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Conclusion to the Survey of the Ante-Nicene Fathers

Our search of the Hendrickson edition of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (vols.1-10) is now complete.  The last documents ~ newly discovered or translated in the late nineteenth century ~ provide no mention of the doctrine of adoption. In the main we wouldn’t expect them to. They are works connected with the Gospels (The Gospel of Peter and The Diatessaron of Tatian [a harmony of the four gospels]); various apocalypses and romances;  the Epistles of Clement The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher*; and The Passion of the Scillitan Martyrs. See A-N F 9:1-285.

Accordingly, we’re now ready to summarize briefly the main lessons learned from the theological history of adoption up to A.D. 325. Eight observations come to mind:

1.  There is no written piece dedicated exclusively to the doctrine of adoption or its spiritual or practical application. Neither is there a distinct section on adoption in any of the earliest writings. Evidently, adoption was not a theme considered in its own right, but then few theological themes were.

2. References to adoption are sporadic and typically appear without forewarning. They are sufficiently numerous to teach us not to rely on the contents pages and indices for guidance as to the profile of the doctrine in the first three centuries.

3. The consistent omission of adoption from the indices is more a standing tribute to the later neglect of adoption. Whereas the doctrine appears in a surprising number of contexts in the fathers’ writings (albeit in an undeveloped way), the uniform omission of adoption from the indices bespeaks its loss from the overall theological consciousness of the church in subsequent centuries. This loss began without announcement amid the defense of the faith from external pressures and internal disputes over the Trinity and the person of Christ. We now know, for example, that mention of adoption petered out among both the Greek and Latin fathers in the run up to the Council of Nicea.

4. The writings of the ante-Nicene period reveal how seismic has been the influence of the Reformation for the discussion of the doctrine of salvation. On the one hand, the fathers’ focus on justification is not what it became a millennium later; on the other hand, justification does not overshadow adoption in the early centuries as it began to in Reformation and post-Reformation times. It seems to me, that the explicit ante-Nicene references to justification and adoption are comparable in number and weight, yet each receives less attention than regeneration (the new birth).

5.   The main go-to theologians of the period for interest in the doctrine of adoption are Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria among the Greek Fathers, and Tertullian and Hippolytus among their Latin counterparts**. This fact helps guide further research into the Fathers, but also aids the quest to discover the origin of Calvin’s interest in adoption.

6. The survey confirms that the Puritan focus on adoption in the order or application of salvation must be evened out with due attention to the unfolding of adoption in the history of salvation. This is not to say that the narrower experiential focus of the Puritans should be replaced with the broad historical focus of, for example, Irenaeus or Clement, but it is to say that the biblical data supports biblical- and systematic-theological considerations. Where these are combined we can anticipate a fuller and richer understanding of adoption ~ one cognizant of its place and profile in both the history and application of salvation.

7. The fathers’ appreciation of Paul’s redemptive-historical unfolding of adoption went some way to curtail the now ingrained practice of mixing the respective adoption and new birth models of Paul and John. That said, their comparative inattention to the correlation of the various elements of the application of salvation kept them from escaping entirely the admixture. It was likely born of their underplaying of the humanness of Scripture (e.g., the authorial distinction between John and Paul), the distinctive structures of biblical models (the new birth and adoption), and of the specifics of the biblical data in view. Any fresh construction of the doctrine of adoption needs to take account of these factors.

8. There’s a passing suggestion in the ante-Nicene fathers of the realization of the application of theological or spiritual adoption to orphan care and diaconal adoption. It’s not much, but it is there to a degree sufficient to encourage those advancing adoption ministries today.

Separated as we are from these earliest fathers by distance and time, their words remind us above all that we belong as the sons and daughters of God to the same household; that we have been brought together through union in Christ’s Sonship; and that we can triumph today as they did in their trials and persecutions. Trust in the same heavenly Father is crucial, as is hope in the same inheritance. This is the grace of adoption to which the theological details point and in which our hearts beat. Thank you, Abba!

 

* The discovery of Aristides’ Apology revised the claim that Justin Martyr is the earliest known post-biblical apologist for the Christian faith.

** Recall that Hippolytus, living in Rome but the last father to write in the Greek of the New Testament, could be listed as either a Greek or Latin father.

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Further access to the ministry of Tim J. R. Trumper is available at:

www.fromhisfullness.com (personal); www.7thref.org (church)

 


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