The Adoption Theme in Irenaeus

by John Drury

            The word “adoption” appears numerous times in IrenaeusAgainst the Heresies.[i]  The biblical warrant for such language is unquestionable.  But how does adoption function in his larger account of incarnation and salvation?  What role does it play in the logic of his argument?  I would like to suggest that the concept of adoption is intimately linked to the conceptual structure of Irenaeus’ overall theological vision.

Irenaeus argues that God is by nature unknowable from the human side, and yet is free to make himself known.  Irenaeus puts it this way: “No one can know God unless God teaches him” (45).  Adoption is the means by which such a revelation occurs.  “He has granted men to know God the Father through adoption” (45).  By virtue of adoption in Christ, humanity is in a position to know God.

But God appears not only to teach us, but also to save us.  A key element to Irenaeussoteriology is theme of restoration and recapitulation.  The community between God and humanity that was broken by the fall is restored in Christ: “the Lord has restored us to his friendship by His incarnation” (47).  Adoption language is linked with this restored communion: “How could we be partakers of adoption as God’s sons without receiving from Him, through the Son, the gift of communion with Him? … This is why He has passed through all the ages of human life, restoring to all men communion with God” (59).  One could dare to say that communion with God and adoption are two concepts for describing the same reality.

            Such a circumspect manner of speaking may be unnecessary, for at times Irenaeus seems to place adoption at the center of his argument.  He states clearly, “[I]t was for this that the Word of God became man and the Son of God became he Son of Man, namely, that man, commingled with the Word of God and receiving adoption, might become the son of God” (14).  Elsewhere, he puts it more concisely: “The son of God became the Son of Man, so that through Him we might receive adoption” (54).  It seems that for Irenaeus, the very purpose of the incarnation is to adopt humanity into the family of God.

            What is the result of this adoptive communion?  What is the pay off?  For Irenaeus, adoption is “good news” because it brings with it incorruptibility.  Adoption is accompanied by God’s pledge to gives us eternal life.  The following complex quotation shows how the biblical language of adoption is crucial for Irenaeus’ understanding of the life-giving telos of the incarnation:

“There was no other way for us to receive incorruptibility and immortality than to be united to incorruptibility and immortality.  But how could be united to incorruptibility and immortality without incorruptibility and immortality first becoming what we are, the perishable putting on imperishability, the mortal putting on immortality (cf I Cor. 15:54), ‘so that might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal. 4:5)?” (55).


            Much more could surely be said about adoption language in Irenaeus.  For instance, how does it relate to Baptism and the Eucharist?  But the above overview makes sufficiently clear the central role of adoption in Irenaeus’ theological vision. 


[i] All in-text citations are to John Saward’s translation The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990).