Adoptionism is a Christological heresy which denies the pre-existence of Jesus, and therefore denies Jesus's title as "God the Son" in the Trinitarian conception of the Christian God.

See the wikipedia article for the various manifestations, variations, and proponents of Adoptionism throughout history. See Catholic Encyclopedia article (Adoptionists section) describing how the early church dealt with the leader of the sect: Theodotus of Byzantium.

According to this CARM article, Pope Victor I declared it as a heresy in the last decade of the 2nd century and Pope Leo III declared another resurgence as heresy at a 798 AD council in Rome.

A well written medium article explained how a case for Adoptionism can be made based 1) "minority" textual variants of Luke 3:22 and other verses related to Jesus's earthly father (Joseph), 2) ancient Jewish understanding of how the King is a Son of God, 3) seeing Jesus's baptism as coronation similar to the symbolism of the doves in the Roman transfer of power from Caesar to Augustus, 4) contemporary Roman imperial cult of adoption Caesar's adoption of Octavian.

Question: What were the arguments they used to refute adoptionism?

The purpose of this question is to

  • investigate whether non-NT sources were used in the arguments
  • learn how the church fathers use and interpret the NT passages to establish Jesus's pre-existent deity

I'm looking for quotes from any of the following:

  • declarations issued by the 2 Popes,
  • writings by early church theologians, or
  • council documents (not necessarily the 798 AD council, if adoptionism happened to be addressed at an earlier council)

Accepted answer needs to show how the quotes contribute to the refutation as well as the source of the quotes.

Motivation for this question

This question is motivated by some groups (like Jehovah's Witnesses) who do not think that NT books on its own is sufficient to establish the pre-existence and the God nature of Jesus, although hints are there (see answer to another question).

This question is related to a larger-scope question about how the church fathers refined the Trinitarian formula. But this question focuses only on refutation of Adoptionism.

  • I had given an Answer to this question, but curiousdannii made it invisible and deleted it. Your Question is unanswerable, because it takes it for granted that the Church Fathers (Tertullian, Origen etc.) did a good job, when, in fact, they followed in the footsteps of Justin Martyr, the one who made the "original sin" of openly affirming "another God and Lord" (Gr. theos kai kurios eteros). May 7, 2021 at 3:15
  • Besides, someone clumsily cancelled the comment that I appended to my own Answer, in reply to @Adam’s uninformed comment. But this someone forgot to cancel, at the same time, my comment in reply to @Adam’s, making the cancellation of Adam’s comment even more (and self-accusingly) evident :( May 7, 2021 at 3:25
  • @MigueldeServet I understand you don't agree with the premise of the Q ("it takes it for granted"). Since your Answer basically consists of your disagreement, your Answer obviously doesn't answer the Question. Therefore, in a StackExchange site, such an Answer can be deleted to prevent clutter. May 7, 2021 at 14:18
  • Are you seriously saying that the only Answer that are accepted at SE (or anyway Christianity SE) are those that confirm what is said in the Question (in this case "the church fathers refuted Adoptionism"), limiting themselves to the details (the "how")? May 7, 2021 at 15:13
  • 1
    @MigueldeServet I'm talking only for this question, which limit the answer to the "how". You can create a another, contrary, question asking for evidence of writers in the early church period who embrace Adoptionism for example. SE is not a blog nor a discussion forum. It's a QA version of wikipedia, so Q needs to be well defined & valuable for the community, and A needs to be objective and really answers the Q. May 7, 2021 at 15:19

1 Answer 1


Adoptionism had been declared a heresy by the Synod of Antioch in A.D. 268, which meant that neither Lucian, Arius, nor Eusebius could openly embrace it. After that Synod, anyone who dared claim that Jesus Christ was not in any sense God but only a human prophet adopted by God into a special, unique, relationship would likely lose their church position, if not be exiled by the emperor.

Adoptionism was attributed to Paul of Samosata. In Adoptionism (as in Nestorianism) the uncreated Son of God never enters into human existence. Paul of Samosata taught that Jesus’ divinity could be explained by his special relationship with God the Father beginning with his baptism in the River Jordan. He viewed the already-existing doctrine of the eternal deity of Christ as threatening the monotheism of Christianity. He believed that Jesus Christ was a man adopted by God as his special human son, which did not require Christ to actually become God. This reduced Christ to being a great prophet. Paul of Samosata was deposed by his own people after the condemnation of the Synod of Antioch in 268.

Those who were later taught by Lucian of Antioch (died 312), such as Arius, might not have had (or expressed) fully blown Adoptionist beliefs, but they found ways of less openly denying the fully divine status of the uncreated Son of God by saying he had been created by God at some point in time therefore, “there was a time when he was not.” Similar to Adoptionism, the teaching was that the Son remain forever subordinate to the Father not only in terms of his role but also in terms of his very Being.

You wish to know how the early church fathers refuted Adoptionism, so this rules out the debates of the Council of Nicea in 325 or thereafter. The pre-268 declaration of that heresy appealed to various proofs as to the full deity and uncreated status of the Son of God, the New Testament having such teachings by the Apostles. John, for instance, had written that the Word, who became flesh as the man, Jesus, was with God in the beginning, was God, and that the Word made everything that was made (John 1:1-14). He further wrote in the Revelation given to him by the resurrected Christ that this Lamb of God was [effectively] slain from the foundation of the world due to the agreement in the Godhead that this would happen (Rev. 13:8). And the risen Christ receives the worship of all heaven’s creatures, who fall before one throne crying, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.” (Rev. 5:12-13).

Unfortunately, I have drawn a blank with my books as to the deliberations of that Synod of Antioch. Although Boniface Ramsey in his 1985 book, Beginning to Read the Fathers, has a chart of Patristic Chronology, and he lists the Council of Antioch condemning Paul of Samosata, 268, there is a blank in the adjacent column of ‘Fathers and Patristic Writings’.

Although you said you are looking for “council documents (not necessarily the 798 AD council, if adoptionism happened to be addressed at an earlier council)”, I have pointed out that Adoptionism was first condemned at the 268 Council, so that the answer needs to focus on that time period. And Ramsey has no mention of any Fathers and Patristic Writings then. You alluded to Pope Victor 1st (A.D. 190-198, claimed as being the first black pope). He was known for how he excommunicated churches for celebrating Easter based on the Jewish date of Passover and not on a Sunday. Eventually he reversed his decision. I couldn’t find anything on-line about his views on Adoptionism. However, this link shows that it needs to be the writings of the Apostolic Fathers that should be consulted, given that they wrote up to that time period when Adoptionism was first condemned at the Council of Antioch. https://www.gotquestions.org/Apostolic-Fathers.html

As pointed out in the comments following the question, the connection with all of this to modern groups calls for alertness to many mutations over the centuries. Adoptionism and Arianism are alive and well in disparate groups, such as Unitarianism, liberalism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They all have their variations on those old ideas that various Councils condemned, so modern versions are often an amalgam of different points from different ancient groups. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses do emphasise Jesus’ special relationship with God the Father beginning with the baptism in the River Jordan, but then mix in Arius’s points about Jesus being a created angel, prior to that. The Unitarians are closer to Paul of Samosata in denying Christ’s pre-human existence. That is why it can be helpful to know Church history from the end of the 1st century onward

  • Thank you for providing a lead (Synod of Antioch) for further investigation on how the church fathers refute adoptionism. It looks like the details may have vanished from history. I accepted this answer for now, but if another provides the missing details, I may accept another answer later. Thanks again for the research! Jun 11, 2021 at 15:08

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