Adoptionism is the belief that Christ was born human, not of a virgin (to most historic adoptionists, but not all), was not pre-existent, lived an exemplary and sinless life in accordance with Jewish law and because of this was, at some point in his later life, commonly at his baptism or at resurrection, was then adopted by God and became divine. To be clear this means that Jesus was not born divine, was not “the Word made flesh”, and by it’s nature rejects all models of substitutionary atonement and also is at odds with the Christian understanding of the Trinity. It also shows God as rewarding Jesus for the deeds of a good life, and by such could be seen, and is seen by me, as endorsing and setting up a faith that is based upon the works of a man and not the grace of God. It paints God as some great all powerful being in the sky who requires works of us for a reward obtained as if the forgiveness of our sins is some sort of supernatural allowance for doing our Christian chores. If we are rewarded for works then it only stands to reason that the opposite would be true as well.
Adoptionism was popularized by those seeking to reconcile Jewish belief with the teachings that Jesus was the Son of God, as well as a reaction to the claim by many gnostic sects that Jesus only appeared to be a man, but could not be a man because all matter was evil. It was examined by three synods, denounced by two and was eventually labeled as heresy by Nicaea and the doctrine of the Trinity. (Nicaea and the evolution of trinitarian belief will be dealt with at a later time in this series.) Some consider Paul and Mark to contain some allusions to adoptionism, but those claims have been discredited by the majority of scholars throughout history. The first known and historically recorded instances of adoptionism was with the Ebionites, a judaizing sect that insisted on following Jewish law, revered James the brother of Jesus and, by and large, rejected Paul. As an interesting side note, some current adoptionists (some being generic. The idea is out there and mentioned, but I have no idea how many or few actually hold to this) claim that the gospels were edited to make the Ebionites look bad as well as mistranslated Isiah to support the idea of Jesus as uniquely divine from birth. In The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart D. Ehrman supports the idea that certain scriptures were purposefully altered to deny textural support for the doctrine, but his scholarship in many of his assertions has been questioned by his contemporaries. This is important as these are the beginnings of adoptionism both in the ancient world and also today. Adoptionism would reemerge again in the 8th and 12th centuries and was again condemned by Alexander III. So, from it’s inception as a Christology until the 12th century, it was officially examined by theologians and church leaders 5 times and struck as heresy 4 of those five times. Based on history, it can not be said that it did not have a proper examination by theologians and religious leaders.
There has been a modern resurgence in adoptionism as a Christolgy, which is attributed to the historic Jesus movement that seeks to demystify Jesus and put Him in the proper historic and cultural context. This is both true and unfair. I do not believe that all who understand that a historic understanding of culture in the time of Christ is useful in understanding the message of Christ buy into these ways of thinking (I do not and I personally know many others who understand context helps understanding, yet do not deny the Trinity and other core doctrines of Christianity). With the movement toward understanding Jesus the man, there has been, in some circles, an over emphasis on His humanity to the point of denying his divine nature. The modern belief of adoptionsim seems to also hang upon the idea that several passages in the scriptures have been mistranslated to the point that their entire meaning is wrong, and therefore our belief is wrong. I am not a linguist, nor am I a scholar, so I, like many people rely on others to translate for me. The difference between me and some others is that I apply a variety of scholars to arrive at conclusions an do not hold stock in one. I also apply the tradition and history of the church, my understandings of scripture, as well as my ability to reason.
The ancient view of adoptionism relies heavily on a God who rewards action rather than extends grace and the modern view of adoptionism relies heavily on people like Bart. D. Ehrman who claim that the scriptures have been purposely changed to support orthodox belief and have been since Nicaea. This seems to wild for me to believe. The concept of some ancient conspiracy to purposefully lead all believers of Christ astray in favor of some heretical belief is best saved for the plot of a Dan Brown novel and not the basis for faith in God through Christ. The idea of a God who rewards action is a works based faith, not one one based on His mercy and love for creation. I realize it seems so small and I recognize that many have a live and let live philosophy about personal faith, but our Christology strikes at the very root of what shapes the rest of our faith and consequently our actions. It is of vital importance that we get Jesus right as He is the core of faith after all. If God has adopted Christ based on His works, then how can we believe that same God will not hold us to the same standard of works? How can we be assured of being the children of a loving God? This strikes not only at the heart of our shared Christian faith but at the heart of our shared Wesleyan heritage of being able to know and take comfort in the assurance of salvation. Jesus did not need an Aldersgate moment as adoptionism suggests, He is the reason that an Aldersgate moment can exist.