A Personal Odyssey


It is in a spirit of praise to God, and in consciousness of today’s wider scholarly, pastoral, and missional interest in adoption that I share how my contribution to the recovery of adoption came about. The memories which follow doubtless mean more to me than they will to you. Nevertheless, I record them to glorify God for his leading to what has become the most joyous study of my life, and because I have spent no small amount of time seeking to understand the influences on the interest in adoption of those upon whose shoulders we stand. How often I wish they had shared more of what brought them to focus so richly on adoption when countless other theologians overlooked the doctrine. Nowhere has this been more tantalizing than in the weighing the interest of John Calvin.

The year was 1991, I believe. Standing before the rather sallow-colored wall of the Free Church of Scotland College’s New Testament classroom,[1] running my finger down the list of Principal Boyd’s forthcoming assignments, my eyes lit up as they settled on the words: “Tim Trumper—The Adoption as Sons. The Inheritance.” Principal Boyd was challenging members of his class to summarize a chapter of Herman Ridderbos’ volume Paul: An Outline of His Theology. For reasons I cannot explain other than in terms of God’s guidance, the moment became the bright spot of an otherwise unremarkable day, and, unbeknown to me at the time, set, in many ways, the course of my life from that day to this. It is no exaggeration to say that my interest in every aspect of adoption has never wavered since then, although the opportunities to go into print certainly have.

Initially, I was just thankful that Principal Boyd had allotted to me what looked like the most interesting chapter in Ridderbos’ Paul. Although it was not possible at the time to articulate why the chapter on adoption looked so much more appealing than the others, I do wonder with hindsight whether it was the colorful metaphorical character of the language of adoption and its spiritually winsome overtones which caught the eye. The Lord knows! More obvious at the time was the assignment in hand.

Accordingly, I set out to provide what Principal Boyd described, with a wry smile, as “but an outline of an outline of Paul’s theology.”. As straightforward as the assignment now sounds, it quickly became apparent that there was more to the subject than met the eye. For one thing, Ridderbos’ approach to adoption was not what I expected. In fact, it left me confused initially. Instead of focusing on the interconnectedness of adoption and the various neighboring elements of the ordo salutis (calling, regeneration, justification, and sanctification, etc.), much of his attention was given to Paul’s use of adoption as an important strand of redemptive history. Thus, to gain an understanding of the chasm between my assumptions about adoption and what Ridderbos had written of it, I began to read around about adoption, and have never stopped. A number of observations quickly became apparent.

First, by comparing Ridderbos’ chapter with the contributions of the systematic theologians I came to realize just how neglected adoption has been.

Then, secondly, I observed that whereas Ridderbos expounded Paul’s thought on adoption on the apostle’s own terms, the systematic theologians ran together the filial and familial terminology of the various authors of Scripture, especially those of the New Testament.

Thirdly, it occurred to me that the conflation of the filial and familial terms of the New Testament arose out of the systematicians’ concerns for the neatness of the system of theology, but significantly altered Paul’s approach to adoption. Sometimes they flattened out the contours of his trans-testamental understanding of adoption, and sometimes they limited the scope of the doctrine to its place in the ordo salutis.

Fourthly, it dawned on me that while this Puritan approach demonstrated the neatness of the system of theology and undergirded the reality of the one gospel revealed in Scripture—the new birth giving the believer the nature of a child of God and adoption the status—the manner in which the unity of Scripture and of the gospel were portrayed did despite to the humanness of Scripture, specifically to the distinctive structures of the new birth and adoption models.

Fifthly, I became convinced that the full retrieval of adoption requires not simply an understanding of its neglect, and the playing of catchup in terms of the amount written on adoption, but a back-to-Scripture approach to its investigation on the one hand, and the renewal of the theological method of classic Presbyterianism (Westminster Calvinism) on the other. I mention Westminster Calvinism not simply because that was the theology in which I was being schooled (and to which I subscribe), but because of its place in the post-Reformation history of the doctrine of adoption, and because of the integral relationship between Westminster Calvinism and the logically-driven method of systematic theology which a Pauline, redemptive-historical, and metaphorical approach to adoption challenges.

Sixthly, this fresh approach to adoption, which first Ridderbos and later Calvin spawned in my mind, began to unveil new ways of looking at debates of the past and the present. I refer to those relating to issues of theological method, the historic standoff between liberals and conservatives (and vice versa), the shape and feel of covenant theology, the way we understand justification, and the manner in which we live out the Christian life, to name a few.[2]

Thanks be to God for the sense of purpose and joy my life has received from weighing these issues. More immediately, I owe a significant theological debt to the late Professor Herman Ridderbos (1909–2007), and a personal debt to the late Principal Boyd (died 2008). Under the good hand of the Lord they established a path of learning from which I have not departed.

From the time of the assignment until the close of my studies at the College in 1993, I began collecting data about the doctrine of adoption. Every additional piece I juggled mentally as each, in turn, matured my understanding, built up a picture of the neglect of adoption, and opened up vistas on its theological, missional, and practical application. Along the way I became indebted to many others, to those who have gone to their heavenly home and to those who remain alive at the time of writing. My gratitude for their personal or written help is inscribed on my heart, and written up in footnotes throughout the published research: John Murray, J. I. Packer, Sinclair Ferguson, Errol Hulse, Douglas Kelly, and Brian Gerrish in particular.

Intrigued to learn more of adoption I signed up during my final term at the Free Church College for doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh. The following years were spent at New College (now known as the School of Divinity), the next door up along the city’s famous Presbyterian Ridge. While the heavy schedule of itinerant preaching delayed the completion of the degree (afterall the preached Word is primary), I was in truth more taken up with understanding the doctrine than with simply earning the degree. Accordingly, the research developed two tracks. The one led through the field of historical theology and served the dissertation, the other through the fields of biblical, metaphorical and systematic theology, and furthered my general knowledge of adoption. Both began with its historic neglect, as is reflected in the common ground between the introduction to the dissertation and the opening chapters here. The former was passed in 2001, is titled “An Historical Study of the Doctrine of Adoption in the Calvinistic Tradition” (referred to hereafter as “An Historical Study”), and received the award of Ph.D. in 2002,[3] the latter has continued to the present as an ongoing hobby amid the immediate responsibilities of daily ministry.

The passage of time has not diminished my gratitude to my Doktorvater Dr. Gary Badcock, for his holistic concern for me throughout the time at New College. He modeled for me what it means, as a supervisor, to care for the person and not simply for the research.   The late Professor David F. Wright (1937–2008) served as my secondary supervisor, and had input into the research throughout. Especially memorable was his readiness to “go to bat” for the dissertation and to promote the publication of the research.

One year of the doctoral research, 1994–95, was spent at the Evangelisches Stift in Tübingen, Germany. There I gave myself to understanding the biblical data about adoption so that on returning to Edinburgh I would be better placed to evaluate the theological treatments of adoption under consideration for the dissertation. Especially valuable during this time of reflection was the opportunity given to present my findings to Professor Otto Betz’s Kolloquium für Graduerte and to ask Professor Juergen Moltmann about the place of adoption in German theology.

It was at Professor Wright’s suggestion, on my return to Edinburgh, that I begin submitting the preliminary findings of the research to the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology. Thus began the sporadic publication of six articles in three couplets which appeared between 1996 and 2005. In them I began to plot a path toward the retrieval of adoption, which would procure along the way awareness of the extent to which adoption had been neglected, and conflated with the new birth (especially), and of how its methodological underpinnings and its theological content could enrich the shape and feel of Reformed theology (Westminster Calvinism in particular).

The research and writing continues to the present among other pressing responsibilities. However, all rests on the pillars of understanding establishing in the doctoral dissertation and Scottish Bulletin articles. Naturally, scholars have questioned this aspect or that aspect of the research, yet the fundamental pillars remain very much in place; namely, that adoption is exclusively a Pauline model, the contours of which are fundamentally redemptive-historical, to which the exposition of Calvin’s theology of adoption bears compelling witness.

[1] The Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh, is now renamed in rather Americanized fashion Edinburgh Theological Seminary.

[2] See Tim J.R. Trumper, “Covenant Theology and Constructive Calvinism” Westminster Theological Journal 64 (2002), 387–404; When History Teaches Us Nothing: The Recent Reformed Sonship Debate in Context (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008).

[3] The dissertation can be downloaded for free at the Edinburgh Research Archive (https://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/6803).

Dr. Tim J.R. Trumper, Senior Minister, Seventh Reformed Church (www.7thref.org); www.fromhisfullness.com