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.
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