Adoption Nuggets: (2) Dipping Into Historical Theology

These Adoption Nuggets were originally written at the request of Dan Cruver, President and Co-Founder of the adoption and orphan care ministry “Together for Adoption.” Go to for further information.

Third Nugget: The Obscuring of the Neglect of Adoption

The historian A. J. P. Taylor began his book The Course of German History (1945) with the bold claim: “The history of Germany is a history of extremes.” Debate has long ensued whether the claim was warranted, not least because it was made in the fraught climate of the World War Two.

Less debatable, it seems to me, is the equally striking claim that the history of the doctrine of adoption is a history of neglect. This claim is central to our unfolding consideration of the doctrine’s theological history. Before demonstrating in upcoming postings the validity of the claim, we take a moment here to explain why those new to the study of adoption may be inclined, initially, to dismiss it.

First, there’s the happy fact that those adopted by the Father possess the Spirit of Christ. Not only does the Spirit unite the redeemed sons of God to the natural Son, he places in the hearts and on the lips of the sons of God the name “Father.” It is this universal language of Fatherhood in the family of God which creates the impression that the siblings of Christ have as much of the theology of adoption as its Spirit.

This impression is false. We’ll discover, for example, how the eighteenth-century Methodists and the nineteenth-century Brethren had much of the latter but not so much of the former. Historically, their piety has had a certain filial or familial feel, but they appear to have written little that is substantive on adoption. The same is generally true among the rank and file of the church. Christians pray and sing to the Father, but tend to know few details about the doctrine of adoption. Rarely do they hear sermons on adoption, and if the teaching of the comparatively few theologians to afford adoption its due is anything to go by, there is no guarantee that those believers hear accurately reflect the biblical data (see later adoption nuggets dipped in biblical theology).

Secondly, the neglect of adoption is obscured by the inclusion of huiothesia in the scholarly lexicons available. If we were to consult these alone we might conclude that adoption has been treated as adequately as any other biblical theme. Yet there is a marked contrast between such entrances on the one hand and the writings of the theologians and the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the church on the other. The doctrine of adoption has typically gone missing between the examination of the biblical data and the expression of devotional piety. Interested scholars know the data and the family of God at large is familiar with the vocative “Father,” but theologians and preachers have not followed through sufficiently or precisely enough by developing and maturing a theology of adoption comparative to our doctrines of justification and sanctification. Understanding the neglect of adoption is, I suggest, the first step to the overhaul of this disparity.

Fourth Nugget: The Evidence of the Neglect of Adoption

Obscured the claim may be that the history of adoption is a history of neglect, but the neglect is no less real for its obscuring. We’re all familiar with situations which appear rosier at first sight than upon closer inspection. There’s the wall paper that hides the cracks, and the fresh paint covering up the graffiti. Strip the wall paper or apply the paint stripper and a different picture of the wall emerges.

Neither the Spirit’s witness to the believer’s adoption (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15) nor the relevant lexicon entries were intended to cover up the neglect of adoption. All the same, a very different picture of the church’s appropriation of the biblical language of adoption emerges once we get beyond their first impressions. The neglect which dominates the hidden picture can be explained by four tendencies.

First, there’s the almost or entire omission of adoption by some theologians (e.g., the apostolic fathers, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge, W. G. T. Shedd, Thomas Chalmers, George Hill, William Cunningham, Abraham Kuyper, Louis Berkhof, and G. C. Berkouwer). These tend to have written of God by means of names or descriptions other than “Father,” and have afforded his adopting grace no notable mention in their theological discourse. Nor do they explain the omission when writing profusely about regeneration (metaphorically depicted as the new birth), justification, or sanctification.

Secondly, there are those who mention adoption, but in a way largely hidden in their writings. It’s probable that John Calvin has a more robust understanding of adoption than anyone other than Paul, and yet his decision not to allot adoption a single chapter or section in any of his writings that we know of has been entirely misunderstood. Such is the breadth of Calvin’s redemptive-historical understanding of adoption and its close affinity to the believer’s union with Christ that he chose to pepper allusions to adoption throughout his writings rather than to try and squeeze it into a chapter or two. The Puritans by contrast were the first to include a chapter on adoption in a confession of faith (WCF 12), but did little to expand its implications throughout the rest of their theology. The same holds true of the place of adoption in their writings. Their 1200 pages on adoption (Beeke) are very contained and tend to be overshadowed, for instance, by their 30,000 titles on church government.

Third, among those mentioning adoption there has been a tendency, whether witting or not, to reduce the scope of Paul’s adoption model. Whereas Calvin expounded adoption in light of its relevance to both the history and application of salvation (historia and ordo salutis), the Puritans with few exceptions limited their expositions of adoption to its application. Constrained by their method of neatly systematizing the data of Scripture to run together the filial language of John and Paul, they succeeded in ensuring adoption a place in their understanding of the order of salvation but fell short of doing justice to the redemptive-historical scope of Paul’s adoption model. Others working from this reduced understanding of adoption took the further step of subsuming adoption under justification, claiming the former merely completed the latter (e.g., Turretin, Dabney, Bavinck). Others claimed that adoption was more like a capstone sitting astride justification and regeneration to ensure their inseparability (e.g., A. A. Hodge, Martyn Lloyd-Jones).  

Fourthly, there are those who seem to have deliberately excised adoption from their theology. It is surely no coincidence that John Wesley took out every reference to adoption from his revision of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Adoption likely suffered the consequences of Wesley’s attempt to circumvent the doctrine of predestination. Nor does it appear coincidental that the Scottish laird Thomas Erskine of Linlathen dropped his references to adoption along the seventeen year route he took from his early Calvinism to his later Universalism. The jury currently is still out on how N.T. Wright could redefine justification as God’s declaration of membership of the covenant family with scarcely any reference to adoption. His recent rejoinder to Kevin Vanhoozer that adoption is a central idea in his work raises more question than it answers. What is clear, as in the case of Erskine before him, Prof. Wright consistently translates Paul’s use of huiothesia in Galatians and Romans as “sonship” rather than “adoption.” Without this unwarranted change of translation (See James M. Scott), N. T. Wright’s creation of a new mega-model of justification out of the biblical data covering justification and adoption would not have been possible. Its thirty year lifespan has only been possible, I suggest, because of the deep-seated neglect of adoption which has left N.T. Wright’s critics unable to see that the key to the dismantling of the redefinition lies not in the classic Protestant doctrine of justification but in the recovery of a freshly biblically-sensitive understanding of adoption.

Fifth Nugget: The Apostolic Fathers

If the first nugget dipped in historical theology claimed the neglect of the doctrine of adoption, and the second described it, the nuggets digested with the remainder of this first sauce will give us a taste of the main scope of the history of adoption.

There’s not much that can be said of the apostolic fathers. We find no reference to adoption in the extant writings of Paul’s friend and co-worker, Clement (Philippians 4:3). Nor do we find any in those of Mathetes, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Papias, or Justin Martyr. Theirs, writes A. Cleveland Coxe, “were times of heroism, not of words; an age, not of writers, but of soldiers; not of talkers, but of sufferers.” The comparatively few pages they wrote were not necessarily given over to the doctrine of salvation. This broad doctrine was neglected early on, and helps explain the more localized oversight of adoption.

All the same, the apostolic fathers do refer frequently in their writings to the Fatherhood of God; at least, from The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus onwards. Their focus was not on the Father’s application of Christ’s redemptive work in salvation (i.e., the new birth and adoption), but on his role in creation; his relationship to the Son; and his will in the Son’s incarnation, obedience unto the cross, and resurrection.

This is not to say that the apostolic fathers had no theological knowledge of adoption. Their admittedly rare and scattered allusions to related themes such as eternal calling, sonship, and the household of God, suggest otherwise. Yet, at no point in their extant writings do the apostolic fathers come anywhere close to expounding adoption. Their theological and practical concerns lay elsewhere.

So far as I know, the first explicit reference to adoption is found in the writings of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lugdunum, Gaul (now Lyons, France). Although he mentions adoption but once in The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (a treatise for recent converts to Christianity), his best known work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) contains at least thirteen theological uses of the noun. J. Scott Lidgett goes too far when saying that “nowhere can we find more emphatic and constant reference to the ‘adoption of sons’ as the characteristic gift to believers in Christ than in Irenaeus” (The Fatherhood of God (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1902); nevertheless the bishop’s references to adoption are an exciting find. He was, from what we can tell, the first after Paul to accord adoption sustained and recognizable interest.

As significant as this find, is Irenaeus’ standing as the father of biblical theology. His combined emphases on biblical theology and adoption mirrored Paul and predated Calvin, revealing how the combination promotes an understanding of adoption’s importance, and is essential for comprehending the grandeur (breadth and depth) of the motif. We’ll have more to say of this next time, but we can finish this nugget with the certainty that adoption would have fared better in the history of the church had later theologians shown as much interest in it as did Irenaeus, and in the way that he did. He understood that the full richness of adoption can only be perceived by a foundational or fundamental biblical-theological approach.

Sixth Nugget Entering into the Greek Fathers (Irenaeus)

We may be forgiven for thinking ancient Gnosticism bizarre and not worth refuting. Read the opening books of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies to see why!

Whereas the early apologists sought to defend Christianity philosophically, Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.) countered the Gnostics by an additional or developing exposition of the biblical revelation given to the universal church. This exposition rested on Irenaeus’ self-conscious juxtaposition of the Hebrew Scriptures, four Gospels, and apostolic writings (although not quite the full set we recognize). Furthering the process of recognizing the Christian Bible, he developed the use of the both Testaments as the church’s supreme rule of faith and conduct. Most relevant is the fact that he was the earliest theologian of any discipline to show interest in adoption.

Note, first, his pervasive focus on the Fatherhood of God. Consistently, Irenaeus drew on the paternal language of the New Testament to stress over against the Gnostics “faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Bk 1, Ch. 3). Both the Father and the Son, Irenaeus remarks, are designated by the Spirit in Scripture as Lord (Bk 3, Ch. 6).

Secondly, we perceive how Irenaeus connected the doctrines of God’s Fatherhood and adoption. These admittedly fleeting but telling references Irenaeus used to refute the Gnostics, setting out to prove “that there is none other called God by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess the adoption” (Bk 4, preface). As sons of God, we have not only received from the Father a general or creational portion of the Spirit, but, in Christ, an adoptive portion beside (Bk 5, Ch. 18). All those receiving this grace of adoption are enabled to cry “Abba, Father” (Bk 3, Ch. 6). These are the ones who make up the church.

Thirdly, it’s clear that Irenaeus understood, in part at least, Paul’s redemptive-historical unfolding of adoption. From Galatians 4:4-6 he gathers that the believer’s adoption is based upon Christ’s coming for our redemption in the “fullness of the time.” The sufficiency of Christ’s redeeming work explains: why we simply receive adoption (Bk 3, Ch. 16); why the old covenant laws of bondage are now cancelled; and why we sons of God have greater freedom in this new covenant era to know, to love, and to revere the Father (Bk 4, Ch. 16; see Galatians 3:23-4:7). Cf. Irenaeus’ comments in Bk 4, Ch 20 (pt. 5).

Fourthly, it’s intriguing to discover relevant themes in Against Heresies that later loomed large in Calvin’s understanding of adoption. Consider, for example, the incarnational union of the Son of God with us in our humanity. This shared humanity is what makes possible the spiritual union of believers with Christ in his sonship. Yet, the similarities with Calvin extend also to wording. Irenaeus asks, “in what way could we be partakers of the adoption of sons, unless we had received from Him through the Son that fellowship which refers to Himself, unless His Word, having been made flesh, had entered into communion with us?” (Bk 3, Ch. 18). And again, in words near identical to those attributed to the reformer, “He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God” (Bk 3, Ch. 19).

Ongoing research will, perhaps, clarify whether Irenaeus exercised a direct or indirect influence on Calvin’s fondness for adoption. What is crystal clear is the way Bishop Irenaeus left the church an approach to adoption, relevant insights, and a familial tone dually reflective of both first-century Paul and sixteenth-century Calvin: of the biblical originator of the adoption motif as well as of his fullest expositor.

Seventh Nugget: Post-Irenaeus

Irenaeus paved the way for the development of robust doctrines of the Fatherhood of God and adoption. As the father of biblical theology he recognized that the history of redemption is the essential backdrop of both doctrines. By offering seminal pointers to the systematization of the Bible’s theology he also revealed how various thematic strands of the history of redemption can be doctrinally and practically applied.

As things turned out, Irenaeus’ “writings fell remarkably quickly into the background and were almost completely forgotten by his fellow countrymen” (Hans von Campenhausen). His written style failed to connect, and fresh challenges to the church inspired a return among the emerging Greek Fathers to the early apologists’ philosophical defense of Christian orthodoxy.

The Shepherd of Hermas (160 A.D.)—published around the same time as Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses and becoming one of the most popular books of the second to fourth centurieshas no relevance to the theological history of adoption. Nor are the only extant works of Tatian (Address to the Greeks) and Theophilus of Antioch (Theophilus to Autolycus). In writing primarily of God (his existence and attributes, inspiration of the prophets, creation, and providence), Theophilus nevertheless calls him on several occasions “the Father,” “the Father of the universe,” and “the Father and Creator of the universe.”

Also akin to the early apologists was Athenagoras, a converted Athenian philosopher. Although he’s scarcely mentioned in early ecclesiastical history, he’s accredited with instigating the Alexandrian School of Christian thought. His work A Plea [Apology or, literally, Embassy] for the Christians is not relevant, but we might have expected some mention of adoption in his other extant work The Treatise of Athenagoras—a defense of the resurrection of the dead. Recall that Paul describes the resurrection of the body on the last day as “adoption” (Rom. 8:22–23). Athenagoras, however, does not; largely because he rests the case for the resurrection on Paul’s address at the Areopagus (Acts 17:31–32).

We could trace the tradition of Greek Fathers further. We know, for example, of the mention of adoption in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius. Yet, we’re now entering largely unchartered waters. For now we just remark on the hampering of the evaluation of the place of adoption in the Greek Fathers. This is partially explained by the loss of some of their writings, but chiefly by the fact that the neglect of adoption has precluded a thorough search of the Greek Fathers. Given that the neglect of adoption has also resulted in the consistent reading of adoption into John’s writings, we’ll need to make sure we master the biblical data in order to undertake the search aright. When Wolfhart Pannenberg tells us, for instance, that the Greek Fathers interpreted salvation along the lines of Johannine thought, we must make sure in the current context that they really do. For how often in the historic neglect of adoption has Paul’s talk of adoption been conflated with John’s references to the new birth (John 1:13-14, 3:1–16; 1 John 2:28–3:3). Only in John 1:12 and Revelation 21:7 are there possible allusions to adoption, but even then such allusions must be understood first and foremost within the context of John’s theology.

Eighth Nugget: Clement of Alexandria

Clement’s great passion was leading individuals to Christ. Although he’s said not to have been a public teacher of the faith, he became the illustrious head of the Catechetical School at Alexandria and the ethicist of the Christian church. He wrote much, but few of his writings are extant: The Exhortation to the Heathen, The Instructor, The Stromata, and the tract Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? These reveal Clement’s concern to depict the Christian as the perfect gnostic: someone who is completely at one with God in knowledge and love.

The first three sources include seven references to adoption and the discussion of the relevant biblical texts. These are important for Clement’s unpacking of our oneness with God, and indicate his correct perception that the adoption so necessary to this oneness is fundamentally a way of telling the history of redemption. Note:

First, God fore-ordained us to the highest adoption before the foundation of the world.

Second, God created us for adoption. He “formed man of the dust; and made him grow by his Spirit; and trained Him by His word to adoption and salvation.” This adoption is the utmost of that divine utterance, “Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:234).

Third, God procured the believer’s adoption. Under the old covenant God’s people were as a child educated by a schoolmaster. The law was fearful, but instilled discipline and knowledge of the Christ who was to come.  Under the new covenant, Christ ~ the just, true, and good; and sole possessor of the image and likeness of the Father (2:234)~ does the instructing. He shares with us for our adoption his natural Sonship and what he has beheld in his Father. His natural sonship possesses more substance than our adoptive sonship (2:364), and yet  “the childhood which is in Christ is maturity, as compared with the law” (2:218; cf. Gal. 3:23-4:6).

Fourth, God applies adoption. Of all on earth, “the pious Christian alone is rich and wise, and of noble birth.”  This truth, says Clement, “is indicated by the prophet, when he says, ‘I said that ye are gods, and all sons of the Highest.’ [Ps. 82:6] For us, yea us, He has adopted, and wishes to be called the Father of us alone, not of the unbelieving” (2:206). Clement elaborates:

The Father of the universe cherishes affection towards those who have fled to Him; and having begotten them again by His Spirit to the adoption of children, knows them as gentle, and loves those alone, and aids and fights for them; and therefore he bestows on them  the name of child. (2:214)

Note Clement’s understanding of the connection between new birth (regeneration) and adoption. God the Spirit begets those whom God the Father adopts. The one actions grants the child of God his new nature, the other his new standing. The child of God is privileged to enjoy the particular love of God, his help, and protection; and responsible to obey the Father, fulfilling irreproachably and intelligently his commands to the extent they are known. This obedience is possible through the Son ~ “the great High Priest who has deigned to call us brethren and fellow-heirs”! (2:376)

Fifth, God fulfills adoption.  As fellow-heirs with Christ we adopted children of God await our inheritance. The “perfect inheritance belongs,” says Clement, “to those who attain to ‘a perfect man’” (2:506). The perfect man is the one reflecting the image of his Lord. This reflection is one of virtue. While we cannot be virtuous as God is virtuous, there must be a similitude of virtue. The child of God becomes like God. It’s to this end that God’s people are “introduced into adoption and the friendship of God, [and] to the just inheritance of the lords and gods is brought” (ibid.).

Consistent with Clement’s keenness to lead individuals to Christ, I end with this question: Are you adopted? Christ can introduce you to friendship with God!

Ninth Nugget: Origen

Following Clement, Origen (184/185-253/254) became the next renowned teacher of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. It was there his prodigious talent, purity of character, and capacity for learning first developed. With the martyrdom of his father Leonides (and the confiscation of his property), Origen came to rely on a wealthy patron before going on to become the president of the catechetical school at the young age of 18!  A strict ascetic, he grew into the most industrious of the ante-Nicene Fathers, seeking to guide seekers from non-Christian philosophies and heretical Gnostics into the Christian faith.

Numerous reasons give us hope of finding adoption nuggets in Origen’s writings: the amount he wrote (6,000 publications!); his “fertile thought, keen penetration, and glowing imagination”; his emphasis on catholic or universal theology (inclusive of the preceding Greek Fathers’ interest in adoption?); and his influence on the exegesis of Scripture.

Allowing for the fact that the Hendrickson series only includes certain representative samples of Origen’s writing ~ the theological treatise De Principiis on the fundamental doctrines of Christianity; sample commentaries such as those on the Gospels of Matthew and John; and his apologetic treatise Against Celsus it is nevertheless surprising to find only three mentions of the doctrine of adoption in these  760 pages of small print. The doctrinal intent of De Principiis and the long history of reading the adoption motif into the writings of John suggested many more would have been found.

The first mention occurs amid Origen’s claim that every rational creature needs participation in the Trinity. Whereas participation in the Son of God grants adoption, participation in the Spirit of God grants holiness (De PrincipiisAnte-Nicene Fathers 4:379).

The second occurs in Against Celsus as a quotation of Romans 8:15: “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:421).

The third, also in Against Celsus, applies the idea of participation in God. Such a participation is a divine blessedness in which we are “imbued with that excellent spirit of adoption which in the sons of the heavenly Father cries, not with words, but with deep effect in the inmost heart, ‘Abba, Father'” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4: 642).

While I leave it to others to search the remainder of Origen’s writings (you’ll be relieved to know that only a third of them have survived!), two main concluding comments may be made.

First, we would be mistaken to isolate adoption as the neglected aspect of Origen’s doctrine of salvation.  Like others of the period, this great but erring biblical theologian, scholar, exegete, and systematic thinker says remarkably little of the constituent elements of salvation in his theological and apologetical treatises.

Second, the absence of relevant comment in Origen’s commentaries on Matthew (“sons of the kingdom”) and John (the new birth, children of God), has nothing to do with the fact that adoption is not there (with the possible exception of John 1:12). It has everything to do with his allegorizing approach to biblical exposition which took him away from the context and exegesis of the text. Ironically, this fallacious approach kept him from the fallacious exegesis of many of his critics down to the present. They wouldn’t be “seen dead” allegorizing Scripture as Origen did, but think nothing of reading adoption into Matthean and Johannine texts without demonstrable warrant.

Tenth Nugget: Post-Origen

In the years which followed Origen and immediately preceded the Council of Nicea (254-325 A.D.), the Greek Fathers almost entirely ceased to mention adoption, at least so far as we can tell from their extant writings. The references simply petered out as they did among their Latin counterparts.*

Only six times does mention of adoption occur throughout the writings of Gregory Thaumaturgus and Dionysius of Alexander (Origen’s two most distinguished students in the School of Alexandria); Julius Africanus; Anatolius; the minor contributions of Alexander of Cappadocia, Theognostus of Alexandria, Pierius of Alexandria, Theonas of Alexandria, Phileas, Pamphilus, and Malchion; Archelaus; Alexander of Lycopolis; Peter of Alexandria; Alexander of Alexandria; and Methodius (Ante-Nicene Fathers 6:1-413)! A closer look reveals that the relevant references are found in but two of these theologians: Gregory Thaumaturgus and Bishop Alexander of Alexandria.

For Gregory’s interest in adoption we turn to his early Trinitarian creed, A Sectional Confession of Faith. Not only has Gregory’s authorship of the Confession been doubted, one of the references is but a quotation of Romans 8:15-16. The other two help distinguish the Sonship of Christ “who is in nature God”  from the sonship of angels and of men (Ante-Nicene Fathers 6:43, 45).

The references in Alexander, the last figure of note in the School of Alexandria, are in a similar vein but possess an interesting context. As Bishop, Alexander was in a difficult position. His predecessor, Achillas, had allowed Arius (256-336 A.D.) to become presbyter of the oldest and most influential church in Alexandria. Regrettably, Arius was a denier of the Son’s co-equality with the Father. He did not originate the denial, but it has ever since been connected with his name.

Initially, Arius influenced some Deacons, which led Alexander to call a meeting of the presbytery. Failing to defeat the error a synodical meeting was called, until at last a Council of the entire church, meeting at Nicea, rejected Arius’ teaching. Meanwhile, Alexander, who is sometimes said to have acted too slowly against Arius, did two things which prevented Arius’ views from becoming the church’s accepted orthodoxy. First, he wrote a treatise against Arius titled Epistles on the Arian Heresy and The Disruption and the Deposition of Arius. He also became the patron of the young Athanasius who went with him to the Council of Nicea as his Deacon. The rest, they say, is history. Eventually Athanasius succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria.

In Alexander there’s a thrice-repeated distinction between the Sonship of Christ and that of believers. Christ’s Sonship, “which is according to the nature of the Godhead of the Father transcends, by an ineffable excellence [i.e., one beyond words], the sonship of those who have been adopted by Him” (6:293). In effect, Alexander warns those of us raising the profile of adoption not to allow the believer’s privilege of adoptive sonship to obscure the ever unique and divine Sonship of Christ. Alexander’s point, however, was not to demean the former. The very Lord who is “by nature the Son of the Father,” possessing a Sonship that is “proper and peculiar, natural and excellent,” and “is by all adored,” blesses those he makes sons by adoption, granting them “the spirit of adoption.” This balance Alexander repeats, notwithstanding his application of salvation guaranteed to make wince any card-carrying Protestant: “The only-begotten Son of the Father . . . possesses an indefectible Sonship; but the adoption of rational sons belongs not to them by nature, but is prepared for them by the probity [integrity] of their life, and by the free gift of God” (6:294).

We are greatly indebted to all in history like Alexander who have upheld the divinity of Christ and his co-equality with the Father. How we need their example today! But we also learn from him that it’s possible to recover adoptive sonship without obscuring that Sonship of Christ which was, is, and always will be, unique and adored.

Eleventh Nugget: Transitioning to the Latin Fathers

The summer months are coming! They revive fun memories of tip-toeing into the water until the depth forces a decision as to whether to plunge in or not.

We reached that point of decision in our last posting, deeming the waters of the Greek Fathers too unchartered to venture out further in our search for adoption. We prefer a better knowledge of the waters before proceeding. The study of them is ongoing.

Since we don’t want to return to shore, we look for some way to our left or right in which we can edge forward, still avoiding the plunge until we know it’s safe to go for it. Roughly translated in the current context, we’re going to leave off the Greek Fathers to see what can be said of the place of adoption in the Latin Fathers.

This transition is not without its difficulties. The waters of the second and third centuries are somewhat unclear. Philip Schaff seeks to clarify matters by depicting the apostolic church as predominantly Jewish, the ante-Nicene church as Greek, and the post-Nicene church as Roman ~ “Nicene” referring to the watershed of the Council of Nicea, 325 A.D. ( History of the Christian Church, vol. 2). Schaff helps us here in a general way, but there are several ironies which qualify the neatness of his layout of the early church.

First, note the irony of language. Whereas we would assume the Roman church to have been Latin-speaking, in ante-Nicene times it was predominantly Greek-speaking. Then we have to bear in mind that the Latin-speaking theology of the later post-Nicene era actually began prior to the Council of Nicea in the era which Schaff describes as Greek-speaking.

Scholars trace the Latin theological literature as far back as to Municius Felix and to Tertullian at the end of the second century and the beginning of the third. Although some place Municius chronologically prior to Tertullian and others after him (as do the later Latin Fathers Lactantius and Jerome, respectively), it is Tertullian who is widely referred to as the Father of Latin theology. We know very little of Municius, but are certain that Tertullian was, to quote Schaff, the “one of the greatest men of Christian antiquity.” He began writing in Greek, but is credited with the creation of the church’s Latin discourse.

Secondly, note a certain irony of origin. For all that Municius and Tertullian wrote in Latin, it’s likely that both were Africans rather than Romans. True, Tertullian knew Rome and Roman law, but he’s mostly linked with Carthage in North Africa. It was not until a century following the origination of Greek theological literature that Municius and Tertullian began the trend of writing theology in Latin. Doubtless, these Latin Fathers and those following them were taught by the Greek Fathers, for there was, says von Campenhausen, “a constant flow of intellectual stimulus from East to West(The Fathers of the Church, vol. 2).

Thirdly, note the irony of this flow of ideas. As a Greek-speaking Bishop, Irenaeus hailed from the East (modern day Turkey) but is known as the Bishop of Lyons which was situated in the West of the Roman Empire. As Latin-speaking Fathers, Municius and Tertullian are said to be from the West, although the description of North Africa as the Imperial West may sound curious to us. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the Empire was not firmly split into East and West until 395 A.D.

Now some of these points may seem remote, but if you’ve tried to wade into the cloudy waters of the early church fathers and not known where you’re going, you may find them helpful. Regardless, they serve to facilitate our transition from the Greek to the Latin Fathers. In the terms of the opening analogy, we have stepped backward in the waters and to the side in hope we may move forward in our tracing of the history of adoption in the nuggets to come.

Twelfth Nugget: Tertullian et al.

Chartering unknown waters, we’ve understandably sailed cautiously through the history of the doctrine of adoption in the early church. We’ve ventured as far as it’s been safe to go among the Greek Fathers, and have navigated our way through the unclear waters of transition,  arriving now at out brief consideration of the Latin Fathers. Doubtless, the exploration has limited interest currently, but the more we discover about adoption in the church Fathers the quicker the theological shipping lanes can open up.

In the invaluable Hendrickson collection of Ante-Nicene Fathers, the first Latin writings we encounter are those of Tertullian, Municius Felix and Commodianus. We restrict our comments to Tertullian’s almost 900 pages, since the brief extant writings of Municius and Commodianus are not relevant here.

Tertullian burst onto the scene in Carthage, North Africa, in 197 AD with the publication of his Apology. His “angrier imitation of Justin Martyr’s [Apology]” began “a spate of eloquent, witty and argumentative tracts on doctrines and morals.” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church).  Known for his seminal systematic expression of the doctrine of the Trinity, Tertullian expressed in his tracts ~ especially Apology, Against Praxeas, The Shows,  On Repentance,  Against Marcion,  Against Hermogenes, and On the Flesh of Christ ~ the apologetic significance of the Fatherhood of God. Adoption, by contrast, is mentioned explicitly on but three occasions. Yet these references combine with related themes to suggest a coherent understanding of the doctrine ~ one that is sensitive to the exegesis of Scripture.

Although Tertullian views the Father as, fundamentally, the divine Creator of the universe, he also views him as the source of the believer’s redemption. While this belief led him to read the Father into the more general language of the Old Testament ~ consequently appearing to flatten out somewhat the redemptive-historical unfolding of the Trinity ~ Tertullian is nevertheless clear that the Father is disclosed to us supremely in the person and work of his divine Son.

Although the Father has always been such to his Son, he was first our Judge. Adoption explains how God is now Father to his people. Historically, the Jews were adopted first ~ an observation Tertullian gleans from the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. Yet believing Jews and Gentiles share the same adoption. Each believer experiences the change of relationship through revelation of the truth, confession of our errors, and pardon of the innumerable sins of our past life. Repentance, Tertullian explains with somewhat less exactitude than the later Protestant reformers, “is the price at which the Lord has determined to award pardon: He proposes the redemption of release from pardon at this compensating exchange of repentance.”

Assumptions of a meritorious repentance are countered by Tertullian’s belief that Christ came to redeem us. “He came in humility, in human form, and passible, even up to the period of his passion; being himself likewise made, through all [stages of suffering] a victim for us all.”  Those redeemed by such sufferings are in turn adopted (Gal. 4:5). This adoption they’re assured of by the gift of the Holy Spirit. He enables us to  cry out, “Abba, Father,” telling us thereby that we’re no longer slaves. We’ve been freed from charging ourselves with “past thefts and desertions.”

The Son hates those who refuse obedience to the Father. They’ve been raised up as children of disobedience by the prince of the power of the air (cf. Eph. 2:1-3). These children of wrath have no ability of themselves to become “sons of peace.” They need not only a new standing (adoption) but a new nature (the new birth).

Although not all claims to adoption are authentic, those truly adopted have become “more worthier” relations of Jesus than the unbelieving relatives he possessed while on earth (Matt. 12:46-50). For through adoption a spiritual family has been formed, as was prophesied under the Old Covenant (Is. 43:6). This “worthier brotherhood” is significant for Christian witness to Jesus. “We are,” says Tertullian, “a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.”  Yet, fear (of God), joy, grief, and suffering are also common. We share as brothers “a common Spirit from a common Lord and Father.”

If God is our Father who, then, is our mother? She is the church who cares for the family of God. We arise from baptism in the house of our mother, calling on Father that his specialities of grace and distributions of gifts may be given us. These provisions come to us through Lady mother ~ “from her bountiful breasts and each brother out of his private means.” Of particular concern to Tertullian was the meeting of the bodily needs of the imprisoned “martyrs designate.” If Father could meet these through his church, then surely he could meet all those of the adopted. Through mother’s provisions we all eventually arrive at heaven. After all, it’s our Father’s permanent home to which the family is headed.

Thirteenth Nugget: Hyppolytus of Rome

Next we come to Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), not to be confused with the Hippolytus of Greek mythology.

With Greek name and Roman location, this Hippolytus reminds us of the difficulties of distinguishing the Church Fathers along Greek and Latin lines. Likely born in Rome and becoming a presbyter and bishop of the church at Rome, Hippolytus also became her most important theologian of the third century. And yet, by contrast, he was a pupil of the Greek Father Irenaeus, and wrote in the same language.

Since we know Irenaeus as the Father of Biblical Theology and of the church’s extra-biblical interest in adoption, it follows that we’re keener here to learn of the Greek character of Hippolytus’ theology than of the Latin location of his church membership.

In Hippolytus’ extant works ~ The Refutation of All Heresies; the exegetical fragments, the dogmatic and historical fragments; and “the dubious and spurious pieces” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:9-259) ~ I have found but three mentions of adoption. These appear on two consecutive pages of his Discourse on Holy Theophany (A-N F 5:237). We cannot be sure of the degree to which Irenaeus impacted these references, but we do know that Hippolytus’ development of a  related doctrine of participation in Christ is attributed to his influenceThis doctrine Hippolytus expressed in terms of deification. (For more, see Dietrich Ritschl, “Hippolytus’ Conception of Deification: Remarks on the Interpretation of Refutation X,” Scottish Journal of Theology 12 [1959]).

Hippolytus’ references to adoption in his Discourse arise from his extolling of the goodness of God’s works in creation and salvation. Focusing chiefly on the latter, Hippolytus sees much relevance in the baptism of Christ. In the Father’s affirmation “This is my beloved son” Hippolytus detects the pattern of the renewal of the old man and the committing to him again of “the sceptre of adoption.” Essential to this renewal and committal is a reconciliation between the visible and the invisible. Among other things, this reconciliation heals the diseases of the earth and restores man from enmity to amity, and is the gift of “the fountain of life”:

“The Father of immortality sent the immortal Son and Word into the world, who came to man in order to wash him him with water and the Spirit; and He, begetting us again to incorruption of soul and body, breathed into us the breath (spirit) of life, and endued us with an incorruptible panoply.”

If Hippolytus’ wording reminds us of Paul’s phrase “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), his bold claim that the washed “will also be God” surely echoes 2 Peter 1:4 (“partaking of the divine nature”). Regardless of what we think of Hippolytus’ use of Scripture, it’s not hard to see how his concept of deification helped him explain how the spiritually newborn are made joint-heirs with Christ. Joint-heirship, Hippolytus reasons, is legitimized by deification.

A full analysis of the church Fathers’ concept of deification awaits another occasion (it is said also to be found in Athanasius and Augustine). What interests us here is the assumed legitimacy of running together the New Testament’s models of new birth and adoption. The language of joint-heirship with Christ, which Hyppolytus connects with regeneration, is most naturally allied with Paul’s doctrine of adoption (Romans 8:12-17). This begs the question as to whether Hippolytus’ warm invitation to deification or mystical union is a juxtaposing or a conflation of new birth and adoption: “Come then, be begotten again, O man, into the adoption of God.”

The same question emerges from Hippolytus’ explanation of the process of deification:

” . . . he who comes down in faith to the laver of regeneration, and renounces the devil, and joins himself to Christ; who denies the enemy, and makes the confession that Christ is God; who puts off the bondage, and puts on the adoption, ~ he comes up from the baptism brilliant as the sun, flashing forth the beams of righteousness, and, which is indeed the chief thing, he returns a sons of God and joint-heir with Christ.”

The methodological and theological questions aside, we join Hippolytus in glorifying God for our adoption, closing this posting as he closed his Discourse: ”To Him be the glory and the power, together with His most holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and ever, and to all the ages of the ages. Amen”

Fourteenth Nugget: Cyprian of Carthage

Remaining with the Latin Fathers we come now to Cyprian (200-258 A.D.) ~ spiritual son and pupil of Tertullian, Bishop of Carthage, subject of the first Christian biography, and martyr under the persecution of Roman Emperor Decius.

Cyprian’s biographer, Pontius the Deacon, surmised in the aftermath of Cyprian’s execution that “he will probably never cease to speak even to the end of the world” (The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr). Cyprian’s translators have claimed in turn that “nobody can understand the history of Latin Christianity without mastering  [his] system” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:264). Yet, in popular circles today, most likely know of Cyprian through his saying, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother” (On the Unity of the ChurchAnte-Nicene Fathers 5:423). While this maternal understanding of the church was not new to Cyprian (cf. Tertullian), his use of it is better known because of Calvin (Inst. 4:1:1).

Three factors raise our hopes of finding a healthy doctrine of adoption in Cyprian: the nature and consistency of Cyprian’s maternal description of the church, Tertullian’s (and Calvin’s) references to adoption, and the particular Pauline feel of Cyprian’s familial perspective on the faith. Certainly, Cyprian’s writings are rich in expression of God’s Fatherhood; the exchange of the Son for the sons (anticipating if not influencing Luthers’ and Calvin’s emphasis on “the wonderful exchange”); brotherhood and joint-heirship with Christ; and the church’s motherhood. These recurring themes are set in the context of Cyprian’s apologetic and pastoral emphasis on the oneness of God, the unity of the catholic church, and the manner in which returning heretics and the lapsed should be treated. Repentance, Cyprian urged, must be genuine. It is encouraged by the shepherds of Christ whose pastoring reflects God’s “medicine of paternal affection.”

How, then, does a person become a son of God? By adoption we would assume. But here’s the surprise: Cyprian says nothing of it! Consistently he depicts sonship as entered into by regeneration or the new birth (the former is the concept or doctrine, the latter its metaphorical clothing). Despite the somewhat Pauline feel of his familial references, Cyprian chose the more Johannine language of the new birth to describe how a person may obtain a filial relationship to God (John 1:12-13; John 3:1-21; 1 John 2:29-3:3). Regeneration and/or the new birth is mentioned in Cyprian’s testimony (Epistle to Donatus), biography (both in Pontius’ narrative and in the citing of Cyprian), and other epistles and treatises. For example, in his treatise On the Lord’s Prayer ~ a prayer expressive of the state of sonship (sons of the kingdom) ~ Cyprian injects the language of the new birth: “The new man, born again and restored to his God by his grace, says ‘The Father,’ in the first place because he has now begun to be a son” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:449).

Cyprian nowhere explains either his preference for the new birth or his omission of adoption. Clearly his choice comported with the strength of his doctrine of the church. In Cyprian’s logic, God fathers his sons but the church gives them birth.We could say much of this logic, especially as it relates to the omission of adoption, but we close by lauding him for his capturing the relational (explicitly familial) atmosphere of the New Testament. Specifically, we thank God that in a day of skepticism about the church Cyprian reminds us of her maternal privileges and responsibilities. Advocates of missional adoption have found a fresh and needed way to express the church’s motherhood, but in a way which accents the very doctrine Cyprian omitted!

Fifteenth Nugget: Post Cyprian

Talk about nuggets. The work that’s gone into preparing this one has felt more like prospecting forlornly for gold than munching on small, tasty pieces of chicken available on any city street corner.

All the same, the ongoing search for adoption in the ante-Nicene Fathers has been worth it. To my knowledge, there has never before been a systematic search for it in their writings. Thus, it’s been important to complete the search thoroughly. Although we’re not done, we end here our specific search of the Latin Fathers (Ante-Nicene Fathers 5:601ff.; 6:413ff.; 7:1-368). I’ve caught no glint in those remaining writings of a golden quote or perspective, but I make some comment in order to help fellow gold diggers in the years to come.

Our latest tracking of the Fathers reveals that Cyprian of Carthage, with whom we left off last time, was at one and the same time the greatest potential for the development of the familial themes of the New Testament among the early Latin Fathers, and the point from which their decline of interest in adoption set in. In other words, the consistent familial expression and tone of Cyprian’s theology failed to compensate for his silence about adoption.

I’m not saying by this that all succeeding Latin Fathers took their lead from Cyprian. After all, we do not find in their writings the degree of Cyprian’s fondness for the new birth motif. Nor would it be fair to imply that regardless of their subject matter the Latin Fathers subsequent to Cyprian were duty bound to include thoughts on sonship (Paul) or childhood (John). We must also take account of the fact that not all the writings of the remaining Latin Fathers are extant.

We only have fragments of Caius (Gaius) of Rome. It’s feasible that Novation could have included comment on adoption in his Treatise Concerning the Trinity, but he would not be the last to limit the discussion of the Godhead to relations between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Given that baptism was later described by Calvin as the symbol of adoption, I hoped for some passing references to the doctrine in the Acts and Records of the Famous Controversy About the Baptism of HereticsA Treatise Against the Heretic Novation, and A Treatise on Re-Baptism. My hopes were in vain. Similarly, The Seven Books of Arnobius Against the Heathen contains some passing references to the Fatherhood of God and a few to those born “the children of the Lord,” but otherwise the title of the lengthy work tells its own story.

What about Lactantius’ work The Divine Institutes? Certainly his repeated references to God as the parent of the universe are somewhat novel. These are supplemented by increased references to God as Father. In those most significant, Lactantius uses the general Fatherhood of God to promote equal rights amid the injustices of society (as in the persecution of Christians). Compare his work A Treatise on the Anger of God:

” . . . God will have all men to be just, that is, to have God and man as objects of their affection; to honour God in truth as a Father, and to love man as a brother: for in these two things the whole of justice is comprised” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 7:271-72).

More narrowly, Lactantius sees in God’s specific Lordship and Fatherhood of the Christian reason why the believer should not desert him in the hour of persecution.

Also in Lactantius’ writings are found a few passing references to such related themes as slavery, rebellious children, the church as a household, and the inheritance. Yet there’s nothing on adoption. Perhaps Lactantius’ lost writings would paint a different picture. Yet, accused of losing Tertullian’s gains for the systematic teaching of the Trinity, it is feasible he also let slip Tertullian’s known interest in adoption. He was not alone. So, apparently, did the rest of the Latin Fathers who closed out the ante-Nicene period: Venantius, Asterius Urbanus, Victorinus, and Dionysius of Rome. For whatever reason(s), interest in adoption petered out among them as the ante-Nicene period drew to a close.

Sixteenth Nugget: Miscellaneous Documents (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles)

The nuggets digested to date have given us a taste of the doctrine of adoption in the apostolic fathers, the Greek fathers, and the Latin fathers, respectively. Here we begin to close out the history of the doctrine in the first three centuries anno Domini by considering the remaining extant writings. These are an assortment which includes those without a known author, of spurious authorship, or of more recent discovery, etc. (Ante-Nicene Fathers 7:369-9:291).

The first of these documents to mention adoption is the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles. Although the authenticity, authorship, and dating of the Constitutions has been questioned, it is clear that they were compiled to portray apostolic concerns about the order of the church. The Constitutions are relevant and interesting to us because they touch on the two kinds of adoption: a spiritual or saving adoption and a practical or diaconal adoption.

Spiritual or Saving Adoption

Describing the work of a bishop, the Constitutions state that he “is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit” (A-N F 7:410).   The deacon like everyone else in the church must revere the bishop as father. Likely reminding the deacon of his baptism and ordination, the Constitutions continue : “By thy bishop, O man, God adopts thee for His child. Acknowledge, O son, that right hand which was a mother to three. Love him who, after God, is become a father to thee, and honour him” (ibid., 412). The deacon must, for example, seek the bishop’s consent in almsgiving so as not to bring his spiritual father into reproach.

Later, adoption is referred to in the context of the baptism of catechumens. Among the litany of what they should believe and intend, they are to “hate very way of iniquity, and walk in the way of truth, that [they] might be thought worthy of the laver of regeneration, to the adoption of sons, which is in Christ” (ibid., 476). The bishop for his part must bless the baptized and sanctify them, preparing them to become worthy of the Lord’s spiritual gifts and of “the true adoption of [God’s] spiritual mysteries” (ibid., 484). They will, for instance, pray three times a day, “preparing themselves beforehand, that [they] may be worthy of the adoption of the Father” (ibid., 470).

Practical or Diaconal Adoption

Evidently, the early church took the Christian life seriously. Their devotion included a social conscience. Negatively, they opposed abortion and infanticide (ibid., 466). Positively, they urged the care of orphans. Book IV of the Constitutions opens with the helping of the poor. “Those who have no children,” reads the first title, “should adopt orphans, and treat them as their own children”:

When any Christian becomes an orphan, whether it be a young man or a maid, it is good that some one of the brethren who is without a child should take the young man, and esteem him in the place of a son; and he that has a son about the same age, and that is marriageable, should marry the maid to him: for they which do so perform a great work, and become fathers to the orphans, and shall receive the reward of this charity  from the Lord God. But if anyone who walks in the way of man-pleasing is rich, and therefore is ashamed of orphans, the Father of orphans and Judge of widows will make provision for the orphans, but himself will have such an heir as will send what he has spared; and it shall happen to him according as it is said: “What things the holy people have not eaten, those shall the Assyrians eat.” As also Isaiah says: “Your land, strangers devour it in your presence.”

This isn’t quite missional adoption, but it is diaconal adoption.  Today’s missional adoption has taken the logic and compassion one step further. It’s unlikely the ante-Nicene fathers would mind!

Seventeenth Nugget: Miscellaneous (Excerpts of Theodotus and Recognitions of Clement)

We’re amid the remaining miscellaneous writings of the of the first three centuries. They are too numerous to mention individually, but include chiefly the Early Liturgies, Pseudo-Clementine Literature, Apocrypha of the New TestamentThe [Papal] Decretals, and ancient Syriac Documents (Ante-Nicene Fathers 7: 509-8:785).

It was tempting to omit the reading of these, for some are of uncertain origin, some are apocryphal, and some are forgeries. I resisted for three main reasons. First, because the purpose of our trekking through the church fathers of the first three centuries has been to undertake a search seemingly not attempted or completed before. To cut corners at this stage would devalue the venture. Secondly, the omission would create the nagging feeling that something important of the history of adoption has been overlooked. This feeling would negatively affect the confidence in which we can speak of the fortunes of adoption in the first three centuries. Thirdly, as unreliable as are these documents, they nevertheless give us an idea of the profile of adoption in the corporate mind of the church during the period.

The reading now done, it may be said with confidence that there is very little in these writings to enhance our knowledge of the history of adoption. While there are the usual sporadic occurrences of terms related to adoption ~ Father, sons of God, children of God, brothers, and heirs ~ there are only three references to adoption.

Two occur in the corrupted Excerpts of Theodotus. They speak in relation to Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6 of the freedom of the believer from an enslaving fear. “Advanc[ing] by love to adoption” the erstwhile slave now loves the God he once feared. Such a revolution is the emancipation to adoption (A-N F 8:45, 47).

The third reference is found in the Recognitions of Clement. These the translator Thomas Smith calls “a kind of philosophical and theological romance.” The reference speaks of how a person is adopted, and corrects the perception in the Excerpts of Theodotus that we can be adopted by our own love for God:

When God had made man after His own image and likeness, He grafted into His work a certain breathing and odour of His divinity that so men, being made partakers of His Only begotten, might through Him be also friends of God and sons of adoption. (A-N F 8:136) 

Doubtless there’s much here to analyse theologically and practically, but I end with a passage which speaks of the hope of God’s adopted sons and daughters. The source will not impress ~ it’s a forged decretal of Pope Pontianus (Bishop of the Roman Church, 230-235 A.D.) ~ but the truth and encouragement articulated is clear enough:

. . . the present life is a sojourning; and to him who sighs after the true fatherland, the place of his sojourning is a trial, however pleasant it may seem. And as to you who seek the fatherland, among the sighs which ye heave I hear the groans also of human oppression rising. And this happens by the wonderful disposition of Almighty God, in order that, while the truth calls you in love, this present world may cast back your affection from itself through tribulations which it brings on, and that the mind may be so much the more easily delivered from the love of this world, as it is also impelled while it is called. Therefore, as you have begun, give heed to the duty of hospitality; labour most urgently in prayer and tears; devote yourselves more liberally and freely now to those almsgivings which you have ever loved, in order that in the recompense the profit to you for your work may be greater in proportion as your zeal for the labour has risen to higher degrees here. (A-N F 8:622-23)

Today’s world of orphan care suggests that a grateful response to the promise of the Fatherland is underway.

Eighteenth Nugget: Conclusion to the Survey of the Ante-Nicene Fathers

Our search of the Hendrickson edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (vols.1-10) is now complete.  The last documents ~ newly discovered or translated in the late nineteenth century ~ provide no mention of the doctrine of adoption. In the main we wouldn’t expect them to. They are works connected with the Gospels (The Gospel of Peter and The Diatessaron of Tatian [a harmony of the four gospels]); various apocalypses and romances;  the Epistles of Clement The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher*; and The Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs. See A-N F 9:1-285.

Accordingly, we’re now ready to summarize briefly the main lessons learned from the theological history of adoption up to A.D. 325. Eight observations come to mind:

1.  There is no written piece dedicated exclusively to the doctrine of adoption or its spiritual or practical application. Neither is there a distinct section on adoption in any of the earliest writings. Evidently, adoption was not a theme considered in its own right, but then few theological themes were.

2. References to adoption are sporadic and typically appear without forewarning. They are sufficiently numerous to teach us not to rely on the contents pages and indices for guidance as to the profile of the doctrine in the first three centuries.

3. The consistent omission of adoption from the indices is more a standing tribute to the later neglect of adoption. Whereas the doctrine appears in a surprising number of contexts in the fathers’ writings (albeit in an undeveloped way), the uniform omission of adoption from the indices bespeaks its loss from the overall theological consciousness of the church in subsequent centuries. This loss began without announcement amid the defense of the faith from external pressures and internal disputes over the Trinity and the person of Christ. We now know, for example, that mention of adoption petered out among both the Greek and Latin fathers in the run up to the Council of Nicea.

4. The writings of the ante-Nicene period reveal how seismic has been the influence of the Reformation for the discussion of the doctrine of salvation. On the one hand, the fathers’ focus on justification is not what it became a millennium later; on the other hand, justification does not overshadow adoption in the early centuries as it began to in Reformation and post-Reformation times. It seems to me, that the explicit ante-Nicene references to justification and adoption are comparable in number and weight, yet each receives less attention than regeneration (the new birth).

5.   The main go-to theologians of the period for interest in the doctrine of adoption are Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria among the Greek Fathers, and Tertullian and Hippolytus among their Latin counterparts**. This fact helps guide further research into the Fathers, but also aids the quest to discover the origin of Calvin’s interest in adoption.

6. The survey confirms that the Puritan focus on adoption in the order or application of salvation must be evened out with due attention to the unfolding of adoption in the history of salvation. This is not to say that the narrower experiential focus of the Puritans should be replaced with the broad historical focus of, for example, Irenaeus or Clement, but it is to say that the biblical data supports biblical- and systematic-theological considerations. Where these are combined we can anticipate a fuller and richer understanding of adoption ~ one cognizant of its place and profile in both the history and application of salvation.

7. The fathers’ appreciation of Paul’s redemptive-historical unfolding of adoption went some way to curtail the now ingrained practice of mixing the respective adoption and new birth models of Paul and John. That said, their comparative inattention to the correlation of the various elements of the application of salvation kept them from escaping entirely the admixture. It was likely born of their underplaying of the humanness of Scripture (e.g., the authorial distinction between John and Paul), the distinctive structures of biblical models (the new birth and adoption), and of the specifics of the biblical data in view. Any fresh construction of the doctrine of adoption needs to take account of these factors.

8. There’s a passing suggestion in the ante-Nicene fathers of the realization of the application of theological or spiritual adoption to orphan care and diaconal adoption. It’s not much, but it is there to a degree sufficient to encourage those advancing adoption ministries today.

Separated as we are from these earliest fathers by distance and time, their words remind us above all that we belong as the sons and daughters of God to the same household; that we have been brought together through union in Christ’s Sonship; and that we can triumph today as they did in their trials and persecutions. Trust in the same heavenly Father is crucial, as is hope in the same inheritance. This is the grace of adoption to which the theological details point and in which our hearts beat. Thank you, Abba!


* The discovery of Aristides’ Apology revised the claim that Justin Martyr is the earliest known post-biblical apologist for the Christian faith.

** Recall that Hippolytus, living in Rome but the last father to write in the Greek of the New Testament, could be listed as either a Greek or Latin father.


[These Adoption Nuggets were originally written at the request of Dan Cruver, President and Co-Founder of the adoption and orphan care ministry “Together for Adoption.” Go to for further information.]

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