Bird’s latest book challenges the ancient and modern Christ-belief known as adoptionism. Historically, adoptionists deny that Jesus is God’s eternally begotten Son, arguing instead that Jesus became God’s Son during his earthly ministry. Routinely, modern scholars insist adoptionism accounts for the New Testament’s earliest testimony about Jesus, while claiming incarnationism represents a later development. Of course, Bird rightly allows that the earliest believers grew in their understanding of Jesus, and that the New Testament itself reflects a spectrum of “early christologizing” within a stable trajectory (5). Yet, he denies that the New Testament’s Christ-beliefs are adoptionist, cogently arguing instead that the earliest Christology is already the highest Christology.
The lion’s share of Bird’s book engages with texts at the heart of the debate: Paul’s intro to Romans (1:3-4), Luke’s speeches in Acts (2:36; 5:31; 13:33), and Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism (1:9-11). Bird contends Paul’s statement about God declaring Jesus his Son in power, doesn’t mean Jesus becomes God’s Son at the resurrection, but rather signifies his transition into a regal position at God’s right hand. Simply put, “Jesus divine sonship is transposed rather than triggered by the resurrection” (23). Similarly, Luke’s speeches, reflecting belief that God makes Jesus Lord and Christ, speak of a new status God confers upon Jesus at his resurrection and ascension, rather than the genesis of his divine identity. The speeches actually presuppose Jesus’ preexistence by indentifying him with Israel’s κύριος “Lord” (26-29). Further, Bird argues at length that Mark’s baptismal account is not indebted to dubious Greco-Roman practices of deification, or imperial adoption ideology. Rather, we must read Mark’s account in view of his broader narrative and use of scriptural allusions. If we do, contends Bird, Jesus clearly emerges as a pre-existent figure with transcendent qualities who shares the divine identity of Israel’s God (106). Thus, Mark’s baptismal account doesn’t speak of promoting Jesus to a new divine state of being, but rather speaks of God’s anointing and commissioning Jesus for his messianic role (81,102).
Bird devotes the last part of his book to tracing the real origins of adoptionism, concluding with a short critique of adoptionist views in contemporary theology. After examining the Shepherd of Hermas, the Ebionites, and Theodotus, Bird concludes that a group of Theodtians at the end of the second century express the first clear adoptionist Christology (122-23). Thus, in view of Bird’s analysis, styling the Jesus of the New Testament along adoptionist lines appears rather anachronistic. Furthermore, the biggest problem with adoptionism in current theology, apart from its unbiblical grounds, is that it fatally wounds the economy of salvation by failing to see that “one created being cannot redeem another created being” (128). Bird stands with the orthodox, with Ignatius, Athanasius, and Irenaeus, affirming that God must descend by incarnation if we would ascend back to God (129). Also, since modern adoptionism styles Jesus as winning divine favor by his works, it promotes a type of merit theology. Agreeing with Justo Gonzalez, Bird asserts that such Christology reinforces the American myth that we achieve divine favor by the sweat of our brow, instead of teaching us to cast all hope on a God who graciously enters our brokenness so we may partake of his divinity (129).
Besides his stellar rebuttal of adoptionism, Bird’s book indirectly prompts four points of reflection. First, allegiance to Christ encourages faith-fused learning. I appreciate how Bird holds a definite theological perspective together with his rigorous historical analysis, something mainstream academia often pretends to distain. While we don’t all possess Bird’s level of academic sophistication, we can all continue to strive for the fusion of faith and learning, for growth in understanding and articulation. Classic Christianity neither commends intellectual laziness, nor advocates burying our head in the sand when confronted by challenges, but rather provides the proper context and impetus for seeking greater understanding. My own tribe strikes the right note affirming “All sound learning is a part of our Christian heritage. The new birth opens all human faculties and creates a thirst for knowledge” (Baptist Faith and Message 2000, XII. Education).
Second, Bird’s book displays the limitations of historical arguments in matters of faith. Christianity stands or falls on the basis of whether or not certain time-space events actually happened (i.e. Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension). Yet, this is not the same as saying the Faith stands or falls before the judgment of historical method. Bird’s critique of the fallacious reasoning among his fellow historians is just one example of the craft’s limitations (103-06). At best, historical arguments like Bird’s make the claims of orthodoxy plausible, perhaps even likely, but the veracity and verification of such faith resides in the testimony of God (1 John 5:6-12).
Third, Bird reminds us how heresy often emerges from over contextualizing. All the early Christ-beliefs now viewed as heresies, emerge from a genuine desire to present Christ in the cultural language of the ancient world. Gnostics, docetists, modalists, and subordinationists all used the cultural narratives at hand to repackage Jesus in terms of coherence and palatability (6). Contextualization continues to be dangerous even when necessary. Christ’s gospel is best preserved when the church focuses on inculcating (via catechesis) people into its living but stable tradition (arguably the more difficult path), than molding our message and liturgy to suite cultural expectations.
Fourth, Bird rightly styles Nicaea as the righteous shoot of the New Testament’s root. Commonly, scholars dismiss orthodox Christology as a later church creation illegitimately read back into the New Testament. Bird’s book helpfully argues otherwise. The orthodox fathers merely define, draw-out, and defend the contours of Christology already present within the apostle’s proclamation (4). The orthodox creeds thus provide us with faithful guidance in how to read our Bible’s and articulate the gospel in fellowship with the Trinity.
Bird, Michael F. Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017.