Evolution and the Sin in Eden
A New Christian Synthesis

Chapter 12: Irenaeus on Original Sin

The writings of St. Irenaeus (c.125-c.202) on original sin are implacably optimistic, contrasting remarkably from those of St. Augustine (354-430). He is also closer in time to the final deposition of the Apostolic Tradition: Christ taught the Apostles, who educated Polycarp, who instructed Irenaeus. We therefore have a very early witness to the Tradition of the Apostles in the writings of St. Irenaeus.

Irenaeus was not a polished rhetorician like Augustine. When asking indulgence from his readers, he explains that he was born in Greek-speaking Smyrna of Asia Minor, but he did not live and work in academe. He spent his life in frontier Lyons where he spoke to peasants in their native tongue. But we will experience that his thoughts are lofty, his heart is warm, his memory is sharp, and his learning is prodigious. His five-volume book Adversus Haereses written in Greek took to task the pseudo-science of sophisticated gnostics of his day and nailed them to the wall.

Irenaeus and Augustine teach in agreement that Adam sinned and lost his initial endowment of friendship with God, and that all people die as a result of Adam's sin. But whereas Augustine sees God's pristine plans frustrated by original sin, Irenaeus sees the same sin as an almost necessary step for the education of mankind. Irenaeus sees God laying out His plans with original sin already foreseen from the beginning. He would create man free, He foresaw the sin, He then made provisions accordingly. He would help man to use that freedom properly, with original sin as a stepping stone to facilitate the learning process. Christ would come fully prepared to cope with the situation of the fallen race. He would recapitulate the fallen race and lead it to the Father.

Augustine, however, would project Christ as an afterthought - as a second plan after the first had failed. Christ is sent into the world as a Repairman, to patch up the disaster caused by Adam. Even so, Augustine has us living in a world not completely repaired by Christ. It is a world, he maintains, in which God still punishes us for Adam's misdeed. It is as though we live in the suburbs of Chernoble after the nuclear meltdown.

St. Irenaeus, Founder of Christian Theology

Irenaeus came from Greek-speaking Smyrna of Asia Minor, where he inherited oriental theology concerning original sin, insofar as such theology had been developed. In his youth he learned doctrine at the feet of his bishop, the future martyr St. Polycarp (c.69-c.155). Scarcely a hundred miles from Smyrna was Ephesus, reportedly the home of Mary and St. John. John was never far from Mary, Polycarp was never far from John, and Irenaeus sat at the feet of Polycarp to learn the Apostolic Tradition at its primeval source. He writes about it to the Roman presbyter Florinus:

For, when I was still a boy, I knew you (Florinus) in lower Asia, in Polycarp's house...I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which happened recently...how he (Polycarp) sat and disputed,...how he reported his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, and how Polycarp had received them from the eye-witnesses of the Word of Life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures. I listened eagerly even then to these things ...and made notes of them, not on paper, but in my heart, and ever by the grace of God do I truly ruminate on them (Euseb. History of the Church 5:20,5-7; trans. by Johannes Quasten, Patrology I,287).

The witness of Irenaeus to the Gospel is therefore priceless. He moved from Smyrna to France where he served as a priest at Lyons, whose parishioners esteemed him highly. While he was away at Rome in 177, a persecution broke out in Lyons during which its bishop, St. Pothinus, was martyred. Upon the return of Irenaeus he was made Bishop of Lyons around the year 178. From his writings we get a privileged view of teachings about original sin being circulated in the early Church.

A few letters of Irenaeus have survived the centuries, but the two great works for which he is called the "Founder of Christian Theology" are the book Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (hereafter referred to as Proof), and the five-volume set called Adversus Haereses (hereafter referred to by book, chapter, and paragraph, e.g. III,22,8). He wrote in Greek, but little survives of the original versions. The Proof is preserved in an Armenian translation, and the Adv. Haer. in Latin (cf. Johannes Quasten, Patrology I, 290). This latter work was so convincing that it practically gave the coup de grace to the seething and very popular Gnostic heresies fermenting among dilettante Christians in much of the Mediterranean Basin of his day - not entirely unlike the new age yeast fermenting in America today.

Irenaeus took special pride in giving witness to the Tradition handed down by the apostles (cf. III,3,3). He writes with charm, sometimes with humor, but hardly with elegance of letters, for which he asks our understanding. The busy bishop wrote over the span of decades, sometimes repeating, sometimes nuancing teachings for different audiences in a manner which is not always consistent with what he had written long before.

This early Father of the Church quotes the Gospels and Epistles, the Old Testament and the New, to build up his arguments. Likely he quotes routinely from a source which we no longer possess, which was a kind of notebook for teachers of the faith, "a collection of texts under argument-headings" (see J.A. Smith, 33). The Canon of the New Testament had not yet been finalized, but he freely quotes as Scripture from books which would later become a formal part of the books of the New Testament.

Christ, Re-Capitulator of the Cosmos

Christ's role as re-capitulator of the human race through His Incarnation and Redemption forms the core of Irenaean theology. The Saint of Lyons identifies the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as the one who deals with mankind in the Old Testament even before His Incarnation. Indeed it is the Son of God who creatively designed the universe, who tailored it to be a fitting environment for His future habitation. The thought is in accord with Hebrews, where the Father addresses this profoundly significant witness to Christ as Founder of the cosmos: "Thou, Lord, didst found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of thy hands" (Heb 1:10). St. Irenaeus follows through with the insight that Christ is not only Creator of the universe, but is also its raison d'etre, the reason for its creation in the first place. All lines of the cosmos therefore focus on Christ. Christ is not an afterthought conceived in God's mind as a response to the sin of Adam; on the contrary, Christ is the Alpha and Omega of the cosmos in the first place; Adam is fitted into the cosmic plans as the strategic gateway through which Christ will enter it:

He recapitulates in Himself all the nations dispersed since Adam, and all the languages and generations of men, including Adam himself. That is why St. Paul calls Adam the "type of the One who was to come" (cf. Rom 5:14), because the Word, the maker of all things, did a preliminary sketch in Adam of what, in God's plan, was to come to the human race through the Son of God. God arranged it so that the first man was animal in nature and saved by the spiritual Man. Since the Savior existed already, the one to be saved had to be brought into existence, so that the Saviour should not be in vain (Adv. Haer. III,22,3; trans. by John Saward, 64).

Note this singular and exceedingly meaningful final sentence. It makes Adam into a "front man" to pave the way for the main event, the arrival of Christ. Irenaeus presents Christ as the towering and dominant figure who is central to divine planning. Christ, Pantokrator, is the focal point in God's design of the cosmos to be created, the central figure for whom God measures the layout of the universe. The saint of Lyons looks to Christ as the keystone of the cosmos, whereas Adam enters it secondarily in the train of logic following Christ, "so that the Saviour should not be in vain." Adam is created to provide Christ with a worthy cause to activate His great love. In Latin this extraordinary sentence reads: Cum enim praeexisteret salvans, opportebat et quod salvaretur fieri, uti non vacuum sit salvans. Adam is ushered in to become the beneficiary of Christ's work of love.

Here the thought of Irenaeus differs from that of Augustine and Thomas. Irenaeus sees Christ before he finds Adam. Christ is the dominating cosmic King, Adam is a service pawn. Whereas Augustine and Thomas see Adam before they see Christ. Adam, by his sin, occasions a change in God's original plans, namely the sending of Christ into the cosmos. Thomas tends to agree with Augustine whom he quotes: "Augustine says (De Verb. Apost.8,2) '...Therefore if man had not sinned, the Son of Man would not have come'" Summa Theologica III, 1,3). In other words, God decreed the Incarnation of Christ in response to the sin of Adam, to save the situation after Adam had spoiled God's first plan by committing original sin. Not so Irenaeus, who presents Christ as the dominant figure, indeed the raison d'etre, of all creation. Adam is secondary in God's plans, as the subject whom God creates for Christ to sanctify. God, so reasons Irenaeus, had scripted Christ's function as the central focus of the cosmos before taking original sin into divine accounting. Duns Scotus (d.1308) would later develop this remarkable theme of Irenaeus more fully.

The word salvans (the one who saves) which Irenaeus uses to designate Christ's role, does not have the narrow meaning of a Savior who merely pays a ransom to rescue sinners. The word Savior means to Irenaeus, and to the Greek Fathers typically, the more inclusive role of Sanctifier. The Sanctifier elevates the natural man to the supernatural state originally, as well as after the Fall. Christ, in the concept of Irenaeus, elevated Adam to the state of holiness and justice before the Fall, and redeemed him after it. He is more than a repair-man who reconditions a damaged product. He is an architect who builds the structure originally according to God's primal plan, and then reconditions it even more magnificently after Adam's temporary crash.

Augustinian Pessimism vs. Irenaean Optimism

Augustine and Irenaeus read the same Genesis Chapters 2-3, but for Augustine original sin was a disaster repaired only partially by Christ. Whereas for Irenaeus the sin was more like the first fall of a baby just learning to walk. Theologian Denis Minns, OP, contrasts the view of the two as follows:

Augustine read the story (of Genesis) in a much more literal way (than Irenaeus). The story of the sin of Adam and his punishment and death was, for him, a story of the past, but all human beings, as the progeny of Adam, were enmeshed in that past. Although Adam's sin has continuing and appalling consequences for all the descendants of Adam, there is nothing these descendants can do about it. All the action happened in the first chapter of the story of humankind and the subsequent chapters have to do with the ineluctable unfolding of the consequences of that action (Minns, Irenaeus, 58).

For Augustine, Adam's action sealed the fate of much of mankind. Not so for Irenaeus, who lived closer to the time of Christ and of the Apostles. For Irenaeus, Christ takes into Himself all of mankind, including Adam, and makes His redemptive action extend to the entire human race. Minns continues his analysis:

This is in the strongest contrast to Irenaeus's understanding, because, for him, 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).

Paradise and Original Sin

The work of Irenaeus called Proof of the Apostolic Preaching begins with a capsulized but magnificent and endearing version of creation and the Fall. The English translation is that of J.P. Smith, S.J.:

But man He fashioned with His own hands, taking of the purest and finest of earth, in measured wise mingling with the earth His own power; for He gave his frame the outline of His own form, that the visible appearance too should be godlike - for it was an image of God that man was fashioned and set on earth - and that he might come to life, He breathed into his face the breath of life, so that the man became like God in inspiration as well as in frame... (Proof,11).

Note the special care of God in fashioning the human body and soul: He made the body "godlike" in appearance, and the soul "godlike" in inspiration. In Irenaeus, all that God does is beautiful. The shape of the body itself is "godlike" he observed, admiring its beauty. Even more so is the soul godlike. It is the breath of life which God insufflated into the body. The breath is an image of God. It is durable, it is immortal, it lives forever (cf.II,34,4). This anima, endowed with intellect and free will, will never cease to live once God has brought it into being. The image of God is like God insofar as it has no end and will live forever. But it is unlike God insofar as God has no beginning, but the anima has a beginning.

The "likeness" to God imprinted into this anima, however, is not its substance. It is an endowment which can be eradicated from the anima by sin. But even after sin, the Spirit can restore the likeness once again (cf. V,6,1). Obviously Irenaeus was a skilled teacher, clarifying for the neo-christians, who were troubled by gnostic errors, a basic truth: sin affects adversely the spiritual beauty of the soul and destroys the image of God which grace builds up in it. But all is not lost when one sins, because the Spirit can restore one to the original glory.

Irenaeus plays out this theme of grace: it can enter the soul, can leave it by reason of sin, and then enter again. The "likeness" is God's breath given by the Spirit: "The Spirit has formed man to the likeness of God" (Proof, No. 5, see Smith p. 50). When man loses the image through sin, the Spirit can restore it again.

The Word of God Walks With Adam In Paradise

Irenaeus paints an idyllic picture of the pristine paradise. He may have used a common catechetical aid in circulation at the time. Life in paradise was lovely before the sin. God had prepared the Garden for Adam, in which the animals were already grown, but Adam and Eve were still children. Irenaeus typically identifies the "Word of God" as the One who walks in Paradise with our first parents, "prefiguring" His future Incarnation.

And so fair and goodly was the Garden, the Word of God was constantly walking in it; He would walk around and talk with the man, prefiguring what was to come to pass in the future, how He would become man's fellow, and talk with him, and come among mankind teaching them justice (Proof, 12).

Primal Innocence

"Why did Adam lose his primal innocence so easily?" asks Irenaeus. He explains that Adam did not yet have the advantage of possessing the clear kind of knowledge that we now possess ever since Christ became Incarnate to be our Teacher:

For in times past it was said that man was made in the image of God, but not shown, because the Word in whose image man was made, was still invisible. That is why man lost the likeness so easily. But when the Word of God was made flesh, He confirmed both things: He showed the true image, when He Himself became what His image was; and He restored and made fast the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word" (V,16,2; trans. Saward).

Furthermore, argues Irenaeus, Adam and Eve fell into the temptation easily by reason of inexperience. They had been freshly formed from the clay, and their thoughts were like those of children. They had not yet gained the wisdom which can be acquired through testing: "But the man was a little one, and his discretion still undeveloped, wherefore also he was easily misled by the deceiver"...(Proof, 12). A special feature of Irenaean theology is that he regards Adam and Eve before their Fall as children still in their latent years in regard to sexual development:

And Adam and Eve (for this is the name of the woman) were naked and were not ashamed, for their thoughts were innocent and childlike, and they had no conception or imagination of the sort that is engendered in the soul by evil through concupiscence, and by lust. For they were then in their integrity, preserving their natural state, for what had been breathed into their frame was the spirit of life; now, so long as the spirit still remains in proper order and vigour, it is without imagination or conception of what is shameful. For this reason they were not ashamed, as they kissed each other and embraced with the innocence of childhood (Proof, 14).

The concept that Adam and Eve were still children when they sinned was commonly accepted by some of the Fathers at the time of Irenaeus. "In accordance with the idea that Adam was created for development, we find in Theophilus [sixth bishop of Antioch] the fancy, which spread to other Fathers, that the first parents of the race were but `infants' in age at the time of their transgression. Their sin was associated with the desire to become wise beyond their years: `And at the same time He wished man, infant as he was, to remain for some time longer simple and sincere (II,25)'" (Tennant,282). Clement of Alexandria likewise calls Adam a "boy" (Paidion tou Theou) before his fall, and adds that with the sin he became a man (Ho pais andrizomenos apeitheia (Protr. II.III.I, see J.P. Smith, 150).

That the man was a "little one" whose discretion was still undeveloped is a notion which can be disputed from the biblical context. But this is genuine Irenaeus. For example:

Because they had been created but a short time before, they had no knowledge about generating children; they first had to grow up and from that time on multiply in this manner" (III,22).

Irenaeus by no means presents Adam in paradise as a superman of unmatched intelligence. E.R. Tennant, who made an exhaustive study of the sources of doctrine on original sin, rightly points out that Irenaeus considers Adam in paradise to be still a child at the onset of development, both natural and supernatural (cf. Tennant, 285). He described Adam as an "infant" (IV,38.1) whom God did not miraculously make wise nor holy beyond the range of his tender age. God did not create Adam and Eve as adults, but as children. They could not manage to think and act as adults initially, because they had not yet become of age: "God had the power at the beginning to grant perfection to man; but as the latter (Adam) was only recently created, he could not possibly have received it...or retained it" (IV,38.2). The Irenaean Adam, then, is not like an angel in paradise, is not a miracle man into whom God infused wisdom surpassing his age. Irenaeus pictures the event of original sin as a shock which accelerated development in both areas, the natural and the supernatural.

Christ takes Adam from where he is, fallen from grace and still inexperienced. He nurtures him from the lost innocence of childhood into spiritual adulthood. He forgives Adam and Eve their first sin, and then helps them to achieve holiness. Christ is Adam's Pedagogue and Model.

Ancient Jewish writings had ascribed to our first parents in paradise exceedingly extraordinary celestial privileges (Tennant, 330). Their influence doubtless trickled down to St. Augustine who then made this concept a standard fixture of doctrine on original sin. Ambrose, mentor of St. Augustine, had made Adam almost an angel: "His life was similar to that of the angels" (De Parad. 42). Who, when he sinned, "put away his heavenly image and assumed an earthly form" (sed ubi lapsus est, deposuit imaginem coelestis, sumsit terrestris effigiem; Hexaemer. 6,7; see Tennant, 339). If St. Irenaeus knew about this notion of a superman Adam before the Fall, he does not mention it. He gives quite a contrary picture of an uninitiated Adam as still a child who possessed only limited intellectual and moral capabilities. We legitimately draw the conclusion from this that there was no Tradition taught by the Apostles that Adam in paradise was a superman with intelligence like that of the angels. This was not a doctrine taught by Christ nor the Apostles. Rather it was an invention of theologians who spoke from personal conviction.

St. Irenaeus, hammering away at heretics who exalted Adam as a celestial being, took delight in reminding them again and again that Adam was made of mud. He had lowly beginnings. God wanted it to be so, for He preferred that humans develop virtue by exerting themselves rather than to be initially invested with pre-fabricated virtue. "The notion that Adam was not created perfect, but rather... intended to come to be in the likeness of God at the end of a process of development, is Irenaeus' most characteristic understanding of Genesis 1:26, and the one that most coheres with the rest of his theological scheme" (Minns, 61; see Ad. Her. V, 16,2). Irenaean theology states and assumes that Adam was weak in the beginning, with no more knowledge than a child or an adolescent. He needed time, he needed experience, to grow to maturity. "Humankind needed to grow accustomed to bearing divinity" through trial and gradual maturation (Minns, 61, Ad. Her. III,20,2). Irenaeus purposely took the heretics to task for their assumption that God created Adam as a superman with towering intellect and strong will-power.

We ask ourselves now, is Augustine correct when he interprets "naked without shame" as an indication that Adam had motor control over the passions? Or is Irenaeus correct when he interprets the same words to indicate that Adam was still a child in the years of sexual latency? Irenaeus heard from Polycarp what the Apostles had taught. Augustine lived several centuries later. Very likely, then, there is no Apostolic Tradition which would affirm Augustine over Irenaeus on this point. This indicates that we have no certainty from Apostolic Tradition that Adam was without concupiscence before the Fall; and from the same Tradition we have no certainty that original sin somehow altered our bodies, our passions, our drives; in consequence, there is no sure witness from this source that original sin has made our natures more prone to sin now than in the situation before the Fall, after we recover the state of grace. That is, unless and until the Magisterium of the Church finds it to be a part of her living Tradition.

Next Page: Chapter 13: Pioneer Theology of Irenaeus
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