This last week’s Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) question the cadets had to memorize concerned adoption. “What is adoption? It is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges, of the sons of God.” The proof text for this question is 1 John 3:1a, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” The daily devotions related to this subject were very good, speaking primarily to the confidence Christians have as real children of God and co-heirs with Christ.
As I listened to the doctrine of adoption being laid out I was also thinking about how little I’ve heard about adoption in the Orthodox Church. In contrast to the Orthodox silence, the doctrine of adoption, particularly in conservative Reformed circles, is held in very high esteem. John Piper, well known theologian and pastor, sums up Reformed regard for the doctrine with the following:
Adoption is one of the most profound realities in the universe. I say ‘universe’ and not ‘world’ because adoption goes beyond the world. It is greater than the world, and it is before the world in the plan of God, and it will outlast the world as we know it. Indeed it is greater than the ‘universe’ and is rooted in God’s own nature.
If adoption is this big a deal, why doesn’t the Orthodox Church make it a central doctrine in their hymnody and teaching? The answer is actually quite simple. The Orthodox also believe that this union with God that is expressed in adoption is about the biggest idea there is in the universe, but a different primary metaphor is used. While Protestantism tends to focus on the familial metaphor (that is, we are sons of God, thus co-heirs with Christ), Orthodoxy tends to focus more on the organic metaphor (that is, we are joined to Christ and engrafted into his life – or, conversely, God’s life is planted in us so that we are transformed from the inside out).
These two biblical metaphors unpack the same group of truths but in rather different ways. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis (which is the ultimate goal in the context of the organic metaphor) presents a far more intimate relationship with God than can be expressed with the familial metaphor. Of course Reformed theology doesn’t stop with adoption; there is also sanctification whereby the Christian is “renewed in the whole man after the image of God” (WSC, Q. 35), and the sacraments, “wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to the believer” (WSC, Q. 92).
But even in its Trinitarian fullness, the Westminster vision of our life in God assumes a radical otherness between creature and Creator. The creature always remains creature and the Creator remains Creator. But in the Orthodox vision that radical otherness is overcome through the incarnation (where the Creator becomes creature) so that we can be transformed, not only to our original state of innocence and not only to a glorified state of holiness, but ultimately into a state of godliness and God-likeness as we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
John Piper is right. We are talking about one of the most profound realities of the universe. The plan of God is indeed greater than the world (or, I would add, greater than the whole created order) because ultimately we creatures enter into the most sublime and intimate interrelationship with – not something creaturely – but into the nature of the Creator himself. As Peter expressed it:
His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. (2 Pet. 1:3-4).
As I heard the devotions this week it was once again affirmed in my mind that no other Protestant understanding of God and scripture is as profound as the Reformed vision of salvation and its glories. Reformed theology manages to express the catastrophe, the solution, and the goal in glorious depth without falling victim to the Roman reduction of the divine to near physicality. (Although I have to admit that in its care to avoid the Roman error, it fails to grasp the breadth, the length, the height, and depth of the union we are promised through Christ and in the Spirit from one degree of glory to another.) Be that as it may, this doctrine, whether expressed through adoption or theosis, is indeed one of the most profound realities of the universe. Thanks be to God.