Adoption Nuggets: (3) Dipping Into Metaphorical Theology

1. Introduction


I don’t know about you, but I tend to gulp my food down, then take a breather, and then go again. The first stage of the meal is typified by excited energy, the second by a satisfied rest for the purpose of digestion, and the third by a readiness to polish off the rest of the meal.

It’s been like that with these adoption nuggets. We chewed on those dipped in historical theology until we completed the story of adoption in the first three centuries. By the time we reached the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) it was time to take a breather. The rest-time useful for digestion was good for me, and, if you’ve been following these nuggets, it was likely good for you, too.

When returning to an unfinished meal there’s no obligation to restart with the same plate. It’s a daily habit of many to go back and forth between the main course and the salad. If our dippings into historical theology are the main sauce we’re tasting with the nuggets, we choose in returning to the meal to start dipping into the sauce we label metaphorical theology. We’ll come back again to the story of adoption in historical theology ~ there’s plenty more sauce in that sachet (covering the years 325 A.D. to the present to be exact) ~ but for now we’ll consider the most neglected aspect of the doctrine of adoption. Namely, how we are to understand  the language of adoption in Scripture.

For many ~ the theologian and the popular mind ~ the question of whether “adoption” is literal or metaphorical is rarely asked or even mentioned. Some assume the term found in Romans 8:15, 23; 9:4; Galatians 4:5; and Ephesians 1:5 is literal. Others assume it is metaphorical. Yet, little discussion is to be had as to which it is, and as to why we may assume one understanding or the other.

This question has intrigued me since first becoming captivated by Paul’s teaching in the early 1990s. The longer I have thought about the matter, the more conscious I am that the discussion brings us to the limits of what God has revealed. Needless to say, I do not have all the answers, and am not interested in crossing the border of revelation into the realm of speculation to come up with some. Rather, we shall tread gingerly through the subject, thinking aloud about the issues which impact the way we understand and apply Paul’s adoption motif.


If you are wondering the value of the discussion, three benefits come to mind:

  • Broadly speaking, it will help us think through issues related to Holy Scripture. We know Scripture possesses divineness, for  it is breathed out by the Spirit of God (2 Tim. 3:16), but many are less familiar with its humanness; that is to say, with the implications of God’s use of 45 authors over 1600 years, and the varying figures of speech they use to depict essential elements of the gospel.
  • Speaking specifically, the discussion will enable us to build an exposition of adoption from a reliable foundation. To build high we must first dig deep.
  •  Practically speaking, a fresh look at the language of adoption in Scripture promises to shed light on both the gospel and the practice of adoption in today’s world. We may ask, for example, whether God has revealed salvation in terms like adoption as an accommodation to the practices of man, or whether man adopts because he’s made in the image of God who adopts.

We may have to chew slowly, but I trust the nourishment will be rich.


Let’s not be put off by the label “metaphorical theology”! The discussion of metaphor can be a lot more interesting than it sounds. Not only does it take us to places rarely considered in either theological or popular studies of adoption, it focuses on the way some of the most graphic images of Scripture work in conveying God’s truth.

Since the subject is deep, we’re proceeding slowly and methodically. Having explained our temporary transitioning away from our journey through the writings of the church, and envisioned several benefits of considering the particular biblical language of adoption (huiothesia or “the placing of a son), we now complete our preamble to the world of metaphor by identifying specific issues pertaining to the use of the term.

All we can do here is map out the order in which we’ll digest the upcoming nuggets. This is as useful to me as I hope it will be to you, as we seek to keep track of where we are going. While I don’t claim to have all the answers, and in some places will have few guides to rely on, it is nevertheless important that we ponder the most fundamental questions. After all, they relate to a profound matter: the manner in which believers in Christ are sons of God and members of his household.

“Why go so deep?”, you may wonder. Well, if the recovery of adoption in Christian belief is to amount to anything more than a rehashing of historic treatments of the theme, we must build from the very fabric of Scripture and not from some of the assumptions of historical interpretations. I do not say that these treatments were inevitably wrong, but we need to be sure that they were right, even if just for our own satisfaction.

Permit me to illustrate this from my pastoral visits to one of the local hospitals. If visitors enter from one side of the building and head for the elevator, they get in on the first floor. But if they enter the hospital from a different direction, they get into the elevator on the second. This may help them get to their visit quicker, but they won’t necessarily benefit from the receptionist on the first floor who passes out the hospital floor plan.

Now since most treatments of adoption begin on the second floor and not the first, they omit some fundamental questions. Such as:

1. Are all the colorful filial or familial terms of the New Testament speaking of the same doctrine or teaching? If not, contrary to many you read, how do we distinguish the terms utilized?

2. Are we to take terms like “adoption” literally, metaphorically, or in some other way?

3. If God’s adoption of his people is literal, what does that say of societal adoption?

4. If, alternatively, God’s adoption of his people is metaphorical, what impact does that have on our understanding of the way the Bible uses the language of adoption?

5. Furthermore, where did the metaphor of adoption come from? Among those understanding adoption to be metaphorical, it is either assumed or argued that it came from a Semitic, Roman, or Greek practice.

6. How do we make use of the language of adoption in getting to the heart of the matter and its devotional and practical application?

As different opinions prevail on a number of these issues, I will likely at points just present the pros and cons of each respective position. In some instances I imagine having to take a line in order to press forward. Yet, the holding of these discussions should at least instill the necessary humility and caution in advancing to the consideration of adoption in biblical, systematic, and practical theology.

All in good time!

Fundamental Question #1: Distinguishing the Filial and Familial Language of Scripture

(i) Basic Facts about Adoption

Having committed ourselves to construct the doctrine of adoption from the ground up, and having mapped out the six issues necessary for a solid foundation, we now begin to consider the biblical data.

There’s historical and theological rationale for doing so. Historically, pastors and theologians have hurried their attention to the filial and familial terms the Bible uses. As a result they have too often confused the specifics of the filial and familial language of Scripture, typically ignoring along the way the distinctive structures of the images it portrays. Theologically, an insight into the Bible’s language of adoption reminds us not to make premature negations of its importance.

Three facts are essential for correct understanding.

First, there is only one term in Scripture for the adoption of the sons of God. The term is huiothesia, meaning literally “the placing of a son.”  Seen in the contexts of its New Testament usage, the term embraces both the act of God the Father in adopting his sons and the resultant state of sonship.

Some failing to perceive in huiothesia the richness of both the adoptive act and the adoptive state opt for the more general translation of “sonship.” Some others translate huiothesia as “sonship” in contexts where the adoptive state is intended (e.g., in the N.I.V. in Rom. 8:15 and Galatians 4:5). Others, concerned for the neatness of their system of theology, find the translation “sonship” more convenient than adoption, for it affords an easier connection to the New Testament’s language of the new birth with its references to the children of God. Still others, have found “sonship” a convenient translation en route to Universalism (Thomas Erskine of Linlathen) or to the redefining of justification (N.T. Wright).

Second, Paul is the only biblical author to make use of huiothesia. The term is not found in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures), nor is it used by other New Testament authors. Paul uses it in the following order:

Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive the Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”

Romans 8:23: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Romans 9:4: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.”

Galatians 4:4-5: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Ephesians 1:5: ” . . . he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . .”

Third, these five references cover the entire history of redemption.  We’ll have more to say of this when we come to our dippings into biblical theology. Sufficient to say at this point that we can rearrange these “huiothesian” texts according to the respective chapters of redemptive history to which they refer. When we consider them as milestones along the trajectory stretching from the first things (protology) to the last things (eschatology), they line up as follows:

Ephesians 1:5: ” . . . he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . .”

Romans 9:4: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.”

Galatians 4:4-5: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent for th his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”

Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive the Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”

Romans 8:23: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

A firm grasp on these three facts disentangles adoption from the filial and familial terms of other biblical writers, grants us a clear sight of what we are considering, and begins to reveal to us that adoption possesses an importance out of all proportion to the number of its references in Scripture. To borrow a thought from the Southern Presbyterian Benjamin Morgan Palmer, no other term embraces so much of the whole system of grace as adoption.

* All Bible verses are taken from the E.S.V.

(ii) Basic Contrasts with the New Birth

Having outlined the three basic facts of adoption ~ the uniqueness of the biblical term huiothesia, Paul’s exclusive use of it (Rom. 8:15, 23, 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5), and his utilization of the term to cover the whole scope of redemptive history (Eph. 1:5; Rom. 9:4; Gal. 4:5 [Rom. 8:15]; Rom. 8:23) ~ we now come to the unscrambling of the New Testament’s language of adoption and new birth.

This is necessary because, more often than not, theologians throughout church history have either not seen or chosen to override the specifics of the biblical language relative to each theme.  The effect of this two-way suffusion has been greatest on adoption. Firstly, because it is the more neglected of the two biblical themes, and, secondly, because its redemptive-historical contours have not been well understood. Generally, the conflation of the New Testament’s language of adoption and the new birth has required either the flattening out of Paul’s redemptive-historical unfolding of adoption, or the ignoring of it altogether in what is in effect a limiting of the scope of adoption to its application. These tendencies are very characteristic of Puritan treatments of adoption. They afford the neat inclusion of adoption in the order of salvation (ordo salutis), but they drop along the way something of the wealth of Paul’s redemptive-historical perspective and of Calvin’s exposition of it.

The disentangling of conflated versions of adoption and the new birth is not as difficult as one might imagine. Consider that:

  • Whereas Paul uses filial or familial language chiefly in connection with adoption, John and others like Peter use it primarily in the context of the new birth. If John refers to adoption at all ~ and that is a big “if” ~ he does so but in passing in John 1:12 (“the right to become children of God”) and in Revelation  21:7  (an atypical use of “son” [see below]).
  • Whereas the adopted are said to have been slaves prior to their adoption (implicitly in Eph. 2:1-2; explicitly in Gal. 3:23-4:7), the new born are said to have been children of the devil (1 John 3:10).
  • Whereas the adopted become sons of God (hence huiothesia or “the placing of a son”), those born again are described alternatively by John as children of God (tekna theou).  The contrast is one of degree rather than of kind, for sometimes Paul refers to the adopted as children (e.g., Rom. 8: 16, 17, 21; 9:8), while John can refer to the new born as sons (Rev. 21:7).
  • Whereas there is at the heart of adoption a union of the Son (huios) and the sons (huioi), John distinguishes between Christ as Son (huios) and the new born as children (tekna). That said, those born anew as children of God are gradually conformed to the image of the Son. This likely explains why John eventually labels the born again as sons of God when anticipating the new earth (Rev. 21:7).
  • Whereas the adopted enter the household of God (e.g., Eph. 2:19), those born from above enter the kingdom of God (e.g., John 3:3).
  • Whereas the adoption motif is a graphic expression of the concept of divine acceptance, the new birth motif expresses the concept of regeneration or new life.
  • Whereas the motifs of adoption and the new birth have their distinctive features, the concepts they represent contribute harmoniously and coherently to the one gospel found in Scripture. The explanation of this gospel is summed up by the doctrine of salvation (soteriology).

In summary, I am not saying that the mantra “Adoption gives us the status of sons, the new birth the nature of sons” is wrong, but that the manner by which theologians have arrived at this equation has typically allowed the divineness of Scripture to absorb its humanness. To state things alternatively, the demands of a neat system of theology have led to the playing down of the history of redemption and the authorial diversity of the New Testament. These two features of Scripture are the sine qua non of a clear and accurate understanding of adoption.

[A more extensive consideration of the biblical data is found in Tim (J. R.) Trumper, “The Metaphorical Import of Adoption: A Plea for Realisation.I: The Adoption Metaphor in Biblical Usage,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 14:2 (Autumn 1996), 129-45.]

Fundamental Question #2: Is Paul’s Language of Adoption to Be Taken Literally or Metaphorically?

By challenging the admixture of the filial and familial language of Paul and John so prevalent in treatments of adoption, we have disentangled John’s  terminology relevant to the new birth from Paul’s germane to the believer’s adoption in Christ. In summary of what we considered last time, the filial terms used by each apostle are similar, but bespeak different elements of our salvation. John speaks of our regeneration and Paul of our acceptance in Christ. It is, then, precisely because these motifs differ that they are distinctively-structured. They share some terms in common (notably “Father,” “sons,” and “children”), yet the motifs they shape are distinguished by Paul’s exclusive use of huiothesia (the placing of a son) on the one hand, and John’s use of gennao (to beget, to give birth) and its derivatives on the other.

With this point made, we take up a second question pertinent to our dippings into metaphorical theology: Has God literally adopted his people as his sons, or has his Spirit inspired Paul to describe our acceptance in Christ by means of the adoption metaphor or model (see later)? The question is worth posing for two reasons:

Reason #1: Interest is hard to come by 

Few interested in adoption recognize this question or go on to tackle it. Writers use the term “adoption” profusely, but either presume it to be a literal reality or a metaphorical expression. Why there has been scant discussion of the alternatives is hard to tell. I can but offer some suggestions.

First, the silence is part of a broader neglect of the discussion of the function of religious language. Surprisingly, the comprehending of how biblical figures of speech depict the reality of God’s dealings with us is largely untouched.

Secondly, Scripture seems to give us few clear indications of how its language works. This likely explains why theologians assume one of two general philosophical positions: naive or critical realism. Whereas the naive realist perceives the external world as it really is (meaning in this context that God has truly and really adopted his people), the critical realist perceives the external world as a representative reality (meaning that adoption is a way of describing our acceptance in Christ accommodated to our finite minds). Only more Bible-based discussion of the variant naive and critical realist options will tell us the degree to which Scripture speaks to the matter.

Thirdly,  it seems to me there has been a fear of going beyond Scripture. In principle, this is laudable. As a strong advocate of the injection of biblical-theological concerns into the discipline of systematic theology (following the likes of John Calvin, John Murray, John Frame, and Richard Gaffin), I would not want us to veer into the realm of speculation. But there is an opposite danger, and that is of falling short of what Scripture teaches. As those called to love God with all of our minds (as well as our hearts, etc.), we must not shirk the difficult questions (to quote scholar O.T. Allis, or was it Robert Dick Wilson?). To borrow Calvin’s axiom, it is only where Scripture leaves off teaching that we leave off learning.

Reason #2: Answers are hard to come by

The question we are taking up inquires whether adoption is archetypal to God, in which case we image-bearers have derived societal adoption from him; or, whether Paul wrote from out of his Hebrew and Graeco-Roman world, having been inspired by the Holy Spirit to describe our acceptance in Christ by means of adoption. We have said enough to anticipate that the naive realist, with his emphasis on literal reality, concurs with the former understanding of the language of adoption, and the critical realist, perceiving the world in terms of representative reality, with the latter. As we’ll see, the naive realist gets on with explicating Paul’s use of adoption in terms of its positioning in his writings and theology. The critical realist spends more time investigating the metaphorical garb ~ in effect, what is not literally true ~ but does so in order to discern from Semitic, Greek, or Roman backgrounds to Paul’s use of adoption what is actually true.

In my own writings to date I have taken more of a critical realist position, but, truthfully, by an assumption originating in the early to mid 1990s rather than by a self-conscious decision. So I revisit this issue with some humility and open-mindedness. I cannot promise dogmatic answers, but do think that the discussion helps to deepen our appreciation of the profundity of what it means, through faith in Christ, to be adopted sons, daughters, or children of God.

[A more extensive consideration of the discussion introduced here is found in Tim (J. R.) Trumper, “The Metaphorical Import of Adoption: A Plea for Realisation.II: The Adoption Metaphor in Theological Usage,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 15:2 (Autumn 1997), 98-115.]

A. The Case for a Literal or Naive-Realistic understanding of Adoption

When we say that God has literally adopted his people, we mean that his adoption of us is archetypal. On this understanding, adoption is a procedure which originates with Him and not with us. Accordingly, adoption among humans is derived or ectypal, which is to say that societal adoption replicates God’s original action in some way, albeit on a scale reflective of our humanity and context.

A number of factors may  be posited in support of this literal view of Paul’s language of adoption.

Firstly, there is the explicit wording of Scripture. Writes Paul in Ephesians 3:14: “. . . I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”. Since “every family” is named from the Father, our adoption into the household of God, mentioned earlier in the epistle, must be original to God (see Eph. 1:5 and 2:19). From this standpoint, adoption is not a metaphor, but a statement of fact and of seminal divine action.

Secondly, we must take account of the fact that Paul never states, when using huiothesia, which human or societal practice of adoption he has in mind. If he were utilizing the language of huiothesia metaphorically, would he not tell us explicitly which had influenced his description of God’s acceptance of us?  Since he wrote in Greek he naturally uses a Hellenistic term for adoption, but this does not imply that Paul’s use of huiothesia (the placing of a son) is shaped around Greek adoptive practices. In fact, his use of huiothesia in Ephesians 1:5, Romans 9:4, Galatians 4:4-6, Romans 8:15-16, and 22-23 suggests he fills the term with theological content correlating to no human practice exactly. Is it not more likely, then, that the societal practices ape the divine action, than that Paul is depicting the divine action in terms of an unidentified or unsettled societal practice?

Thirdly, our greatest theologian of adoption, John Calvin, never, to my recollection, refers to adoption as a metaphor. Since my studies of Calvin on adoption have been comprehensive rather than exhaustive, it is possible that there is some undiscovered place in his writings in which he explains how Paul’s language of adoption functions. Yet, in the absence of any explanation to date, it is plausible to argue that the reformer understood adoption to be a literal reality. Certainly, this reading of Calvin is more weighty than any given claim, actual or hypothetical, that he was  insensitive to the humanness of Scripture. After all, throughout his writings Calvin acknowledges a number of literary tools found in Scripture: metaphoraefiguraesimiltudines, or comparatines. Since he does not, so far as we know, categorize the language of adoption in any of these terms, we ponder whether the best explanation for this is that he understood Paul’s references to adoption to be literal.

Fourthly, this view frees us from having to determine whether Paul’s teaching on the subject was influenced by Semitic, Greek or Roman practices. Instead, we have a straight run at investigating the coherent context and content of Paul’s uses of huiothesia. Gone are the obligations to figure out a number of uncertainties. For example:

1. The identification of the societal practice influencing Paul’s understanding of adoption (which was, fundamentally, a reading of redemptive history).

2. The discerning of the specific elements of the identified societal practice Paul utilized.

3. The junctures at which he wove in the elements into his teaching of adoption.

4. The correlation between Paul’s clear redemptive-historical understanding of adoption and the elements of the societal practice from which he draws.

Those circumnavigating these complexities note how Paul takes us back beyond any ancient adoptive practices to God’s eternal predestining of us to adoption (Eph. 1:5). Since adoption began in the mind of God, why, the naive realist asks, should we feel obliged to understand our adoption in Christ in terms of the action of human community? After all, we are given so little in Scripture to help us do so.

Evidently, the naive realist has a case to be answered. Since there are two sides to every argument we will consider next time, Lord willing, the metaphorical or critical-realistic point of view. No matter where the argument ends up, all doubtless agree that God’s grace of adoption is not only a wonderful reality but one that is most profound. The words of Augustine come to mind: “If you can understand it, it is not God.”

B. The Case for a Metaphorical or Critical-Realistic understanding of Adoption

We would be naive ~ excuse the pun! ~ to think that the critical-realist has no response. Three main arguments come to mind, each forming a step in the journey from the literal to the metaphorical reading of Paul’s use of huiothesia.

Firstly, the critical-realist stresses that the ways of God are ultimately beyond the language of man. Accordingly, the literal reading of adoption is very limited. While God and man view the same grace of adoption, they do so very differently. Whereas God considers adoption from his infinite, eternal, and all-knowing vantage point as the dispenser of this grace, man requires revelation in order to learn of it. Once he has, he can only ponder the grace from a finite, temporal, and limited perspective, and, in contrast to God, as one who is a potential or actual receiver of the adoption. Certainly the perspectives of God (the adopter) and man (the adoptee) overlap, but, argues the critical realist, we get above ourselves if we think of a literal reading of Paul’s references to adoption as a full or exhaustive account of what God has done in accepting his people. We can know of adoption only to the degree that God has spoken of it, and to the extent we have experienced it. The naive realist would not disagree.

Secondly, I anticipate the critical realist claiming that God’s revealing of adoption is accommodated to our human capacities. Those familiar with John Calvin will immediately recall his belief that God accommodates his interaction with man to human sinfulness on the one hand and to human limitations on the other. Thus, notwithstanding Calvin’s silence about how we are to read Paul’s language of adoption, his general thought opens up the possibility that Paul’s use of huiothesia is accommodated to our limitations. On this understanding, the language of adoption is God’s baby-talk version of how he accepts believers as his children. He has not actually adopted us, but by describing our acceptance in terms of adoption, God is able to convey to us in a graphic and powerful way what his embrace means to him and to us. The baby-talk, then, enables God to get through to us, despite our mental and spiritual limitations, the genuine truth of acceptance in Christ. Without the language of adoption (or of other comparable metaphors or models), we would be left with the bare concept of acceptance, and unable to speak of its wonder except in the briefest, dullest, and most repetitive way. The concept permits us to say “I am accepted in Christ!”, but that’s about all. Its metaphorical garb ~ in this case the rich teaching of adoption ~ enables us to say so much more, and in ways which light up the mind and grab the heart!

Thirdly, the critical realist would have us remember that the metaphors or models of Scripture are consistent with what we know of the Bible. Holy Scripture is God’s Word, but it possesses both divineness and humanness. The Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and yet the Spirit made use of the differing life experiences and styles of writing of the authors who contributed to Scripture. It follows that there is no contradiction between the influence of the Holy Spirit on Paul, and his depiction of the believer’s acceptance by God in terms of a societal practice of one ancient form or another. Accordingly, a metaphorical reading of Paul’s use of huiothesia is both legitimate and feasible. Adoption is such an appealing motif because it decorates the wonderful fact but bare concept of our acceptance in Jesus. A product of the inspiration of the apostle Paul, adoption also grants us increased insight into what the acceptance means for those united through faith to Christ.

All this begs the question “Which reading shall we endorse? The literal or the metaphorical?” It’s a tough call! Each case compels, but each raises questions meriting further consideration. Do join me in praying for further light, and in pondering whether we are obliged to embrace one reading to the exclusion of the other.

C. An Answer

Finally, we come to the point of decision. To be clear, we are not deciding whether Paul’s language of adoption bespeaks a reality or not, for as those holding a high view of Scripture we understand it does. Rather, we are deciding whether Paul writes of this reality directly ~ meaning that God has actually or literally adopted us, or indirectly ~ meaning that the language of adoption helps us to speak of our acceptance with God in ways which, apart from this language, would be either limited or impossible.

The literal reading has its attractions. It spares us a number of challenges: first, the impression that because something is metaphorical it cannot speak of reality; secondly, the uncertainty of wondering what the believer’s acceptance is in Christ if it is not, literally, an adoption; thirdly,  the complexity of figuring out what aspects of Semitic, Greek, or Roman adoption Paul had in mind when writing of adoption in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians; and, fourthly, the need to explain both Paul’s and Calvin’s silence pertaining to the nature of the language of adoption.

After weighing the issues cautiously, thoughtfully, and evenhandedly, I opt, despite these attractions, to stick with the metaphorical understanding I first assumed in print in 1996 and 1997*. Four main reasons preclude a change of mind:

1. The general reason: The literal reading does not guarantee a complete view of reality any more than the metaphorical reading.

Scripture throughout indicates that there is more to God and his ways than has been revealed. Deuteronomy 29:29 states: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” Accordingly, the literal reading can only give access to the reality of adoption to the degree God has chosen to reveal it. His understanding of the believer’s adoption remains qualitatively better than ours, for he knows considerably more about it than we do. Thus, the literal reading can give us the pure but not the full essence of what it means to be adopted. The metaphorical reading, by contrast, owns this limitation but goes one step further; namely, to say that it is because the wonder of our acceptance with God is beyond articulation that he has expressed it through the apostle Paul in terms of adoption. Accordingly, it would be mistaken to assume that the literal and metaphorical readings offer us, respectively, high and low views of adoption. Since both views hold to reality we are choosing in actuality between two high views.

2. The biblical reason. The metaphorical reading is consistent with the nature of Scripture.

On the one hand, the divineness of Scripture indicates that God is able to speak forth his truth, and that he has initiated both the revelation of his truth and the manner of it. Simply stated, God has accommodated his revelation to our finite capacities. This proverbial baby talk helps us, then, to understand God’s truth in ways we would not be able to otherwise. In this light, metaphors function as one of God’s ways of speaking to us in our own language. On the other hand, the humanness of Scripture reminds us that although the metaphor is chosen and inspired by God, it is drawn from our earthly realm. The Spirit breathed out on holy men who were located in particular times and places, societies and cultural milieu. In the mystery of the inspiration of Scripture there transpired a concurrence of God’s will and man’s experience, in which the believer’s acceptance with God (known fully only to God) became couched in terms of adoption (practiced in society by man). Thus, we may say that Paul’s language of adoption is both top down (from God) and bottom up (from man), in that order.           

3. The textual reason: Too much weight has been placed on Ephesians 3:14-15 (“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named”).

Paul prays to the first person of the Godhead by means of his personal name, “the Father.” To him he attributes the naming of either  “every family” or “all fatherhood” (pasa patria) in heaven and on earth. Clearly, the Fatherhood of God is original or archetypal and thereby the source of the derived or ectypal fatherhood of man. While God’s Fatherhood is above and beyond, prior to and determinative of, human fatherhood, there is nothing in the text to insist that God’s Fatherhood must of necessity be taken literally. Writes T. F. Torrance, “there is certainly a figurative or metaphorical ingredient in the human terms ‘father’ and ‘son’ as they are used in divine revelation” (The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996], 157). The name “Father” helps us speak of the first person of the Godhead in a way more informative and colorful than the description of him as unbegotten or unproceeding. It also guards us from thinking of God as male. The name “Father” is rather intended to express the priority, love, security, and care of the first person of the Godhead than an engendered relationship toward his children. That is why God is revealed in Scripture as Father, and yet his love is also expressed in maternal ways. Were this all a literal rather than a metaphorical reality, we might be tempted to think of God ~ dare I say it ~ in transgendered terms. When, however, we understand the reality of God and his children to be metaphorically expressed, we also discover how God can function as Father to children who are at one and the same time both born to him (John) and adopted (Paul) by him.  This is highly unusual in the literal realm, but clearly possible when understood in terms of two juxtaposed metaphors.

4. The Literary reason: Arguments from silence used to support the naive-realist literal understanding are not strong.

For Paul, the critical point is that the Father and the adoption of his sons is real, not how they are real. Paul’s point is rather that we should believe on the Son for acquaintance with the Father, than that we understand how the language of Fatherhood works when we can call God Abba.

It is more challenging to explain why Calvin attaches no literary category to the language of adoption, when, obviously, he was very familiar with various biblical figures of speech, and was not shy in identifying them (e.g., similes). At least three explanations are possible: First, that we are yet to come across a place in Calvin’s corpus where he clearly enunciates a metaphorical understanding of the language of adoption; secondly, that he simply overlooked explaining how the language of adoption functions; or, thirdly, that he believed adoption to bespeak a literal reality. If this third explanation turns out to be the case, then evidently I have taken the unusual step of differing from our hero in the faith.      

Reflecting on these four reasons for the metaphorical reading of Paul’s language of adoption, I do not doubt that there are questions to answer and points to clarify. We’ll come to some of these at least. It is sufficient for now to underline as we close two essential truths which must not be forgotten. Firstly, that Paul’s language of adoption is inspired by God even if taken from a human practice, and is therefore top-down first and bottom-up second. Secondly, that Paul’s language of adoption is expressive of reality, even though couched metaphorically. In other words, Paul speaks of our acceptance with God other than in terms of actual literal reality, but only in order that he may write of the reality of that acceptance at all. In the purposes of God, the language of adoption enables Paul to extol the wonders of the believer’s acceptance with God infallibly, powerfully, and colorfully!

In response to such a revelation we can but say, all glory be to God! The “How so?” we will come to again.

* Tim [J. R.] Trumper, “The Metaphorical Import of Adoption: A Plea for Realisation. I: The Adoption Metaphor in Biblical Usage,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 14:2  (Autumn 1996), 129-145.

Tim [J. R.] Trumper, “The Metaphorical Import of Adoption: A Plea for Realisation. II: The Adoption Metaphor in Theological Usage,” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 15:2  (Autumn 1997), 98-115.

Fundamental Question #3:  If God’s adoption of his people is literal, what does that say of societal adoption?

These dippings, it bears repeating, are intended to clear away some of the muddled thinking inherited from the historic neglect of adoption. They offer us a taste of the doctrine’s substratum ~ a foundation touched on in passing in some biblical studies of adoption, but consistently omitted from theological and practical treatments. I am offering not a final word on the subject of adoption as a metaphor, but what is  to most readers a first word. I venture into this area not because I have all the answers (nor all the correct ones), but because certain questions need to be posed if the church of Christ is to dig deeper into the doctrine of adoption and to get to the key issues which help us understand the substratum.

In answer to the first question posed, we broke ranks from the assumed legitimacy of conflating the filial terms of Paul and of John (especially). This practice has been typical throughout the history of the church, but it is consistent neither with the authorial diversity of the New Testament (notably the fact that Paul alone uses the term adoption [huiothesia]), nor with the way the theological models of Scripture function.

Since, however, the discussion of the functioning of Paul’s language of adoption is rare (and certainly less than comprehensive), we have taken up a second question; namely, whether the reality of huiothesia is literal or metaphorical. The issues are complex and render dogmatism inappropriate. Remaining open to further light and making no pretensions to have offered a definitive answer, we have drawn what commonalities we can between the two readings (both regard the language of God’s Fatherhood to be divinely inspired and to convey reality), but have gone with the metaphorical understanding.

Accordingly, we come to the third question: If God’s adoption of his people is literal, what does that say of societal adoption? This question was posed hypothetically at the outset of these dippings, pending the outcome of the discussion arising from the previous question. Although we have opted for the metaphorical understanding, there is merit in perceiving how the advocate of the literal reading might answer.

He or she likely considers human practices of adoption evidence of the image of God in man. We adopt, in other words, because we are made in God’s image and after his likeness. On this understanding, God’s image in us is not simply moral (man was created possessing knowledge, righteousness and holiness) but natural. By this we mean that man, notwithstanding his Fall, retains vestiges of rationality, creativity, communality, etc. While his adoptive practices cannot exactly replicate God’s adoption ~ for he is neither God nor upright ~ he nevertheless does adopt. He cannot ordinarily adopt the children which he has brought to birth, as does God, and is not bound by one practice of adoption or another (whether Greek, Roman, contemporary, etc.), and yet he does adopt.

Advocates of a metaphorical understanding surely welcome such reasoning. We question not what the literal reading says of societal adoption, but the assumption that because man adopts, God must have literally adopted to begin with. Admittedly, this parity is simpler to grasp, and is attractive for that reason. Yet it does not answer other upcoming issues relevant to the way Paul uses the term huiothesia, nor does it prove the necessity of equating the communality of God with his act of adoption per se. God is certainly communal because he is eternally triune, and is definitely accepting because he has sovereignly and freely decreed and acted to accept sinners when under no obligation to do so. Yet, since there is nothing in Scripture (explicitly in Paul), so far as I can see, to oblige us to regard the truth of our divine acceptance as a literal adoption, it is feasible to argue that man’s practices of adoption are an unwitting and varying interpretation of his creation in the image of God, rather than a necessity of it. In this regard, the absence of the term huiothesia from the Septuagint and the uncertainty of the adoptive practices of the Hebrews ~ whether enacted essentially or formally ~ is of potential significance. The metaphorical reading, it is worth noting, considers man’s adoptive practices to be a humanly constructed expression of his imaging of God’s communality. Consistent with this, the expression varies from culture to culture and from era to era, some adopting and others not, some in one way and some in another. The apostle Paul for example, living in the first century A.D. and exposed to the Semitic and Graeco-Roman influences of his time, ran under the inspiration of the Spirit with the idea of adoption, using it to explain the believer’s acceptance with God in ways which otherwise would have been impossible, certainly in any substantive or colorful way. We believe him to have spoken the truth of our acceptance with God, but to have done so in a metaphorical way.

For all that we have discussed here, it is doubtless God has more light to shed on the functioning of biblical language. How this light is dispersed ~ whether through other minds, the ongoing recovery of adoption, or the ages to come ~ we shall see. Evidently, we peek through a glass darkly at the present, ever so dependent on the Spirit for his illumination. In this state of tension we proceed next time to answer the fourth question. We shall find, Lord willing, that the study of metaphor casts at least some light on Paul’s use of huiothesia.

Question #4: What impact does the belief that God’s adoption of his people is metaphorical have on the way we understand Paul’s language? 

This fourth question, vague as it is at first sight, offers us an opportunity to consider what we mean when we say that the language of adoption is metaphorical. The answer is more involved than we might imagine. Accordingly, in the postings to come, we speak of one facet at a time, taking up the following in turn:

The character of the adoption metaphor: How metaphors differ from other figures of speech such as similes.

Summary: It is the fact that adoption is a metaphor which nullifies fears of moving away from a literal reading of the language.

The power of the adoption metaphor: Why Paul makes use of huiothesia on only five occasions.

 Summary: The argument that adoption is not very important in Paul’s theology is based on a want of awareness of how metaphors function.

The substance of the adoption metaphor: Whether it is better to categorize adoption as a model (robust metaphor) or a metaphor?

Summary: The long-established habit of mixing the metaphors of Scripture (notably the new birth and adoption), without explicit exegetical warrant for doing so, can be explained in part by the belief that adoption is more akin to a one-time analogy than to a substantive and coherent framework for understanding the believer’s acceptance in Christ.

The uniqueness of the adoption metaphor: How the character, power, and substance of adoption all confirm the inappropriateness of mixing biblical metaphors and models where Scripture does not do so.

Summary: Establishing this inappropriateness is essential to considering Paul’s language of adoption on its own terms. Such a consideration offers us a chance to exchange some of the muddled exegesis of the past for a view of adoption that is more historically, linguistically, biblically, theologically, and practically aware.

Doubtless, some of this sounds cryptic right now, but I trust clarity will come as we look at each aspect of a metaphorical understanding of adoption in turn, beginning next time with a discussion of the character of the adoption metaphor.



[These Adoption Nuggets were originally written at the request of Dan Cruver, President and Co-Founder of the adoption and orphan care ministry “Together for Adoption.” Go to for further information.]. The introductions to those blogs have typically been shortened or eliminated to aid the flow of the sequence record above.


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