adopted as sons
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. (Gal. 3:26 ESV)Knight's post was a followup on an earlier one of his on sonship.
This brings up an interesting translation issue, one on which some battlelines are clearly drawn for many who take the Bible seriously. In this post I'd like to examine the translation issue from the different points of view.
Those who call for literal or essentially literal translation of Gal. 3:26 correctly point out, as Bible scholar Ken Collins notes, that "a son automatically held his father’s power of attorney" in the Roman Empire, when Paul wrote Galatians. So retaining the word "sons" accurately reflects a cultural practice at the time that Paul wrote what he did about spiritual adoption.
But Paul also wrote two verses later, in Gal. 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (ESV)Was Paul saying in verse 26 that there was something more special spiritually about sons than daughters?
Or was he using a cultural practice of his time to illustrate a spiritual relationship, expressed in the metaphor of adoption, a relationship that would be true of any child who God spiritually adopts? In other words, is the teaching focus of what Paul is saying on male adoption or on adoption?
One side would insist that if God wanted a more gender-inclusive focus on adoption, he would have used generic language rather than the masculine language of sonship adoption, as Collins also correctly notes:
In the first-century Roman Empire, if a man had a trustworthy slave with a good flair for business, he could adopt the slave as his son. The adoption automatically gave the slave a full power of attorney to manage his adoptive father’s business affairs. It was not uncommon in those days for slaves to be adopted as sons for business purposes.One side in the translation debate properly refers to the Roman law which allowed a son to have his father's power of attorney. They correctly want to retain the historicity of the Roman law which Paul alluded to in Gal. 3:16. They do not want to transculturate the Bible from its original cultural and historical setting.
The other side in this debate would insist that the focus of spiritual adoption is on what God does for an individual regardless of their gender, unlike Roman sonship adoption which focused on males. This would claim that females are adopted by God just as equally as males are. In addition, they would claim that using masculine language in a translation obscures this generic fact.
And so we have a translation tension, one in which the original illustration keyed into a masculine-oriented cultural practice, but for which that original spiritual illustration was for all, without any greater focus on males than females (Gal. 3:28).
Are female believers actually adopted to some kind of spiritual "sonship"? Is this what the Bible teaches? Or does the Bible teach that God adopts us as his children? What is the focus of the Bible's teaching? These questions are a dilemma for Bible translators who want to be true to the original context of each Bible passage while not obscuring any teaching that was intended to be normative for all cultures and times.
Those who believe that masculine terminology of the Bible should be retained, even if the spiritual teaching is gender-inclusive, believe that the translation decision is clear: We must retain the wording of "adoption as sons". Then we can teach what they consider the "wonderful truth"that females can become spiritual "sons of God" just as males can. A theological system has developed around this masculine primacy believed to be in the Bible.
Those who ask what the focus of the adoption passage is are not so sure the answer is that clear. They believe that Gal. 3:28 makes it clear that gender is not a factor in how God treats people spiritually, including when he spiritually adopts us.
Each side believes that the other is compromising some important spiritual truth. One side believes that removing any male component from Gal. 3:26 or similar passages is "muting the masculinity of God's words", as Poythress and Grudem insist. The other side believes that focusing on masculinity, when passages are about both males and females, compomises the generic nature of the teaching of such passages.
Bible translation can be difficult. There is often a balancing act. The idea of divine adoption, whether to become a "son of God" or a "child of God," is one of the difficult issues which must be faced by Bible translators.