Is the Heresy of Adoptionism Still Plaguing the Church?

Contributing Writer
Is the Heresy of Adoptionism Still Plaguing the Church?

The heresy of adoptionism isn’t held by any significant Christian denominations. However, adoptionism has grown in academia in recent years through the work of Christian theologian James D. G. Dunn, secular Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, and others. These scholars go so far as to claim adoptionism was the original Christian doctrine.

While the vast majority of biblical scholars reject these claims, it’s universally accepted that adoptionism was one of the earliest heresies to plague the church—and Theodotus is the one to blame.

Who Is the Founder of This Heresy?

Theodotus of Byzantium was a wealthy tanner who, oddly enough, became the biggest name in adoptionism’s history. Little is known about him, other than that he was most prominent during the late second century—less than a century and a half after the deaths of major New Testament figures such as Paul, Peter, and John.

Theodotus visited Rome in 189 AD, and a year later, he was excommunicated by Pope Victor 1 for teaching adoptionism. But Theodotus’s followers persisted for generations after his death, so in 325 AD, his teachings were condemned again at the first Nicaean council.

The early church made it clear on no uncertain terms that Theodotus’s beliefs were heretical. But what exactly was adoptionism—and what problems did it create?

What Is the Heresy of Adoptionism?

Adoptionism claims that Jesus was a normal man. However, after Jesus lived a sinless life and resisted Satan’s temptations in the desert, God rewarded him by adopting him as his son. After Jesus’s sacrifice, God rewarded him more by resurrecting him and adopting him into the Godhead.

The exact details of adoptionism vary. Most adoptionists claim Jesus became God’s adopted son at his baptism when the Holy Spirit descended on him and God explicitly called him his son. Still, some adoptionists claim Jesus was adopted at the transfiguration, and still, others say it happened at his resurrection when all adoptionists believe he was raised to godhood. Regardless of when that first supposed adoption happened, it has huge implications on the nature of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the Gospel itself.

What Are the Doctrines of Adoptionism?

Adoptionism believes that Jesus was a human who lived a sinless life. This single belief has a domino effect on several Christian doctrines, a few of which are listed here.

If Jesus was a mere human, that means he wasn’t present with God the Father from the beginning. That undermines trinitarian theology about God being one essence yet three persons—something the Bible alludes to in its very first verse (Genesis 1:1).

If Jesus was a human who became God (rather than being fully God and fully man) then the doctrine of the hypostatic union must be thrown out. 

And if a mere human could live a sinless life, then adoptionists must reject original sin (Romans 5:12-14).

Finally, some adoptionists deny the virgin birth in order to defend their claim that Jesus was a normal man.

Trinitarianism, the hypostatic union, original sin, and the virgin birth are all doctrines that can be a bit difficult to grasp, but they have massive implications on who God is and who we are. Without the Trinity, God becomes less loving, less relational.

If God didn’t come to earth for us, then his love for us becomes more distant, less sacrificial, less empathetic. He merely sat back until humanity managed to prove themselves through one human who achieved perfection through his own willpower.

Jesus being merely human changes his love for us as well. No longer is Jesus giving up his Godhood to suffer as a human for our sakes. Instead, he is ascending to Godhood through his sacrifice. The beautiful truths of Christ’s love and humility in Philippians 2:6-11 get awkwardly reshaped.

Instead of primarily teaching us the depths of God’s unconditional love, a human Jesus teaches us that a human achieved perfection on his own, which implies that if we try harder, we could earn God’s favor as he did. Adoptionists still believe Jesus’s sacrifice pays for sins, but if Jesus could earn his own salvation, doesn’t that mean that grace is optional? Doesn’t that mean that there are other ways to God, not just Jesus? So much for John 14:6.

Adoptionism makes a mess of the gospel, but some people still argue for it from Scripture. What are adoptionism’s arguments, and why do they miss the mark?

Why Is Adoptionism Wrong?

Many of Adoptionism’s arguments are arguments from silence—they’re based on a lack of evidence rather than evidence.

Some manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark leave out “son of God” in Mark 1:1. The rest of Mark 1 goes on to describe Jesus’s baptism, at the end of which the Holy Spirit descends and God the Father speaks to Jesus as “my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11, NIV).

“Aha!” say the adoptionists. “Jesus wasn’t adopted as God’s son until after his baptism!”

Without even arguing over whether “son of God” is present in the earliest manuscript of Mark 1:1, there are clear problems with this argument. For one, Mark is the shortest Gospel, and it only talks about Jesus’s ministry. Based on the Gospel of Mark alone, you could claim Jesus spent 10 years as a circus performer before going into ministry, and you’d have a hard time finding clear evidence to the contrary. Mark simply isn’t talking about that part of Jesus’s life.

For another, Luke gives us many clear instances of Jesus being God’s son long before Jesus was baptized. The virgin birth is an obvious one, but there are others. For instance, at age twelve, Jesus himself refers to God as “my Father” (Luke 2:49).

The Gospel of Matthew also describes the virgin birth, and even quotes a prophecy from Isaiah: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV). Immanuel means “God with us”—a perfect foreshadowing of Jesus’s nature as both God and man.

John’s Gospel takes it to the next level. He uses interesting language that drew on Greek philosophical concepts, calling Jesus “the Word” and “the light,” but a read-through of John 1:1-18 makes it crystal-clear who he’s referring to. John describes Jesus as being God, being with God, being involved in the creation of the world, being “made flesh,” and being God’s only Son. In many ways, it’s a crash course in Trinitarian theology—and it crashes through Adoptionism’s claims.

But adoptionists have other arguments. After all, Paul never mentions the virgin birth, and some of his words, such as in Romans 1:3-4, seem to support adoptionism:

…concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (ESV).

Some adoptionists claim that these verses imply Jesus wasn’t officially the Son of God until after his resurrection. Again, this requires ignoring many other verses to the contrary, but it also ignores a straightforward reading of the text: Jesus’s resurrection was a witness to the truth of his claims to be God—claims he’d made many times before (John 8:56-58, John 10:30, John 16:26, Mark 2:5-7, etc.).

Even if we were to ignore other New Testament writers, relying solely on Paul, we’d still run into numerous problems for adoptionism.

Paul’s theology of original sin strongly counters the idea that a merely human Jesus could live a sinless life (Romans 5:12-14, Ephesians 2:1-3).

Paul also describes the Father “sending” his son to earth—which wouldn’t make sense if Jesus only became God’s son after he was on earth (Romans 8:3, Galatians 4:4).

Even more obviously, Paul explicitly describes Jesus as existing before the creation of the world (Colossians 1:15-17).

While many more arguments could be discussed, there simply isn’t space in this article to outline them all. Suffice to say, adoptionism can’t answer the sheer volume of Scripture that contradicts it.

Why Does This Heresy Matter?

Despite its occasional proponents in academia, adoptionism is a rare heresy today. Why does it matter that we understand it?

A funny thing happened when heresies tried to take root in the early church—the church began to clarify its doctrine. Because of adoptionism, Arianism, docetism, Nestorianism, and other heresies, the early church was forced to study Scripture thoroughly so they could clearly define its truths.

When we study heresies like adoptionism, we should imitate the early church. Instead of merely looking for an argument to win, we should seek truths to treasure. Such study can lead to a richer understanding of who God is, who we are, and how God’s incredible love shines throughout his Word.

Photo credit: Nagesh Badu/Unsplash

Tim PietzTim Pietz is an editor, publicist, and sometimes, a writer (when he stops self-editing long enough to reach his word count). Tim’s editing business, InkSword Editing, serves a variety of fiction and nonfiction authors, and his blog offers free tips and tricks on navigating the publishing industry. In his free time, Tim enjoys roleplaying games, ultimate frisbee, and cheering on his favorite football team, the perpetually heartbreaking Minnesota Vikings.