Irenaeus of Lyons: There’s No “Plan B” in Christ–He is it, the Alpha and Omega (Part 4)


In order to understand what Irenaeus was driving at by emphasizing that Adam and Eve were children, you need to first understand that Irenaeus saw Christ as truly the Alpha and Omega of the entire creation. He saw God’s fundamental purpose for creation as being to bring all creation to fullness in Christ. That was the goal all along. The way by which God intended for humanity to “become like Him” had always been through Christ. It wasn’t like God created the world, only to be surprised that His supposedly “perfect” human beings, Adam and Eve, somehow screwed up His perfect masterpiece, and so then decided to resort to “Plan B” and sent Christ to clean up the mess.

This is an extremely important point: there is no “Plan B” with God. This creation, this history, this life we experience—this is the plan, and it always has been the plan: Christ was to be the savior of the world. Now, as Denis Minns points out, for Irenaeus and the Greek Fathers, the word “Savior” didn’t just narrowly mean “someone who pays the ransom for sinners.” It carried with it the notion of “Sanctifier.” And what does it mean to sanctify? It means to offer something up to God and to make it holy and set apart for God’s purposes.

Therefore, Irenaeus essentially said that although Adam was created in God’s image, he still was not yet “according to God’s likeness”—he still was not sanctified and made holy. He was initially child-like, naïve, and immature, and therefore needed to go through the process of life and relationship with God in order to achieve that “likeness.” Now the thing to realize is that all of that child-likeness, naiveté, and immaturity is inherently natural, it’s part of what it means to be a created being. To be created inherently means that we are not like God. He is uncreated perfection, whereas we are created as imperfect creatures, but with a purpose: to relate to God in obedience and trust so that we can forever grow into further likeness of God—and the one who makes that possible is Christ, our Savior and Sanctifier.

We will never be “perfect” in the same way God is perfect. But He has created us in His image, with the capacity to enter into a relationship with Him so that we may forever become more like Him. As Irenaeus explained, that is, and has always been, God’s plan for humanity and His creation: to create natural, imperfect creatures who have the capacity to be saved and sanctified by Christ, so as to grow into the likeness of God. Notice what Irenaeus says here:

“God having predestined that the first man should be of an animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One. For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.” (Against Heresies V.22.3)

If I can put it into other words, the whole purpose of humanity and creation itself was to give something to Christ to save and sanctify. What this means is that the entirety of human history is salvation history. As Denis Minns said, [For Irenaeus], the history of humankind and the history of salvation are one and the same. This path may twist and wander through many detours, but there is no radical bifurcation…The human race was predestined in Adam, but it was predestined to come to be in the image and likeness of God” (Minns, 58-59).

The Tragedy of Genesis 3 and the “Fall”
If we understand what Irenaeus is saying about Christ and his relationship to humanity, we’ll understand that the story of Adam and Eve is not simply a story of two people way back when. The story of Adam and Eve is meant to be seen as a description of the reality of the human experience. The Adam and Eve story is my story, is your story, is our story.

The tragedy of Genesis 2-3 wasn’t that God created two perfect people who sinned, and thus fell from perfection, resulting in God resorting to some sort of “Plan B of Christ.” The tragedy was on that stemmed from childish immaturity and disobedience—namely, Adam and Eve tried to grow up too fast, and didn’t trust God to grow them up in His good time. They were indeed created in God’s image, but the point of human existence was to grow up into full maturity, into God’s likeness. Being immature as they were, they didn’t want to wait—and so they disobeyed. In that sense, Genesis 3 isn’t about the first couple’s “fall from perfection,” as it is about human immaturity, disobedience, and the inevitable mess we make of things. Simply put, Genesis 3 sums up our human experience–we all know this to be true in our own lives.

Think about it. We are born immature, naïve, innocent and childish—of course…we’re children! When our parents try to teach us patience and wisdom, and try to guide us into maturity, what do we do? We don’t want to wait. We want the “freedom” of adulthood right now. And so, when our parents say, “Now you’re in high school, curfew is 10:00 pm on school nights,” and we find ourselves out with friends, we want to prove to our parents that we’re adults…and so we disobey and stay out until 11:30 pm. And what does that act of disobedience really show? That we’re mature? Absolutely not.

In actuality, it shows just the opposite—that precisely because we haven’t obeyed, that is evidence that we are still woefully self-centered, immature, and foolish. Consequently, punishment ensues, and distrust is sown. Our little disobedient act gave us a real knowledge of “good and evil.” Our eyes certainly are opened—and what we see is how foolish and sinful we really are, and how much hard work it will take to grow up and regain the trust of our parents, and how much work it will take to truly grow up and become mature adults.

The Sin of Adam and Eve: Inevitable? Part of God’s Plan?
As strange as it may sound, that tragedy can also be seen as an inevitability, and actually part of God’s plan. For how else does one gain wisdom, knowledge, and maturity, if one doesn’t step out and miserably fail first? The reality is that wisdom, knowledge, and maturity only come about after a series of steps and inevitable failures. Consider what Irenaeus says here about Adam (and us by extension):

He learns from experience that disobeying God, which robs him of life, is evil, and so he never attempts it… But how would he have discerned the good without knowing its opposite? For firsthand experience is more certain and reliable than conjecture… The mind acquires the knowledge of the good through the experience of both, and becomes more firmly committed to preserving it by obeying God. First, by penance, he rejects disobedience, because it is bitter and evil. Then he realizes what it really is – the opposite of goodness and sweetness, and so he is never tempted to taste disobedience to God. But if you repudiate this knowledge of both, this twofold faculty of discernment, unwittingly you destroy your humanity” (Against Heresies IV.39.1).

This has been the way God has planned it all along. He created immature and imperfect creatures, who were nevertheless created in His image, with the capacity and potential to enter into a relationship with Him, and thereby grow into His likeness. At the same time, He knew we would disobey, and thus invite suffering into our lives. But still, all along the plan was that through our sin, and the suffering and pain that comes with it, God, through Christ, had meant it all for our ultimate perfection, to where we “grow up in Christ,” and become ever more transformed into the likeness of God. Consider what Irenaeus says here.

How could man ever have known that he was weak and mortal by nature, whereas God was immortal and mighty if he had not had experience of both? To discover his weakness through suffering is not in any sense evil; on the contrary, it is good not to have an erroneous view of one’s own nature… The experience of both [good and evil] has produced in man the true knowledge of God and of man, and increased his love for God” (Against Heresies V.3.1).

I think reading and understanding Genesis 2-3 through that lens makes a whole lot more sense that the way I had always been taught to read it, as if it were literal history about the first two people in the world. That story (let’s admit it) never made much sense: These two people are naked, yet somehow don’t realize it until they eat a particular fruit that God had somehow not wanted them to eat? And somehow that particular tree’s fruit gives one knowledge of good and evil, but God doesn’t want them to eat it, because it will make them wise? And these two naked people are perfect, but listen to a talking snake who deceives them into eating the forbidden fruit? If they were so perfect, how were they deceived so easily? And because of that one act of disobedience, that’s why we have tornados, tsunamis, and hurricanes?

Yes, that’s an odd story if one tries to interpret as literal history. Yet if one listens to what Irenaeus says, one realizes that the story is spelling out a fundamental truth regards humanity as a whole, and each one of us as individual human beings. If you realize the symbolism going on in the story, you realize it is saying something very profound about human existence. That is, I submit, what we should take away from it.

Think about the times in your life when you’ve tried to be wise before your time, when you were deceived, when you reached out for some “forbidden fruit,” when you felt shame and guilt for doing something you knew was wrong, and when you experienced broken relationships because of something stupid you did. Read Genesis 2-3 with your story in mind, and you’ll find that Genesis 2-3 speaks directly to you. Despite the pain and suffering that has come about through your bad decision, God has promised to work through you, the woman’s offspring, to eventually crush the head of the serpent.

Irenaeus Day

Now, there’s much more going on in those chapters than what I’ve briefly touched upon in this post, but hopefully my point is clear: Genesis 2-3 tells us the start of God’s plan, and highlights how God is able to incorporate into His plan even the immature and disobedient choices of humanity. And then, in the New Testament, that plan is fully revealed, where we find Christ, taking all that pain and suffering down into death, and showing us that it is through that suffering and death that resurrection and life comes.

Tomorrow, some concluding thoughts about Irenaeus, what this means for the Christian life, and yes, how it figures into the “creation/evolution debate.”

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