Issue: 3rd quarter 2015

A Response to the Doctrine of Adoptionism, part 1

Written by John W. Schoenheit

Part 1: Evidence for the Virgin Birth

The teaching of Scripture is that Jesus is the Son of God by Divine Conception.

God impregnated Mary, and the child Jesus was born from that conception.

Adoptionism: There has been a long-standing belief, dating back to at least the first century, that Jesus was fully human and was only referred to as the Son of God because he was “adopted” by God. This belief is known in Christian circles as “Adoptionism” or sometimes as “Dynamic Monarchianism.” It was the belief of the Ebionites, a sect of Jews who came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and was chosen by God for that role because of his sinless devotion to God.

The Old Testament did not make it clear that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, and Jews were not expecting a virgin birth; so it was natural for some of them to continue to believe what they had always believed about the Messiah: that he would be fully human and the child of a human mother and human father. But they had to also account for him being the Son of God, which they did by claiming God had adopted Jesus. However, because the Bible is not clear on when that adoption supposedly happened, Adoptionists disagree among themselves about when it occurred. Some say the adoption happened at his baptism (Luke 3:22 from codex Bezae and some Church Fathers); others say at his resurrection (cp. Acts 13:33; cp. Rom 1:4); others say at his ascension, as Hebrews seems to say (Heb. 1:3-5); and there are some who claim Jesus’ adoption is still future, and will happen when Jesus returns as king of the earth, an interpretation derived from Psalm 2:7 itself.

In this article, I want to deal with some of the evidence that Adoptionism is not what Scripture teaches. Although the Old Testament left the door open for Adoptionist beliefs, the New Testament firmly closed it; however, especially in the early years of the Church, the writings of the New Testament were not always accepted by the Christians, especially the Jewish Christians. For example, James was proud of the Jewish converts in Jerusalem who were “all zealous for the Law” (Acts 21:20), and that was years after Paul had written Romans and Galatians, books that James and his followers clearly ignored. The Jews were proud of their heritage as God’s chosen people and did not give up their beliefs easily. Therefore, it is easy to see why groups like the Ebionites existed. The Ebionites were a Jewish Christian group in the early centuries of the Church that correctly believed Jesus was the Messiah and rejected that Jesus was somehow God in the flesh. But they also continued to believe that a person had to follow the Law; they rejected Paul and his writings; they revered James, who promoted keeping the Law; and they followed the “Jewish Gospels,” which were apocryphal writings apparently about Christ and the Law (those writing are lost to us today).

There are not many Adoptionists in Christian circles today. Jews who convert to Christianity are usually willing to read and believe the New Testament, at least to a large degree. Others who believe that Jesus was fully human usually also see that the New Testament writings make it clear that he was the Son of God by divine conception—and even beyond that, that he had to be born by divine conception in order to be a sinless sacrifice.

The Doctrine of Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin is the teaching that since Adam and Eve, every person born of human parents is born with a sin nature, and that sin nature is the reason that every person is unsaved until he or she is saved through faith. Groups like the Ebionites and other Adoptionists point out that the doctrine of original sin was not clearly taught in the Old Testament and thus according to those scriptures Jesus could have been born of both a fully human mother and father and still have lived a sinless life. However, as is the case with many doctrines, the New Testament clarifies things that are not clear in the Old Testament.

If the doctrine of original sin can be shown to be biblical, which it can, then Adoptionist theology is proven wrong. If original sin is a biblical doctrine, then Jesus could not be the son of both a human father and mother and also be without sin, and thus he could not have been the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

One reason that Adoptionism does not have much of a following in Christianity today is because the New Testament is very clear about original sin. However, the Bible does not refer to it as “original sin,” it simply states the case that every human is under the dominion of sin and that sin lives in us. Theologians have coined terms like “original sin,” “inherited sin” or “moral depravity” in order to be able to more succinctly discuss the doctrine. We will only cover some of the most important aspects of original sin in this short article, in large part because the doctrine of original sin has been explained and defended in many theological works, systematic theologies, etc.

  • It is because all humans have a sin nature that every human baby is “unclean” before God unless it is sanctified by the Christian parent (1 Cor. 7:14). If there were no sin nature, every baby would be sinless until the age of accountability.
  • It is because of original sin that the Bible teaches that everyone needs to gain salvation rather than maintaining it simply by not sinning. If there is no original sin, salvation would not be a gift from God (Rom. 6:23), acquired by faith and given to people who would not otherwise be saved, but rather it would be something everyone had and only lost when they sinned. People would not lose everlasting life until they sinned. That is the Adoptionist position about Christ: he had salvation from birth, was the first person to make it through life without sinning, and thus was saved and qualified to be the Messiah. But that is not the teaching of the New Testament, which is that mankind needs to “be saved,” not “keep from losing salvation.”
  • Paul makes a distinction between “me” and “the sin that lives in me,” which is the sin nature (Rom. 7:17, 20). The sin nature is why we are slaves to sin (Rom. 6:6, 17, 18, 20, 22; 7:14, 25). At the time Romans was written, everyone understood what it meant to be a slave: you were owned by someone else. So it is with the sin nature. It “owns” us and we will not escape it until death or the Rapture.
  • In some ways, individual sin is a choice, but in the larger picture it is not, which is a major reason why every single person sins, and sins very regularly. The Bible says clearly that every person is “under” sin. “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written, ‘None are righteous, no not one’” (Rom. 3:9, 10).

What it means to be “under sin” is translated into some of the modern versions as “controlled by sin,” “under the power of sin,” or “under the dominion of sin” (cp. CJB; NIV; NAB; NJB; NLT; NRSV; RSV). It is because people are under the dominion of sin, the original sin that started with Adam, that Scripture says, “There is none righteous, no not one.” That would have been true for Jesus, too, except that as the “Last Adam” he was created by God and did not have original sin. Three specific verses in the New Testament specifically make the point that people are “under sin:” Romans 3:9; 7:14; and Galatians 3:22.

  • Our sin nature is what battles our spirit nature and is the reason “you are not doing what you want” (Gal. 5:17). The New Testament clearly teaches that we sin because we are under the power of sin and that the sin nature even fights with our spirit nature. The New Testament never paints the picture that we can just choose to stop sinning; quite the opposite. It says we must be delivered from sin by Jesus Christ. Paul cries out in anguish about his sin nature: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me out of this body of death? (Rom. 7:24 REV).
  • The sin nature is what Paul wrote about when he said he was not doing what he wanted to do, but was doing things he hated to do. He wrote: “For the desire to do good is present with me, but acting out that good is not” (Rom. 7:16-18). People can desire to do good all they want, but because they are “under sin,” they will never succeed in not sinning.
  • Mankind took on the “crafty” nature of the Serpent at the Fall (Gen. 3:7ff), and every human has sinned ever since then.
  • “Sinning” does not produce a sin nature. Rather, it is due to the sin nature that every human sins. “Sin” entered the world through one man, and in this way death came to all mankind because all sinned (Rom. 5:12), i.e., sin nature entered through Adam and its fruit is that we all sin. Romans 5:15 clearly states that “…many died through one man’s transgression” This is only true because the one man’s transgression produced the sin nature. Otherwise, Adam’s sin would have killed only him.
  • There is no merit to the claim that if Mary is Jesus’ true biological mother, then Jesus would have a sin nature, or that Mary would have to be sinless to have a sinless child.

The way God designed women allows the female to give birth to a child that is untainted by original sin, as we see from Jesus himself.

  • Adam is a “type” of Christ because they were both created directly by God (Rom. 5:14). That Jesus was the Son of God via divine creation and was sinless is why he is called, “the Last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45).
  • Although the Old Testament does not clearly articulate the doctrine of original sin, it shows how it entered mankind in Genesis 3 when humans became “crafty,” and it clearly demonstrates the fruit of original sin by showing over and over that mankind was unrighteous before God and that “none” were righteous. Paul took advantage of those Old Testament verses, and in Romans he strung together eight verses full of quotations that made his point that mankind is unrighteous before God (Rom. 3:10-17), which led up to his conclusion that righteousness before God comes only through “trust in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:23).
  • Based on the Old Testament, an Adoptionist could assert that all the Messiah had to do was keep the Law to be righteous before God. But the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus had to do more than keep the Law, he had to be “sinless” (cp. Heb. 4:15). This forces an Adoptionist to say that Jesus somehow lived to be around thirty years old but never sinned. The Old Testament verses that Paul quoted in Romans show this to be unrealistic, and the New Testament as a whole shows that it is not possible. We all sin because we all have a sin nature.

New Testament Verses that Support the Virgin Birth

Jesus is referred to as “the Only Begotten Son of God”

Adoptionists point out, and correctly so, that the words “father” and “son” were used with more latitude in the biblical world than they are today. However, Adoptionists then go an extra step and say that just because Jesus is the Son of God that does not mean there was a divine conception. But the Bible makes it clear in many ways that Jesus is the Son of God by divine conception, one of those ways being that Jesus is called the “only begotten Son.”

Jesus is called the “Son of God,” but more than that, six different times in Scripture he is called the “only begotten” of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Heb. 11:17; 1 John 4:9). It should be pointed out that “only begotten” is debated as a translation of the Greek word monogenēs, but whether it means “only begotten” or “unique” is not relevant to this particular discussion. The point is that in saying that Jesus was the “only begotten” son of God, Jesus was not just “a son of God” in the same sense that “son of God” is used of other “sons” of God. Something about him made him totally different from God’s other “sons.” What made Jesus so different that out of all the beings that are referred to as “sons” of God, Jesus is called the “only begotten Son,” or, as the Greek is sometimes translated, the “unique” son of God. Jesus was conceived by a creative act of God through divine conception with a human female. This made Jesus fully human but without original sin, the “only begotten Son” of God, and qualified him to be the savior of mankind.

The Gospel of Matthew

Matthew 1:18

Matthew 1:18 is one of the verses in the New Testament that testifies to the virgin birth of Jesus. It reads: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way: his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”

This verse is saying that Jesus was not Joseph’s child, but the father was “the Holy Spirit,” not a human male. The Bible is telling us that Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph had sexual relations. To more fully understand the verse, we have to understand its vocabulary and context. The single Greek word translated by the English phrase “came together” is sunerchomai (Strong’s #4905 συνέρχομαι). It is a common Greek word with several meanings, including “to assemble,” “to travel together,” and “to come together sexually.” Sunerchomai is used 32 times in the Western text of New Testament and 30 times in the Alexandrian text. All of those occurrences refer to coming together as a group or traveling together except two: Matthew 1:18 and 1 Corinthians 7:5. In those two places, sunerchomai refers to having sexual intercourse, as the Greek lexicons readily point out.

To understand the sexual vocabulary of the Bible, we must understand that it is common for “regular” or non-sexual words to be used idiomatically in a sexual context. Every language does this. In English we speak of a man and woman “sleeping together,” but the idiom means having sexual intercourse. Hebrew and Greek also employ similar figurative meanings. For example, in Hebrew, to “approach” a woman is used as a euphemism for sex (Exod. 19:15), but its regular meaning was simply to approach something in a non-sexual way. The context determines the meaning of a word.

How do we know that sunerchomai is used in a sexual way in Matthew 1:18? First, the context is a man and woman “coming together,” and saying they “came together” would be a normal idiom for them having sex. Second, the verse explains why it needs to be specifically stated that Mary and Joseph had not “come together” sexually: she was already pregnant, but in this case the text says it was by the Holy Spirit. If Mary was pregnant by Joseph, then saying they had not “come together” yet would have only been confusing to any Greek reader.

Another thing we can see from Matthew 1:18 is that Scripture says the father of Jesus was “the Holy Spirit,” i.e., God. Adoptionists state that when God helps a couple get pregnant, it can be worded as if God is the father of the child. But when we closely study the records and their contexts, we can see that statement is not actually true. For example, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, asked God for a child. She said to God: “If you will give me a man child….” (1 Sam. 1:11). But the context makes it clear what Hannah meant by asking God to “give me a man child,” and then how God fulfilled her request. Hannah was married and barren, and her request for God to “give” her a child was her simply asking for His help in getting pregnant. And so God answered her request: “…and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and Yahweh remembered her.” That record in 1 Samuel is not like the records in Matthew and Luke, which say Mary was a virgin and she became pregnant by God before she and Joseph came together.

The people of the Old Testament rightly believed that God helps with pregnancy, but He “helps” the woman conceive after she has sexual intercourse with a man. Genesis 4:1 is good example, and the record of Abraham and Sarah is another. But there is a huge difference between the Old Testament records that show God opening the womb of a woman so she could conceive, and the New Testament records of the birth of Christ, which say that God divinely impregnated Mary (cp. Matt. 1:18; Luke 1:31-35), resulting in the birth of Jesus, who is then called the “only begotten Son” of God.

Matthew 1:19-20

The text of Matthew shows how Joseph was shocked when he found out Mary was pregnant and decided to divorce her: “Now Joseph her husband, being righteous and yet not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly. But while he was thinking about these things, Look!, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to favorably accept Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit’” (Matt. 1:19, 20 REV).

The simple truth behind these verses is that Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph had sexual intercourse, and Joseph thought Mary had committed adultery and decided to divorce her. It took an angel appearing to him and telling him that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit to get him to change his mind. Adoptionists deal with these verses by saying Joseph did have sex with Mary but did not expect her to get pregnant, so when she did, then Joseph thought she must have also had sex with another man and decided to divorce her. The problem with that line of reasoning is that it is totally fictional; there is nothing in the Bible to support it. When what the Bible actually says makes sense, there is no reason to abandon it and search for other explanations.

Again in verse 20, as in verse 18, we are told that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph was wondering how Mary got pregnant when he and Mary had not had sex. The angel said: “for that which is conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit.” If the child was Joseph’s, first, the record would not tell us that they had not yet “come together,” and second, the angel would more likely have said something that would have assured Joseph that he was the father, rather than saying that “the Holy Spirit” was the father.

The truth is simple and clearly written in the Bible: Mary was pregnant by God before Joseph and Mary had sex; Joseph found out and wanted a divorce; an angel appeared to Joseph and told him not to be afraid to have Mary as a wife because her child was conceived by God Himself.

Matthew 1:25

Matthew 1:25 clearly states that Jesus was born before Mary and Joseph had sexual intercourse. “But he [Joseph] did not know her sexually until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (REV). The word “know” was used for intimate knowledge that came from having sex with someone, as any good Greek lexicon will confirm. A study of the way the word “know” is used in the Bible, as well as a study of the secular literature in which the idiom was used, will demonstrate that “know” was used of having heterosexual sexual intercourse regardless of whether or not conception followed, and also used of homosexual sexual intercourse (cp. Gen. 19:5; 24:16; Judg. 19:22, 25; Luke 1:34).

Thus, Matthew 1:25 clearly teaches that Joseph did not have sex with Mary until after Jesus was born. So in reading Matthew 1 we see that verses 18 and 20 confirm that Jesus was conceived by God, and verses 18 and 25 say that Mary was pregnant with Jesus before Mary and Joseph even had sexual intercourse. Scriptures like these are part of the reason that Adoptionism is not accepted as biblical truth. Jesus was the child of God and Mary, not Joseph and Mary.

The Gospel of Luke

Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38 is the record of the angel speaking with Mary and telling her how she will get pregnant. We should note that Mary is called a “virgin” (1:27). Although there is occasionally some latitude in the use of the word “virgin” in the original languages, especially the Hebrew, the Greek is much clearer, and the word parthenos (Strong’s #3933 παρθένος), especially in this context, conveys that Mary was indeed a “virgin” in the sense of never having had sexual intercourse. Luke 1:27 reads that Mary was “a virgin who was betrothed to a man named Joseph.” The text is making the point that Mary and Joseph were betrothed and Mary had not yet had sexual intercourse with Joseph.

It was because Mary was a virgin and had not had sex with a man that she was so surprised when the angel told her, “you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son” (Luke 1:31). Mary understandably asked, “How will this be, seeing I am not knowing a man?” (Luke 1:34). Mary’s question reveals a lot about the circumstances she was in. She wanted to know how she could become pregnant without having sex with a man. If the Adoptionist position was correct, at this point the angel could have cleared up Mary’s misunderstanding by simply saying that she would “know” a man and have a child. But the angel did not say that. Instead, the angel simply stated that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1:35). This is more than God simply helping a woman to get pregnant—this is God impregnating the woman.

We also need to pay special attention to Mary’s statement, “I am not knowing a man.” In the Greek text, the word “knowing” is in the active voice, present tense, showing that Mary was not having sex with a man, as the word “virgin” indicated a few verses earlier. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, but they were not having sex. In fact, culturally, it is very likely that Joseph and Mary did not see each other at all. It was the norm in that culture for men and women not to associate with each other until they had actually gone through the marriage ceremony and consummated the marriage through sexual union that night. Thus, the record in Luke agrees with and states in different words what Matthew said: that Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph had sex.

To make sure that Mary understood what would happen to her and to answer her question about how she could give birth without “knowing” a man, the angel used two phrases to make clear that God would impregnate Mary. The first was that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you,” and the second was that “the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). This vocabulary has been challenged by some scholars as not clearly indicating that God would directly father Jesus, but there is every indication that what the angel said was very clear to Mary, and indeed, it agrees with the other records in the Word of God about the virgin birth.

Then the angel told Mary that nothing was impossible with God. The angel needed to say that because it certainly seemed impossible for Mary to get pregnant without a man involved. Mary understood what the angel meant and answered “I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” God could have impregnated Mary without her consent, but God typically does not work that way. Mary’s statement shows that she knew what God was saying to her and willingly supported His plan to have her give birth to the Messiah.

As to the vocabulary and the possible comparisons with Greek and other ancient myths about gods fathering children, or God merely helping Joseph and Mary get pregnant, John Nolland, author of the Word Biblical Commentary: Luke 1-9:20, writes: “…there seems to be no adequate basis for abandoning the essential historicity of the tradition of a virginal conception of Jesus” (commentary on Luke 1:35; p. 48). Even if some early Jewish writers were appalled at the idea that the story of God’s Messiah would resemble other pagan myths of divine conception (see Trypho’s response in Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 67), there is no substantial reason for the Scriptural testimony to be questioned because of this. Moreover, there are several other creation myths from ancient cultures that are extremely close to the story of creation in Genesis but that does not then correlate to undermining the veracity of Genesis 1.

(Continue to part 2)

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John W. Schoenheit

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