Irenaeus of Lyon: Adam, Christ, and the Christian Life (Part 5)


In his article “Our Hearts of Darkness: Original Sin Revisited,” in Theological Studies 49 (1988) (597-621), Father Stephen J. Duffy sums up Irenaeus’ teaching on Adam and humanity in this way:

“For Irenaeus, the unification of creation and redemption in a single order is pivotal. Perfection is at the end, not at the beginning; hope burns not for restored innocence but for healing and homecoming. According to Irenaeus, since ethical perfection cannot come ready-made, God made the world a testing ground, and history a person-making process of growth. Adam was no superman tumbling down from perfection to imperfection. Rather he came from his maker’s hand childlike… Created imperfect, they were perfectible as they grope through a situation in which sin is virtually inescapable.

“Genesis does not contrast the way things are with the way things once were, but the way they are and ever have been with how they ought to be. The garden is the dream, not the memory. Made to the image of God because endowed with intelligence, humans are meant, claims Irenaeus, to become to the likeness of God through the outpouring of the Spirit who conforms them to the pattern and norm, the Son incarnate. Our measure is not the first Adam, but the second. The Fall, therefore, is not deterioration according to Irenaeus; it is retardation of growth. Not the substitution of a divine back-up plan for the restoration of a lost order, redemption is rather the culmination of creation and the assurance that the divine intention is stronger than human folly.” (Duffy, 619-620)

In that little bit, he sums up what I’ve been trying to say about Irenaeus over the past four posts. Nevertheless, I would now like to try to sum up how I feel all this impacts our daily lives, and how we understand the inevitable suffering and challenges we face throughout our lives.

Challenge, Failure, and Reassurance

Obviously, the Bible does not say sin is a good thing, but it does acknowledge that challenge and struggle are inevitable within God’s purposes for humanity to become like Him. What Genesis 3 shows is that a relationship with God involves a challenge: the challenge to obey Him, and to trust that He will grow us up into His likeness in His good time. Genesis 3 also shows us something else: Adam, Eve, you, me, and every human being fails at that challenge. We don’t trust. We don’t obey. That why we find ourselves estranged from God. Such failure affects not fractures our relationship with God, it also fractures our relationship with other human beings: spouses, children, parents, friends, everyone.

Yet still, Genesis 3 shows us one other thing, something that doesn’t get fully revealed until Christ, but it is still there in Genesis 3: there will be a “war” throughout history between the serpent’s offspring and the woman’s offspring, and eventually, somehow, the woman’s offspring will crush the head of the serpent. Despite Adam and Eve’s disobedience, despite our own sin and disobedience, God, in His providence, works through the struggle of history to still bring about His purpose: taking creatures made in His image, and growing them up into His likeness.

Thus, as Denis Minns points out, Irenaeus sees the history of humanity and the history of salvation as one and the same. Minns staes, [For Irenaeus] “…the whole process of development is identical with the creative act of God. When the act of creating the earth creature is looked at from the earth creature’s viewpoint, this process of development is what is seen” (84). Therefore, each one of our stories, and indeed the story of all creation, isn’t one of trying to recapture a lost perfection, but rather of choosing to take part in the transformation of God’s creation that He intended all along: from being men of the dust to being transformed into men of Heaven; from the old creation being transformed to the New Creation, from being spiritual infants “in Adam” to being spiritually mature Sons of God “in Christ.”

A NT View of Suffering and Death: The Biggest Loser is the Biggest Winner

Perhaps this can get us to at least a slightly better understanding to the age old question, “Why does God allow suffering and death?” To that question, I can’t even begin go through all the passages in the New Testament that talk about the inevitability, and dare I say, the necessity of suffering and death when it comes to salvation. On virtually every page of the New Testament you will find something about how trials, tribulations, suffering and death itself produce endurance, maturity, righteousness, and growing up into the fullness of Christ. It seems quite clear in the New Testament: You cannot become fully mature in Christ without going through suffering, because suffering is the “sparring partner,” if you will, to our spirits. It is what challenges to become fully mature in Christ.

Perhaps one more analogy will help: the show The Biggest Loser. At the beginning of the show you see various people extremely overweight and out of shape. They are given the challenge to get healthy and work out. The first few workouts are not only extremely painful for them, they are painful for us to watch! And those contestants are in hellish pain—their muscles haven’t worked that much in years, their heart is pumping as if it will burst. They feel like they’re going to die. But little by little, the weight comes off, the muscles get toned and get stronger, and by the end of the show, the ones who really worked hard are not only 10 times healthier than they ever thought they could be, but they have experienced an additional transformation other than their bodies alone. Their self-esteem, their confidence, and their spirit have returned—they are new people. The workouts that once seemed like hell to them are now a source of invigorating life. They love to work out now. Yes, their muscles still hurt after a workout, but it’s a different kind of hurt…it’s a “good hurt,” as opposed to the “hellish hurt” they first felt.

Irenaeus Day

This principle holds true for the Christian proclamation of salvation. For the spiritually immature person (who we have all been at one point or another), suffering and trials are horrific, despairing, and overwhelming. But for the spiritually mature person, they see the spiritual benefit in suffering—that’s why James can say, “Rejoice in your sufferings.” That’s why the spiritually mature person will look for ways to deny himself—whether it be fasting, vows of celibacy, or consciously spending time helping the homeless—because he understands that keeping oneself familiar with suffering keeps one’s spirit on the path to full maturity in Christ. So just as the pain of the workouts are necessary if one wants to get physically fit, the pain of suffering is necessary if one is to become fully mature in Christ. There is a purpose and reason for suffering—to grow us up, and to bring us into the fullness of Christ. Suffering plays a part in our Spiritual transformation.

The Irrelevancy of a Historical Adam

The first time I ever wrestled with the historicity of Adam was twenty years ago, when I wrote a Systematic Theology paper on the doctrine of original sin in a J.I. Packer class at Regent College. It was at that time at I came to see the question of whether or not Adam was a historical person was ultimately irrelevant. Here’s why: even if somehow some historical/scientific find proved that there really was a historical Adam and Eve, it’s quite clear that the goal of Genesis 2-3 is not to “prove” it. Even if it were proven, I’d say, “Okay, so what? How does that fact change anything?”

The fact is that no single person in human history has ever been born fully mature and perfect–not even a historical Adam. As I already mentioned in an earlier post, Irenaeus shows us that the view of the early Church was that Adam and Eve were imperfect and child-like, and their sin was that in their childishness, they disobeyed God and tried to come to a knowledge of good and evil, and thus attain wisdom, before they were able to bear it. It is in that regard, therefore, that we are all “in Adam,” because we all do the same thing.

Yes, Irenaeus and probably most Christians throughout history, have assumed Adam and Eve were the first two human beings—but Irenaeus’ treatment, interpretation, and application of Genesis 2-3 was focused on how that story is our story, both as individuals and has the human race. I have to think that if Irenaeus was transported to this day and age, and it was explained to him the findings of the human genome project, and how that has shown that it is literally impossible for all of humanity to have descended from two people a mere 6,000 years ago—I have to think it would not have phased him, because he already clearly understood back in the 2nd century that Genesis 2-3 was speaking to the human condition of which we all are a part. He’d probably have the same reaction if he was shown that the sun really doesn’t go around the earth, but really the other way around. He’d probably say, “Wow! That’s amazing what you’ve been able to discover about the created order. How can anyone have a problem with that, and think that is a threat to faith in Christ?”

Though he probably assumed it, Irenaeus certainly did not obsess over the historicity of Adam. He would have no doubt looked at Ken Ham’s claims on the Answers in Genesis website, and just be mystified at Ham’s claims that Adam and Eve had some sort of perfect genome, and how if you don’t believe that, then you’re putting the Gospel in doubt. I can almost hear him say, “Ken, you’re missing the point. You’re so obsessed with trying to prove a fact that you’ve failed to see what the story of Adam and Eve is really getting at. Not only that, but your view of Adam and Eve is nearly identical with the heretics I worked so hard to expose and confront.”

Simply put, obsessing over the historicity of Adam and Eve is, I believe, a self-delusional attempt to keep Genesis 2-3 at arm’s length, and to keep it from directly challenging and speaking to our lives in the here and now. To do so is to objectify it, treat it as a fact that has to be proven and defended. Instead, we should see it as God’s revelation that speaks directly to each of us—for we are human beings, we are Adam. And in that respect, Genesis 2-3 becomes intimately relational and subjective, for it tells us who we are, it tells us why we do what we do, and it challenges us to respond and relate to God in obedience and trust.

And we know we can, and we know the goal, because we now see Christ, who is the image of the invisible God who has been revealed. Read through your New Testament through this lens, and you’ll see this view everywhere. It is inescapable. It permeates the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and the entire New Testament corpus. Irenaeus bears witness to it in his writings—and it is something we know deep in our bones, because it is that transformative salvation that we live out and in which we grow every day of our lives.

He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. (Phi 3:21)

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:18-21)

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