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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. We’ve arrived here 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.


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