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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.

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