Not by Nature but by Grace
by gilbert meilaender
university of notre dame, 136 pages, $25
The theme of adoption echoes through the Old and New Testaments. From Israel’s being called the son of God, to the often forgotten fact that Joseph is Jesus’s adoptive father, adoption is a central theme in the grand narrative of the creation, fall, redemption, and restoration of the world. In Not by Nature but by Grace, Gilbert Meilaender offers a primer for understanding adoption through a scriptural and ethical lens. It is a timely book, with its treatment of topics such as embryo and transracial adoption, and timeless, in its discussions of human dignity and the procreative potential of the bond of marriage.
By examining the mechanisms of forming families, Meilaender emphasizes the essentiality of both procreation and adoption, or what he would call “nature” and “history.” He recognizes the importance and sacredness of the biological tie, honoring the procreative potential of the couple. But ultimately, he stresses the act of grace that is adoption.
He focuses on the curious Greek word huiothesia, which can be translated as “adoption” or “sonship,” or more literally as “the act of placing [someone] as a son.” Meilaender writes, “the Spirit’s work of huiothesia give[s] the place—the genuine place—of a son to one to whom that place does not belong by nature.” Adoption is a work of grace because it is by an analogous work that we are brought into God’s family. This is the gospel proclamation: that we are Christ’s through adoption. Meilaender continues, “the adoptee’s sonship is not assured ‘by natural descent or merit,’ but is a sonship always dependent on God’s free grace.”
Meilaender engages a broad range of scholars and theologians, from Oliver O’Donovan and Russell Moore to J. David Velleman and Pope John Paul II. He addresses practical questions, such as “Should singles adopt?,” and connects them to the larger question of how to think rightly about adoption as Christians. His inquiries range from the philosophical—“Whose good is chiefly served by adoption?”—to the highly practical—“What should we do with cryopreserved embryos?”
In a chapter on the ethics of assisted reproductive technology, Meilaender addresses the tension between what is technologically possible and what is morally right, and advises that how we resolve these tensions has consequences for how we live our daily lives and love our neighbors. He demonstrates his full appreciation of the dignity of the child and the sacredness of marriage by esteeming the validity of biological reproduction, but not if it requires extreme means that violate the created purpose of either.
What God created as good—the command to fill the earth and multiply it—can be exploited. Many people have a deep desire to have children, especially children biologically related to them. This desire can often drive us to seek out reproductive techniques that step outside of God’s original blueprint for the formation of families.
Meilaender recognizes, however, that the decision to reproduce by such means is often a result of infertility, a cause of grief to many couples. He addresses this issue tenderly, while still calling us to live out truth by honoring the mutual self-giving of the one flesh union in marriage. Though we lament the brokenness felt by couples suffering from infertility, we can take comfort in God’s promise to wipe away every tear and make all things new (Rev. 21:4–5).
Meilaender is not merely a philosopher and theologian writing abstractly—he is an adoptive parent himself. Using powerful chapter interludes in the form of four letters to his adopted son, he demonstrates his commitment to praxis as well as ideas.
On the basis of my own experience as a sibling of adoptees, I diverge from Meilaender slightly on one point. Meilaender observes that, due to the long history of slavery and segregation in the United States, transracial adoption “presents special problems.” Additionally, the “deeper conceptual issues raised by transracial adoption are similar to those taken up . . . in connection with international adoption.”
Meilaender is surely right to acknowledge the unique complications associated with adoption. But the plight of almost 18 million orphans worldwide warrants a resounding call to welcome these children into our families. We must not let anticipated difficulties (of which there are many) keep us from adopting across racial or national boundaries. Our cross to bear may be the challenges and discomfort of having a mixed-race family. As the oldest of ten children, five of whom are adopted from China, Guatemala, and South Korea, I have witnessed the depths of God’s grace in his forming our family by both nature and history.
The gospel gives hope to those who lack a familial sense of belonging, calling them adopted sons and daughters of the living God. In anticipation of the ultimate adoption of grace that is to come, let us adopt and answer that call for others, for we all cry out Abba, Father.
Lauren Rae Konkol is on staff with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is pursuing a masters degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.