Adoptionism, sometimes called dynamic monarchianism, is a nontrinitarian theological doctrine which holds that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God at his baptism, his resurrection, or his ascension.

Adoptionism is one of two main forms of monarchianism (the other is modalism, which regards "Father" and "Son" as two historical or soteriological roles of a single divine Person). Adoptionism denies the eternal pre-existence of Christ, and although it explicitly affirms his deity subsequent to events in his life, many classical trinitarians claim that the doctrine implicitly denies it by denying the constant hypostatic union of the eternal Logos to the human nature of Jesus.[1] Under adoptionism Jesus is currently divine and has been since his adoption, although he is not equal to the Father, per "my Father is greater than I" (John 14:28).[2] and as such is a kind of subordinationism. Adoptionism is sometimes, but not always, related to denial of the virgin birth of Jesus.


The first known exponent of adoptionism was Theodotus of Byzantium in the 2nd century. According to Hippolytus of Rome (Philosophumena, VII, xxiii) Theodotus taught that Jesus was a man born of a virgin, according to the Council of Jerusalem, that he lived like other men, and was most pious; but that at his baptism in the Jordan the "Christ" came down upon the man Jesus in the likeness of a dove.(Philosophumena, VII, xxiii)[3][4] Adoptionism was also alleged of the sect known as Ebionites, who, according to Epiphanius in the 4th century, believed that Jesus was chosen on account of his sinless devotion to the will of God.[5]

Adoptionism was declared heresy at the end of the 2nd century and was rejected by the Synods of Antioch and the First Council of Nicaea, which defined the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and identified the man Jesus with the eternally begotten Son or Word of God in the Nicene Creed.[6][7] The belief was also declared heretical by Pope Victor I.

Spanish Adoptionism

Spanish Adoptionism was a theological position which was articulated in Umayyad and Christian-held regions of the Iberian peninsula in the 8th and 9th centuries. The issue seems to have begun with the claim of archbishop Elipandus of Toledo that – in respect to his human nature – Christ was adoptive Son of God. Another leading advocate of this Christology was Felix of Urgel. In Spain, adoptionism was opposed by Beatus of Liebana, and in the Carolingian territories, the Adoptionist position was condemned by Pope Hadrian I, Alcuin of York, Agobard, and officially in Carolingian territory by the Council of Frankfurt (794).

Despite the shared name of "adoptionism" the Spanish Adoptionist Christology appears to have differed sharply from the adoptionism of early Christianity. Spanish advocates predicated the term adoptivus of Christ only in respect to his humanity; once the divine Son "emptied himself" of divinity and "took the form of a servant" (Philippians 2:7), Christ's human nature was "adopted" as divine.[8]

Historically, many scholars have followed the Adoptionists' Carolingian opponents in labeling Spanish Adoptionism as a minor revival of “Nestorian” Christology.[9] John C. Cavadini has challenged this notion by attempting to take the Spanish Christology in its own Spanish/North African context in his study, The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785–820.[10]

Scholastic Neo-adoptionism

A third wave was the revived form ("Neo-adoptionism") of Peter Abelard in the 12th century. Later, various modified and qualified Adoptionist tenets emerged from some theologians in the 14th century. Duns Scotus (1300) and Durandus of Saint-Pourçain (1320) admit the term Filius adoptivus in a qualified sense. In more recent times the Jesuit Gabriel Vásquez, and the Lutheran divines Georgius Calixtus and Johann Ernst Immanuel Walch, have defended adoptionism as essentially orthodox.

Modern adoptionist groups

A form of adoptionism surfaced in Unitarianism during the 18th century as denial of the virgin birth became increasingly common, led by the views of Joseph Priestley and others.

A similar form of adoptionism was expressed in the writings of James Strang, a Latter Day Saint leader who founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite) after the death of Joseph Smith in 1844. In his Book of the Law of the Lord, a purported work of ancient scripture found and translated by Strang, he offers an essay entitled "Note on the Sacrifice of Christ" in which he explains his unique (for Mormonism as a whole) doctrines on the subject. Jesus Christ, said Strang, was the natural-born son of Mary and Joseph, who was chosen from before all time to be the Savior of mankind, but who had to be born as an ordinary mortal of two human parents (rather than being begotten by the Father or the Holy Spirit) to be able to truly fulfill his Messianic role.[11] Strang claimed that the earthly Christ was in essence "adopted" as God's son at birth, and fully revealed as such during the Transfiguration.[12] After proving himself to God by living a perfectly sinless life, he was enabled to provide an acceptable sacrifice for the sins of men, prior to his resurrection and ascension.[13]

Alleged scriptural basis

Adoptionism in Christian scripture has been the subject of considerable speculation and controversy. Some scholars such as Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel Boyarin see Adoptionist concepts in the Gospel of Mark.[14][15] According to this view, the absence of the birth of Jesus and of the epithet "Son of God" in some early manuscripts of Mark suggests that the concept of the Virgin Birth of Jesus had not been developed or elucidated at the time Mark was written.[16] By the time the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were written, Jesus is identified as being the Son of God from the time of birth. Finally, the Gospel of John portrays him as the pre-existent Word (Greek: λόγος) as existing "in the beginning".[17]

Some scholars also believe Adoptionist theology may also be reflected in canonical epistles, the earliest of which pre-date the writing of the gospels. The letters of Paul the Apostle, for example, do not mention a virgin birth of Christ. Paul describes Jesus as "born of a woman, born under the law" and "as to his human nature was a descendant of David" in the Epistle to the Galatians and the Epistle to the Romans. Many interpreters, however, take his statements in Philippians 2 to imply that Paul believed Jesus to have existed as equal to God before his incarnation.[18] The Book of Hebrews, a contemporary sermon by an unknown author,[19][20] describes God as saying "You are my son; today I have begotten you." (Hebrews 1:5) The latter phrase, a quote of Psalm 2:7, could reflect an early Adoptionist view.

The 2nd-century work Shepherd of Hermas may also have taught that Jesus was a virtuous man filled with the Holy Spirit and adopted as the Son.[21][22][23] While the Shepherd of Hermas was popular and sometimes bound with the canonical scriptures, it didn't retain canonical status, if it ever had it.

See also


  1. Justo L. González, Essential Theological Terms, page 139 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). ISBN 978-0-664-22810-1
  2. Ed Hindson, Ergun Caner (editors), The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics: Surveying the Evidence for the Truth of Christianity, page 16 (Harvest House Publishers, 2008). ISBN 978-0-7369-2084-1
  3. Roukema, Riemer (18 February 2010). "Jesus′ Origin and Identity - Theodotus [of Byzantium]". Jesus, Gnosis and Dogma. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 53. ISBN 978-0-567-61585-5. The Saviour, jesus Christ, who from the fullness (the pleroma) of the Father descended on earth, is identified with the Logos, but initially not entirely with the Only Begotten Son. In john 1:14 is written, after all, that his glory was as of the Only Begotten, from which is concluded that his glory must be distinguished from this (7, 3b). When the Logos or Saviour descended, Sophia, according to Theodotus, provided a piece of flesh (sarkion), namely a carnal body, also called ‘spiritual seed’ (1, 1).
  4. Dirks, Jerald F. (2006). "Jesus: Man and God?". In F. Kamal. Easily Understand Islam: Finally I Get It! : a Collection of Articles. Desert Well Network LLC. p. 219f. ISBN 978-1-59236-011-6. [Per Jesus and Adoptionism] how does one understand the title “Son of God” when it is applied to Jesus? The answer is to be found in the Adoptionist movement within early Christianity. The Adoptionist trajectory in early Christianity begins with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. According to the usual Adoptionist formulations, it was at his moment of baptism that Jesus moved into this special relationship or metaphorical “sonship” with God – not at his conception or virgin birth. [...] the oldest Greek manuscripts of and quotations from Luke render the key verse in question as follows. "Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son; today I have begotten you” (Luke 3:21-22)." [...] the wording regarding the baptism of Jesus is also to be found in Hebrews 1:5a, Hebrews 5:5, and Acts 13:33. This same wording is also found in Psalms 2:7 in reference to David and in the apocryphal Gospel of the Ebionites in reference to Jesus’ baptism.
    • Steyn, Gert Jacobus (2011). A Quest for the Assumed LXX Vorlage of the Explicit Quotations in Hebrews. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. p. 38. ISBN 978-3-525-53099-3. Ps 2:7-8 is also quoted in 1 Clem 36:4 and in Just. Dial. 122:6, whilst only verse seven of Ps 2 is found in the Ebionite Gospel (fr. 4) and in Just. Dial. 88:8, 103:6. The quotation from Ps 2:7 that occurs in Heb 1:5 and 5:5 found its way into Hebrews via the early Jewish and early Christian traditions.
  5. Epiphanius of Salamis (403 CE). pp. 30:3 & 30:13.
  6. Harnack, Adolf Von (1889). History of Dogma.
  7. Edward E. Hindson, Daniel R. Mitchell (2013). The Popular Encyclopedia of Church History: The People, Places, and Events That Shaped Christianity. Harvest House Publishers. p. 23. Retrieved 29 April 2014.
  8. James Ginther, Westminster Handbook to Medieval Theology, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 3.
  9. For an example of this characterization, see Adolph Harnack, ‘’History of Dogma’’, vol. 5, trans. Neil Buchanan, (New York: Dover, 1961), 280.
  10. John C. Cavadini, ‘’The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785–820’’, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 4–5.
  11. Book of the Law, pp. 157-58, note 9.
  12. Book of the Law, pp. 165-66.
  13. Book of the law, pp. 155-58.
  14. Ehrman, Bart (1996). The Orthodox Corruption of the Scripture. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 48–49.
  15. Boyarin, Daniel (20 March 2012). The Jewish Gospels. New Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-1-59558-711-4. [W]e can still observe within the Gospel (especially in Mark, which has no miraculous birth story, and also even in Paul) the remnants of a version of Christology in which Jesus was born a man but became God at his baptism. This idea, later named the heresy of adoptionism (God adopting Jesus as his Son), was not quite stamped out until the Middle Ages.
  16. Witherington, Ben (2006). What Have They Done With Jesus?. San Francisco: Harper Collins. p. 7.
  17. Ehrman, Bart (1996). The Orthodox Corruption of the Scripture. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 74–75.
  18. Hurtado, L. W. (1993). "Pre-existence". In Hawthorne, Gerald F. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. pp. 743–746.
  19. Dunn, James D. G. (1996). Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-8028-4257-2. Hebrews describes Christ as God’s Son in language which seems to denote pre-existence more clearly than anything we have met so far [...] At the same time, there is more ‘adoptionist’ language in Hebrews than in any other NT document.
  21. "The Holy Pre-existent Spirit. Which created the whole creation, God made to dwell in flesh that he desired. This flesh, therefore, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was subject unto the Spirit, walking honorably in holiness and purity, without in any way defiling the Spirit. When then it had lived honorably in chastity, and had labored with the Spirit, and had cooperated with it in everything, behaving itself boldly and bravely, he chose it as a partner with the Holy Spirit; for the career of this flesh pleased [the Lord], seeing that, as possessing the Holy Spirit, it was not defiled upon the earth. He therefore took the son as adviser and the glorious angels also, that this flesh too, having served the Spirit unblamably, might have some place of sojourn, and might not seem to have lost the reward for its service; for all flesh, which is found undefiled and unspotted, wherein the Holy Spirit dwelt, shall receive a reward."
  22. "Hermas never mentions Jesus Christ, or the Word, but only the Son of God, who is the highest angel. As holy spirit the Son dwells in the flesh; this human nature is God's adopted son" in, Patrick W. Carey, Joseph T. Lienhard (editors), Biographical Dictionary of Christian Theologians, page 241 (Greenwood Press, 2008). ISBN 0-313-29649-9
  23. Papandrea, James L. (24 April 2016). The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age. InterVarsity Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-8308-5127-0. The most prominent example of Angel Adoptionism from the early Church would have to be the document known as The Shepherd of Hermass. In The Shepherd, the savior is an angel called the “angel of justification,” who seems to be identified with the archangel Michael. Although the angel is often understood to be Jesus, he is never named as Jesus.


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