Irenaeus of Lyon: Adam and Eve as Children, and the Greek Philosophical Concepts of Becoming and Being (Part 3)

As I mentioned in the earlier posts, Irenaeus taught that Adam and Eve were essentially children. Such an understanding relates to the very way Irenaeus understood the purpose creation itself, and salvation in Christ.

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Concerning Adam and Eve, Irenaeus said,Adam and Eve were naked and were not ashamed, for their thoughts were innocent and childlike,” (Proof, 14). The very description of them as “naked” implied their child-like innocence and vulnerability. It wasn’t only Irenaeus who taught this. This view was, in fact, the view of the early Church. Theophilus of Antioch described Adam and Eve as “infants” at the time they sinned. Their sin, therefore, was that they tried to become wise beyond their years—they tried to grow up too fast. Clement of Alexandria called Adam a “boy” before his fall, and said that it was by sinning that Adam became a man.

A Brief Lesson on Greek Philosophy in the Early Church
The reason why early Church Fathers like Irenaeus saw Adam and Eve as children was because of their very understanding of reality. This requires a quick course on Greek philosophy: here is the point in a nutshell.

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Borrowing concepts from Greek philosophy, the early Church Fathers understood God as being an uncreated and eternal being, and therefore perfect—“pure actuality” as Aristotle would say. There is nothing about God that is in a state of “becoming,” because God already perfectly “is.” Even when He reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush, God does not say, “I am a being with potential to become something more.” He simply said, “I AM.”

By contrast, when God creates, He creates within time, and therefore the creatures he creates are in a constant state of “becoming.” I am a 46 year old man, but I am not the totality of Joel Anderson because I still have (hopefully!) a large portion of my life to live. If you’ve ever seen the bumper-sticker that says, “Be patient with me, God’s not finished with me yet!” you’re actually getting a glimpse of this very concept: as long as we are creatures within time, we are works in progress. We are creatures in a state of “becoming,” full of potentiality to become something more than we currently are.

By extension, that also means that everything must come in due time. When I was 12, I wasn’t mature enough to handle the responsibilities I have now at 46. Growing up takes time—there is no other way. This fact of reality is what Irenaeus is getting at when he describes why Adam and Eve were child-like:

“But things which are made by [God], in as much as they have received a beginning of their existence at a later time, must fall short of the one who made them. Things which have come into existence recently cannot said to be unoriginated. To the extent that they are not unoriginated they fall short of being perfect, for, in as much as they have come into being more recently, they are infants, and, in as much as they are infants, they are unaccustomed to and unpracticed in perfect discipline. A mother can offer adult food to an infant, but the infant cannot yet digest food suitable for someone older. Similarly God, for his part, could have granted perfection to humankind from the beginning, but humankind, being in its infancy, would not have been able to sustain it.” (Against Heresies IV.38.1)

That is what we see in Genesis 3, with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The fruit on that tree was “adult food,” and Adam and Eve were still on Gerber’s baby food, so to speak. Or to use another analogy: the fruit on that tree was like wine, and Adam and Eve were still under-aged. In their immaturity and curiosity, they snuck a bottle of wine back to their room drank the whole thing, and ended up throwing up, and waking the next day with a massive hangover. Thus, not only did they suffer in their bodies, their relationship with “Dad” was also affected, for they proved themselves to be disobedient. They were not fully grown up, and it showed.

In any case, if we were to simplify things, we could see the difference between God and human being as this:

God = uncreated = eternal = pure actuality = perfect being.

Human beings = bound within time = full of unrealized potential = imperfect creatures.

Given that, when Genesis 1:26 says that God created Adam “in His image” and “to be according to His likeness,” the early Church Fathers taught that was saying that even though we are mere creatures, not only  do we bear the stamp of God’s image, but God’s intention all along was for us to become like Him. That state of “becoming” necessitates time and history, so that God’s imperfect, incomplete creatures can progress and grow into His likeness. Simply put, being creatures, our “potentiality” is that we can (if we enter into an obedient and trusting relationship with God) become like God. That was, and still is, God’s purpose for humanity all along.

That is why the early Church Fathers didn’t view Adam and Eve as being created perfect. Only God is perfect, and God’s purpose for mankind, and the reason for creation itself, is so that His creatures can enter into relationship with Him, and by doing so, become ever-more like Him.

Back to Adam and Eve as Children, and the Reason for their Sin
…And that is why the early Church Fathers viewed Adam and Eve as children. Yet now leads to another wrinkle to understand. Irenaeus points out that since Adam and Eve were child-like, even though they were made in God’s image, it was something they had yet to fully grasp or understand, because Christ, the one who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), had not yet been made known or visible. That is why they were led astray so easily (Against Heresies V.16.2)—being child-like, they did not yet have full knowledge of good and evil, they had not yet acquired the wisdom that comes through living.

In that sense, one can say that “the fall” was inevitable, in the same way that it is inevitable that every single person, being childish and immature as we are, is bound to make bad choices and be led astray by countless temptations throughout your life.

Now, some might be alarmed by such an understanding of this idea that since Adam and Eve were child-like, “the fall” was an inevitability. Some might say, “Then you’re saying God is responsible for this sinful world, for He created Adam and Eve imperfect, knowing they would sin.” To that, I’ll just say three things: (1) God did know they were going to sin—He’s God; (2) Logic would state that if Adam and Eve were “perfect,” then they wouldn’t have been tricked and therefore sin in the first place; and (3) Keep reading—in my next two posts I’ll explain how Irenaeus explains how this all fits together.

1 Comment

  1. Quote: He reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush, God does not say, “I am a being with potential to become something more.” He simply said, “I AM.”
    Not true. The literal translation of the original Hebrew is “I will be who I will be.”

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