Tag Archives: Trinity

Review: The Fatherhood of God

Robert S. Candlish was a key leader in the founding the Free Church of Scotland after separating from the Church of Scotland in May 1843. In 1862, he became the principal of the New College, Edinburgh. He is famed for his excellent work on Genesis, and his theological study on the atonement.

The Fatherhood of God (1865; 3rd ed., 1867) is a series of six lectures (the Cunningham Lectures) given in Edinburgh in 1864. Candlish argues that:

  • Believers become God’s children by identification with Christ in his sonship and “participation in the sonship of the uncreated” p.255.
  • The fatherhood of God is a free benefit for believers, and is distinctive from being created in the image of God (which applies to all humanity).
  • Our “adoption” in New Testament theology does not fully take place at regeneration or justification; rather, it is “a distinct and separate benefit” (p. 247).

Believers Are God’s Children

Though Jesus readily uses the word “Father” and even teaches his disciples to pray to “our Father,” Candlish argues that Jesus does not use the word to describe all humans’ relationship to God (p. 162–166). “I find no trace whatever, in all our Lord’s teaching, of anything like a universal fatherhood.” (p. 196)

Sonship is in Christ, who calls his disciples his brothers; he becomes “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29) not by the fact of creation, but by the act of the Father’s adoption of believers. “Brothers” is an in-group appellation across the early church, and not without reason.

In my own opinion, the only verse that plausibly suggests that all men are children of God is found in Paul’s speech at Mars Hill:

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone . . .

Acts 17:27b–29

Candlish points out that Paul is quoting a Greek poet, Aratus, not an inspired source. He is using a local writer as a rhetorical device. (I would add here that the use of γένος ‘offspring’, in the aggregate singular, is less personal than the usual word, υίοι ‘children’.) If Paul meant that all people were God’s children, he would be contradicting the words of John (1 John 3:10) and Jesus (Matt. 13:38; John 8:44), as well as his own words to Elymas the sorcerer, whom Paul himself called “son of the devil” (Acts 13:10)!

Adam is called a “son of God” in Luke 3:38, but this is used to speak of his immediate creation by God. It should not be equated with the New Testament doctrine of adoption/sonship. Candlish even points out (p. 56) that “the old and sound British divines” sometimes speak of a general fatherhood of God; but Candlish believes that these usages (along with Acts 17:27) should be taken as figurative usages referring to our status as God’s creatures and subjects.

Candlish extends this argument in the 129-page preliminary essay which was added to the third edition.

What Is Adoption in the New Testament?

“Adoption” (υἱοθεσία) is only mentioned by name in five New Testament verses, all of them in Paul’s epistles: Romans 8:15, 8:23, 9:4, Galatians 4:5, and Ephesians 1:5. For this reason, it seldom receives specific attention in Christian theology, from the Fathers forward.

That makes sonship not merely a relation of adoption, but in a real and important sense a natural relation also. . . . The regeneration is a real communication to us on his part of ‘his seed,’ of what makes our moral and spiritual nature the same in character as his; perfectly so at last, and imperfectly yet as far as it prevails, truly so, even now.

Robert S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, 3rd ed., p. 233

John 1:12–13 and 1 John 2:29–3:1 link adoption to regeneration (p. 229–233; 2 Peter 1:4). Adoption is intimately connected with regeneration (being “born again”) whereby “God’s seed abides” in us (1 John 3:9). At the same time, adoption should not be confounded with justification (p. 237). “Neither our regeneration nor our justification constitutes our sonship.” (p. 228)

For Candlish, sonship has two distinctive characteristics: liberty (p. 261) and permanence of position (p. 262–265; see John 8:35–36). Thus, Paul frequently opposes sonship to slavery.

A New Testament Revelation

In the third lecture, Candlish points out that God’s fatherhood and the sonship of believers are part of the New Covenant. The fatherhood of God in the Old Testament is exhibited as his relation toward Israel (Ex. 4:22; Deut. 14:1; Hos. 11:1; cf. Rom. 9:4), Israel’s king (2 Sam. 7:14; 1 Chron. 17:13, 28:6; Ps. 2:7, 89:26–27), and toward the Messiah (Dan. 3:25), but not toward all mankind or even all believers. At best, a fatherhood of God toward all believers only appears in the Old Testament as an analogy.

For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.

Prov. 3:12, ESV

Are Angels ‘God’s Children’?

One interpretation that I disagreed with was Candlish’s literal understanding of “sons of God” in reference to angels in the Hebrew Bible. This is found in Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7; Candlish takes the other three instances as referring to the righteous. For Candlish, angels are sons of God, and this has some bearing on our own sonship, and that of Christ; in my opinion, this is just a Hebrew idiom, mostly irrelevant to the discussion of the proper sonship of believers.

Is It ‘Adoption,’ a Process—or ‘Sonship,’ a Status?

While I greatly enjoyed the book, I felt that Candlish’s definition of sonship could have been clearer. First, it entails liberty and permanence of position. But there is more that may be stated from the text.

First, as Candlish implies in a few places, ‘adoption’ is both a status and the process of receiving that status in Paul’s epistles. It is a status in:

  • Romans 8:15: “… you have received the Spirit of adoption …”
  • Romans 9:4: “… to them belong the adoption …”

It is a process in:

  • Romans 8:23: “… we … groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
  • Galatians 4:5: “… to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption …”
  • Ephesians 1:5: “… he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ …”

In English, the word ‘adoption’ only denotes a process, and is therefore an inadequate translation. George MacDonald—who was influenced by F. D. Maurice, one of Candlish’s theological opponents—has argued in his Unspoken Sermons, that the Greek word Paul uses for “adoption” would be better translated “sonship”, which is equivalent to how Luther translated it. But this may fall into the opposite error, by meaning a state but not a process.

Second, Candlish does not adequately connect New Testament adoption to inheritance. Paul speaks frequently in the same breath of “sonship” and inheritance. He speaks of us coming into our full status and inheritance as God’s children (Eph. 1:11) and of us becoming heirs because we are sons (Gal. 4:7). Sonship, then, does not mean mere childhood. It is also an adult status of eligibility for inheritance; this much is obvious from New Testament usage, but is rarely elucidated.

Lastly, I felt that Candlish overemphasized the legal aspects of atonement and sonship. One cannot read passages like 1 John 3 without noticing that there is clear affectionate language! This brings me to another point, which bears on how we represent adoption in our preaching and teaching.

Western Child Adoption Falls Short

As an aside, I merely point out here the difficulties of comparing biblical adoption to modern, American adoption of children. If God’s seed (roughly, his DNA!) abides in us, this is a point of difference—one of several—between biblical adoption and Western child adoption. Western child adoption also does not convey any freedom as a counterpoint with slavery, but Paul frequently places the two side by side. Western child adoption may imply permanence, but it does not in any way imply inheritance. (On this see my own definition of adoption further down in this review.) In all these ways, New Testament adoption is pretty distant from an American adopting a child; it retains primarily the affectionate and caring aspects, but lacks other specific aspects.

Responses Contemporary with Candlish

As you might imagine, the statement that only believers are God’s children creates some contention. The first edition of this book occasioned a lengthy response from Thomas J. Crawford, who wrote his own book The Fatherhood of God: Considered in Its General and Special Aspectswith a Review of Recent Speculations (1866). Crawford defends the idea that all people are God’s children in one (general) sense, but believers are God’s children in another (special) sense. For Crawford, the sonship of believers is also distinct from Christ’s sonship. Sin is also essentially filial and personal for Crawford.

In the third edition of his book, Candlish included a 129-page rebuttal of Crawford’s arguments. Many readers will skip this; if you are interested in whether God’s fatherhood is universal or not, it will likely interest you.

Candlish writes that the watering down of the fatherhood of God has made it, for some preachers, into practically his only attribute—at the expense of any legal mode of speaking of God. This is never more true than today. God’s fatherhood and our placement as his children are precious theological truth, worthy of disentangling from American assumptions about adoption.

It is pleaded that God must be held to act in this or that particular way towards men, because he is their Father; or otherwise, that he cannot be imagined to adopt such or such a course, inasmuch as it would be inconsistent with his Fatherhood.

Robert S. Candlish, The Fatherhood of God, p. 9

In a chapter of The Mind of the Master (1896), which does not name Candlish, John Watson (pen name Ian Maclaren) wrote the following:

People with dogmatic ends to serve have striven to believe that Jesus reserved Father for His disciples; but an ingenuous person could hardly make the discovery in the Gospels. One searches in vain to find that Jesus bad an esoteric word for His intimates, and an exoteric for the people, saying Father to Jobn and Judge to the publicans. It had been amazing if Jesus were able to employ alternatively two views of God according to His audience, speaking now as an Old Testament Prophet, now as the Son of God. It is recorded in the Gospels, “Then spake Jesus to the multitude and His disciples, saying, . one is your Father, which is in heaven” (St. Matt. xxiii. 1, 9). This attempt to restrict the intention of Jesus is not of yesterday; it was the invention of the Pharisees. They detected the universal note in Jesus’ teaching; they resented His unguarded charity.

John Watson

Watson’s language is forceful and persuasive, and his criticisms are well founded. On Jesus’ address in Matthew 23, I would be curious how he relates its “woes” to its Fatherhood. Candlish is far too concerned with the legal mode of speaking of God, as if Scripture sets up legal metaphors as the superior mode of speaking of God. On the other hand, Watson makes familial metaphors the supreme way of speaking of God. Ironically, Watson’s chapter ends with a sort of postmillennial vision of all the earth coexisting under God’s benevolent fatherhood, which clearly shows the eschatological problem of any universal fatherhood. Much of Western culture—or, at least what I call “Hollywood theology”—has spoken of a universal fatherhood of God for many decades, and it has not tended toward Watson’s vision.