Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback


Christological theory according to which Christ, as man, is the adoptive Son of God

Click to enlarge

Adoptionism, in a broad sense, a christological theory according to which Christ, as man, is the adoptive Son of God; the precise import of the word varies with the successive stages and exponents of the theory. Roughly, we have (I) the adoptionism of Elipandus and Felix in the eighth century; (2) the Neo-Adoptionism of Abelard in the twelfth century; (3) the qualified Adoptionism of some theologians from the fourteenth century on.

1.—Adoptionism of Elipandus and Felix in the Eighth Century. This, the original form of Adoptionism, asserts a double sonship in Christ: one by generation and nature, and the other by adoption and grace. Christ as God is indeed the Son of God by generation and nature, but Christ as man is Son of God only by adoption and grace. Hence “The Man Christ” is the adoptive and not the natural Son of God. Such is the theory held towards the end of the eighth century by Elipandus, Archbishop of Toledo, then under the Mohammedan rule, and by Felix, Bishop of Urgel, then under the Frankish dominion. The origin of this Hispanicus error, as it was called, is obscure. Nestorianism had been a decidedly Eastern heresy and we are surprised to find an offshoot of it in the most western part of the Western Church, and this so long after the parent heresy had found a grave in its native land. It is, however, noteworthy that Adoptionism began in that part of Spain where Islamism dominated, and where a Nestorian colony had for years found refuge. The combined influence of Islamism and Nestorianism had, no doubt, blunted the aged Elipandus’s Catholic sense. Then came a certain Migetius, preaching a loose doctrine, and holding, among other errors, that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity did not exist before the Incarnation. The better to confute this error, Elipandus drew a hard and fast line between Jesus as God and Jesus as Man, the former being the natural, and the latter merely the adoptive Son of God. This reassertion of Nestorianism raised a storm of protest from Catholics, headed by Beatus, Abbot of Libana, and Etherius, Bishop of Osma. It was to maintain his position that Elipandus deftly enlisted the cooperation of Felix of Urgel, known for his learning and versatile mind. Felix entered the contest thoughtlessly. Once in the heat of it, he proved a strong ally for Elipandus, and even became the leader of the new movement called by contemporaries the Haeresis Feliciano. While Elipandus put an indomitable will at the service of Adoptionism, Felix gave it the support of his science and also Punic faith. From Scripture he quoted innumerable texts. In the patristic literature and Mozarabic Liturgy he found such expressions as adoptio, homo adoptivus, uios Thetos, supposedly applied to the Incarnation and Jesus Christ. Nor did he neglect the aid of dialectics, remarking with subtilty that the epithet “Natural Son of God” could not be predicated of “The Man Jesus”, who was begotten by temporal generation; who was inferior to the Father; who was related not to the Father especially, but to the whole Trinity, the relation in question remaining unaltered if the Father or the Holy Ghost had been incarnate instead of the Son. Elipandus’s obstinacy and Felix’s versatility were but the partial cause of the temporary success of Adoptionism. If that offspring of Nestorianism held sway in Spain for wellnigh two decades and even made an inroad into southern France, the true cause is to be found in Islamitic rule, which practically brought to naught the control of Rome over the greater part of Spain; and in the over-conciliatory attitude of Charlemagne, who, in spite of his whole-souled loyalty to the Roman Faith, could ill afford to alienate politically provinces so dearly bought. Of the two heresiarchs, Elipandus died in his error. Felix, after many insincere recantations, was placed under the surveillance of Leidrad of Lyons and gave all the signs of a genuine conversion. His death would even have passed for a repentant’s death if Agobar, Leidrad’s successor, had not found among his papers a definite retractation of all former retractations. Adoptionism did not long outlive its authors. What Charlemagne could not do by diplomacy and synods (Narbonne, 788; Ratisbon, 792; Frankfort, 794; Aix-la-Chapelle, 799) he accomplished by enlisting the services of missionaries like St. Benedict of Aniane, who reported as early as 800 the conversion of 20,000 clerics and laymen; and savants like Alcuin, whose treatises “Adv. Elipandum Toletanum” and “Contra Felicem Urgellensem” will ever be a credit to Christian learning.

The official condemnation of Adoptionism is to be found (I) in Pope Hadrian‘s two letters, one to the bishops of Spain, 785, and the other to Charlemagne, 794; (2) in the decrees of the Council of Frankfort (794), summoned by Charlemagne, it is true, but “in full apostolic power” and presided over by the legate of Rome, therefore a synodus universalis, according to an expression of contemporary chroniclers. In these documents the natural divine filiation of Jesus even as man is strongly asserted, and His adoptive filiation, at least in so far as it excludes the natural, is rejected as heretical. Some writers, mainly Protestant, have tried to erase from Adoptionism all stain of the Nestorian heresy. These writers do not seem to have caught the meaning of the Church‘s definition. Since sonship is an attribute of the person and not of the nature, to posit two sons is to posit two persons in Christ, the very error of Nestorianism. Alcuin exactly renders the mind of the Church when he says, “As the Nestorian impiety divided Christ into two persons because of the two natures, so your unlearned temerity divided Him into two sons, one natural and one adoptive” (Contra Felicem, I, P.L. CI, Col. 136). With regard to the arguments adduced by Felix in support of his theory, it may be briefly remarked that (I) such scriptural texts as John, xiv, 28, had already been explained at the time of the Arian controversy, and such others as Rom., viii, 29, refer to our adoption, not to that of Jesus; Christ is nowhere in the Bible called the adopted Son of God; nay more, Holy Scripture attributes to “The Man Christ” all the predicates which belong to the Eternal Son (cf. John, i, 18; iii, 16; Rom., viii, 32). (2) The expression adoptare, adoptio, used by some Fathers, has for its object the sacred Humanity, not the person of Christ; the human nature, not Christ, is said to be adopted or assumed by the Word. The concrete expression of the Mozarabic Missal, Homo adoptatus, or of some Greek Fathers, uios Thetos either does not apply to Christ or is an instance of the not infrequent use in early days of the concrete for the abstract. (3) The dialectical arguments of Felix cease to have a meaning the moment it is clearly understood that, as St. Thomas says, “Filiation properly belongs to the person”. Christ, Son of God, by His eternal generation, remains Son of God, even after the Word has assumed and substantially united to Himself the sacred Humanity; Incarnation detracts no more from the eternal sonship than it does from the eternal personality of the Word.

(See Nestorius and Nestorianism.)

II.—Neo-Adoptionism of Abelard in the Twelfth Century. The Spanish heresy left few traces in the Middle Ages. It is doubtful whether the christological errors of Abelard can be traced to it. They rather seem to be the logical consequence of a wrong construction put upon the hypostatical union. Abelard began to question the truth of such expressions as “Christ is God“; “Christ is man”. Back of what might seem a mere logomachy there is really, in Abelard’s mind, a fundamental error. He understood the hypostatical union as a fusion of two natures, the divine and the human. And lest that fusion become a confusion, he made the sacred Humanity the external habit and adventitious instrument of the Word only, and thus denied the substantial reality of “The Man Christ”—”Christus ut homo non est aliquid sed dici potest alicuius modi.” It is self-evident that in such a theory the Man Christ could not be called the true Son of God. Was He the adoptive Son of God? Personally, Abelard repudiated all kinship with the Adoptionists, just as they deprecated the very idea of their affiliation to the Nestorian heresy. But after Abelard’s theory spread beyond France, into Italy, Germany and even the Orient, the disciples were less cautious than the master. Luitolph defended at Rome the following proposition—”Christ, as man, is the natural son of man and the adoptive Son of God“; and Folmar, in Germany, carried this erroneous tenet to its extreme consequences, denying to Christ as man the right to adoration. Abelard’s neo-Adoptionism was condemned, at least in its fundamental principles, by Alexander III, in a rescript dated 1177: “We forbid under pain of anathema that anyone in the future dare assert that Christ as man is not a substantial reality (non esse aliquid) because as He is truly God, so He is verily man.” The refutation of this new form of Adoptionism, as it rests altogether on the interpretation of the hypostatical union, will be found in the treatment of that word. (See Hypostatic Union.)

III.—Qualified Adoptionism of Later Theologians. The formulas “natural Son of God“, “adopted Son of God” were again subjected to a close analysis by such theologians as Duns Scotus (1300); Durandus a S. Portiano (1320); Vasquez (1604); Suarez (1617). They all admitted the doctrine of Frankfort, and confessed that Jesus as man was the natural and not merely the adoptive Son of God. But besides that natural sonship resting upon the hypostatical union, they thought there was room for a second filiation, resting on grace, the grace of union (gratia unionis). They did not agree, however, in qualifying that second filiation. Some called it adoptive, because of its analogy with our supernatural adoption. Others, fearing lest the implication of the word adoption might make Jesus a stranger to, and alien from God, preferred to call it natural. None of these theories runs counter to a defined dogma; yet, since sonship is an attribute of the person, there is danger of multiplying the persons by multiplying the filiations in Christ. A second natural filiation is not intelligible. A second adoptive filiation does not sufficiently eschew the connotation of adoption as defined by the Council of Frankfort. “We call adoptive him who is stranger to the adopter.” The common mistake of these novel theories, a mistake already made by the old Adoptionists and by Abelard, lies in the supposition that the grace of union in Christ, not being less fruitful than habitual grace in man, should have a similar effect, viz., filiation. Less fruitful it is not, and yet it cannot have the same effect in Him as in us, because to Him it was said: “Thou art my Son, today have I begotten Thee” (Hebr., i, 5); and to us, “You were afar off” (Eph., ii, 13).


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!