The Fall as a Stumble, and God as a Patient Father
Western theology (Protestant and Catholic), it is generally held (with good reason, it has to be said) to be very legal in its presentation of God and his ways. God gives a perfect and uncompromising law, Adam and Eve willfully rebelled, God justly imposed death and other catastrophes upon them and their descendants. Even redemption is understood primarily in terms of God's justice being satisfied. There are lots of debates about 'justification'. Legality seems to structure Western theology in many places, with the result that God often appears fairly stern and unyielding even when showing grace and mercy.
Irenaeus gives a very different impression. Like mainstream theologians generally, Irenaeus is clear that Adam’s disobedience was disastrous. As a consequence of his disobedience, Adam and his progeny find themselves under the dominion of death and Satan, and cut off from participation in God. These aren't good things - they attack the good intentions that God had for humanity when he made us.
However, Irenaeus’ view of the Fall contains features that arguably mitigate its seriousness compared to more common Western accounts. Irenaeus is of the view that Adam and Eve were children in the garden, not adults. They weren't made fully fledged perfect human beings in a static sense. Creatures only learn things over time and so in the Garden they were effectively small children (and maybe even physically so). Hence their disobedience was not calculating adult rebellion. It was the weakness and ineptitude of the young. It was tragic, but just a little bit less culpable.
There is more.
What do we make of God's decision to withhold the tree of life from Adam and Eve after their disobedience? The Western tradition generally sees this as judgement--Adam and Eve have the possibility of eternal life taken away. Irenaeus sees this act as an act of mercy. If they ate of that fruit they would live eternally in their current state. And what could be worse than eternal life under the tyranny of Satan rather than under the rule of the One who is Life and Blessing? So this, in Irenaeus, is mercy, not judgement.
Similarly, Irenaeus makes much of the fact that the curse falls on the ground rather than on Adam directly. He sees this as further evidence that when God deals with Adam and Eve in their primordial sin, the traits of patience, mercy and forgiveness are in the foreground. He sees Adam and Eve hiding and making fig leaf clothes as signs of repentance, not just shame. And argues that this repentance moderates God’s judgement on Adam, in contrast to unrepentant Cain (and we should note in passing that even there judgement is mitigated). He is also unequivocal that Adam is included within Christ’s salvation.
Overall, the gravity of the Fall is tempered down by Irenaeus. It is not act of a man who possesses the full measure of God's character yet somehow rebelling against God's decrees and losing (almost) everything as a result. It is the stumble of a youth faced with their first real test in life whose stumble lands everyone in a dire situation.
And through it all, God’s character is primarily one of mercy and patience:
This, therefore, was the [object of the] long-suffering of God, that man,passing through all things, and acquiring the knowledge of moral discipline,then attaining to the resurrection from the dead, and learning by experience what is the source of his deliverance, may always live in a state of gratitude to the Lord, having obtained from Him the gift of incorruptibility, that he might love Him the more; for “he to whom more is forgiven, loveth more:” .Against Heresies 4.38.1
Behind the Curtain: Building Blocks of Irenaeus’ ‘Nice Guy’ Theology
Behind this is Irenaeus' distinctive view of creation, humanity, and salvation.
For Irenaeus 'perfection' can only exist for God. Only God is who he is. God doesn't become more loving, or wise, or good, or just. God just is those things, and is them perfectly or exhaustively or infinitely. God doesn't change.
But creatures exist in time. We change, that's what it means for us to be creatures. So, for Irenaeus, we can't really be made fully 'perfect' (we can be perfect in the sense of not being under the reign of satan, but not perfect in the sense of 'no more possibility of moral growth into God's likeness'). Simply by virtue of being creatures we must start out as all humans do, needing to grow in wisdom, stature, and be made perfect (or complete) through the process of living life. It would be fair to say that Irenaeus comes pretty darn close to imposing necessity upon God in this regard:
If, however, any one say, “What then? Could not God have exhibited man as perfect from beginning?” let him know that, inasmuch as God is indeed always the same and unbegotten as respects Himself, all things are possible to Him. But created things must be inferior to Him who created them, from the very fact of their later origin; for it was not possible for things recently created to have been uncreated. But inasmuch as they are not uncreated, for this very reason do they come short of the perfect. Because, as these things are of later date, so are they infantile; so are they unaccustomed to, and unexercised in, perfect discipline. For as it certainly is in the power of a mother to give strong food to her infant, [but she does not do so], as the child is not yet able to receive more substantial nourishment; so also it was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect from the first, but man could not receive this [perfection], being as yet an infant.Against Heresies 4.38.1
‘All things are possible for God’ and yet newly created things can’t be made with experience—that is inherent to what it means to have a starting point. And so Adam wouldn’t have been able to receive perfection (or fullness) from the beginning. God could give it, but Adam couldn’t receive it, so God couldn’t give after all. It’s a sort of Clayton’s necessity upon God. It’s the necessity you have when you don’t have a necessity.
Thus, for Irenaeus Adam is set up with a pristine beginning point to undertake the task that God set before him. This task involved growing into maturity by experiencing temptation and overcoming it and so coming to know and embrace the good in a more thorough way than was possible in his naiveté in the beginning, having now encountered evil. In this way, Adam would grow into the image and likeness of God. This in turn was a necessary step in him being able to participate in the life and nature of God and so enter into immortality. He doesn’t start with everything, but he starts with everything he needs to embark upon the task of growing into the image of God:
… man making progress day by day, and ascending towards the perfect, that is, approximating to the uncreated One. For the Uncreated is perfect, that is, God. Now it was necessary that man should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound; and having abounded, should recover [from the disease of sin]; and having recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord. For God is He who is yet to be seen, and the beholding of God is productive of immortality, but immortality renders one nigh unto God. .Against Heresies 4.38.3
Important to this account of humanity’s growing into the likeness of God by living that Irenaeus puts forward is an argument about how we know things. In 4.39.1 of Against Heresies Irenaeus contrasts two ways of knowing, one is by opinion (‘book learning, or being taught by another person), the other is by experience (first hand). He argues that knowledge through experience is better—the lessons are made more thoroughly part of the learner. He observes that that this requires humanity to taste both good and evil so as to more fully know the goodness of good and that evil is ‘disagreeable and nauseous’. Irenaeus goes so far as to claim that ‘…if any one do shun the knowledge of both these kind of things, and the twofold perception of knowledge, he unawares divests himself of the character of a human being.’
Again, there is something that rings true at this point. We do learn in a way from experience that does not happen otherwise. Hebrews speaks of Jesus being perfected through his sufferings to be made the perfect High Priest for us. Irenaeus is observing that living in a world where temptation and evil exist is not an unmitigated disaster for us. There is a sense in which God’s project goes forward as we experience and evil, say ‘yuck’ and turn to the good even more wholeheartedly than we did when we were innocent.
But again, there’s real problems. Irenaeus’ account suggests that there is a form of necessity that attaches to human sin; God’s plan for salvation includes the experience of sin and then turning away from it through repentance and holding even more firmly to the commands of God as a consequence of practicing wickedness. In Irenaeus’ account it seems as though sin was an absolute necessity (and not just something arising out of God’s predestination). God needed sin. Probably not where we should be going at that point.
It also creates problems for our picture of Jesus. If ‘tasting’ evil doesn’t just involve being tempted, but actually doing evil, then his account would seem to leave Jesus either a sinner or not human. Again, Irenaeus’ account has something going for it, but the devil in the details is particularly diabolical.
One of the really great things that comes out of Irenaeus’ account is that he sees that there is a good effect from the Fall. As a consequence of human disobedience, humanity learns not to be self-reliant as though humanity has life or strength within itself, and so learns to look to God as the one in whom is everything needed for life and righteousness. In our failure, God is glorified. The sheer glory of God’s strength and grace is shown by his ability to cure us of our sickness:
This, therefore, was the [object of the] long-suffering of God, that man…may know himself, how mortal and weak he is; while he also understands respecting God, that He is immortal and powerful to such a degree as to confer immortality upon what is mortal, and eternity upon what is temporal; and may understand also the other attributes of God displayed towards himself, by means of which being instructed he may think of God in accordance with the divine greatness. For the glory of man [is] God, but [His] works [are the glory] of God; and the receptacle of all His wisdom and power [is] man. Just as the physician is proved by his patients, so is God also revealed through men. And therefore Paul declares, “For God hath concluded all in unbelief, that He may have mercy upon all;” Against Heresies 3.20.2
Only God has life in himself and only God has righteousness and strength in himself. Humanity was made mortal, just like every other creature made in time. Mortality is our nature, death is normal for human beings on their own. But we were destined for eternal life—for something that is beyond our own human nature. We were intended to share in God’s eternal life, to participate in his life, and so be raised to a state beyond what is naturally possible. At this point, Irenaeus is quite different from classical evangelicalism, which would follow Calvin and hold that humanity was made with an immortal soul and so is inherently immortal.
As a consequence of Irenaeus’ view, Adam’s failure in the garden is a spur to humility and faith. We couldn’t meet the first challenge we faced! We clearly have none of the resources we need to grow up into the likeness of God and so participate in his eternal life. In light of this the wise person despairs of themselves and looks to God to do for them what they cannot do for themselves—which is the very thing that needs to happen for us to be saved.
…man, who had been disobedient to God, and being cast off from immortality, then obtained mercy, receiving through the Son of God that adoption which is [accomplished] by Himself. For he who holds, without pride and boasting, the true glory (opinion) regarding created things and the Creator, who is the Almighty God of all, and who has granted existence to all; [such an one,] continuing in His love and subjection, and giving of thanks, shall also receive from Him the greater glory of promotion, looking forward to the time when he shall become like Him who died for him, for He, too, “was made in the likeness of sinful flesh,” to condemn sin, and to cast it, as now a condemned thing, away beyond the flesh, but that He might call man forth into His own likeness, assigning him as [His own] imitator to God, and imposing on him His Father’s law, in order that he may see God, and granting him power to receive the Father; [being] the Word of God who dwelt in man, and became the Son of man, that He might accustom man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father. Against Heresies 3.20.2
Christ came, for Irenaeus, to bring this participation about ‘that he might accustom man to receive God and God to dwell in man’. Christ recapitulates Adam’s life, passing through the stages of infancy to adulthood. At each point he triumphs where we failed (and fail again in every descendent of Adam). He then dies, and that death is for Irenaeus both a triumph over Satan and a propitiation.
But all of it happens to bring about this transformation—of uniting God and Man so that we share in God’s own properties of Life, Righteousness, and Glory and so are promoted to a position beyond what would be possible for any creature to enjoy otherwise.
It is a breath taking account. It puts the focus on Jesus Christ front and centre—only he can bring about this union of God and Man through his own incarnation. It highlights the awesome patience and graciousness of God in the face of our sin. It removes any hint of a stingy God toying with people and shines the spotlight fully on God’s purposes to bless humanity beyond what we can naturally take in.
The problem is that it has problems, as I’ve briefly indicated in places. And some of these are pretty serious.
This is a shame, because everyone likes to be a nice guy. I’d love to take up some of Irenaeus’ concerns—and it may be possible to debug aspects of it here and there. (That’ll sit away in the back of the head over coming years).
One thing that is worth keeping in mind in all this, is the context into which Irenaeus wrote.
As is apparent from Against Heresies and as I’ve suggested in earlier entries on Gnosticism, there were several movements that had big ethical complaints about Christianity. There were the Gnostics, the Valentinians (who modern scholars also consider Gnostic), and Marcion. All of them had problems with the idea that God made this world and made human beings to live in this world. They couldn’t see human existence in this world as good. And they had problems with God making human beings able to sin, there being temptation in the Garden, and humanity being shut off from the Tree of Life.
Overall, their view of the God of creation and of Genesis chapters one to three is of a miserly, begrudging God, who sets traps for his creatures, and makes them to live a blighted existence in time in a material universe, shut out from the glory of eternity.
It is the 2nd to 3rd century equivalent of the kind of criticisms made by guys like Dawkins and Pullman—the God of the Bible is immoral.
Against this kind of background, Irenaeus’ theological strategy makes sense. He is consecutively taking the rug out from under God’s critics, showing the essentially goodness and graciousness of God’s deeds.
Given our context has, I suggest, similarities, some of Irenaeus’ strategy may be of use in our day as well.