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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.

*  At http://www.fromhisfullness.com/tim-jr-trumper/adoption/adoption-nuggets-2-dipping-into-historical-theology/ this post follows on in chronological order from that of Origen. See the “Ninth Nugget” and “Tenth Nugget.” 

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