Book Review: Adopted into God’s Family

Book review 17

Burke, Trevor J.  Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor.  New Studies in Biblical Theology 22.  Downers Grove: IVP, 2006.  233 pgs.

In this work author Trevor Burke contends that one of Paul’s soteriological metaphors is often over overlooked, that of huiothesia, or adoption.  Contending that adopting should not merely be subsumed under justification or regeneration, Burke sets out to demonstrate the uniqueness of this metaphor onyl used in a handful of passages by Paul.

Burke begins by laying out his case for the separate treatment of adoption, arguing that it contains a unique emphasis that gets lost when it is subsumed under other categories of the ordo salutis and that when adoption has been studied it has been too limited, mainly concerned with discerning the  cultural milieu Paul was drawing upon (chapter 1).

In chapter 2 Burke discusses the nature of metaphors and the unique interpretative challnges they bring.  He cites some standard thinkers in this discussion (Lakoff and Johnson, McFague), and argues that both the literary and social contexts are key for discerning the proper “field of associations” which grounds Paul’s use of huiothesia.  Burke ends with the claim that despite the scarcity of references, adoption actually serves as “an organizing soteriological metaphor” for Paul.

The next logical step in Burke’s presentation is to try to understand the background to Paul’s adoption metaphor.  He examines the OT, Greek, and Roman backgrounds.  In the end he nearly completely endorses the Roman view, while minimizing Hebrew influence and denying any Greek associations (Chapter 3).

Chapters 4-6 form the heart of the book, where Burke analyzes nearly every Pauline passage on adoption, with the exception of Romans 9:4.  He discerns a Trinitarian structure to adoption, and thus the fundamental passages are each explored to varying degrees three separate times, with an eye to the role of the Father (chapter 4), the Son (chapter 5), and the Spirit (chapter 6). 

The main functions of the Triune persons, according to Burke, are as follows: the Father is the believers new paterfamilias, who like the Roman head of the household adoptes one by his sovereign choice.  The Son is the agent through which this adoption takes place in union with him.  Burke points out that while this has no direct correlation to the Roman practice of adoption, the idea of redemption from slavery discussed in chapter four fits within the conceptual scheme of Roman adoption.  In Paul’s thought one is bought out of slavery, thus making adoption possible, not through money but through a person.  For Paul the tye of currency necessary is changed.  Lastly, Burke’s treatment of the Spirit reflects the mutual perichoretic coactivity (to use Elmer Colyer’s term) between the Son and Spirit, so that the work of the Spirit and the Son in adoption cannot in the end divided.  Also, the moral significance and the method of believer’s assurance are dealt with here.

From here Burke backtracks a bit to explore the socio-cultural issues of honor and shame, and their relation to adoption (chapter 7).  In chapter 8 adoption is explored eschatologically through the prism of Romans 8:18-27.  Finally, after a brief summary of the entire book Burke explores what he calls some “alleged cases of adoption in the Old Testament” in his apendix.

First a few structural comments.  One of books greatest strengths is in its summaries.  Whether the summary at the end of each chapter or for the book as a whole at its conclusion, Burke’s summaries are extremely helpful.  Concise and higlighting the major point of each section in a chapter chronologically, they made the book more understandable.  This may seem insignificant, but not every author knows how to summarize well.

Negatively, while there were footnotes, they were mostly tangential to the point at hand.  In the text the actual citations were in APA format, which i found cumbersome and unhelpful.  Lastly, the chapter on honor and shame would have made more sense before the exploration of the Trinitarian nature of adoption.  Four of the last five chapters are more textually and theologically focused, and sandwiched inbetween the Spirit and Eschatology Burke moves back to cultural background issues.  

In terms of critical analysis, i will limit myself to two particular examples:

  1. Burke’s method is overly rigid at times.  This is particularly the case with Romans 9:4, which speak of Israel as God’s adoption children.  Burke devotes less than two pages to this use of huiothesia.  The ratnionale: there is no OT background to the practice of adoption, and the word is never used there.  While i understand that Burke is unashamedly coming from a biblical-theology approach, using the lack of precise verbal and cultural symmetry as an excuse to effectively filter out one of only a handful of relevant passages is extreme.  While it would make the review too long to argue against this approach in more detail and present an affirmative case, i would note in passing that conceptually the OT concept of covenant corresponds very nicely to more than one major element in the Roman cultural practice of adoption, thus giving the Jews, who by and large would have known the Roman practice of adoptio, a metaphorical launching pad to understand Paul.
  2. Slightly related to number 1, at times Burke’s bias for reformed theology slants his readings of both the background for the texts and the texts themselves.  One example will have to suffice.  In arguing against Paul’s use of a Greek background for huiothesia,  Burke states that Paul couldn’t have been drawing on this background since in Greek culture adoption wasn’t “absolute” and irrevocable (59).  To be clear overall Burke’s case is strong and there is little doubt that Roman culture was the primary field of associations for Paul.  That said, the “provisional” nature of Greek adoption is not a problem for arminian or other free will theists who believe that one can lose their salvation. 

Despite these criticisms, Burke has produced a fine work.  His stated goal was to show that Paul’s metaphor of adoption “is worthy of greater consideration . . . it should occupy a more vital role in our theological reflection and understanding (28).”  Burke’s monograph has accomplished this goal.  The writing is clear, concise, and each chapter has a clear flow and train of thought.  Despite some points of methodological and theological disagreement, i find most of Burke’s positions sound.  This book is definitely worth a read.


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