Jews were sons [by adoption], and since no one could be a son except through our Lord [cf. Jn 14:6, Gal 3:26, Eph 1:5, and see below, § 5], therefore He was a Son before He became incarnate (Orat. c. Arian. i. 39, iv. 23, 29).
(b) But more frequently St. Paul applies the metaphor of adoption to Christians. ‘Sonship in the completest sense could not he proclaimed before the manifestation of the Divine Son in the flesh’ (Robinson, Eph., p. 27f.). We Christians ‘received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father, for ‘we are children of God’ (Ro 8:15f.). It was not till the fullness (τὸ πλήρωμα—for the word see Robinson, pp. 42, 255) of the time came that God sent forth His Son that we might receive adoption (Gal 4:4f.). In its highest sense adoption could not be received under the Law, but only under the Gospel. The context in these passages shows that the Spirit leads us to the Father by making us realize our sonship; He teaches us how to pray, and puts into our mouth the words ‘Abba, Father’ (cf. κρᾶσον Gal 4:6 with κρἀσομεν Ro 8:15). We notice that St. Paul, though addressing those who were not by any means all Jewish Christians, but many of whom, being Gentiles, had come directly into the Church, yet seems at first sight to speak as if Christ’s coming was only to give adoption to those whom, being under the Law, He redeemed. But, as Lightfoot remarks (Com. in loc.), the phrase used is τοὺς ὑπὸ νόμον, not ὑπὸ τὸν νόμον; the reference is not only to those who were under the Mosaic Law, but to all subject to any system of positive ordinances (so perhaps in 1 Co 9:20). The phrase ‘redeem …’ is thought to reflect the Roman idea that the adopter purchased a son from the father by nature; adoption was effected before a prætor and five witnesses, by a simulated sale.
(c) Just as the adoption of Jews was inferior to that of Christians, so that of Christians is not yet fully realized. Adoption is spoken of in Ro 8:23 as something in the future. It is the redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις) of out body, and we are still waiting for it; it can be completely attained only at the general resurrection. The thought closely resembles that of 1 Jn 3:2; we are now the children of God, but ‘if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him’; the sonship will then be perfected.
- Equivalents in other parts of NT.—Although no NT writer but St. Paul uses the word ‘adoption,’ the idea is found elsewhere, even if expressed differently. Thus in Jn 1:12f. those who ‘receive’ the Word and believe on His name are said to be given by Him the right to become children of God. On this passage Athanasius remarks (Orat. c. Arian. ii. 59) that the word ‘become’ shows an adoptive, not a natural, sonship; we are first said to be made (Gn 1:26), and afterwards, on receiving the grace of the Spirit, to be begotten. As Westcott observes (Com., in loc.), ‘this right is not inherent in man, but “given” by God to him. A shadow of it existed in the relation of Israel to God.’ This passage is closely parallel to Gal 3:26, where we are said to be all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus. So in 1 Jn 3:1, it is a mark of the love bestowed upon us by the Father that we should be called children of God [the name bestowed by a definite act—κληθῶμεν, aorist]; and (the Apostle adds) ‘such we are.’ The promise of Rev 21:7 to ‘him that overcometh’ equally implies adoption, not natural sonship: ‘I will be his God, and he shall be my son’; and so (but less explicitly) do the sayings in He 2:10; 12:9 that Jesus ‘brings many sons unto glory’ (see below, § 5), and that God deals with us ‘as with sons.’ The figure of adoption appears as a ‘re-begetting’ in 1 P 1:3, 23; we are begotten again unto a living hope by ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ by means of the resurrection of Jesus (see below, § 5), and therefore call on Him as Father (v. 17). And, indeed, our Lord’s teaching implies adoption, inasmuch as, while He revealed God as Father of all men, He yet uniformly (see next section) differentiates His own Sonship from that of all others.
- A Son by nature implied by the metaphor.—The use by St. Paul of the figure of adoption in the case of Jews and Christians leads us by a natural consequence to the doctrine that our Lord is the Son of God by nature. In the same context the Apostle speaks of Jesus as God’s ‘own Son’ (τὀν ἑαυτοῦ νἱόν), sent in the likeness of sinful flesh, therefore pre-existent (Ro 8:3; cf. v. 32 τοῦ ἱδίου υἱαῦ). In Gal 4:4f. he says that God sent forth His Son (τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ) … that we might receive adoption; Jesus did not receive it, because He was God’s own Son. And so our Lord explicitly in Jn 20:17 makes a clear distinction between His own sonship (by nature) and our sonship (by adoption, by grace): ‘my Father and your Father,’ ‘my Cod and your God.’ He never speaks of God as ‘our Father,’ though He taught His disciples to do so. Athanasius cites the ordinary usage of our Lord in speaking of ‘My Father’ (it is so very frequently in all the Gospels, and in Rev 2:27; 3:5; cf. also Mk 8:38) as a proof that He is ‘Son, or rather that Son, by reason of whom the rest are made sons’ (Orat. c. Arian. iv. 21f.). The same thing follows from the language of those NT writers who use phrases equivalent to those of St. Paul. If Christians become children of God (Jn 1:12; see § 4 above), Christ is the Only-begotten Son of God, who was sent into the world that we might be saved, or live, through Him (Jn 3:16–18, 1 Jn 4:9). If we are the sons brought to glory by Jesus (He 2:10). He is emphatically ‘a Son over [God’s] house’ (He 3:6 RVm; cf. Nu 12:7). St. Peter speaks of God as the Father of Jesus in the very verse in which he speaks of our being begotten again by Him (1 P 1:3, see § 4 above). It is this distinction between an adoptive and a natural sonship which gives point to the title ‘Only-begotten’ (q.v.); had Jesus been only one out of many sons, sons in the same sense, this title would be meaningless (for endeavours to evacuate its significance see Pearson, On the Creed5, art. ii. notes 52, 53). The distinction of Jn 20:17 is maintained throughout the NT. As Augustine says (Exp. Ep. ad Gal. [4:5] § 30, ed. Ben. iii. pt. 2, col. 960), St. Paul ‘speaks of adoption, that we may clearly understand the only-begotten (unicum) Son of God. For we are sons of God by His lovingkindness and the favour (dignitate) of His mercy; He is Son by nature who is one with the Father (qui hoc est quod Pater).’
- Adoption and baptism.—We may in conclusion consider at what period of our lives we are adopted by God as His sons. In one sense it was an act of God in eternity; we were foreordained unto adoption (Eph 1:5). But in another sense St. Paul speaks of it as a definite act at some definite moment of our lives: ‘Ye received (ἐλάβετε: aorist, not perfect) the spirit of adoption’ (Ro 8:15). This points to the adoption being given on the admission of the person to the Christian body, in his baptism. And so Sanday—Headlam paraphrase v. 15 thus: ‘When you were first baptized, and the communication of the Holy Spirit sealed your admission into the Christian fold,’ etc. We may compare Ac 19:2 RV; ‘Did ye receive (ἐλάβετε) the Holy Ghost when ye believed (πιστεύσαντες)?’—a passage in which the tenses ‘describe neither a gradual process nor a reception at some interval after believing’ but a definite gift at a definite moment’ (Rackham, Com., in loc.; cf. Swete, Holy Spirit in NT, 1909, pp. 204, 342), The aorists can mean nothing else. In the case of the ‘potential’ adoption of the Jews (to borrow Lightfoot’s phrase), it is the expression of the covenant between God and His people, and therefore must be ascribed to the moment of entering into the covenant at circumcision, the analogue of baptism. Yet in neither case is the adoption fully realized till the future (above, § 3 (c)). In view of what has been said, we can understand how ‘adoption’ came in later times to be an equivalent term for ‘baptism.’ Thus Payne Smith (Thesaur. Syr., Oxford, 1879–1901, ii. 2564) quotes a Syriac phrase to the effect that ‘the baptism of John was of water unto repentance, but the baptism of our Lord [i.e. that ordained by Him] is of water and fire unto adoption.’ And in the later Christian writers υἱοθεσία became a synonym for ‘baptism’ (Suicer, Thes.3, 1846, s.v.).
Literature.—Athanasius, Orationes contra Arianos, passim (the general subject or this magnificent work is the Sonship of Christ); J. Pearson, On the Creed (ed. Burton, Oxford, 1864), art. i. p. 49, art. ii. note 57, p. 250; W. M. Ramsay, Hist. Com. on the Galatians, London, 1899, § xxxi.; G. H. Box, in ERE, art. ‘Adoption (Semitic)’; W. J. Woodhouse, ib., artt. ‘Adoption (Greek)’ and ‘Adoption (Roman)’; J. S. Candlish, in HDB, art. ‘Adoption’; H. G. Wood, in SDB, art. ‘Adoption.’ See also J. B. Lightfoot, Com. on Galatians (1st ed., 1865, many subsequent edd.); Sanday-Headlam, Com. on Romans (1st ed., 1895); J. Armitage Robinson, Com. on Ephesians (1st ed., 1903).
lit. literally, literature.
RV Revised Version.
AV Authorized Version.
ERE Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics.
RVm Revised Version margin.
q.v. quod vide, which see.
HDB Hastings’ Dict. of the Bible (5 vols.).
SDB Hastings’ Single-vol. Dictionary of the Bible.