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§ 118. Doctrine of Adoptionism.

The doctrine of Adoptionism is closely allied in spirit to the Nestorian Christology; but it concerns not so much the constitution of Christ’s person, as simply the relation of his humanity to the Fatherhood of God. The Adoptionists were no doubt sincere in admitting at the outset the unity of Christ’s person, the communication of properties between the two natures, and the term Theotokos (though in a qualified sense) as applied to the Virgin Mary. Yet their view implies an abstract separation of the eternal Son of God and the man Jesus of Nazareth, and results in the assertion of two distinct Sons of God. It emphasized the dyophysitism and dyotheletism of the orthodox Christology, and ran them out into a personal dualism, inasmuch as sonship is an attribute of personality, not of nature. The Adoptionists spoke of an adoptatus homo instead of an adoptata natura humana, and called the adopted manhood an adopted Son. They appealed to Ambrose, Hilary, Jerome, Augustin, and Isidore of Seville, and the Mozarabic Liturgy, which was used in Spain.656656    A strong passage was quoted in the letter of the Spanish bishops to Charlemagne from Isidore of Seville, who says (Etymolog., lib. II., c. 2; see Mignes ed. of Alcuin II. 1324): “Unigenitus vocatur secundum Divinitatis excellentiam, quia sine fratribus: Primogenitussecundum susceptionem hominis, in qua per adoptionem gratiae fratres habere dignatus est, de quibus esset primogenitus.” From the Mozarabic liturgy they quoted seven passages. See Hefele III. 650 sqq. Sometimes the term adoptio is indeed applied to the Incarnation by earlier writers, and in the Spanish liturgy, but rather in the sense of assumptio or ἀνάληψις, i.e. the elevation of the human nature, through Christ, to union with the Godhead.657657    In a passage of Hilary (De Trinit. II. 29), there is a dispute between two readings—”carnis humilitas Adoptatur,” and “adoratur“ (Alcuin)—although the former alone is consistent with the context, and ”adoptatur“ is used in a more general sense for assumitur (so Agobard). See Walch, Hist. Adopt. , p. 22 sqq., and Gieseler, II. 76, note 2. They might, with better reason, have quoted Theodore of Mopsuestia as their predecessor; for his doctrine of the υἱὸς θετόςis pretty much the same as their Filius Dei adoptivus.658658    See Neander, Kirchengeschichte, III. p. 318 sqq.; E. ed. III. 159 sqq.

The fundamental point in Adoptionism is the distinction of a double Sonship in Christ—one by nature and one by grace, one by generation and one by adoption, one by essence and one by title, one which is metaphysical and another which is brought about by an act of the divine will and choice. The idea of sonship is made to depend on the nature, not on the person; and as Christ has two natures, there must be in him two corresponding Sonships. According to his divine nature, Christ is really and essentially (secundum naturam or genere) the Son of God, begotten from eternity; but according to his human nature, he is the Son of God only nominally (nuncupative) by adoption, or by divine grace. By nature he is the Only-Begotten Son of God;659659    Unigenitus, μονογενής, John 1: 14, 18. by adoption and grace he is the First-Begotten Son of God.660660    Primogenitus, πρωτότοκος ἐν πολλοῖς ἀδελφοῖς, Rom. 8:29; Comp. Col. 1:15.

The Adoptionists quoted in their favor mainly John 14:28 Luke 1:80; 18:19; Mark 13:32; John 1:14; 10:35; Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 11:3; 1 John 3:2; Deut. 18:15; Ps. 2: 8; 22:23, and other passages from the Old Testament, which they referred to the Filius primogenitus et adoptivus; while Ps. 60:4 (ex utero ante Luciferum genui te); 44:2; Is. 45:23; Prov. 8:25, were understood to apply to the Filius unigenitus. None of these passages, which might as well be quoted in favor of Arianism, bear them out in the point of dispute. Christ is nowhere called the “adopted” Son of God. Felix inferred from the adoption of the children of God, that they must have an adoptive head. He made use of the illustration, that as a son cannot have literally two fathers, but may have one by birth and the other by adoption, so Christ, according to his humanity, cannot be the Son of David and the Son of God in one and the same sense; but he may be the one by nature and the other by adoption.661661    Alcuin, Contra Felicem, I. 12, and III. 1.

It is not clear whether he dated the adopted Sonship of Christ from his exaltation662662    Dorner, II. 319. or from his baptism,663663    Walch. or already from his birth.664664    Neander. He speaks of a double birth of Christ, compares the baptism of Christ with the baptism or regeneration of believers, and connects both with the spiritualis generatio per adoptionem;665665    l.c. II. 15. but, on the other hand, he seems to trace the union of the human nature with the divine to the womb of the Virgin.666666    l.c. V. 1.

The Adoptionists, as already remarked, thought themselves in harmony with the Christology of Chalcedon, and professed faith in one divine person in two full and perfect natures;667667    “In una persona, duabus quoque naturis plenis atque perfectis.” Alcuin, Opp. II. 567. they only wished to bring out their views of a double Sonship, as a legitimate consequence of the doctrine of two natures.

The champions of orthodoxy, among whom Alcuin, the teacher and friend of Charlemagne, was the most learned and able, next to him Paulinus of Aquileja, and Agobard of Lyons, unanimously viewed Adoptionism as a revival or modification of the Nestorian heresy, which was condemned by the third Oecumenical Council (431).668668    Alcuin, contra Felicem, lib. l.c. 11: “Sicut Nestoriana impietas in duas Christum dividit personas propter duas naturas; ita et vestra indocta temeritas in duos eum dividit filios, unum proprium, alterum adoptivum. Si vero Christus est proprius Filius Dei Patris et adoptivus, ergo est alter et alter,” etc. Lib. IV. c. 5: ”Nonne duo sunt, qui verus est Deus, et qui nuncupativus Deus? Nonne etiam et duo sunt, qui adoptivus est Filius, et ille, qui verus est Filius?”

Starting from the fact of a real incarnation, the orthodox party insisted that it was the eternal, only begotten Son of God, who assumed human nature from the womb of the Virgin, and united it with his divine person, remaining the proper Son of God, notwithstanding this change.669669    Ibid. II. 12: ”Nec in illa assumptione alius est Deus, alius homo, vel alius Filius Dei, et alius Filius Virginis; sed idem est Filius Dei, qui et Filius Virginis; ut sit unus Filius etiam proprius et perfectus in duabus naturis Dei et hominis.” In the Confession which Felix had to sign in 799 when he abjured his error, it is said that the Son of God and the Son of man are one and the same true and proper Son of the Father, ”non adoptione, non appellatione seu nuncupased in utraque natura unus Dei Patrus verus et proprius Dei Dei Filius.” They quoted in their favor such passages as John 3:16; Rom. 8:32; Eph. 5:2; Acts 3:13–15.

The radical fault of this heresy is, that it shifts the whole idea of Sonship from the person to the nature. Christ is the Son of God as to his person, not as to nature. The two natures do not form two Sons, since they are inseparably united in the one Christ. The eternal Son of God did not in the act of incarnation assume a human personality, but human nature. There is therefore no room at all for an adoptive Sonship. The Bible nowhere calls Christ the adopted Son of God. Christ is, in his person, from eternity or by nature what Christians become by grace and regeneration.

In condemning Monotheletism, the Church emphasized the duality of natures in Christ; in condemning Adoptionism, she emphasized the unity of person. Thus she guarded the catholic Christology both against Eutychian and Nestorian departures, but left the problem of the full and genuine humanity of Christ unsolved. While he is the eternal Son of God, he is at the same time truly and fully the Son of man. The mediaeval Church dwelt chiefly on the divine majesty of Christ, and removed him at an infinite distance from man, so that he could only be reached through intervening mediators; but, on the other hand, she kept a lively, though grossly realistic, remembrance of his passion in the daily sacrifice of the mass, and found in the worship of the tender Virgin-Mother with the Infant-Saviour on her protecting arm a substitute for the contemplation and comfort of his perfect manhood. The triumph of the theory of transubstantiation soon followed the defeat of Adoptionism, and strengthened the tendency towards an excessive and magical supernaturalism which annihilates the natural, instead of transforming it.


The learned Walch defends the orthodoxy of the Adoptionists, since they did not say that Christ, in his two-fold Sonship, was alius et alius, ἄλλος καὶ ἄλλος(which is the Nestorian view), but that he was Son aliter et aliter, a[llw” kai; a[llw”. Ketzerhistorie, vol. IX., pp. 881, 904. Baur (II., p. 152) likewise justifies Adoptionism, as a legitimate inference from the Chalcedonian dogma, but on the assumption that this dogma itself includes a contradiction. Neander, Dorner, Niedner, Hefele, and Möller concede the affinity of Adoptionism with Nestorianism, but affirm, at the same time, the difference and the new features in Adoptionism (see especially Dorner II., p. 309 sq.).

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