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The nuggets digested to date have given us a taste of the doctrine of adoption in the apostolic fathers, the Greek fathers, and the Latin fathers, respectively. Here we begin to close out the history of the doctrine in the first three centuries anno Domini by considering the remaining extant writings. These are an assortment which includes those without a known author, of spurious authorship, or of more recent discovery, etc. (Ante-Nicene Fathers 7:369-9:291).

The first of these documents to mention adoption is the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles. Although the authenticity, authorship, and dating of the Constitutions has been questioned, it is clear that they were compiled to portray apostolic concerns about the order of the church. The Constitutions are relevant and interesting to us because they touch on the two kinds of adoption: a spiritual or saving adoption and a practical or diaconal adoption.

Spiritual or Saving Adoption

Describing the work of a bishop, the Constitutions state that he “is the minister of the word, the keeper of knowledge, the mediator between God and you in several parts of your divine worship. He is the teacher of piety; and, next after God, he is your father, who has begotten you again to the adoption of sons by water and the Spirit” (A-N F 7:410).   The deacon like everyone else in the church must revere the bishop as father. Likely reminding the deacon of his baptism and ordination, the Constitutions continue : ”By thy bishop, O man, God adopts thee for His child. Acknowledge, O son, that right hand which was a mother to three. Love him who, after God, is become a father to thee, and honour him” (ibid., 412). The deacon must, for example, seek the bishop’s consent in almsgiving so as not to bring his spiritual father into reproach.

Later, adoption is referred to in the context of the baptism of catechumens. Among the litany of what they should believe and intend, they are to “hate very way of iniquity, and walk in the way of truth, that [they] might be thought worthy of the laver of regeneration, to the adoption of sons, which is in Christ” (ibid., 476). The bishop for his part must bless the baptized and sanctify them, preparing them to become worthy of the Lord’s spiritual gifts and of “the true adoption of [God's] spiritual mysteries” (ibid., 484). They will, for instance, pray three times a day, “preparing themselves beforehand, that [they] may be worthy of the adoption of the Father” (ibid., 470).

Practical or Diaconal Adoption

Evidently, the early church took the Christian life seriously. Their devotion included a social conscience. Negatively, they opposed abortion and infanticide (ibid., 466). Positively, they urged the care of orphans. Book IV of the Constitutions opens with the helping of the poor. “Those who have no children,” reads the first title, “should adopt orphans, and treat them as their own children”:

When any Christian becomes an orphan, whether it be a young man or a maid, it is good that some one of the brethren who is without a child should take the young man, and esteem him in the place of a son; and he that has a son about the same age, and that is marriageable, should marry the maid to him: for they which do so perform a great work, and become fathers to the orphans, and shall receive the reward of this charity  from the Lord God. But if anyone who walks in the way of man-pleasing is rich, and therefore is ashamed of orphans, the Father of orphans and Judge of widows will make provision for the orphans, but himself will have such an heir as will send what he has spared; and it shall happen to him according as it is said: “What things the holy people have not eaten, those shall the Assyrians eat.” As also Isaiah says: “Your land, strangers devour it in your presence.”

This isn’t quite missional adoption, but it is diaconal adoption.  Today’s missional adoption has taken the logic and compassion one step further. It’s unlikely the ante-Nicene fathers would mind!


Further access to the ministry of Tim J. R. Trumper  is obtainable at: (personal); (church)

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