Rethinking Adoptionism

As it becomes increasingly unlikely that the annual meeting of the North American Patristics Society will take place in May as scheduled, I thought I would post a brief description of my paper for the conference. I hope to share these ideas at another academic venue before too long. In the meantime, however, I welcome thoughts and suggestions.

The paper (“Rethinking ‘Adoptionism’: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category”) focuses on the history and development of “adoptionism” as a Christological category.

More than twenty years ago, Michael Williams drew attention to the problem of imposing theological categories on disparate early Christian groups and theologies with his monograph Rethinking “Gnosticisim”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Williams argued that “gnosticism” is a problematic category, a phantasm created by the act of naming. Taking its impetus from this re-evaluation of gnosticism as an analytical category, my paper rethinks another purported second-century heresy: adoptionism.

Scholars continue to debate whether or not the earliest Christian understandings of Jesus were “adoptionist.” The category of “adoptionism” itself, however, has largely escaped critical scrutiny. In this paper, I argue that adoptionism is a problematic and anachronistic category for texts from the first two Christian centuries, a mirage created by later theological controversies about the relationship of Father and Son.

To make this argument, I survey the literary evidence for first- through third-century figures and texts generally identified as advocating an “adoptionist” Christology (Cerinthus, Ebionites, Paul of Samosata, the Theodotii) and undertake a close reading of another, overlooked text that uses metaphors of adoption (υἱοθεσία) to describe Jesus’ identity, the second-century pseudo-Pauline letter 3 Corinthians.

I argue that, although metaphors of adoption were theologically productive in early Christianity, to identify early Christian figures, texts, and movements as “adoptionist” implies a theological unity that does not exist. Not only are actual, historical adoptionists hard to find, but early Christian metaphors of adoption and sonship functioned within diverse articulations of Jesus’ identity,many of which do not map onto heresiological definitions of adoptionism, ancient or modern.