Book Review – Adopted into God’s Family

Trevor J. Burke. Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

As the twenty-second volume of the New Studies in Biblical Theology, Trevor Burke’s new book is a fine addition to the series by assembling and interpreting a great amount of data regarding the adoption of believers. The book can be divided easily into several sections beginnings with an introduction to the topic which could viewed as covering the first three chapters. The content of this first section is essentially an introduction to the metaphor of adoption, its misinterpretation, soteriological implications, and background. The next section deals with exegesis, first from the perspective of the trinity, then from the sociological context of honor and finally an in-depth exposition and exegesis of Romans 8.18-29. The final chapter summarizes the findings and arguments of the books as a whole, pulling from both the introductory issues of metaphor and the implications of the exegesis.

The first section described above deals mainly with the metaphor from three areas. Burke spends considerable times convincingly arguing that adoption has, historically, been a misunderstood and misinterpreted metaphor. Systematizing have often relegated adoption to a minor role in their understanding of theology. Burke notes theologians, particularly reformed theologians, such as Lewis Berkhof who described adoption and justification as two sides of the same coin, adoption being the positive side. He continues on to list several other theologians as well who have made the same mistake, including recent ones such as Anthony Hoekema (23).

While this point is important to be made, the second chapter, “Another Soteriological Metaphor for Paul,” could cause one to question the initial point that adoption is misconstrued. Burke cites a number of contemporary scholars, such as Gordon Fee, Alister McGrath, T. J. R Trumper, David deSilva, and Sinclair Ferguson, who seem to have placed a greater emphasis on adoption as a distinct metaphor of Paul both in the manner Burke refers to them and the titles of their works in the bibliography (38-41). This is not that Burke is wrong by any means. It would simply be more helpful to the reader if a greater distinction was drawn between these two groups of people, those who have misconstrued the adoption metaphor and those who in recent times have not. The issue is not as bleak as it has been in the past.

The second chapter, focuses specifically on the concept of metaphor in general, and then the implications for adoption specifically. The first pages on metaphor theory are particularly engaging and helpful to read. Figures of speech, like metaphors, are so very common to everyday life that the average person does not give them a second though as to how metaphors function or “work,” that is, effectively communicate an idea. One benefit of this chapter is the fact that this introductin to metaphor theory has been simplified for those of us who have not studied the subject at length.

These few pages on metaphor theory also seem to act as a response to the mistakes of past reformed theologians in the previous chapter by setting a paradigm for how to examine and study adoption and other metaphors in a manner that (hopefully) prevents misinterpretation. Chapter two is essential because not only does it respond to the previous chapter, and help the read understand how a metaphor functions. Burke’s discussion lays an essential foundation to both the rest of the chapter, but also the entire book, since his exegesis in the following chapters depend upon his understanding metaphor.

Building from the previous discussions regarding misinterpretation and metaphor theory, chapter three is the final “introductory” chapter of the book. That is, before Burke can present his exegesis of scripture, three bases must be covered. The first essentially gives the reason for the study. While the second chapter gives a theoretical understanding to adoption, chapter three provides the historical framework for Burke’s exegesis. The layout is quite impressive, orienting the reader with the necessary information for both understanding the need of a new exegesis of the five adoption passages and the perspective of the author of the often debated points such as whether adoption comes out of Jewish, Greek, or Roman culture. Burke argues decisively that the adoption metaphor is draw from Roman culture. Indeed, in the appendix, Burke deals with alleged cases of adoption in the Old Testament and concludes negatively regarding the evidence.

The unifying theme of the following three chapters is that of the Triune God. Trevor Burke argues convincingly that adoption as a soteriological metaphor revolves around all three Persons of the Trinity. He emphasizes, rightly, that within the context of adoption, the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit consistently appear in Paul’s writings. In making this significant point, Burke devotes a chapter to examining the role of each person of the Trinity in the act of adoption the believer as a son and heir of God.

Chapter four focuses specifically at the role of the Father in the act of adoption for the believer. He argues, rightly, that the importance of the Father in this soteriological metaphor of Paul cannot be overemphasized. The Father plays a key role in the historically and socially, adoption was an act of the Father. Burke does well to go first to Ephesians for this chapter since Ephesians is filled with references to God as Father, both in chapter one as he and many others have noted, but also continuing through the book, especially again in chapter three.

Beyond Ephesians, Burke’s explanation of the texts is illuminating in the manner he presents how the Roman background of adoption, which has received much attention over the years, has significant theological implications. The point is not simply that God has made the believer his child, but also that the believer joins the family of God. While historically it has been said that adoption is a part of justification, Burke clearly shows that the adoption metaphor goes well beyond this soteriological function. Adoption also has implications for ecclesiology as well. Being a part of the Father’s family results in both honors and requirements. It means accepting both Jews and Gentiles, which denies the possibility of hostility. For God’s family, sibling rivalry is not an option since upholding the Father’s honor is the central concern.

Following the traditional order, Burke deals next with the role of the Son of God in the adoption of the believer. The main question of the chapter seems to be how Jesus relationship with the Father as Son compares to the relationship with of the Father of the believer as God’s adopted son. Essentially, Burke’s intention in the chapter is to challenge the contention that the only difference between the two is one of chronology (102). Burke makes this point by going to three passages, each in a different book. He begins with Romans where he shows that Paul consistently maintains a distinction between Jesus and the believer by never describing Christ as adopted.

The context of Galatians is one in which, “agitators were trying to foist circumcision on to the Galatians, claiming that the true sons of Abraham were those who could trace their physical descent back to the patriarch” (124). Burke notes Paul’s point is that being a son of Abraham and thus a son of God must go through the “One who is the Seed of Abraham” (124). Thus in Galatians, the distinction between the believer’s status as son and Christ’s is one of necessity. Sonship for the believer can only come through Christ. This usage parallels Ephesians, which deals with the union of Jews and Gentiles together into God’s family. Adoption is one of the many wonderful spiritual blessings which is gained “only in and through God’s Son, Jesus Christ” (124). Sonship of Christ and adoption are always related. That is, adoption is Christologically contingent. God always and only adopts His sons and daughters through Jesus Christ.

According to Burke, the role of the Holy Spirit is crucial for two reasons. For one, Paul mentions the Holy Spirit in four of the five passages in which his adoption metaphor occurs. But perhaps more important is the fact that in Romans 8.15, Paul puts the Spirit with the metaphor in a genitival construction (125). For his purposes, Romans 8.12-17, then, becomes the key passage in understanding the role that the Holy Spirit plans in the adoption of the believer as God’s son and thus, heir.

Burke first seeks to place the Spirit within the familial context. He does this, likely, because of the already confirmed in previous chapters familial context and concept of the metaphor itself in the Roman family system. What position could the Spirit have in a familial context? Burke argues that for Paul, such a concept is seen in the overwhelming amount of personal language he use in his letters. Clearly then, the Spirit is “God’s personal (and inseparable member of the divine family) presence at work in and through his adopted offspring” (128, his italics).

With this confirmation regarding the Spirit, Burke continues on to discuss how the Spirit fits into the concept of adoption. The organization of the chapter varies significantly at this point from other. Chapter six could essentially be described as a chapter of parallels. Burke parallels Romans seven and eight with Galatians three and four. He contrasts the era of the Law with the new one of the Spirit. With this foundation laid, Burke goes on to emphasize that the implications of the new era are eschatological. The Spirit had been promised in the Old Testament in such passages as Ezekiel 11.17-20 and several others. This is why for Paul the coming of the Spirit for the believer “represents and inbreaking – the first fruits of the Spirit (Rom.8.23) –of the last days into the present as the portion of life and the power of future ages to come” (135).

Such an understanding of the eschatological nature of the Spirit’s coming anticipates Burke’s next parallel. Sonship is also eschatological, specifically, Sonship by adoption. It is in Romans 8 where the genitival construction referred to earlier appears: “Spirit of Adoption.” Burke points out again Paul’s heavy dependence upon Old Testament prophecy again in which the sonship of God’s people is predicted. He argues that Paul’s point in connecting the two in the phrase, “Spirit of Adoption,” is the eschatological blessing. These are linked blessings that cannot be dissected, “all God’s sons are led by the Spirit and all those who are led by the Spirit are God’s sons” (151). According to Burke, if the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from God’s son, then the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from the adopted son.

Thus, the Spirit has a dual function in the adoption of the believer. The eschatological aspect results in a moral imperative. As God’s sons and daughters, believers are to live in the Spirit, live as in the last days described Ezekiel 11. The other side of the Spirit’s role is his activity of witness. The Spirit “has a vital role to play in assuring us or making us aware of our huiothesia” (151).

Having completed the Trinity chapters, Burke shifts direction. The final two chapters, while still part of the exegetical section of the book, have a more individualized form. While the past three chapters have been essentially theological, chapter seven is sociological, examining the concept of honor in the Greco-Roman world. Burkes essential point in this chapter is to point out the function of honor and the role it played in adoption. For the people of the time, maintaining and gaining honor for one’s family was crucial for one’s status in the world at large. Adoption, in particular, was an extremely honorable event because, in it, a person’s status completely shifted. Paul uses honor to his advantage pointing out that adoption places the believer in the most honorable family of all, that of God. This is why in Ephesians 1, adoption is described as one of the spiritual blessings.

But another element exists. If a person gains a more honorable status by being adopted by God, it becomes the responsibility of that person to maintain that honor as well. Burke points out that in Galatians, the agitators were arguing that circumcision and keeping the is more honorable. But Paul says that by listening to these agitators, the Galatians are actually “failing in their loyalty to their Father” (155). Indeed another first century concept is at work, patronage and reciprocity. As the word patronage comes from the Latin word for father, there is a close link between the two concepts. Just as, children owe everything to their Father, the Galatians similarly have an obligation to respond correctly to God’s adoption. God as their Father must receive the loyalty of the adopted.

In Romans, the context is slightly different. Paul, instead of deal with agitators, has divided house churches to teach and respond to, who, as a believing body of God’s children, ought to behave as God’s children with the Father’s honor. The family in the first century was not merely a group of people living together, but in a manner of speaking, also a small business. Making money and providing food for the table for a family project in which all were required to participate. Just as division in a family would have essentially destroyed the family, Paul calls on Jews and Gentiles, as God’s family, to join together as brothers and sisters loyally and obediently under the Father.

The final chapter, is Burke’s exegesis of Romans 8.17-29, the theme of which is “living between the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’” (177). He points out the eschatological focus of the passage. All of creation, both the nonhuman and man anticipate God revealing his ultimate plans. The passage begins with the subhuman order as living in decay, a state of existence from which the child of God is distinct. The passage acts as an encouragement to press on. “God’s adopted sons may be without honour in the eyes of the world, but one day this will give way to the honourable disclosure of who they really are when their huiothesia will be finally revealed” (193). Also, the believer’s adoption, eschatologically, parallels the final redemption of the body when the believer will become like god’s own son.

Burke’s summarizing conclusion pulls the entire study together in an excellent manner. He goes back, noting the high points of the monograph, the cultural background and his various emphases within each chapter. The chapter is well written and organized. The strength of his conclusion is the manner in which Burke takes all the material from the book and lines it up together in order to provide some reflection and application. He points out that adoption has the possibility of filling the need for “connectedness” (196). Adoption, practically speaking also ought to give the believer confidence in his spiritual life. That is, adoption and assurance go hand in hand together.

Finally, there is the moral responsibility and the honor of being is the greatest family, the family of God. “And to be sure, there can be no greater privilege, responsibility or sense of belonging than having God as our adoptive Father and be related by faith to a vast network of brothers and sisters in Christ who constitute the world wide family of believers” (197). This is Burke’s last sentence of the book and is a fitting ending, giving closure by summarizing the amazing benefit of being an adopted child of God.

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