In this post I wish to consider one of the works of the early Father of the Church, St Irenaeus. This Irenaeus, one of the most important of the second century teachers of the Church was born in Smyrna in about 130 A.D., and had been taught by the equally famous bishop of Smyrna, St Polycarp, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John, and had died as a martyr in 155 A.D. St Irenaeus himself was settled in Lyon in modern France during the persecution of Marcus Aurelius between 161 – 180 A.D. In 177 A.D. the Church in Lyon sent him to Rome with a letter for Pope Eleuturus, describing the persecution, but when he returned, and the bishop of Lyons, Pothinus, was martyred, he was himself made bishop of Lyons. He wrote extensively about the threats to the Christian Church, especially from Gnostic heretics, but also produced a volume, which the Church historian Eusebius describes, called the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, which was an explanation of the Apostolic Faith as he had been taught it by St Polycarp and the other disciples of the Apostles.
It will be this text which will be the subject of reflection on the work of Christ on the Cross in this post. In Chapter XII of this little guide to the Christian Faith, he says…
Now, having made man lord of the earth and all things in it, He secretly appointed him lord also of those who were servants in it. They however were in their perfection; but the lord, that is, man, was (but) small; for he was a child; and it was necessary that he should grow, and so come to (his) perfection. And, that he might have his nourishment and growth with festive and dainty meats, He prepared him a place better than this world, excelling in air, beauty, light, food, plants, fruit, water, and all other necessaries of life: and its name is Paradise. And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness. But man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver.
This is an interesting passage. We see that man was created as the Lord of the Earth, and it wad intended that in his maturity he should come to be senior even to the angels, but he was still a child at his creation, and his perfection was to be accomplished through time and moral and spiritual growth. It was the Word of God who appeared and walked with Adam in the Garden, in Paradise, and St Irenaeus states that this was the purpose of God, that in the future mankind should always dwell with God and speak with him. But Adam was deceived because he was easily led astray, and was still a child in his thinking even though created a man.
In Chapter XIV, after describing the naming of all the animals by Adam, and the creation of Eve as his helper and companion, he says…
And Adam and Eve—-for that is the name of the woman—-were naked, and were not ashamed; for there was in them an innocent and childlike mind, and it was not possible for them to conceive and understand anything of that which by wickedness through lusts and shameful desires is born in the soul. For they were at that time entire, preserving their own nature; since they had the breath of life which was breathed on their creation: and, while this breath remains in its place and power, it has no comprehension and understanding of things that are base. And therefore they were not ashamed, kissing and embracing each other in purity after the manner of children.
We see here that in the beginning, Adam and Eve preserved the breath of life which they had been given at their creation, and this divine breath preserved them in holiness and purity. They were unable to comprehend sin and evil, but in their immature state they were able to be deceived. The divine breath preserved them and kept them free from the knowledge of evil, and so they even embraced each other in purity. It is in this context that God makes a law which Adam must keep. St Irenaeus says in Chapter 15…
But, lest man should conceive thoughts too high, and be exalted and uplifted, as though he had no lord, because of the authority and freedom granted to him, and so should transgress against his maker God, overpassing his measure, and entertain selfish imaginings of pride in opposition to God; a law was given to him by God, in order that he might perceive that he had as lord the Lord of all. And He set him certain limitations, so that, if he should keep the commandment of God, he should ever remain such as he was, that is to say, immortal; but, if he should not keep it, he should become mortal and be dissolved to earth from whence his formation had been taken. Now the commandment was this: Of every tree that is in the Paradise thou shalt freely eat; but of that tree alone from which is the knowledge of good and evil, of it thou shalt not eat; for in the day thou eatest, thou shalt surely die.
So St Irenaeus is saying that while man was created to be the Lord of creation, to prevent him thinking too highly of himself, and to show him that over him was the Lord of All, he was given this one commandment, that he should not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because if he did, then he would become subject to mortality and to a return to the dust from which he was made, and he would die. Of course we know that Adam was deceived, and he ate of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. St Irenaeus says that this made man sinful, caused him to be cast out from Paradise.
In Chapter 17, St Irenaeus says…
And when they were put out of Paradise, Adam and his wife Eve fell into many troubles of anxious grief, going about with sorrow and toil and lamentation in this world. For under the beams of this sun man tilled the earth, and it put forth thorns and thistles, the punishment of sin.
We can see that the punishment immediately came upon Adam and Eve. It was a change in the circumstances and situation, and it was the penalty of their sin. Separated from God, subject to mortality, bearing the grief of the world and enduring its pain and sweat. This was not some future punishment but one which came upon them at the moment of their sin.
St Irenaeus describes over several Chapters, the sorry consequence of Adam’s sin, and the wickedness which spread across the face of the world. But he keeps returning to the blessed remnant of faithful people whom God has preserved for himself. Here is how he speaks about Abraham, for instance…
In process of time, that is to say, in the tenth generation after the Flood, Abraham appeared, seeking for the God who by the blessing of his ancestor was due and proper to him. And when, urged by the eagerness of his spirit, he went all about the world, searching where God is, and failed to find out; God took pity on him who alone was silently seeking Him; and He appeared unto Abraham, making Himself known by the Word, as by a beam of light.
It is not that God is filled with wrath and anger towards mankind, but wherever he sees a faithful and seeking soul, he is moved by divine pity to reveal himself and make himself known. Then, at the right time, the Word himself became man. What does St Irenaeus say of this? In Chapter 31 he says…
So then He united man with God, and established a community of union between God and man; since we could not in any other way participate in incorruption, save by His coming among us. For so long as incorruption was invisible and unrevealed, it helped us not at all: therefore it became visible, that in all respects we might participate in the reception of incorruption. And, because in the original formation of Adam all of us were tied and bound up with death through his disobedience, it was right that through the obedience of Him who was made man for us we should be released from death: and because death reigned over the flesh, it was right that through the flesh it should lose its force and let man go free from its oppression. So the Word was made flesh, that, through that very flesh which sin had ruled and dominated, it should lose its force and be no longer in us. And therefore our Lord took that same original formation as His entry into flesh, so that He might draw near and contend on behalf of the fathers, and conquer by Adam that which by Adam had stricken us down.
This passage begins to express many of the teachings of St Irenaeus, received from the Apostles and their disciples, about the meaning of the incarnation and the Cross. We can provide a list of what he says, to more easily understand.
- United man with God by the Incarnation
- Allows man to participate in incorruption
- By Adam’s disobedience we were bound by death
- By his obedience we are released from death
- By becoming man in our flesh he destroyed the power of death in our flesh
- He became flesh in our flesh to destroy the power of sin in us and over us
- He took up the fight which Adam had lost with Satan to conquer Satan
This allows us to see that St Irenaeus understands the Incarnation and the Cross as essentially being the means by which God reunites mankind with himself, destroys the power of sin and death, and finally conquers Satan on man’s behalf. There has been no sense so far in this text that the punishment for sin will be the wrath of God poured out on the Son on the Cross, or that the punishment due to mankind is some form of torture other than the curse of death, separation from God, mortality, the subjection to sin and lust – as if this was not punishment enough.
We see in the writings of St Irenaeus the idea that Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, is working to restore all that had been lost through Adam’s fall into sin. This idea can be seen in Chapter 33, where he says…
And just as through a disobedient virgin man was stricken down and fell into death, so through the Virgin who was obedient to the Word of God man was reanimated and received life. For the Lord came to seek again the sheep that was lost; and man it was that was lost: and for this cause there was not made some other formation, but in that same which had its descent from Adam He preserved the likeness of the (first) formation. For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality; and Eve summed up in Mary, that a virgin should be a virgin’s intercessor, and by a virgin’s obedience undo and put away the disobedience of a virgin.
In this passage we see various opposing ideas being brought together as the purpose of the Incarnation. Then there was a disobedient virgin, Eve, who caused Adam to fall into the power of death. Now there is an obedient virgin, St Mary, who brings mankind back to life through bearing the Word of God. Then there was a mankind that was lost, now a new mankind of the same nature and descended from Adam has come. The purpose of Adam, a purpose in which he failed, is fulfilled in Christ. The purpose of Eve, a purpose in which she failed, is fulfilled in the Virgin St Mary, who by her obedience has removed the consequences of the disobedience of Eve.
And speaking of Christ, in Chapter 34, he is able to say…
The trespass which came by the tree was undone by the tree of obedience, when, hearkening unto God, the Son of man was nailed to the tree; thereby putting away the knowledge of evil and bringing in and establishing the knowledge of good: now evil it is to disobey God, even as hearkening unto God is good…. So then by the obedience wherewith He obeyed even unto death, hanging on the tree, He put away the old disobedience which was wrought in the tree.
There is a reversal in the Incarnation. Disobedience was in the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now in the tree of the Cross obedience is manifest. The knowledge of evil came into the world by the first tree, now the knowledge of good has entered the world by the second. This is the purpose of the Cross according to St Irenaeus, not that the Word be punished by the wrath of God, but that the disobedience of Adam, which hangs over mankind as the cause of our diseased state, should be removed from us once and for all by the obedience of the Word of God as man in our behalf.
In Chapter 37, St Irenaeus writes…
Thus then He gloriously achieved our redemption, and fulfilled the promise of the fathers, and abolished the old disobedience. The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death.
He likes to use the word summing up, and this represents the idea that Christ is living out the life of Adam and renewing it, correcting the faults he made and saving us from the condition into which his disobedience plunged us. The idea of abolishing or removing the disobedience of Adam is repeated here, and we see that this is achieved in every aspect of the life of our Lord and not only on the Cross. The purpose is not to prevent us being punished by God and feeling the heat of his wrath, but the intent is to show that Christ has become man to abolish death, make man truly live, set us free from bondage to sin, and take away the power of death. It is a glorious redemption, a victory, not the expression of an angry and vengeful Father punishing the Son with all of his wrath and hatred which he intended to pour out on us.
In Chapter 53, St Irenaeus speaks of the prophecy in Isaiah, saying…
His name is two-fold: in the Hebrew tongue Messiah Jesus, and in ours Christ Saviour. And the two names are names of works actually wrought. For He was named Christ, because through Him the Father anointed and adorned all things; and because on His coming as man He was anointed with the Spirit of God and His Father. As also by Isaiah He says of Himself: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me: wherefore he hath anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor. And He was named Saviour for this, that He became the cause of salvation to those who at that time were delivered by Him from all sicknesses and from death, and to those who afterwards believed on Him the author of salvation in the future and for evermore.
We see in this passage that he is the Saviour of mankind, and has delivered us from sickness and death, but we also see that it is through him that the Father works his own purpose, and upon his humanity that the divine Holy Spirit anoints him. It is therefore a work of the Holy Trinity, the salvation of mankind. It is not the work of the Son of God, bearing the wrath and hatred of the Father towards sinful men, but it is the operation of the mercy and love of the Father in the Son and through the Holy Spirit.
What then of the suffering of our Lord Jesus? In Chapter 68, and elsewhere, St Irenaeus reviews the prophecies concerning Christ and says…
By these words it is declared that He was tormented; as also David says: And I was tormented. Now David was never tormented, but Christ was, when the command was given that He should be crucified. And again by Isaiah His Word says: I gave my back to scourging, and my cheeks to smiting: and my face I turned not away from the shame of spitting. And Jeremiah the prophet says the same, thus: He shall give his cheek to the smiter: he shall be filled with reproaches. All these things Christ suffered.
He suffered much at the hands of men. The scourging, the beating, the mocking and spitting, the nail of thorns, the nails and the crucifixion. All of these he truly suffered in his own humanity as man. And he suffered death on our behalf and in doing so destroyed it and all the power of Satan. He was incarnate for our salvation and in the flesh in which Adam failed and was disobedient, he was victorious and obedient. In the flesh in which Adam fell under the power of death, he died and rose again destroying it. But at no point does St Irenaeus, the disciple of the Apostles, writing his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, ever suggest that on the Cross, Christ was being punished by the Father, was bearing the Father’s hatred and wrath against mankind, and was satisfying an angry God. Far from it. On the contrary, this divine mission for the salvation of mankind, and his freedom from death and the power of sin, was the work of the whole Holy Trinity together, in mercy and love for mankind.