Life in the Trinity: Our adoption

This post begins a series in the book Life in the Trinity, an introduction to theology with the help of the church fathers by Donald Fairbairn. For other posts in the series, click a number: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

Dr. Fairbairn presents an important and helpful overview of incarnational Trinitarian (Christ-centered) theology. A key feature is following the patristic fathers in emphasizing the Biblical doctrine of adoption. This emphasis contrasts with Western Protestant theologies that tend to follow the reformers in emphasizing justification. In this context, adoption (and its correlate, sonship) tends to be relegated to a believer's forensic (legal) standing before God.

Donald Fairbairn, professor of
early Christianity at Gordon-
Conwell Theological Seminary
However, in the East (and now in Fairbairn's book), adoption is placed front and center where it is viewed as fundamentally relational: "a sharing by grace in the fellowship the Son has with the Father by nature" (p. 9). The stunning truth is that the divine Son of God became human in order that, in him, we may share his divine Sonship (see 2Pet 1:4).

The patristic fathers referred to this idea as divination (also referred to as deification or theosis). Athanasius spoke of it in On the Incarnation, proclaiming that, "the Son of God became man, so that man could become like God."

Unfortunately, Fairbairn's theology emphasizes the personal (subjective) aspect of adoption, and does not address the universal (objective) aspect. This leaves one wondering if he views Christians as exclusively God's children.

Nevertheless, Fairbairn consistently and helpfully emphasizes that our sharing in the Son's sonship is the heart of the gospel and the organizing principle that ties together all of Scripture, and thus should be the organizing principle of our theologies and doctrinal formulations.

Here are representative statements from the first part of his book:
...Forgiveness and becoming Christlike [the strong emphases of most Western theologies and popular Christian literature] flow from our participation in a relationship, from our becoming sons and daughters by adoption so as to share in the communion that the natural Son has with God the Father... I believe that this way of understanding salvation and Christian life was widely represented in, and perhaps even the consensus of, the early church. This is the strand of patristic thought that I believe has the most to teach contemporary evangelicalism and that can help to end the unintentional divorce between theology and Christian life that often plagues our churches, colleges and seminaries. (p.10)
...Jesus links the Holy Spirit's dwelling within Christians to the fact that the Father and the Son are in each other. Because of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we will recognize that the Son is in the Father and the Son is in us. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the link between the Son's relationship to the Father and the Christian's relationship to the Son. (p.24)
Christ is not simply giving us an example; he is offering himself to us as a person, that we might share in his most deeply personal relationship, the relationship he has with God the Father. (p. 27)
At the heart of the central idea of Christianity lies the reality that Christians will know the Father and the Son. (p.29)
Eternal life is a deeply personal knowledge of the one who has shared from all eternity in the glory of the Father. Somehow, the eternal glorious relationship between the Father and Son is shared with us as we follow Christ. (p.31)
A great benefit of the book is Fairbairn's frequent, lengthy quotes from the patristic fathers. For example, note this quote from Irenaeus of Lyons:
Being ignorant of him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they [non-believers] are deprived of his gift, which is eternal life; and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh.... He undoubtedly speaks these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God.... The Word of God was made man, and he who was the Son of God became the Son of Man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained the incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. (p. 33, quoting from Against Heresies, book 3, chapter 19, par. 1)
Fairbairn then adds his own comments:
The four church fathers on whom I am concentrating the most - Irenaeus in the second century, Athanasius in the fourth century, and Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria in the fifth century - all recognize that participation in God, or "becoming divine" (the ancient idea of theosis), involves a variety of aspects, such as becoming incorruptible as God is incorruptible. But all four of them recognize that the central aspect of theosis- and thus the heart of the bond between God's life and human life - lies in our adoption into Christ's sonship with the Father.... We do not simply receive something that [the Son of God] gives us... the Son gives us his very self. And the essence of this gift of himself is that we become sons and daughters of God. We are adopted into the same relationship he has with God the Father - into his own sonship with the Father. (p.34)
We share by grace in the same fellowship or love that the persons of the Trinity share by nature...Our sharing in the Father-Son relationship is at the center of what it means for us to participate in God. (pp.36-37)


Anonymous said…
Hi there!

Thank you for this post. But would you please clarify this statement:

"Unfortunately, Fairbairn's theology emphasizes the personal (subjective) aspect of adoption, and does not deal with its universal (objective) aspect. This leaves one wondering if he views Christians as exclusively God's children."

I am requesting this clarification because for some time now I have been concerned that explanations of Trinitarian Theology often make it hard for Trinitarian Theology to be relevant where the rubber hits the road in the lives of Christians. Such words as "subjective" and "objective" unnecessarily complicate the understanding of Trinitarian Theology in my opinion.

By the way, I do find Fairbairn's words you quote encouraging.

All the best!

J. Richard Parker
Ted Johnston said…
Thanks for your request.

We have spoken frequently here about the issue you raise, namely the distinction between the *universal* and *personal* aspects of our salvation in Christ.

Some trinitarian teachers refer to this as the distinction between the *objective* and *subjective*.

I grant that these terms can seem rather nebulous. Nevertheless, the concepts they convey are essential to understanding how Scripture approaches the topic of our salvation in Christ.

At the universal/objective level, God has already included all humanity in his love and life through the vicarious (representative - substitutionary) life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Because of who Jesus is (the God-man) and what he has done, all people have been made God's children by grace.

Stated very simply (yet profoundly), in Jesus, all humanity is included in God's love and life!

But then there is the personal/subjective sense of this reality. Though all are included, not all know this, and thus not all experience it as real. They live not in truth, but in the darkness of unbelief.

For a person to experience and thus enjoy the universal/objective truth of their salvation, they must embrace it personally (subjectively).

And so both the universal and the personal aspects of our salvation in Christ are vital. But note this: the personal has no meaning unless the universal is already true. Said another way, by believing that Jesus is our Savior, we don't initiate or create our salvation. Our salvation already exists in the person and work of Jesus. And so we are invited to believe; to trust that Jesus is who he says he is. And in believing we receive, and in receiving our eyes are wide open to see (and thus experience) what was true all along.

Hope this helps!
Ted Johnston said…
In a recent FaceBook post, Steve McVey utilizes the illustration of a blind man to explain the difference between *objective* and *subjective* reality:

1. A completely blind man is standing outside in the bright sunshine which totally covers and surrounds him. Is the sunlight real even though he doesn't see it? Yes, that is the OBJECTIVE reality.

2. Because he doesn't see it, his SUBJECTIVE (personal, experiential, perceived) reality is that it is not real even though it is. So the OBJECTIVE reality is that the sun totally bathes him but his SUBJECTIVE reality is that it doesn't.

3. The man is miraculously healed and suddenly can see the sunlight. Now his SUBJECTIVE reality is in line with the OBJECTIVE reality that has existed all along.

It seems that many who write me with questions about this think that the word "subjective" has to do with feelings. It doesn't. I has to do with a person's personal perception/experience of something.

The work of the cross is an OBJECTIVE reality for us all but only becomes our SUBJECTIVE experience when we believe.