In 1864, Scottish theologian Robert Candlish gave a series of lectures in Edinburgh on the theology of the Fatherhood of God. As he ended those lectures, he said “I do so with the feeling that, however inadequately I have handled my great theme, I have at least thrown out some suggestive thoughts, and in the hope that more competent workmen may enter into my labour and rear a better structure. For I cannot divest myself of the impression that the subject has not hitherto been adequately treated in the Church.”
Candlish knew his church history well, but it seemed to him that the church fathers had not adequately described the adoption of believers into God’s family, because their best energies had (rightly) gone toward establishing the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. And the reformers, in (rightly) securing the believer’s justification by faith, had not allowed “the subject of adoption or the sonship of Christ’s disciples… to occupy the place and receive the prominence to which it is on scriptural grounds entitled.” Candlish intended no insult to the fathers or the reformers: “Their hands were full.” And until the Trinity and salvation by faith were in place, the theology of adoption didn’t have a chance.
But now, Candlish argued that the time had come to investigate the theology of adoption by the Father more fully:
I have long had the impression that in the region of that great truth there lies a rich field of precious ore yet to be surveyed and explored, and that, somewhere in that direction, theology has fresh work to do, and fresh treasures to bring out of the storehouse of the Divine Word.
What would it take to bring out the riches of the biblical doctrine of adoption? It would take more than a good theology book: Candlish’s was pretty darn good, and in the intervening 150 years or so there have been some even better ones. It would either take a big doctrinal fight (like the ones that clarified and elaborated the other major doctrines), or some kind of revival movement that stirred up Christians at the level of their spiritual experience and their daily practices, motivating them to reflect doctrinally on what was happening.
Something like the former (a doctrinal fight) is what happened in Candlish’s day: Liberal Protestantism began pushing an uncommonly mushy doctrine of God’s universal fatherhood. The universal Fatherhood of God was supposed to secure the universal Brotherhood of Man, at least in the Neighborhood of Boston as we all slid into unitarian universalism and rented our our empty churches to Alcoholics Anonymous groups. Candlish had already devoted a book to refuting F.D. Maurice’s British version of the FOGBOM theology, and that conflict with the heresy of liberalism is what woke him up to the riches of an orthodox theology of Fatherhood and adoption.
But I think something like the latter, a revival, is happening right now in evangelical theology. There is a movement underway in which Christians, and even whole congregations, are committing themselves and their resources to caring for orphans, partly by adoption. The most important book about it so far is Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life, and the most important organization is Together for Adoption. The movement got started with basic, biblical teaching about the gospel and holistic mission. It picked up speed with a network of projects and organizations committed to orphan care. And to this theological observer, it looks like it may have the momentum to reinvigorate evangelical systematic theology. Yes, even the big tomes of doctrine, and the research articles safely hidden in the theology journals! In belated fulfillment of Candlish’s prophecy, theology is about to discover adoption and give it the attention it deserves.
The most promising sign I’ve seen so far is the new book Reclaiming Adoption: Missional Living through the Rediscovery of Abba Father. This is a short (just over 100 pages), readable, popular-level introduction to the theology of adoption, and it is perfectly positioned at the intersection of the practical, the spiritual, and the doctrinal. It’s published by the innovative little publisher Cruciform Press, and I expect its sales will be driven by word of mouth through the orphan care network, and by the fact that it’s got a big ol’ classic John Piper chapter in it (Chapter 8: Adoption, The Heart of the Gospel).
Dan Cruver is the editor and also the anchorman who provides the first four chapters, which give the doctrinal foundation. Check out the titles of chapters two to four:
Adoption and the Trinity
Adoption and the Incarnation
Adoption and Our Union with Christ
Theologically speaking, I don’t need much more than a glance at that table of contents to know that this book is on a firm foundation. And reading the (short –did I mention short?) chapters proves that Cruver has a fine theological mind that knows how to observe the proper order of things, starting with God, moving through the mediator, down into the experience of redemption. It’s a few short steps from adoption to the biggest doctrines of Christian theology, and Cruver takes them.
The whole book is guided by the same deep theological insight. And if you consider that this book is going to be finding its way into the hands of people who are child-proofing their houses, working out passport issues, and giving sacrificially to orphanages, you may see why I say there is a movement going on. A book like Reclaiming Adoption is carrying out the theological task of catechesis, teaching Christians in mid-mission to think more, and think better, about the gospel they are living in. That is going to pay off in the quiet halls of evangelical theology.
In a brief essay (at his blog and reprinted in the book’s study guide), Cruver asks himself the question, “Do we really have time for theology when orphans need our help now?” And he answers,
Yes, we do. If theology is ultimately about our participation in the love between the Father and the Son, then nothing can better mobilize and energize us to care for orphans now than theology.
In fact, the whole tenor of Together for Adoption’s ministry is that “what orphans need … is Christians who are deeply theological.”
When thousands of orphans are being rescued and supported, it may seem small-minded to say that the most exciting thing about this movement is that it might be moving the neglected theological doctrine of adoption onto the agenda of evangelical systematic theology. But I’ll stand by that, because I take theology to be one meaningful indicator of the spiritual health of the church, and an important tether to spiritual reality. Plus we’ve been waiting since 1864 for Candlish’s prophecy to come true.
And the beauty of the current surge of attention to adoption is that it doesn’t come with any temptation to choose between theology and practice. At its best, in church after church, it’s doing both.