Please help support the mission of New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
(Latin adoptare, to choose.)
Adoption is the gratuitous taking of a stranger as one's own child and heir. According as the adopter is man or God, the adoption is styled human or divine, natural or supernatural. In the present instance there is question only of the divine that adoption of man by God in virtue of which we become His sons and heirs. Is this adoption only a figurative way of speaking? Is there substantial authority to vouch for its reality? What idea are we to form of its nature and constituents? A careful consideration of the presentation of Holy Scripture, of the teachings of Christian tradition, and of the theories set forth by theologians relative to our adopted sonship, will help to answer these questions.
The Old Testament, which St. Paul aptly compares to the state of childhood and bondage, contains no text that would point conclusively to our adoption. There were indeed saints in the days of the Old Law, and if there were saints there were also adopted children of God, for sanctity and adoption are inseparable effects of the same habitual grace. But as the Old Law did not possess the virtue of giving that grace, neither did it contain a clear intimation of supernatural adoption. Such sayings as those of Exodus (4:22), "Israel is my son, my firstborn", Osee (1:10), "Ye are the sons of the living God", and Romans (9:4), "Israelites to whom belongeth the adoption as of children", are not to be applied to any individual soul, for they were spoken of God's chosen people taken collectively.
It is in the New Testament, which marks the fullness of time and the advent of the Redeemer, that we must search for the revelation of this heaven-born privilege (cf. Galatians 4:1). "Son of God" is an expression of no infrequent use in the Synoptic Gospels, and as therein employed, the words apply both to Jesus and to ourselves. But whether, in the case of Jesus, this phrase points to Messiahship only, or would also include the idea of real divine filiation, is a matter of little consequence in our particular case. Surely in our case it cannot of itself afford us a sufficiently stable foundation on which to establish a valid claim to adopted sonship. As a matter of fact, when St. Matthew (5:9, 45) speaks of the "children of God", he means the peacemakers, and when he speaks of "children of your Father who is in Heaven", he means those who repay hatred with love, thereby implying throughout nothing more than a broad resemblance to, and moral union with God. The charter of our adoption is properly recorded by St. Paul (Romans 8; Ephesians 1; Galatians 4); St. John (Prologue and First Epistle 1:3); St. Peter (First Epistle 1); and St. James (Epistle 1). According to these several passages we are begotten, born of God. He is our Father, but in such wise that we may call ourselves, and truly are, His children, the members of His family, brothers of Jesus Christ with whom we partake of the Divine Nature and claim a share in the heavenly heritage. This divine filiation, together with the right of co-heritage, finds its source in God's own will and graceful condescension. When St. Paul, using a technical term borrowed from the Greeks, calls it adoption, we must interpret the word in a merely analogical sense. In general, the correct interpretation of the Scriptural concept of our adoption must follow the golden mean and locate itself midway between the Divine Sonship of Jesus on the one hand, and human adoption on the other immeasurably below the former and above the latter. Human adoption may modify the social standing, but adds nothing to the intrinsic worth of an adopted child. Divine adoption, on the contrary, works inward, penetrating to the very core of our life, renovating enriching, transforming it into the likeness of Jesus, "the firstborn among many brethren". Of course it cannot be more than a likeness, an image of the Divine Original mirrored in our imperfect selves. There will ever be between our adoption and the filiation of Jesus the infinite distance which separates created grace from hypostatical union. And yet, that intimate and mysterious communion with Christ, and through Him with God, is the glory of our adopted sonship: "And the glory which thou hast given me, I have given to them I in them and thou in me" (John 17:22, 23).
The oft-repeated emphasis which Holy Writ lays on our supernatural adoption won great popularity for that dogma in the early Church. Baptism, the laver of regeneration, became the occasion of a spontaneous expression of faith in our adopted sonship. The newly baptised were called infantes, irrespective of age. They assumed names which suggested the idea of adoption, such as Adeptus, Regeneratus, Renatus, Deigenitus, Theogonus, and the like. In the liturgical prayers for neophytes, some of which have survived even to our own day (e.g. the collect for Holy Saturday and the preface for Pentecost), the officiating prelate made it a sacred duty to remind them of this grace of adoption, and to call down from Heaven a like blessing on those who had not yet been so favoured. (See BAPTISM.) The Fathers dwell on this privilege which they are pleased to style deification. St. Irenæus (Adv. Haereses, iii, 17-19); St. Athanasius (Cont. Arianos, ii, 59); St. Cyril of Alexandria (Comment. on St. John, i, 13, 14); St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on St. Matthew, ii, 2); St. Augustine (Tracts 11 and 12 on St. John); St. Peter Chrysologus (Sermon 72 on the Lord's Prayer) all seem willing to spend their eloquence on the sublimity of our adoption. For them it was an uncontradicted primal principle, an ever ready source of instruction for the faithful, as well as an argument against heretics such as the Arians, Macedonians, and Nestorians. The Son is truly God, else how could He deify us? The Holy Ghost is truly God, else how could His indwelling sanctify us? The Incarnation of the Logos is real, else how could our deification be real? Be the value of such arguments what it may, the fact of their having been used, and this to good effect, bears witness to the popularity and common acceptance of the dogma in those days.
Some writers, like Scheeben, go further still and look in the patristic writings for set theories regarding the constituent factor of our adoption. They claim that, while the Fathers of the East account for our supernatural sonship by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost, the Fathers of the West maintain that sanctifying grace is the real factor. Such a view is premature. True it is that St. Cyril lays special stress on the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul of the just man, whereas St. Augustine is more partial towards grace. But it is equally true that neither speaks exclusively, much less pretends to lay down the causa formalis of adoption as we understand it today. In spite of all the catechetic and polemic uses to which the Fathers put this dogma, they left it in no clearer light than did their predecessors, the inspired writers of the distant past. The patristic sayings, like those of Holy Scripture, afford precious data for the framing of a theory, but that theory itself is the work of later ages.
What is the essential factor or formal cause of our supernatural adoption? This question was never seriously mooted previous to the scholastic period. The solutions it then received were to a great extent influenced by the then current theories on grace. Peter the Lombard, who identifies grace and charity with the Holy Ghost, was naturally brought to explain our adoption by the sole presence of the Spirit in the soul of the just, to the exclusion of any created and inherent God-given entity. The Nominalists and Scotus, though reluctantly admitting a created entity, nevertheless failed to see in it a valid factor of our divine adoption, and consequently had recourse to a divine positive enactment decreeing and receiving us as children of God and heirs of the Kingdom. Apart from these, a vast majority of the Schoolmen with Alexander Hales, Albert the Great, St. Bonaventure, and preeminently St. Thomas, pointed to habitual grace (an expression coined by Alexander) as the essential factor of our adopted sonship. For them the same inherent quality which gives new life and birth to the soul gives it also a new filiation. Says the Angel of the Schools (III:9:23, ad 3am), "The creature is assimilated to the Word of God in His Unity with the Father; and this is done by grace and charity. . . . Such a likeness perfects the idea of adoption, for to the like is due the same eternal heritage." (See GRACE.) This last view received the seal of the Council of Trent (sess. VI, c. vii, can. 11). The Council first identifies justification with adoption: "To become just and to be heir according to the hope of life everlasting" is one and the same thing. It then proceeds to give the real essence of justification. "Its sole formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just." Furthermore, it repeatedly characterises the grace of justification and adoption as "no mere extrinsic attribute or favour, but a gift inherent in our hearts." This teaching was still more forcibly emphasized in the Catechism of the Council of Trent (De Bapt., No. 50), and by the condemnation by Pius V of the forty-second proposition of Baius, the contradictory of which reads: "Justice is a grace infused into the soul whereby man is adopted into divine sonship." It would seem that the thoroughness with which the Council of Trent treated this doctrine should have precluded even the possibility of further discussion. Nevertheless the question came to the fore again with Leonard Leys (Lessius), 1623; Denis Pétau (Petavius), 1652; and Matthias Scheeben, 1888. According to their views, it could very well be that the unica causa formalis of the Council of Trent is not the complete cause of our adoption, and it is for this reason that they would make the indwelling of the Holy Ghost at least a partial constituent of divine sonship. Here we need waste no words in consideration of the singular idea of making the indwelling of the Holy Ghost an act proper to, and not merely an appropriation of, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. As to the main point at issue, if we carefully weigh the posthumous explanations given by Lessius; if we recall the fact that Petavius spoke of the matter under consideration rather en passant; and if we notice the care Scheeben takes to assert that grace is the essential factor of our adoption, the presence of the Holy Ghost being only an integral part and substantial complement of the same, there will be little room for alarm as to the orthodoxy of these distinguished writers. The innovation, however, was not happy. It did not blend with the obvious teaching of the Council of Trent. It ignored the terse interpretation given in the Catechism of the Council of Trent. It served only to complicate and obscure that simple and direct traditional theory, accounting for our regeneration and adoption by the selfsame factor. Still it had the advantage of throwing a stronger light upon the connotations of sanctifying grace, and of setting off in purer relief the relations of the sanctified and adopted soul with the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity: with the Father, the Author and Giver of grace; with the Incarnate Son, the meritorious Cause and Exemplar of our adoption; and especially with the Holy Ghost, the Bond of our union with God, and the infallible Pledge of our inheritance. It also brought us back to the somewhat forgotten ethical lessons of our communion with the Triune God, and especially with the Holy Ghost, lessons so much insisted upon in ancient patristic literature and the inspired writings. "The Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost", says St. Augustine (Tract 76; In Joan), "come to us as long as we go to Them, They come with Their help, if we go with submission. They come with light, if we go to learn; They come to replenish, if we go to be filled, that our vision of Them be not from without but from within, and that Their indwelling in us be not fleeting but eternal." And St. Paul (1 Corinthians 3:16, 17), "Know you not that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? But if any man violate the temple of God, him shall God destroy. For the temple of God is holy, which you are." From what has been said, it is manifest that our supernatural adoption is an immediate and necessary property of sanctifying grace. The primal concept of sanctifying grace is a new God-given and Godlike life superadded to our natural life. By that very life we are born to God even as the child to its parent, and thus we acquire a new filiation. This filiation is called adoption for two reasons: first, to distinguish it from the one natural filiation which belongs to Jesus; second, to emphasize the fact that we have it only through the free choice and merciful condescension of God. Again, as from our natural filiation many social relations crop up between us and the rest of the world, so our divine life and adoption establish manifold relations between the regenerate and adopted soul on the one hand, and the Triune God on the other. It was not without reason that Scripture and the Eastern Church singled out the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity as the special term of these higher relations. Adoption is the work of love. "What is adoption," says the Council of Frankfort, "if not a union of love?" It is, therefore, meet that it should be traced to, and terminate in, the intimate presence of the Spirit of Love.
WILHELM AND SCANNELL, A Manual of Catholic Theology based on Scheeben's Dogmatik (London, 1890); HUNTER, Outlines of Dogmatic Theology (New York, 1894); NIEREMBERG-SCHEEBEN, The Glories of Divine Grace (New York, 1885); DEVINE, Manual of Ascetic Theology or the Supernatural Life of the Soul (London, 1902); NEWMAN, St. Athanasius, II, Deification, Grace of God, Divine Indwelling, Sanctification (London, 1895); BELLAMY, La vie surnaturelle (Paris, 1895); TERRIEN, La Grâce et La Gloire (Paris, 1897); LESSIUS, De Perfectionibus Moribusque Divinis; De Summo Bono et Æternâ Beatitudine (Antwerp, 1620; Paris, 1881); PETAVIUS, Opus de Theologicis Dogmatibus (Bar-le-Duc, 1867); SCHEEBEN, Handbuch der kathol. Dogmatik (Freiburg, 1873); see also current treatises on grace: MAZZELLA, HURTER, PESCH, KATSCHTHALER.
APA citation. (1907). Supernatural Adoption. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01148a.htm
MLA citation. "Supernatural Adoption." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01148a.htm>.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.