Irenaeus of Lyons on the humanity and divinity of Christ

Detail from an icon of Irenaeus of Lyons. Courtesy of Flickr / bobosh_t (https://www.flickr.com/people/frted/)
Detail from an icon of Irenaeus of Lyons. Courtesy of Flickr / bobosh_t (https://www.flickr.com/people/frted/)

The passage below by the second-century Christian theologian Irenaeus of Lyons (around 180 A.D.) shows us very clearly the Christian belief, already at this period, in both the full humanity and full divinity of Christ, and in his virgin birth. (Not that any of this should come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the New Testament!)

The extract below is from his great work, Against Heresies, Book III, chapter 19, secs. 1 & 2. It is also one of the texts which helps us to build a picture of his distinctive doctrine of recapitulation, which I discussed in a previous post.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.19.1-2

Note: The wording presented here is my modernization of the text presented in Alexander Roberts and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, repr (Edinburgh: Clark, 1993), pp.448-9.

[3.19.1] But again, those who assert that he [i.e., Christ] was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remain in the slavery of the old disobedience, and are in a state of death since they have not yet been joined to the Word of God the Father, nor have they received freedom through the Son. For as he himself declares: “If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”[1]

“For it was for this purpose that the Word of God was made man, and he who was the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that man, having been taken into the Word and receiving adoption, might become the son of God.”

Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies’, 3.19.1

But, since they are ignorant of him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of his gift which is eternal life.[2] And since they do not receive the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh and are debtors to death, not having obtained the antidote which gives life. To them the Word, mentioning his own gift of grace, says: “I have said, ‘You are all the sons of the Most High, and gods; but you shall die like men.’”[3] Undoubtedly he speaks these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who instead despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God [as a man]. [In so doing,] they defraud human nature of being promoted into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God who became flesh for them.

For it was for this purpose that the Word of God was made man, and he who was the Son of God became the Son of Man: so that man, having been taken into the Word and receiving adoption, might become the son of God. For it was not possible that we could have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless incorruptibility and immortality had first become what we ourselves are? [And this was] so that what was corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and what was mortal by immortality,[4] so that we might receive adoption as sons.[5]

[3.19.2] For this reason [it is written], “Who shall declare his generation?”[6] since, “He is a man, and who shall recognize him?”[7] But the person to whom the Father who is in heaven has revealed him,[8] [also] knows him. [Such a person] understands that he who “was born neither by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man,”[9] is the Son of Man, the Christ, the Son of the living God.[10]

“Now the Scriptures would not have testified these things about him, if, like others, he had been a mere man. But the divine Scriptures do testify both these things of him: that he had in himself that pre-eminent birth that is from the Most High Father; and also that he experienced that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin.”

Irenaeus, ‘Against Heresies’, 3.19.2

For I have shown from the Scriptures,[11] that no-one of the sons of Adam is, absolutely and in every respect, called ‘God’ or named ‘Lord.’ But that he [i.e., Christ] is himself, in his own right, and beyond all men who ever lived, God and Lord and King eternal, and the incarnate Word, proclaimed by all the prophets and by the Spirit himself — this may be seen by everyone who has attained even to a small portion of the truth.

Now the Scriptures would not have testified these things about him, if, like others, he had been a mere man. But the divine Scriptures do testify both these things of him: that he had in himself that pre-eminent birth that is from the Most High Father; and also that he experienced that pre-eminent generation which is from the Virgin.[12] Also, [they testify] that he was a man without comeliness, and liable to suffering;[13] that he sat upon the foal of a donkey;[14] that he was given vinegar and gall to drink;[15] that he was despised among the people,[16] and humbled himself even to death;[17] and that he is the holy Lord, the Wonderful, the Counsellor, the one Beautiful in appearance, and the Mighty God,[18] coming on the clouds as the Judge of all men.[19] All these things did the Scriptures prophesy about him.

 

 

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[1] John 8:36

[2] Romans 6:23

[3] Psalm 82:6-7, quoted by Christ in John 10:34.

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:53-55

[5] Romans 8:15

[6] Isaiah 53:8 (AV, etc.)

[7] Jeremiah 17:9 (Septuagint)

[8] Cf. Matthew 11:27; Luke 10:22; Matthew 16:17

[9] John 1:13

[10] Matthew 16:16

[11] Earlier, in A.H. 3.6. See http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.vii.html

[12] Isaiah 7:14

[13] Isaiah 53:2-3

[14] Zechariah 9:9

[15] Psalm 69:21

[16] Psalm 22:6

[17] Cf. Philippians 2:8

[18] Isaiah 9:6

[19] Daniel 7:13

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