Egalitarians should gladly embrace “Adoption of Sons”

At times English Bible translations may be too gender inclusive.  Of course, this gender inclusiveness works well for egalitarians and those sensitive to women issues.  But we must be careful here.

Below are two pieces of evidence that should firmly establish why we need to keep “adoption of sons” in our English Bibles:

1.  Greco-Roman Law and Adoption.  If it is true that Paul borrowed huiothesia from the Greco-Roman world—a term which refers to the practice of “a childless adult who wanted an heir [and] would adopt a male, usually at an age other than in infancy and frequently a slave, to be son” (Lincoln, Ephesians, p. 25)—then egalitarians should be excited not enraged at the rendering “adoption of sons.”

In other words, by Paul’s use of the term huiothesia, which was reserved only for the adoption of a male child as son and heir, our sisters in Christ may now boast of the same status of acceptance in Christ, with the males.

So there’s no need for “adoption of children” at Rom. 8:15; Eph. 1:5, and Gal. 4:5, as in the NRSV and NLT.

And/Or,

2. OT Background and Adoption. But if Paul has ancient Israel relationship in mind, as is the case in Romans 9:4, then we also have a Christocentric concept to appreciate.  YHWH calls ancient Israel his firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23; Hosea 11:1), no doubt a foreshadowing of Jesus (Matt. 2:15; Col. 1:15).  Or as Bornkamm puts it,

The soteriological significance of Christ’s sonship with God also comes out in the fact that sonship of the believers is based on the sending of the “Son” and attested to them by his Spirit.  He does not call them to be “Christs” and “Kyrioi,” but “sons” and “heirs” (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:4-7).  (G. Bornkamm, Paul, p. 249)

Theologically speaking, “For Paul, Christians are ‘sons’ of the Father in the derived sense of sharing the Sonship of Christ” (A. Thiselton, The Living Paul, p. 57, emphasis added).

So I say to my brothers and sisters who are egalitarians, Don’t be enraged at “adoption of sons” or “sons” in English Bible translations like the ESV and HCSB.  Instead, embrace the terms “adoption of sons” and “sons,” because of their theological and christological import.

As a footnote, I hear the objection, “Well, “adoption of sons” is too gender specific, because it excludes women (sisters in Christ).”  The solution is not to opt for “adoption of children.”

Rather, we need to teach our people how to read their Bibles—how to dig down deep, until the texts yield their meanings, ala Luther, and to enjoy the discovery, not of our world, but of the biblical world.

But in an effort to make the truth clear, some of our newer English Bible translations have found themselves dumbing down the text too much.

This entry was posted in Bible Translations, Bibles, Egalitarian and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Egalitarians should gladly embrace “Adoption of Sons”

  1. Mike Aubrey says:

    I hear the objection, “Well, “adoption of sons” is too gender specific, because it excludes women (sisters in Christ).” The solution is not to opt for “adoption of children.”

    TC, but there *is* a better solution.

    There is no necessity to include the word children or sons at all. What’s wrong with just translating υιοθεσια as “adoption.” There is absolutely no linguistic reason why we need to translate the component parts of a compound at all. The additional phrase, “adoption of/as X” simply isn’t necessary.

    Moreover, our goal in translation should be communicating the meaning of the original and with that in mind, neither “adopted as children” or “adopted as sons” does the trick.

    If the point of preferring “son” over “child” in the context is to emphasize the point that only a son in the Greco-Roman world could be adopted to be an heir, then why don’t we simply use that word and avoid the debate entirely: “adopted as heirs” conveys the entire point without recourse to problems of gender specificity or problems of lack of knowledge of the historical context. It fills in the gap itself.

    The debate itself is stupid because there’s no reason for it:

    We, men and women, are adopted as heirs.

  2. T.C. R says:

    Moreover, our goal in translation should be communicating the meaning of the original and with that in mind, neither “adopted as children” or “adopted as sons” does the trick.

    Mike,

    True, if the goal is to communicate the meaning of the original, Why do away with the gender specific, which is in the background of the term in question, for “adoption of heirs.”

    “Males” as “heirs” have been lost in translation. Not a solution, I’m afraid.

  3. Mike Aubrey says:

    But there’s absolutely no theological reason for maleness expect one created by your theologians quoted. The male issue is a historical point, not a theological one.

    The fact that sons were heirs in the Roman world is an accident of history related to whether a culture is patrilineal or matrilineal and nothing to do with theology. The theological point is that you are an heir.

    Besides, υιοθεσια is feminine. Why are you doing away with the gender specificity?

  4. T.C. R says:

    Mike,

    The theological significance is not maleness, but heirness. You’re right.

    But I believe we need to preserve the historical point while making the theological one – not jettison it. Both can be done.

    But what of the OT background and derived sonship in Christ? Besides, Paul’s use of the word, its theological import, has both males and females in mind.

    Yes, υιοθεσια is a feminine word. But isn’t it amazing that a feminine word is used to capture a male practice? At this point, there’s no significance to the term’s gender.

  5. Mike Aubrey says:

    At this point, there’s no significance to the term’s gender.

    But I believe we need to preserve the historical point while making the theological one – not jettison it. Both can be done.

    Well, we’re going to have to disagree there. Preserving this particular historical point, in my view, will only cause unnecessarily confusion and potential for misunderstanding.

  6. T.C. R says:

    Well, we’re going to have to disagree there. Preserving this particular historical point, in my view, will only cause unnecessarily confusion and potential for misunderstanding.

    Rather to be gender inclusive when the writer is being gender specific, “will only cause unnecessary confusion and potential for misunderstanding.”

    The bottom line: “we need to teach our people how to read the text of Scripture. It’s that simple.

  7. missional girl says:

    I am no more put off by “sons” than Christian men should be in being a part of “the Bride of Christ.” I think understanding how to read the Word will put the kabosh on a lot of drama.

  8. TC:
    If you have to appeal to the historical background to fully explain the significance of the text regardless of whether you translate as “son” or “children” or whatever then it doesn’t seem to make a big difference to translate as “son”. I say just go with children or nothing (as Mike mentioned). You still have to make the same historical explanation to the person who doesn’t understand the historical background.

  9. T.C. R says:

    I think understanding how to read the Word will put the kabosh on a lot of drama.

    MS,

    Yep!

    Bryan L,

    Then you’re not really in tune with Mike’s position, since further explanation is needed.

  10. T.C. R says:

    If the point of preferring “son” over “child” in the context is to emphasize the point that only a son in the Greco-Roman world could be adopted to be an heir, then why don’t we simply use that word and avoid the debate entirely: “adopted as heirs” conveys the entire point without recourse to problems of gender specificity or problems of lack of knowledge of the historical context. It fills in the gap itself.

    Mike proposed “adoption as heirs” as adequate enough to fill in [necessary] gap[s]. But you calling for “children or nothing.” I don’t think that was Mike’s point, at all.

  11. ScottL says:

    TC –

    This might be similar to the translation of adelphoi as brothers. Now there is probably more leeway in the historical use of this word including both brothers and sisters in many a biblical contexts. I’d be interested in seeing Mike’s thoughts on whether or not there is a better way to translate adelphoi than simply as brothers.

    I do like the proposal of ‘adopted as heirs’. It conveys the theological truth, which is most important. We can still explain the historical emphasis of the ‘sons’ in the Greco-Roman context, but I think that phrasing does well. Christ is THE heir and we (all) are heirs with Christ.

    As Scot McKnight notes, God spoke in Moses’ day in Moses’ way, God spoke in David’s day in David’s way, God spoke in Paul’s day in Paul’s way. I think Paul’s new creation theology tears down the historical-cultural barrier of the patriarchal society, though interesting Paul still utilised the word huiothesia. But maybe it was the best word to utilise but he did not intend any historical-cultural undertones from it.

    But I wouldn’t have a problem with the usual translation of huiothesia or adelphoi in the masculine form. I can explain what is truly being communicated. But maybe a better (newer?) translation is better for those without their commentaries and theological texts.

  12. I wasn’t arguing for Mike’s point. The comment “nothing (as Mike mentioned) was referring to his comment “What’s wrong with just translating υιοθεσια as “adoption.”” However his suggestion “adoption as heirs” is also fine. Either way I think “adoption as sons” is the weakest of all.

    • T.C. R says:

      As Scot McKnight notes, God spoke in Moses’ day in Moses’ way, God spoke in David’s day in David’s way, God spoke in Paul’s day in Paul’s way. I think Paul’s new creation theology tears down the historical-cultural barrier of the patriarchal society, though interesting Paul still utilised the word huiothesia. But maybe it was the best word to utilise but he did not intend any historical-cultural undertones from it.

      Scott L,

      I’ll be a little cautious with that quote from McKnight. Paul saw himself as interpreter of Israel’s Scripture around Messiah’s accomplishments.

      It’s amazing to see the echoes of OT motifs and how they serve as controlling motifs in Paul’s thought.

      But no one seems to be taking seriously “sons” as derived from that sonship in Christ.

      However his suggestion “adoption as heirs” is also fine. Either way I think “adoption as sons” is the weakest of all.

      Sorry for the misunderstanding. Yes, perhaps “adoption as heirs” is the best choice, but we still have to grapple with the background of the term.

  13. Crystal says:

    I don’t know what kabosh is, but I’m pretty sure I wholeheartedly agree with TC and MG. Wherever you fall in the complementarian/egalitarian spectrum, nothing hangs on this verse. If the inherently (no pun intended) implied “sons” causes a misunderstanding for someone here, it will come up in other passages that are not so easily “fixed” with a tweak in translation. The heir was male. The point is that, in Christ, I have the same position that a male heir would have had in first century Rome. That’s good news whether he was a guy or not!

  14. Sue says:

    What upset me in this whole kerfuffle is that my former minister said that he liked the TNIV quite a bit, but would never use it in the pulpit because he could not approve of “adoption of children.” Which is weird because I think the TNIV says “adoption of sons.” But he thought that he would make this point anyway. However, Luther was closer to Mike Aubrey’s point using kindschaft. I always wondered if somehow the reformation was considered ineffective because of Luther not adding “sons” into this verse.

    In any case, I never met a complementarian who did not parse out women somewhere along the line because of the gender of some Greek word. But its a moving target, this gender business. A woman may be moral one day, and immoral the next depending on how someone else translates the Bible. I am too old now.

  15. Gary Simmons says:

    I would have to say “adoption [as sons]” or “adoption [as children]” is redundant in English and not really necessary, as Mike says. I highly doubt that anyone would misunderstand and think we were instead adopted as pets, right? Just “adoption” works fine, and we could do well with a footnote explaining how adoption worked in Greco-Roman culture. The adopted male was an heir. And we, in Christ, have been made heirs (or made an inheritance, or given an inheritance), per Ephesians 1.

    Since it’s not the maleness but the heirness that matters, if we have to supply an “as,” it should be “as heirs.” But even that is not necessary. I don’t care to turn a blind eye to the gendered use of the language of “sons” inherent in the Greek word, but neither is it particularly relevant to the theological point. The historical point need not be part of the translation, though it’s footnote-worthy. In the same way, I don’t mind anachronisms like “book” instead of “codex” or “scroll” for biblos/biblion in the NT. Specifics of historical circumstances can often be relegated to footnote status.

    On the other hand, T.C., I wholeheartedly agree that people need to be taught how to read Scripture instead of having the expectation that they be spoon-fed. By all means, let people wrestle with the historical fact of patriarchy. Unless we, as translators, want to make theological judgments for the readers, we should let them be challenged. I don’t think the Bible was written so that it could be understood without explanation (Acts 8). “Adoption [as sons],” while not inaccurate, would be a case of overtranslating, IMO.

    Bryan: I don’t think you can put this in the same category as the adelphoi thing. Whereas Greco-Roman adoption customs became obscure long, long ago, the generic masculine is only obscure today because we don’t ask this question often enough: “is our children learning?” But seriously: literacy today is terrible.

  16. T.C. R says:

    he heir was male. The point is that, in Christ, I have the same position that a male heir would have had in first century Rome. That’s good news whether he was a guy or not!

    Crystal,

    You got it! And that’s good news indeed!

    However, Luther was closer to Mike Aubrey’s point using kindschaft. I always wondered if somehow the reformation was considered ineffective because of Luther not adding “sons” into this verse.

    Sue,

    Yes, but how would Luther have explained the term in question?

    The adopted male was an heir. And we, in Christ, have been made heirs (or made an inheritance, or given an inheritance), per Ephesians 1.

    Gary,

    I find it interesting that no one has taken off on the point of Israel as God’s firstborn son and the reenactment, if you will, in Jesus, and consequently, our derived sonship through him.

    As you know, Bible translation is no easy take – so many cultural rivers to cross.

  17. Gary Simmons says:

    T.C. R., that’s a good point, however. If Paul is unconcerned with Greco-Roman customs and is more focused on the firstborn sonship of Israel and Jesus, then the maleness becomes relevant theologically as well as historically. In that case, hrmm.

    After all, Eph 1:3-14 only refers to Jesus a mere 13 times in one sentence. That just might be relevant. Maybe.

    Well, now what? On the one hand, υιοθεσια specifies “son-appointment” so you know which meaning of θεσια is in question. The related verb tithemi is so broad that θεσια alone would not be clearly understood as “adoption” (at least, a novice like me wouldn’t automatically understand it).

  18. T.C. R says:

    After all, Eph 1:3-14 only refers to Jesus a mere 13 times in one sentence. That just might be relevant. Maybe.

    Well, we already have the connection in Matthew 2:13, which was spoken of of nation Israel back in Hosea 11:1 – so something else is going on here.

    Regarding υιοθεσια, we don’t want to commit that root word fallacy. But I do see your point.

    But even in adoption there is also appointment.

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