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Irenaeus and Redemptive History

James T. Dennison, Jr.

He has been called the most important theologian of the second century of the Christian era. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, has been given the encomium "father of Christian theology." I believe Irenaeus would have transferred that accolade to Justin Martyr, his predecessor, and, in many ways, his mentor in the Christian faith. But with allowances for Irenaeus's demur, he stands next to Justin as a giant overshadowing a dwarf. It is not the first time in church history that the student outstrips his teacher. The theological work of Irenaeus is rich—rich in its Christ-centered maturity, rich in its biblical foundation, rich in its passion for the church. While the problematic elements in Irenaeus's system remain matters of debate (his theology of the Eucharist; his alleged chiliasm or historic premillennialism), the heart of his teaching is catholic, evangelical, and, I am bold to say, in places even Reformed.

I want to examine Irenaeus's concept of recapitulation. And I want to do this in order to encourage us with the redemptive-historical or biblical-theological method of the early church fathers. Recapitulation (in Latin recapitulatio; in Greek ἀνακεφαλαιώσασις, anakephalaiōsis) is Irenaeus's term for the parallels between Adam in the Garden and Adam in the Incarnation. Or to put it succinctly (as he does), Christ Jesus as second Adam undoes what the first Adam did. The organizing principle in Irenaeus's view of the history of redemption is the two Adams. And since the second Adam is the Son of God, the very image of the Father, we are not surprised to find Irenaeus describing the first Adam, created in the image of God, as "son of God" (even as Luke does in his genealogy of Christ, Luke 3:38; see Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.22.3, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1:455—hereafter AH). In Christ, second Adam, all of the history of redemption is summed up, recapitulated, inverted, fulfilled. "[Christ] has therefore in his work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam ... that as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one" (AH 5.21.1; 1:548-49).

Life and Works

Irenaeus was not a native Westerner. He was born in the East—in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), perhaps in the vicinity of Smyrna (see Rev. 2). Smyrna is suggested as his childhood locale because he mentions that he heard Polycarp of Smyrna preach when he was a boy. Did the execution of Polycarp (ca. 155/56 A.D.) send Irenaeus to the West? We do not know for certain, but he did spend time in Rome before finally settling in Lyons in the Roman province of Gaul (modern day France). Martyrdom affected his life in Lyons too, for while he was away from the city on an embassy to Rome in the year 177 A.D., more than forty Christians in his adopted city were executed by the Romans. The amphitheater where this carnage occurred is still visible in that French metropolis. One of those martyred was Bishop Pothinus. On his return from Rome, Irenaeus was elevated to the episcopal vacancy and became the bishop of the city until his death.

Irenaeus's reputation as a magisterial theologian of the church rests upon his two surviving major works. The famous Against Heresies (or more technically "Examination and Refutation of the Falsely Named 'Knowledge'") was directed against the Gnostics, especially the heresies of the arch-Gnostic, Valentinus; it was written circa 180-85 A.D. The second volume extant is his Proof or Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, a handbook detailing the relationship between the Old and the New Testament—a relationship, as Irenaeus portrays it, of promise and fulfillment. This was written circa 190-95 A.D. While ancient writers listed this second work among the writings of Irenaeus, it was not until 1904 that a copy was discovered in Armenia. It was subsequently translated into English for the first time by J. Armitage Robinson in 1920.

Hermeneutic and Historia salutis

The hermeneutic of Irenaeus in both his major extant works is not a proof-text approach. While the extraction of verses and phrases from verses may function as proofs in both earlier and later patristic theology, the Bishop of Lyons is interested in an unfolding of revelation—a progress of revelation, if you will. This progressive self-disclosure of God is supremely disclosed in the person of his Son. Hence Irenaeus is self-consciously Christocentric even as he is self-consciously Theocentric. The fullest expression of God's self-revelation is found in his Son and that means, for Irenaeus, that all of Scripture is oriented to the revelation of Christ—both in the fullness of time and in every anticipation of that fullness. For Irenaeus, biblical theologian, the Old and New Testament are complementary, disclosing the promise as well as the advent of the Son of God. And the Son of God has been revealed in order to redeem sinful men and women. The economy of salvation—the history of redemption (historia salutis)—is central to Irenaeus's biblical theology. Man, imperiled by his fall into transgression, is in need of restoration to divine favor. Estranged and separated from his Creator by sin, man must be united again to the God from whom he first rebelled at the instigation of Satan. If God and man have been dis-united by the defection of sin; God and man must be re-united by salvation from sin. And this re-union is by way of incarnation; to again join together alienated God and sinful man will necessitate a union of God and man. In part, it is the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God—union of God and man—to join together what man in his sin had put asunder. "For all things had entered upon a new phase, the Word arranging after a new manner the advent in the flesh, that He might win back to God that human nature which had departed from God" (AH 2.10.2; 1:424). "[T]he Word of the Father who descended is the same also that ascended, He, namely, the Only-begotten Son of the only God, who, according to the good pleasure of the Father, became flesh for the sake of men ... flesh ... which was of old formed for Adam by God out of the dust" (AH 1.9.3; 1:329).

Anti-Docetic and Anti-Gnostic

Notice here the emphasis upon the reality of the flesh which the Logos/Word assumes. Irenaeus is emphatic that the Son of God assumes the flesh of a genuine human nature—he does not merely appear or seem to appear in the flesh. A mere fleshly appearance—a fleshly phantasm in the Logos—would destroy the reality of the incarnation; it would, in fact, destroy the truth of the incarnation. An incarnation which only appears to be "in the flesh" is no incarnation at all. "Vain indeed are those who allege that He appeared in mere seeming. For these things were not done in appearance only, but in actual reality. But if He did appear as a man, when He was not a man," there was no "degree of truth in Him, for He was not that which He seemed to be" (AH 5.1.2; 1:527). Irenaeus is burdened to underscore the reality of the Son of God/the Logos taking real flesh—a genuine human nature—because in his day he is facing an insidious denial of the reality of the incarnation. Gnostic anthropology or particularly Gnostic Christological anthropology (i.e., Gnosticism's view of the incarnation) was docetic. The Son of God/Logos according to the Gnostics only appeared (Greek, dokein) to take on a human nature. The seeming flesh of Christ was in fact only a phantasm, a chimera—the divine nature of the Logos could not unite with the human nature because the divine and human arenas were incompatible. Gnostic religion was a religion of escapism—escape from the corrupt, evil, human, created arena for the pure, pristine, divine arena (Greek, pneuma). The purpose of the advent of the Son of God for Gnosticism was to show man the way to escape from the corrupt and enter the incorruptible. To escape required the proper knowledge (Greek, gnosis)—the proper instruction, the correct initiation into the secrets of the divine arena. Knowing how to escape from the physical, the fleshly, the carnal—that was salvation. Jesus showed the way by knowledge of the truth—the truth that fleshly physicality was not real—pneumatic spirituality was real. The docetic Christ is Gnosticism's repudiation of the reality of the incarnation. For Irenaeus, this was not only error; it was damnable error because it left man with no hope of union with God. Irenaeus is as vigorously anti-docetic as he is anti-Gnostic. Mankind's true salvation in the flesh is at stake.

Deity and Humanity of Christ

But if Irenaeus is emphatic in his defense of the reality of the incarnation, he is as emphatic in his defense of the deity of Christ, i.e., that the Son of God is God, or the Logos is God. Irenaeus asserts this clearly: "the Son of God shall come who is God" (AH 3.20.4; 1:451). And then, citing Habakkuk 3, he continues: "God shall come from the south, the Holy One from Mount Effrem" and by this the prophet "indicates in clear terms that He is God" (ibid.). As the Gnostics questioned the humanity of Christ, so the Ebionites challenged his deity. The Ebionites were a Jewish-Christian group who argued that Jesus was fathered by Joseph through carnal intercourse with Mary and thus was a mere man (nudus homo, "bare man" or "mere man," to use Tertullian's phrase—De carne Christi, 14; Ante-Nicene Fathers 3:534). The Son of God is the only-begotten of the Father so that for Irenaeus, the Father begets the Son and the Son is begotten of the Father. Thus the Christ of Irenaeus is God, but he is also a distinct person of the Godhead as Son of God ("the Father only who begat, and the Son who was begotten," 2.28.6; 1:401). As to the mode of the Son's generation, Irenaeus does not speculate ("If any one, therefore, says to us, 'How then was the Son produced by the Father?' we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation ...," ibid.). The relational terms—Father and Son—and the divine eternality suggest consubstantial deity, Father and Son (as well as Holy Spirit). "The Son eternally co-exist[s] with the Father" (AH 2.30.9; 1:406). "The Son of God did not then begin to exist [i.e., at the creation or at the incarnation], being with the Father from the beginning" (AH 3.18.1; 1:446). There is a mutual cohesion of deity in Father and Son: "the Son, who is in the Father, and has the Father in himself" (AH 3.6.2; 1:419). "The unmeasurable Father was Himself subjected to measure in the Son; for the Son is the measure of the Father, since He also comprehends Him" (AH 4.4.2; 1:466).

The genuine humanity and deity of the Son/Logos is crucial to Irenaeus because the Bible tells him so. And the Bible also tells him that mankind is in a state of desperate separation from God so that man's redemption requires a Savior who is God and man. A mere man (nudus homo) will not do; a divine phantasm who only appears to be man will not do. Irenaeus's doctrine of the person of Christ is forged in concert with his doctrine of salvation. Christology and soteriology are intimately united in Irenaeus (as in the Bible).

Recapitulation

Virtually all students of Irenaeus have noted his famous recapitulation concept. Based upon the apostle Paul's remarks in Ephesians 1:10, Irenaeus transfers the "summing up" (anakephaliōsis) of Paul's epistle to the divine economy or the history of redemption. He therefore positions the historia salutis around the recapitulatory relationship between the first and second Adam. Soteriology involves anthropology. Christology integrates theology, anthropology, and soteriology. The advent of Christ, Son of God, is the reversal, the inversion, the turning back, the overturning, the antithesis, the volte-face of the lapse of Adam, the son of God. For Irenaeus, the whole of human history from creation to consummation is summed up in two persons—Adam the first and Adam the last. Or to use terminology Irenaeus does not use, but I believe is compatible with his thinking: all of human history is summed up (recapitulated) in the protological Adam and the eschatological Adam.

I would like to pause and allow this point to soak into our consciousness. Setting aside Irenaeus's dependence on Justin Martyr, his predecessor historically speaking, we have a massive work dating from 180-85 A.D.—a work which is universally regarded as the dominant theological work of the second century church—we have a work a century removed from the apostolic era, doing precisely what the apostle Paul does with the history of redemption in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, Philippians 2, etc.—i.e., organizing the whole of human history around two figures, two Adams, two heads of humanity. I reinforce this point in order to underscore the fact that Irenaeus is thinking in Pauline fashion like a biblical theologian. I should note that, in fact, most modern history of doctrine textbooks denominate him in precisely these terms: "the biblical theology of St. Irenaeus"; Irenaeus proceeds as a "biblical theologian"; Irenaeus articulates a heilsgeschichte ("holy history" or "salvation history") methodology; Irenaeus of Lyons works out of the history of redemption.

In further analyzing Irenaeus's recapitulation of history in two Adams, let us first ask, in Oscar Cullmann terms, at what time does this recapitulation occur. Irenaeus declares that the recapitulation occurred in the "last times," "in the end, rather than in the beginning." Redemptive history—that is, history in which the last Adam recapitulates the first Adam—has entered "the last times"; or, as we would put it, redemptive history has entered the eschatological times. The eschatological Adam enters history in the eschatological era. Irenaeus is conscious that with the recapitulatory advent of the man from heaven, the end of history—the end of the world—is upon us. And as a further token of that eschatological era—that end of the world era—which has dawned in the coming of the Son of God, Irenaeus points to the salvation of the Gentiles. Here is Irenaeus articulating precisely what Paul and other New Testament writers announce—that the salvation of the nations—mankind in its universal, not Jewish particularistic, context—marks the end of history. "God hath concluded every man in unbelief that He may have mercy upon all ... describe[s] on what account the Word of God became flesh and suffered; and relate[s] why the advent of the Son of God took place in these last times, that is, in the end, rather than in the beginning [of the world]; and unfold[s] what is contained in the Scriptures concerning the end [itself] and things to come; and [is] not silent as to how it is that God made the Gentiles, whose salvation was despaired of, fellow-heirs, and of the same body and partakers with the saints ... That is a people who was not a people; and she is beloved who was not beloved" (AH 1.10.3; 1:331).

With the advent of Christ, with the in-gathering of the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve from the nations, the end of history is as the beginning of history. There was an Adam at the beginning; there is an Adam at the end; there was an Eve at the beginning; there is an "Eve" at the end. For Irenaeus, the new Eve is more the virgin Mary than the church as the Bride of Christ; but the parallel allusion nonetheless is suggestive.

"God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man" (AH 3.18.7; 1:448). This recapitulation is gracious—done wholly and entirely at the sovereign good pleasure of God: "not by ourselves, but by the help of God, we must be saved" (AH 3.20.3; 1:450). For Irenaeus, salvation is by the "grace of Jesus Christ our Lord" (ibid.). "He graciously poured Himself out, that He might gather us into the bosom of the Father" (AH 5.2.1; 1:528).

Redemptive-Historical Reversal

Irenaeus proceeds to describe how this gracious salvation recapitulates the miserable rebellion of Adam and Eve, reversing the reversal. "As our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death" (AH 5.21.1; 1:549). "Our Lord took up the same first formation [in the flesh] for an incarnation, that so he might join battle on behalf of his forefathers and overcome through Adam what had stricken us through Adam" (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, 31; Robinson ed., p. 68).

The protological Adam brought an inversion or reversal in mankind's relationship with God, our Creator. He brought us into bondage by his original sin; Christ inverts the reversal by delivering us from bondage. I should note that sinful man's bondage is expressed by Irenaeus in terms of bondage to Satan; and it is this emphasis which has misled some to suggest that Christ's death for Irenaeus is a ransom paid to Satan to release us from bondage to the prince of darkness. But as Gustav Wingren pointed out, Christ's death as a ransom is not a payment made to Satan; it is a payment to God the Father to reverse and break the shackles of sin, death, and judgment. There is no ransom to the Devil in Irenaeus's doctrine of the atonement. When Irenaeus suggests man's bondage under sin to Satan, he means a willing enlistment of rebellious mankind in the war which Satan himself first waged against heaven. In other words, sinful Adam voluntarily enlists in Satan's alienation from his Maker. Adam's bondage to Satan is a willing alliance with the arch-rebel.

The most dreadful consequence of the first Adam's transgression was death—the sentence threatened against him by his Creator-Lord. The inversion to death means the protological Adam (and all mankind in him) lost life—the breath of life given to him by God was forfeited. "He who was a living soul forfeited life when he turned aside to what was evil" (AH 5.12.2; 1:538). "What was it, then, which was dead? Undoubtedly it was the substance of the flesh; the same, too, which had lost the breath of life and had become breathless and dead" (AH 5.12.3; 1:538). Anyone attached to the first Adam is dead, even as that first father became dead. There is no life in them because death now dominates their existence. Irenaeus dismisses any notion of spiritual life in Adam and those joined to him. In fact, he suggests they have no natural life since for Irenaeus natural life means life from the hand of God as Adam received life in the beginning. Thus to be "in Adam" is to be not living, but dying. Life is only in the second Adam and union with him. This is a significant antithesis in Irenaeus: life for sinful man is not life—it is death and cannot be designated by a term reserved for God's own arena. Life and not death is only found in the new man—the second Adam, the man from heaven who became a life-giving spirit. "Therefore... the Lord came to quicken, that as in Adam we do all die, as being of an animal nature, in Christ we may all live, as being spiritual, not laying aside God's handiwork, but the lusts of the flesh, and receiving the Holy Spirit" (AH 5.21.3; 1:538). It is as a bearer and bestower of the Holy Spirit that the eschatological Adam becomes a life-giving spirit ("These things, therefore, He recapitulated in Himself, by uniting man to the Spirit, and causing the Spirit to dwell in man," 5.20.2; 1:548). Possessing the Holy Spirit as possessing union with the second Adam alone is life—all else is death.

The first Adam brought death—temporal and eternal; the second Adam brought life—real and everlasting. Bondage to sin; death; loss of the breath of life: Adam's sin also brought enmity—"by transgressing [our Maker's] commandment we became His enemies" (AH 5.17.1; 1:544). The inversion of Adam's sin made friends enemies; and enemies friends. Mankind in Adam from the Fall became enemies of God and friends of Satan. The reversal had to be reversed if man was to become a friend of God once more. "And therefore in the last times the Lord has restored us into friendship through His incarnation" (ibid.). The reversal of Adam the first (alienation) is itself reversed in Adam the last (reconciliation). Friendship with God, which is enmity with Satan, is accomplished in the one who is from the Father's bosom and the arch-enemy of Satan. The Son of God is Friend and Bringer of Peace (Reconciliation). Adam's greater Son, Jesus Christ, has befriended us to the Father by resisting the Devil, declaring himself an implacable enemy of the Tempter, and joining our lives to his life of reconciliation, peace, and friendship with God. From this blessed peace flows new communion and fellowship with God. If the last Adam, eschatological Son of God, utters "Abba Father," then because of him and his wondrous recapitulation, we too may cry "Abba Father." Communion with God is rooted in the communion of the Son with the Father, the Father with the Son. Paraphrasing Irenaeus—the eschatological Adam is the eschatological Friend of God; in him, no more alienation, no more enmity, no more disunion—in him, eschatological union and communion. "The Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood ... and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to man by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation" (5.1.1; 1:527).

I would be derelict did I not mention Irenaeus's recapitulatory doctrine of the cross. With fascinating and penetrating insight, he associates the protological and the eschatological tree: "as by means of a tree we were made debtors to God, [so also] by means of a tree we may obtain the remission of our debt ... For as we lost it by means of a tree, by means of a tree again was it made manifest to all, showing the height, the length, the breadth, the depth in itself; and as a certain man among our predecessors observed, 'Through the extension of the hands of a divine person, gathering together the two peoples to one God.' For these were two hands because there were two peoples scattered to the ends of the earth; but there was one head in the middle, as there is but one God, who is above all, and through all, and in us all" (AH 5.17.3-4 sic; 1:545-46). And did you catch that other interesting observation—not only the summing up by means of the relationship between protological and eschatological tree, but the two outstretched hands of the crucified Christ gathering into one, under his headship, Jew and Gentile alike. For Irenaeus, the cross is not only the healing of sinful man; the cross is the healing of the nations.

Irenaeus and Paul

The biblical-theological, the redemptive-historical, the Adamic recapitulation is clear. Irenaeus of Lyons, with the inspired apostle Paul, sees all of history oriented around two figures—two men—the urgeschichtlich protos Adam and the endgeschichtlich eschatos Adam. "Nor would the Lord have summed up [recapitulated] these things in Himself, unless He had Himself been made flesh and blood after the way of the original formation [of man], saving in his own person at the end that which had in the beginning perished in Adam" (AH 5.14.1; 1:541). "What we had lost in Adam ... we ... recover in Christ Jesus" (AH 3.18.1; 1:446). "As in the natural [Adam] we all were dead, so in the spiritual we may all be made alive" (AH 5.1.3; 1:527).

This recapitulation concept has, in Irenaeus, a quaint and fascinating feature. As Christ recapitulates Adam, so he recapitulates every stage in Adamic human nature. That is to say, Irenaeus believes that the recapitulation is not merely redemptive-historical, he believes it is also personal-historical. For Irenaeus, Jesus recapitulates man's history by undergoing the phases of man's history. Is man born a child? Jesus recapitulates man's history in being born a child. Does man grow to boyhood? Jesus recapitulates man's history in growing to a boy. Does man progress to adolescence? Jesus recapitulates by becoming an adolescent youth. Does man mature to adulthood? Jesus recapitulates by maturing as an adult. Does man enter old age? Here Irenaeus surprises us: Jesus recapitulates man's story as old man. According to Irenaeus, Jesus is crucified when he is about fifty years old (John 8:57 literally!; AH 2.22.5-6; 1:392). Jesus recapitulates the phases of man's physical maturity—from infancy to adulthood. Why does Irenaeus insist on this physiological recapitulatory pattern? Because Christ sanctifies each phase of man's development: infancy, childhood, youth, adulthood, old age. No phase of man's maturation has not been experienced by Christ; so that in Christ, each phase of that history may be delivered up unto God as a sanctified possession.

Eschatological Paradise

Before we conclude, I want to note one other significant aspect of the two Adams motif. Is the work of the second Adam a mere restoration of the work of the first Adam? Does Christ as eschatological Adam merely place man back in the garden with the protological Adam? Or does Irenaeus sense that even the first Adam is destined for more than the earthly Garden of Eden? When Irenaeus changes his focus from the first to the second Adam in order to define the nature and reality of the recapitulation, he is implicitly answering our question. As the second Adam exceeds the first in dignity and glory, so that which the Logos inhabits from eternity to eternity (albeit as incarnate Logos from eternity future) exceeds what the first Adam inhabited. Paradise protological is exceeded by Paradise eschatological as Adam protological is exceeded by Adam eschatological.

This is particularly emphasized in Irenaeus's discussion of the Logos (Son of God) as the image of God and the incarnate Logos as the restorer of the image of God in man. Without confusing the Creator/creature distinction, Irenaeus relates the Adamic image of God to the image of God in the Son/Logos. In other words, the model for Adam as son of God (Luke 3:38) was the Logos as Son of God. The image of God which the Logos reflects is paralleled by the image of God which Adam reflects. Holding to the discontinuity between the image of God in a created being and the image of God in an uncreated Being, Irenaeus still relates the categories of lost and defaced imago to ontological imago. The perfect imago Dei is not Adam, but Christ. Thus even imago points beyond itself (as does Adam, the Garden, the promise of life, the threat of death).

Conclusion

Irenaeus of Lyons joined together the Word/Logos consubstantial with God the Father; and the flesh, consubstantial with Adam. He embraced this union of God and man in order to join heaven and earth. Any suggestion of discontinuity between heaven and earth (as in Gnosticism) was to make redemption/salvation impossible. Gnosticism had no doctrine of redemption—that is, redemption of man—flesh and spirit. Gnosticism had no history of redemption—that is, incarnational or intrusionary acts of God in time and space. Gnosticism had no biblical theology—that is, no progressive unfolding of God's revelation to his people in history. Gnosticism had no recapitulation—that is, no summing up of mankind's history in the last Adam, Jesus Christ. Gnosticism had only escape, appearance, illusion, (secret) gnosis. How could salvation for sinners arise from such a system of despair? It could not!

Irenaeus knew that the Lyons martyrs of 177 A.D. had died in Christ—real human lives in real union (body and soul) with the One who united himself to them (God and man). Irenaeus knew that the apostles saw, heard, and handled a God-Man in the fullness of time. Irenaeus knew that the church was the assembly of the saved—the body of the One who lived (God in the flesh) for them, who died (God in the flesh) for them, and who was raised again (God in the flesh) for their salvation. Only a recapitulation—only an eschatological recapitulation—could bring such glorious good news to lost sinners.

James T. Dennison, Jr. is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, serving as professor of church history and biblical theology at Northwest Theological Seminary in Lynnwood, Washington. Ordained Servant, November 2008.

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