Evolution and the Sin in Eden
A New Christian Synthesis

Chapter 13: Pioneer Theology of Irenaeus. Adam and Eve Had Real Bodies

On the one hand Irenaeus hammered away at the heretics by insisting that Adam was not a celestial being of angelic nature; he was a man of lowly origin. The life of Adam began when God took mud and fashioned it into a body. On the other hand, this body, male and female, is not a despicable, depraved, evil object attached to human souls. It is a noble creation fashioned and modeled after the pattern of Christ's body. In and through the body humans give glory to God. When gnostics extolled the soul as of higher origin than the body, and discounted the body as evil in origin, this fired Irenaeus to remind them that we are body, that God made humanity from earth:

The high "spirituality" of his opponents provoked distrust in Irenaeus. It also seems to have heightened his own delight in the material, fleshly dimensions of the human condition which so disgusted them. At every opportunity, he provocatively reminds them that the first human being was made from earth. When the gnostics say that real human beings are spiritual and lightsome he insists they are nothing of the sort: they are, indeed, profoundly material and earthy, they are made of mud (Minns, 57).

In agreement with his notion of the beauty and nobility of the human body, Irenaeus does not assign to Adam's maleness a special theological significance. He symbolizes all humanity, male and female. He assigns to Eve a significance parallel to Adam in this respect. She is the mother of all the living. Later Christian tradition makes the maleness of Adam of special theological significance, but not so Irenaeus. All humanity simply began with the mud from which God formed humankind. From this humble beginning issues Adam and Eve, issues Mary and Christ. For Irenaeus the Virgin Mary also represents humanity rather than womanhood. "For she, and she alone, is the guarantor of Christ's humanity; Christ is a human being (anthropos) because he derives his flesh from the first human being (anthropos) by way of the human being (anthropos) who is his mother" (Minns, 58, Ad. Her. III,19,3; 23,1.) Minns notes that although anthropos is a noun of masculine gender, it is given a feminine article when an author intends to designate a human being of the female sex. The Latin translation in this case makes it clear that Irenaeus describes Mary as an anthropos, a member of stream of humanity whose beginnings God fashioned from mud.

The Fall From Grace

The saint relates how God put Adam and Eve to the test; they should freely demonstrate in action that they acknowledge their dependence upon Him. If they obey they need not die, and they can remain in this extraordinary Garden which differs so wonderfully from the world outside. Unfortunately, they did not pass the test, became mortal, and had to face hardships outside of Eden:

Expelled from the Garden, Adam and his wife Eve fell into many miseries of mind and body, walking in this world with sadness and toil and sighs... (Proof, pp. 54, 57; trans. of Joseph P. Smith, slightly modified.

The saint of Lyons definitely attributes to innocent Adam and Eve a special mode of spiritual life which would be theirs so long as they did not disobey God, so long as "the spirit still remains in proper order and vigour." The Council of Trent would later refer to their state as one of holiness and justice. Pope John Paul II did not hesitate to call this spiritual mode by the current theological term "sanctifying grace" (General Audience 3 September 1986).

The fact that Irenaeus characterizes Adam and Eve before the Fall as friends of God, as walking and conversing with Him, as possessing His image and likeness, shows that he regards them as civilized and cultured people. He would not at all agree with the contention of some evolutionists who depict our first humans as dimwitted dawn people, newly emerged from the animal world, uncertain about polytheism or monotheism, about monogamy and the "Ten Commandments." Irenaeus considers them to be believing and loving people, adopted children of God, with whom God conversed about theological matters. Irenaeus would not disagree with Sirach who testified: "Above every other created living being was Adam" (Sir 49:16).

Adam Our Model For Spiritual Growth

Irenaeus (III,23) has the Divine Word treating Adam and Eve with pity after their sin. The Good Shepherd seeks them out specially because they need Him now more than ever. He observes that God the Word felt concern for the first humans He had made, who would also be His own ancestors. Because He was determined to redeem the human race, it was only right that He begin with the first humans He had created. The One who rescued the race from the enemy should first of all save those who were the first victims of that enemy, who were hurt so badly by it. For the God who came to the aid of man and restored him is not a weak God nor unjust.

The Word, observes Irenaeus, did not curse Adam the person, but the earth. The man had to work hard thereafter, to earn bread with the sweat of his brow, and the woman had to undergo various hardships. In this way God reprimanded them for what they had done in order to bring them to sober repentance and a better way of life, but did not curse them. He cursed the wicked serpent who had deliberately tempted them. He also cursed Cain who refused to repent. But He did not curse Adam and Eve, His ancestors, who repented of their sin (cf. III,23).

After Adam had been seduced, continues Irenaeus, he repented immediately as is shown by his fear of God. He was ashamed to meet God and to speak with Him. Now we know that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord (Ps 110,10). Recognizing his sin he did penance, and we know that God bestows His kindness upon those who are penitent. Adam could have covered his body with other leaves painless to the body, but he purposely used prickly fig leaves to do well-deserved penance for his disobedience. He was sorry now, fearful of God.

He used the covering of fig leaves likewise to check the wanton onslaught of the flesh, continues Irenaeus. For now he had lost the characteristics of childhood, for thoughts of evil pressed upon him. Fearing God whom he was expecting to meet he contrived this protection of continence for himself and his wife. He meant to express in this way what had happened: "For," he said to himself, "by disobedience I lost the stole of that holiness which I had from the Spirit, and I recognize now that I deserve such a garment, which provides no pleasure but bites and stings the body" (III,23,5). He would have worn this fig leaf covering forever, humbling himself, had not God, who is merciful, clothed them with skins to replace the fig leaf coverings.

God then banned Adam from paradise and so closed off access to the Tree of Life, thus exposing him to the ordinary laws of mortality, continues Irenaeus. God appointed the Virgin and her offspring, he adds, to overpower the ancient serpent, the dragon and anti-Christ, to bind it and crush all its power. For Adam had been conquered by it, and robbed of his whole life. Therefore, when the enemy was conquered in turn, Adam received life again. "For the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:26). That could not be written truthfully unless the man who was first overcome by death would be freed from it. His salvation, then, is the emptying of death" (III 23,7). Death was then emptied when the Lord gave life to man, that is, to Adam. Irenaeus closes the section with the challenge: "But those who deny salvation to Adam gain nothing by this except that they make themselves to be heretics and apostates from the truth, and show that they are advocates of the serpent and of death" (III,23,8).

Original Sin, An Occasion For Growth

Pope John Paul II, in his message to priests for Holy Thursday 1998, encouraged them to grow toward spiritual perfection step by step. The priest is well aware, he said, that he faces "a long crossing on little boats," and that he soars heavenwards "on little wings" (St. Gregory of Nanzianzus, Theological Poems, 1).

This echoes the message of Irenaeus that we, like Adam, are expected to acquire perfection by degrees, patiently, and with effort. In Chapter 38 of Book III Irenaeus returns to the point that God did not make Adam perfect initially because at first he was still a child (infans enim fuit). He began as a child and was expected to grow one step at a time into a more and more perfect likeness of the uncreated God (cf. Smith, note 70, p. 150). To embark upon the path of growth he needed to be challenged.

In Chapter 39 Irenaeus then chides us all for wanting to have instant perfection prematurely, instead of growing up gradually under the creative activity of God. We do well to remember, he admonishes, that it is not we who make God, but God who makes us: "It is not you who makes God; God made you!" (III,39,1).

The Bishop of Lyons thus urges all sinners who have fallen like Adam and Eve to recognize that they need the grace of God to rise again. Let them learn from the sad experience of sin, and progress more wisely and patiently in virtue. The words are for all sinners who awaken from the dream of a childlike Adam to the realities of life. Irenaeus presents Adam and Eve as models who pioneered for us the way back to God and to peace of soul.

It is not reasonable, chides Irenaeus, when people refuse to await growth in virtue, and are impatient with themselves, even ascribing their weakness to God. They are ungrateful, unwilling to be what God made them to be, weak at the outset. They want to be instantly perfect, to be like God, to abolish the difference between Him and themselves as creatures (cf. IV, 38,4-5). By His foreknowledge God knew the frailty of man and what would be the result of that weakness. The person who has learned now about good and evil ought to rise to a wiser manner of life:

It is an evil thing not to obey God. That is the death of man. Through the magnanimity which God gave him, man has known both the good of obedience and the evil of disobedience, so that the eye of his mind, having experienced both, might with discernment choose the better, and be neither slothful nor neglectful of the commandment of God. 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 first-hand 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 (IV, 39,1; trans. Saward).

God permitted these things to happen, continues Irenaeus, for our instruction, so that we learn to be prudent in all things. God planned everything ahead of time for our perfection, so that we might one day grow to understand His ways:

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 (V, 3,1; trans. Saward).

If we take this message of Irenaeus quite as he explained it, we see that he is even grateful that Adam and Eve sinned, because thereby we can all learn to not make the same mistake. God, who can make straight lines out of the crooked ones which we give Him, transformed the sin of Adam and Eve into a great educational influence for all of us. This is not Irenaeus literally, but I think he implies the same.

Death, Man's Testimony of Obedience to God

Denis Minns OP, in his book Irenaeus, highlights the positive function of death as envisioned by the Saint of Lyons. Adam and Eve, so reasoned Irenaeus, were told that they would receive something of priceless value in the due course of time. Being adolescents, the two couldn't wait for it to happen in due time. They wanted everything, and they wanted it NOW! When the serpent entered the scene at this critical period, it offered them the chance to become like God instantly. They foolishly seized the bait. Their disobedience was childish, and therefore understandable and excusable, but it was grave disobedience nevertheless and carried with it serious consequences (Proof 12). It was a refusal to accept the fact that they were creatures, not gods. It was also a refusal to wait for the gift of likeness to God which they would receive only when they would become mature enough to bear it. All of this was implicit in the command given by God that they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of what is good and what is bad (Ad. Haer. 4,38,4; Minns p. 62).

It became absolutely necessary, after the sin, that Adam and Eve become obedient to God, and that they demonstrate this submission by action. It was therefore an act of God's mercy toward Adam and Eve that He allowed death to come into their lives. "Death itself was made to serve in the accomplishment of the divine plan, for, by the experience of death, humankind would learn that likeness to God was to be had as a gift from God and at the time appointed by God, and not to be seized by the earth creature as if he had a right to it" (Minns p. 65, on Ad. Haer. 4,38,4). Death, then, became the gateway to receive according to God's way the prize which our first parents had tried to seize illegally. The saint thus makes death to be not primarily a punishment of Adam and Eve and their offspring, but rather the gateway through which they must pass in order to receive the longed-for gift of heaven. By dying physically humans can express their subjection and obedience to their Creator. Their over-eager adolescent attitude of rebellion can thus be tamed and overcome by their acceptance of death as a sign of their creaturehood. To die has a great meaning for us, he even enthuses, because death heightens the joy of the resurrection which comes after death:

This, then, was the great-heartedness of God. He allowed humankind to endure all things and to come to know death so that it might come to the resurrection from the dead. That humankind might learn by experience what it had been freed from, and be always grateful to the Lord for the gift of incorruptibility received from him (Adv. Haer. 3,20,11-2; trans. of Minns, p. 66).

Sanctifying Grace

Elsewhere Irenaeus speaks of three modes of Adam, "caro, anima, et spiritus" literally "flesh, soul, and spirit." The spirit saves and gives configuration; the flesh provides (bodily) shape and makes us one piece; the soul is between the two, and is capable of taking on either of the two modes: the soul sometimes follows the spirit and is then elevated by it; at other times it consents to the flesh and is then drawn downwards into earthly concupiscence (V,9,1). The flesh, without the Spirit of God, is dead; it has no life; it cannot possess the Kingdom of God (V 9,3).

"Everyone will allow that we are composed of a body taken from the earth, and a soul which receives the spirit from God," he continues (III,22,1). Note that body and soul are natural endowments. For Irenaeus this natural man is not yet a complete and perfect man (cf. Quasten I, 309). To complete man's life, the Spirit of God crowns the soul with His presence and His life. Later theologians would spell out more clearly the doctrine of sanctifying grace (spirit) which elevates the soul to a higher level of being.

It is by recognizing God, states Irenaeus, that a person renews himself. He is renewed "according to the image of the Creator," as he had been made in the beginning. And in the splendor of this renewed form, the person is prepared for the resurrection and for eternal life in heaven.

For the Word of God who made all things, who formed man from the beginning, and who found His creature corrupted by evil, cared for him in every manner: this He did for each and every member because each is of His making; this He did by restoring to man complete health and integrity in preparation for the resurrection. (V,12,5-6).

This is Irenaean theology in combat with the gnostic heresies of his time: Christ restores that eternal life to us which we had once possessed in the first Adam. As he puts it later: "Saving finally in Himself what had been lost at the beginning in Adam" (V,14,1). Christ took flesh precisely so that in the same flesh as Adam had, not in some other, He would recapitulate and seek out that which had been lost (V, 14,2).

God Creates Each Soul

Moreover, God endows each human with a personal soul by which he can do good and so merit eternal life, or fail in good and so merit punishment. The soul (anima) of each person is created directly by God, and is not a used second-hand product affected by another in some previous life: "God is not so poor and indigent that he would not give to each body its own soul and character. Consequently when the number (of souls) which He Himself had previously decided upon is completed, all those who are registered as living will arise, having their own bodies and souls and spirits in which they pleased God" (II,33,5).


Fr. Stephen J. Duffy, S.J. provides this horizon-spanning bird's eye view of Irenaeanism: "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" (Duffy, 619).

For Irenaeus, original sin is not a finalized tragedy, a closed book of the past. It is a lesson by which the Good Shepherd teaches not only Adam and Eve but all of us. "Recapitulation is for Irenaeus a taking up in Christ of all since the beginning. God rehabilitates the earlier divine plan for the salvation of mankind which was interrupted by the fall of Adam, and gathers up the entire work from the beginning to renew, to restore, to reorganize in His incarnate Son who in this way becomes for us a second Adam" (Quasten, I, 295). Christ rehabilitated the original plan of God and did not embark on a new one: "He (the Lord) had himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that which had perished" (5,14,2).

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