Edwin H. Palmer: Scheeben’s Doctrine of Divine Adoption

Edwin Hartshorn Palmer: SCHEESEN’S DOCTRINE OF DIVINE ADOPTION, being on Academic Dissertation submitted to the theological faculty of the Free University, published by H. Kok, Kampen, The Netherlands, pp. 203.

“What is divine adoption?” We know the idea of adoption from the field or human relationships. A certain person will be accepted and regarded by another person as his child and lawful heir although the one is not the natural son of the other. Adoption is—in this sense—a legal procedure. The child, though not a natural son, is nevertheless called “child.” For in adoption the emphasis is not upon the natural, real, ontological character of sonship: rather upon the legal ideal character.

Just as we do not speak in justification of all ontological real but rather of an ideal, legal sense by which the sinner is declared righteous. There is no inherent quality of righteousness, but by the gracious word of the judge he is now considered so. So also, in the case of adoption the “inner is made the son of God by a gracious word, and he becomes the heir of life eternal.

In theology often anthropomorphic terms are employed, i.e., speaking of God after the manner of men. Anthropomorphic terms as adoption and justification are projected into the relationship or man and God. Sometimes we speak of God as Father and we conceive or redemption in terms of adoption; sometimes we speak of God as Judge and we think of redemption in terms of justification.

In terms of justification: a gracious Judge calls the sinner, simply declares him by a word of grace to be righteous although he is a sinner. As Luther expressed it: “peccator iustus.” The Bible uses the word “impute” (Ps. 32:2). “The Lord imputeth not iniquity.” Righteousness is not an inherent quality in man; one is not righteous in the ontological sense: but righteousness is imputed, and one is declared righteous by the word of grace.

In term or adoption: a gracious Father calls the sinner the son of God ( I John 3:1). He is not a child of God in the ontological but rather in ideal, legal sense. Ontologically there is no difference between the believer and the sinner. The “agere” of the believer is changed, but not his “esse” (p. 123). Christ alone is the eternal and natural son of God: we are children adopted of God “by grace” (H. Catechism. Q. 33).

By grace?What do you mean by grace? According to the conception of divine adoption as it legal procedure, we are called children of God by his Word of Grace. It is an act of the Father’s love (I John 3:1 “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us”). Grace is not an inherent quality, poured into us (gratia infusa) nor a habitus in us (gratia habitualis).

However, there is another idea of divine adoption which may be characterized as the ontological, mystical or real conception of adoption. One of Rome’s severest criticisms of the Reformation is that its theology lacks reality—“het terkon aan realisme in het calvijnse denken, in  tegenstelling tot dat van een gezonde scholastick” (Y. L. Witte: Het probleem individugemeenschaap , p. 23). In Protestantism there is no mystic-ontological reality—“geen genade geschenk in ontische zin; de aandacht is volkomen verlegd van het zyn naar het handelen, van de substantie naar de actus.” In spite of faith and regeneration the believer remains ontologically the same. He has a new relation to God’s reality in Christ but not in an on(1 sense (Cr. H. W. Vander Pol: Het Christelyk Dilemma: Geloof en Het Christeldyk Dilemma Geloof en Werklyheid; Karakteristek van het Reformetorisch Christiendom? p.125

The same criticism is raised by Scheeben in the doctrine of adoption. He strenuously opposes any “imaginary” adoption, which is “in name” only and not “in fact.” He disallows any “paper-money” adoption and wants a silver or gold one. For him adoption must be real sonship and not a fictia juris (p. 165). Scheeben derives the doctrine of divine adoption from the idea of real, natural sonship. This includes, according to Scheeben, “a sustantial connection” between the son and the father” (p. 84); Einheit des substanziellen Zusammenhanges” (p. 85), “communication of substance  from the father to the son”—as Christ—the eternal and natural Son of God, through the fact of generation, is or the oneness of the Father by virtue of the oneness of the nature of the Father and the Son.

Scheeben conceives of divine adoption as a natural sonship which he calls “real” adoption as opposed to the “ideal,” legal conception described above. We are not only “called” but we are children of God. We are not only declared by a legal procedure but we are children of God in an ontological sense. It is not only the relationship that has been changed but a change of being has been wrought. Scheeben grounds this in the text from First John where we read that we are (esmen) children of God. From the use of the Greek verb “to be” which also in another form is used to express the relation of the Son, who is homoousios with the Father, Scheeben argues that the essence of the adopted one is of the very essence of God. We are children of God by virtue of our participation in God’s very nature (Cf. II Peter 1:4) just as a natural son is a child of his father by virtue of his being the very substance of the father. This is what Scheeben means by “Einheit des substanziellen Zusammenhanges” (p. 85).

We are, of course, children of God by grace, but Scheeben’s idea of grace is different. Grace is something of the very nature, the very essence of God. Something of the very substance or the Father poured into the son (gratia infusa). Thus grace also must be considered as an inherent quality in man by which he is righteous, he is child of Cod not merely in a legal but in the ontological sense. To use the term of Scheeben and Aristotelian-Thomistic. scholastic theology: grace is a “qualitas” from the very substance of God in man who is the child of God; it is poured (gratia infusa) into man by which he is a child of God having the quality of God’s very substance. It is also gratia habitualis, it is a habitus in man from which the acts of God’s child spring like the good fruits of a tree spring from the “esse” (being) of the tree.

Scheeben is not satisfied even with this. He speaks of “fuller adoption” (ch. V). He speaks of two formal causes of adoption (formal cause, it ought to be observed, is again a conception of the Aristo telian-Thomistic philosophy, derived from the Aristotelian idea of a forma-materia; eicloshulee duality): one is the “gratia creata” described above. The other is the “gratia increata” by which he really means the “organic indwelling of the Holy Spirit” (ch. IV) by which the cry essence of God is in man.

The essential requirements of sonship. i.e.. communication of substance, is not fully realized by the gratia creata. It is fully realized only by the organic indwelling of the Holy Spirit—gratia increata. This is the second formal cause of adoption according to Scheeben, the first being grace as gratia increata. In this sense he speaks of “fuller adoption” (ch. V).



By stressing this ontological-mystical union, Scheeben stands in the tradition of the Greek Fathers. For they speak of redemption as homoiosis of human nature with the Divine, as theiosis or theopoieesis of human nature by virtue of a mystical union, perfect oneness with the Divine. In the Christoiogy, in the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, the “communication theory” of the Greek Fathers teaches the theosis of the human nature by the perfect union of the Divine and human nature in the person of Christ. That same idea is to be found in the doctrine of redemption.

But the Western Fathers speak rather in terms of legal conceptions, e.g. Tertullius. And one must have a deep knowledge and understanding of these two lines in the progress of dogma to be able to define Scheeben’s position from a broad. historical point of view. Dr. Palmer certainly has this profound knowledge of the history of Christian doctrines. It enables him to evaluate Scheeben’s doctrine in question from a broad historical perspective.

In criticizing Scheeben Dr. Palmer makes use of a distinction that was made by H.W. VanderPol when he characterizes the difference between Reformation and Roman Catholicism as the difference between the idea of “Woordopenbaring” and “Werkelykheidsopenbaring” (p. 125. cf. op cit., see “Supra”). However, Dr. Palmer will not grant the validity of this distinction since this is a false opposition. So too it is invalid to speak of “ontological”—adoption as opposed to being “called” children of God by the Word of God.

It is false because the Word is a reality. If we are on called by the Word we really are children of God. John not only says that we are called (kaleomen) children of God. but also we are (esmen) (I John 3:1, 2). The two statements are not contradictory to each other. The second is rather an explanation of the first: it points out what it means to be called children of God, i.e., we really are children of God.

On the first page of the Bible we read about creation. God creates reality by his very Word. Reality is called into being by his creative Word. Thus God’s creative Word also calls into being when we are called “children” of God by his Word.

As to the question of “ontological” grace. Palmer agrees with Scheeben’s point when he asserts in opposition to Scotus, that grace is not only a “Tatigheitshabitus” (love), but also a “Seinshabitus.” This idea is thoroughly biblical and therefore, Reformed. It is exegetically defensible (p. 123).

Dr. Palmer’s book can be regarded also as an effort to define the right position of the Reformation in the problem of realism and idealism in theology in general and with reference to “ontological” adoption in particular. He refers to two Dutch theologians (D.Y. De Groot and C.C. Berkhouwer), who treat the subject from two points of view. On the one hand, Rome’s accusation that the grace of the Reformed faith has “too little realism” and, on the other hand, the Barthian fear that the Reformed faith has “too much realism.”

With respect to the first point Dr. Palmer points out that there is in the Biblical faith of the Reformation a healthy realism. The objection of Rome is explained on the ground that some Roman Catholic authors (e.g. Vander Pol and de Witte) “confused Barthianism and the Reformed faith” as, e.g., when they characterize the Reformed faith as denying an ontological sanctification (p. 134, 158). The Barthian interpretation of the Reformed faith should not be identified with the Reformed faith! However, the accusation of lacking reality fits in with the Barthian view.

The background of Scheeben’s theological thinking is Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. Without a profound knowledge of this philosophy one cannot understand Scheeben’s theology is a whole nor his doctrine of divine adoption. Dr. Palmer by his treatment of Scheeben’s theology indicates that he is eminently qualified, that he has the requisite knowledge and understanding of scholastic, Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy. The chief objection to Scheeben is about the same as that of the Reformation to medieval scholastic theology; being a combination of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy with theology. Luther, e.g., attacks Aristotelianism as “Narrestotelism” and his aim as a theologian was to free theology from the bondage to Aristotle and Aquinas. One of the great achievements of the Reformation was that theology was delivered from the slavery to philosophy.

Dr. Palmer’s chief objection to Scheeben’s doctrine of divine adoption is that he applies the conceptions or this Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy to the theology of the Bible, that he tries to explain the Bible by applying these conceptions (formametteria: actus-potentia; substantia, etc.) to the biblical ideas. Scheeben thus tries to force the Bible into the categories of philosophy. Scheeben’s authority than the Bible, for the latter must be explained by the former. This we cannot allow. The Bible must be interpreted on the basis of itself. One of the characteristics or Scheeben is his lack of dependence on the Scriptures (p. 119). In his two works on grace there is nowhere a thorough exegetical exposition of the biblical terms to support his tenets. “Rather he seems to have developed his ideas from extra Biblical sources and then to have poured these concepts into the New Testament texts…Our point is that such ideas are not to be found in the Bible, and must come from the outside” (p. 119).

For the same reason Dr. Palmer objects also to the very fundamental dualistic conception of nature-grace in Scheeben’s theology (and generally in Roman Catholic theology) since it is opposed to the duality of the Bible, sin-grace, which is reflected in the theology of the Reformation.

This book was written as an “academish prodschrift tot verkrijging van den graad van Doctor in de godgeleenlheid.” This very fact involves then it is a book of strictly scientific character. In order to be able to appreciate it fully one must have a profound theological knowledge: and one must be acquainted with the terms and ideas of the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy as well as with Calvinistic theology; the history of dogma, and, last but not least, one must have a profound knowledge of exegesis and the original language of the Bible. Without these one cannot properly appreciate those excellent pages of the book in which the author shows his great ability and knowledge in explaining and analyzing the text of the Bible.

Modern man has very little interest in theological ideas. This is one reason why we need more theologians like the author or this book. Not only does the author have a deep and comprehensive knowledge an d a consuming interest in theology but he is sharing this with others by writing a book or great theological value in this “proefschrift.”

CROSSING THE KIDRON by Lutheran Pastors of the Missouri Synod. Concordia Publishing House, St, louis, Mo. 108 pages. Reviewed by Earl E. Zetterholm.

“Crossing the Kidron” is a volume of twelve Lenten sermons on texts taken from the Passion narratives by twelve Missouri Synod Lutheran ministers. The volume has been prepared by the Concordia Publishing House for “the clergy for personal inspiration and sermonic purposes at a season of the year when the preaching schedule is heaviest and the opportunities to proclaim the message of the Cross are brightest.” (Preface)

It is doubtful that the. Reformed minister will find in these messages very much that will be truly inspiring. That is only to say, however, that these sermons are in no way extraordinary. It does take something just a little bit out of the ordinary to inspire a minister who has been at all diligent in his sermon preparation. It is also doubtful that many Lutheran ministers will be very deeply inspired by them.

There is no getting around it, these sermons are designed for the pew and not for the pulpit. But therein lies some of their excellence. They are simple and practical expositions of certain events in the Passion week.

Specific Lutheran theology does make itself evident in a number of places, as, for example, in the sermon of the Rev. Paul W. Steufert where we read these words, “The sweat turns to blood. Humanity would be crushed under the buffetings of divine justice unless humanity itself partake of the attributes of deity” (p. 18) Thus comes to expression the Lutheran error which has given rise to milch of the pernicious teaching found in both Schleiennacher and Barth. On p. 19 this statement serves to arouse no little wonder, “the higher will—to save the world took precedence over the lesser will—the will of the human nature—to shun suffering, pain or loss.” And on p. 16, “It is the cup of suffering. And the Son of God shrinks from it. It is the weakness or his humanity.” This deprecation of our Lord’s humanity is fraught with grave danger.

The Lutheran conception of a universal atonement is expressed in a sermon by the Rev. lrwin L. Paul. Says Mr. Paul, “These passages remind us that in keeping with his eternal decree for the salvation of men God has laid everyone of the world’s sins on His Son to be paid for by Him.” p. 52.

Some rather careless language is used by the Rev. Thomas Coates who gives two divisions of his sermon the following titles, “Like Simon we must share his Cross” and, “Like the women we must share his sorrows.”

The Reformed reader will find not too much profit in these sermons unless he is willing to read critically and with a discernment that is not too common in our day.