In an online Facebook discussion between evangelicals and Mormons, an evangelical gave a link to my 2014 article on IRR’s website, “The Mormon Doctrine of Becoming Gods: What about the Early Church Fathers?” A Mormon named Christopher took issue with the article, beginning with the following claim:

One of the less impressive arguments Bowman makes in his critical article is in his section of “becoming sons of God”. Obviously this approaches the biblical concept of adoption by/into God. But here Bowman is using a modern interpretation of the term (either deliberately or ignorantly).

This comment was odd because in fact I didn’t offer any “interpretation of the term” adoption, modern or ancient or otherwise. The word adoption appears only once in my article, in a quotation from Irenaeus—who was of course an ancient author and so could not be accused of “using a modern interpretation of the term”! The article also has no section on “becoming sons of God.” The term sons occurs only three times in the article: twice in a quotation from Justin Martyr, and once in my comment on Justin’s statement, in which I said:

Furthermore, according to Justin, we are not already God’s children (as the LDS Church teaches), but may become his sons. What Justin teaches here is incompatible with the LDS doctrine that we were God’s preexistent children in heaven and that we came here to make progress toward “growing up” to become full-fledged Gods like our Heavenly Father.

Instead of engaging what I did say on the subject, Christopher erected a straw man of his own invention in which I supposedly used “a modern interpretation of the term” adoption. As support for this claim, he offered the following quotation from one Alva Huffer, which Christopher got from the website of LDS apologist Robert Boylan:

Today, when one speaks of adoption, he refers to the legal process whereby a stranger becomes a member of the family. In Paul’s time, however, adoptions referred to that legal process whereby a parent placed his own child in the legal position of an adult son, with all the privileges of inheritance. Someone may question why adoption was required when the child was already a son by birth. It must be remembered that in pagan Rome, a citizen often had many wives and many children. Some of the wives may have been concubines and slaves. The citizen may not have wanted the offspring of his slave wives to receive his titles, position in society, and inheritance. The legal procedure of adoption, therefore, provided a means whereby the citizen could designate those children which he wished to be considered his legal sons and heirs. Through receiving newness of life, believers become children of God. Through adoption, the children of God are declared to be His sons, who have all the privileges and inheritance of sonship.

In response to this quotation, I made the following comment:

Huffer is an obscure author in the Church of God Abrahamic Faith, so I’m not embarrassed to say that I had never heard of him. My guess, however, is that Robert Boylan has misunderstood Huffer. My guess is that Huffer was explaining why believers need to be adopted if they are born again or begotten spiritually when they believe in Christ. If I am able to track down a copy of the book I will be able to check to see the context.

Christopher replied:

So, he is from the Church of God Abrahamic Faith. How is that relevant? Or are you laying the ground ahead of time to dismiss him after you familiarize yourself with “Systematic Theology”? You’ve admittedly never heard of this “obscure” author, yet you feel he is being misunderstood… for reasons you are not able to share, I suppose. Sure.

I pointed out to Christopher that I had commented about Huffer’s affiliation and obscurity not “to dismiss him” but to explain why I had never heard of him. I also explained that “I was able to get a limited preview of Huffer’s book, sufficient for me to express an educated guess as to his point in context.”

Despite these explanations, Boylan posted the following comment on his blog:

Needless to say, instead of waiting to track down a copy of Huffer’s volume, Bowman had to rush to attack the source of Davis’ quote of Huffer (i.e., me) by accusing me (falsely) of misrepresenting Huffer (as well as throw in a dig at the face Huffer was a member of the Church of God Abrahamic Faith [poisoning the well much, eh? (*)])

Again, I merely stated that it was my “guess” that Boylan had “misunderstood” Huffer, which is different from “accusing” Boylan of “misrepresenting” Huffer. I also explained that I was able to preview Huffer’s book enough to make an educated guess as to what he meant. That educated guess was also undergirded by my prior knowledge of Church of God Abraham Faith doctrine. It was because my prior knowledge of the doctrine of Huffer’s affiliated religious group informed my educated guess as to his meaning that I mentioned it, not to “poison the well” as Boylan falsely alleges.

Despite Boylan knowing what my educated guess was as to Huffer’s meaning, Boylan made no attempt to respond to that guess. He didn’t comment at all on what Huffer actually meant. Yet we know he had access to the book at one time (he produced the quotation on his blog in early 2015 and again in late 2016), and Boylan claims to know something about Huffer’s religious affiliation. This moves the needle closer to the conclusion that Boylan may have misrepresented Huffer and not merely misunderstood him.

Boylan also suggested that I had misidentified Huffer’s denomination. He wrote:

Just as an aside, Huffer was a member of the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith General Conference, not Church of God Abrahamic Faith, a different denomination. While both denominations share a common history, the latter would be more ‘Christadelphian’ in their view of certain topics than the former, most notably Satan/demons and the question of ‘resurrectional responsibility’ (Huffer’s group accepted universal resurrection unlike Christadelphians and Church of God Abrahamic Faith reject universal resurrection).

While I will be interested to hear if Boylan knows something about this matter that I don’t know, the information I have does not support his statement. The expression “Church of God Abrahamic Faith” is an informal term that refers to a group that is known both as the “Church of God General Conference” and the “Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith.” As best I can tell these are two names for the same group. The expression “Abrahamic Faith” is used to distinguish the denomination from others with very similar names (there are a lot of groups named “Church of God” or “Churches of God” and even others with the words “General Conference” somewhere in the name). The 6th edition of J. Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (1999) identifies just one such group known by the term “Abrahamic Faith”; another group loosely aligned with the Christadelphians at one time used the name “Abrahamic Faith” but is now called Church of the Blessed Hope (Melton, entries #972 and #973). For what it’s worth, Wikipedia confirms this information.

I have obtained a copy of Huffer’s book, and my guess as to his meaning was right on the money. In context he was arguing exactly the point I guessed. Again, here is what I said: “My guess is that Huffer was explaining why believers need to be adopted if they are born again or begotten spiritually when they believe in Christ.” That turns out to be precisely what Huffer was doing. In what follows I will be quoting Alva G. Huffer, Systematic Theology (Oregon, IL: National Bible Institution, 1960).

Adoption is the seventh of “seven doctrines of salvation” that Huffer treats in sequence (361-91). “The seven doctrines of salvation are forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, redemption, sanctification, newness of life, and adoption” (360). These all refer to “divine works” that God does “for all believers” (360). “These seven doctrines, moreover, are not seven steps in the process of salvation. They are not seven rungs of a redemptive ladder. They do not represent seven stages of Christian growth. When a sinner enters into Christ, he receives benefits of all seven doctrines of salvation. They become effective simultaneously” (361-62). Note that according to Huffer, newness of life and adoption, along with all of the other divine works of salvation, are “effective simultaneously” in each believer in Christ.

Huffer later discusses newness of life and adoption in more detail together. “Newness of life gives life to one who was dead in sins. Adoption brings sonship and inheritance to the poverty-stricken stranger” (388). God “begat” us (James 1:13) by giving us newness of life by his grace (389). Thus, when Huffer speaks later about believers as “begotten children,” he is referring to this reception of new life in Christ.

Huffer continues: “Today, all men are mortal, and all of man is mortal. There is no part of man that is immortal today. The newness of life which believers have today is not immortality” (389-90). Huffer here alludes to the Abrahamic Faith doctrine, common with most groups in the Adventist tradition, that human beings do not have immortal souls or spirits, and indeed do not have souls or spirits that can exist as personal entities outside the physical body. Human beings in his theology don’t have such spirits at all, let alone spirits that preexisted their bodies—let alone eternal spirits that are uncreated! Indeed, Huffer, in keeping with his religious affiliation, even denies that Jesus Christ preexisted as a divine person or spirit being! Anyone familiar with Abrahamic Faith doctrine would know this.

Huffer goes on: “Newness of life and adoption are linked together. Newness of life gives the nature of sonship; adoption gives the position of sonship” (390). That is, these are two aspects of the work of salvation.

Now comes the paragraph that Boylan quoted and that Christopher got from Boylan:

Today, when one speaks of adoption, he refers to the legal process whereby a stranger becomes a member of the family. In Paul’s time, however, adoptions referred to that legal process whereby a parent placed his own child in the legal position of an adult son, with all the privileges of inheritance. Someone may question why adoption was required when the child was already a son by birth. It must be remembered that in pagan Rome, a citizen often had many wives and many children. Some of the wives may have been concubines and slaves. The citizen may not have wanted the offspring of his slave wives to receive his titles, position in society, and inheritance. The legal procedure of adoption, therefore, provided a means whereby the citizen could designate those children which he wished to be considered his legal sons and heirs. Through receiving newness of life, believers become children of God. Through adoption, the children of God are declared to be His sons, who have all the privileges and inheritance of sonship (390).

Now that we know the context, we know that Huffer was not here arguing that believers were already God’s children before they came to faith or before they received or were promised the adoption as sons. We know that he was not arguing or suggesting in any way that all people are God’s children but only some of them receive the adoption as sons. We know, in fact, that he rejected this view. Believers in Christ are made God’s children by the impartation of “newness of life,” which is “the nature of sonship,” and they are made God’s sons by “adoption” which expresses “the position of sonship.”

He goes on: “As begotten children and adopted sons, believers are heirs of God” (391). Again, by “begotten children” Huffer means that “believers” (as he explicitly says here) have received “the nature of sonship,” which is “newness of life” received by grace through faith in Christ. All believers are “begotten children” and all of them are also “adopted sons.” These are two sides of the same coin for Huffer, the nature and the position of sonship. Paul speaks of believers as “adopted” to express the positional aspect of salvation that is the other side of the coin to the transformative aspect of salvation expressed by saying they have been “begotten” as God’s “children.”

So, what I said was exactly right. Huffer rejects the notion that we were already God’s begotten children before we received the adoption as sons. Being begotten as his children and receiving adoption as sons are two aspects of salvation that become effective simultaneously by grace for those who believe in Christ. Huffer’s reference to the Roman practice of adoption was not meant to suggest that believers were God’s children before they were adopted but to explain why the adoption language is used in addition to describing believers as children given life by God.

Now, of course Boylan is free to quote Huffer in support of a point he wants to make while disagreeing with him in other matters. But in this instance Boylan’s quotation misconstrues Huffer as meaning something other than what he actually meant.

What really matters is what Scripture teaches on the subject. We will not get closer to understanding the biblical teaching by mining quotations from theologians that sound like something we want to prove.

Addendum:

In an “Update” at the end of his post, Boylan responds by saying:

I never once stated anything contrary to the fact that Huffer did not believe we are spiritually begotten sons and daughters as we did not pre-exist…. However, Huffer did discuss the ancient concept of biological children being “adopted” by their Father or a close family member, so people who are biologically related can and were adopted in antiquity, consistent with the LDS view that spiritual sons of God can and are to be adopted by Him and enter into a salvific relationship.

The problem here is that Boylan did not make this qualification in any of the blog posts in which he gave his quotation from Huffer. I did not claim that Boylan said that Huffer believed in the preexistence of human spirits. What I said was that Huffer denied that in Paul’s theology adoption as sons was something that only some of God’s children receive or something that happens subsequently to anyone becoming God’s children. Huffer appealed to Roman adoption practice to illustrate the distinction between the “newness of life” of being God’s children and “adoption,” while in context making it clear that in Paul’s usage one group of people (believers) have both of these things.

If an evangelical quoted a Mormon to support a point without acknowledging at the time that the Mormon actually disagreed with that point, Mormons would not let it pass.

Boylan writes:

Instead of interacting with the true importance and significance of Huffer’s comments, Bowman tried to argue against a strawman (e.g., that the use of Huffer by myself and my friend Christopher Davis “proves” universal personal pre-existence; the somewhat muted belief in a Mother in Heaven, etc–Bowman is simply engaging in projection by accusing LDS of building a strawman).

As anyone can verify for himself, I did not even mention the LDS belief in a heavenly Mother anywhere in this article. I also did not claim that Boylan was using Huffer to prove universal personal preexistence. What I said was that Huffer did not support the idea that those who receive the adoption as sons were previously begotten as children of God (whenever that might be thought to have occurred).

Boylan also reiterated his criticism that I had “poisoned the well” in my original Facebook comment when I noted Huffer’s religious affiliation and offered a guess as to his meaning. His reasoning that I “trapped” myself is so tortuous that it would require an overly laborious dissection to answer it thoroughly. Fortunately, it’s not necessary. Expressing an opinion about what Huffer might have meant was not poisoning the well against him because, on the point at issue, I actually agree with Huffer! That is, I agree that becoming God’s children and receiving the adoption as sons are simultaneous aspects of salvation. I cannot have been “poisoning the well” against someone with whom I actually agreed on the point at issue.

This exchange that began on Facebook and migrated to the blogosphere illustrates why I am increasingly reluctant to get into discussions on Facebook with Boylan’s friends. I would have no problem whatsoever getting into a discussion with him on Facebook, but instead of meeting me there and having a polite discussion, he gets messages from his friends about something I said and he proceeds to criticize me on his blog. In most instances I find out about his blog comments against me by checking his blog myself, not by his friends alerting me to them.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 at 7:57 pm and is filed under Mormonism, theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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