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 additional 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 centuries—has 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. These are only now being fished for adoption. Further comment on the Greek Fathers must await another day and forum.
Nevertheless, we may 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 did. 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.
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