A heresy that proclaimed a double sonship of Christ and maintained that as divine He was the natural Son of God, but as man He was only the adopted Son. In origin, the heresy goes back to paul of samosata, although it has been ascribed to theodore of mopsuestia, and nestorius. Adoptionism was first officially taught by elipandus, Archbishop of Toledo, Spain, c. 785, in his attempt to correct the errors of Migetius concerning the Incarnation. Elipandus believed that he could best safeguard the distinction between the divine and human natures in Christ by designating the eternally begotten Logos as God's natural son; and the Son of Mary, which the Logos assumed, as God's adopted son. Two monks, Beatus and Etherius, challenged the orthodoxy of this explanation and referred the matter to Pope adrian i. In a letter to the Spanish hierarchy the Pontiff condemned the term "adopted son" as applied to Christ because it was contrary to Sacred Scripture and to the teaching of the most reliable Greek and Latin theologians, and because it constituted a revival of Nestorianism.
Elipandus refused to submit and found a staunch supporter in Felix, bishop of Urgel. Since the latter's diocese was in Charlemagne's kingdom, Felix was obliged to appear before a council at Ratisbon in 792 and swear never to employ the words "adopted son" in speaking of Christ. At this point the Spanish hierarchy intervened and wrote a defense of Elipandus to Charlemagne and the bishops of Gaul. The king, with the approval of the Sovereign Pontiff, summoned a council at Frankfort in 794 to settle the controversy.
The council was one of the largest assemblies in the history of the Church, with two papal legates present and representatives of every country of western Europe except Mozarabic Spain. It opened with the reading of a letter from Pope Adrian in which he unconditionally condemned Adoptionism as heretical. In accordance with the papal teaching a definition was drawn up that can be summarized as follows: "The Son of God became the Son of man, but He still kept the title of a real son; there is only one Son and He is not an adopted son." It indicated the basic fallacy of Adoptionism, which applied the word son to a nature and not to a person. Finally, texts from Scripture and quotations from the Fathers of the
Church were cited to prove the correctness of this definition. This patristic section seems to have been the work of the scholarly monk alcuin. The condemnation of Adoptionism at Frankfort was repeated at councils in Friuli, Italy (796), Rome (799), and Aix-la-Chapelle (800). As far as is known, Elipandus and the Spanish bishops adhered to their opinion, but did not break formally with the Holy See.
In the 12th century, Abelard, Folmar of Trier, and Gilbert de la Porée maintained that the union between the Logos and His human nature could be only external and accidental; for, if it were substantial, it would constitute a finite quality in the Blessed Trinity. Hence they concluded that Jesus Christ as man was not the natural, but only the adopted, son of God. On Feb. 18, 1177, Pope Alexander III condemned the teaching that Jesus Christ as man is not a substantial reality, and added, "as He is truly God, so He is also truly man, composed of a rational soul and a human body." Two centuries later Durandus and some Scotists taught that Jesus Christ is, at the same time, the natural and the adopted Son of God, because He has received the fullness of sanctifying grace. However this opinion is also to be rejected, for adoption implies that the one adopted was previously a stranger to the person who adopted him, and Christ, as at once God and man, could never be a stranger to His heavenly Father. Besides, one and the same person cannot be both the natural and the adopted son of the same father.
Bibliography: h. quilliet and e. portaliÉ, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903–50) 1.1:403–421. j. pohle, Christology, v.4 of Dogmatic Theology, tr. and ed. a. preuss, 12 v. (St. Louis 1950–53). É. amann, a. fliche and v. martin, eds., Histoire de l'église depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours (Paris 1935–) 6:129–152. h. denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. a. schÖnmetzer (Freiburg 1963) 595, 610–611.
[s. j. mckenna]
More generally, the term, usually spelt adoptionism, refers to the view that Jesus was a man whom God adopted as his son.