Irenaeus of Lyons was a bishop active in the latter half of the second century in what is now southern France. Born and raised in Asia Minor, he claims to have been a student of Polycarp, and to remember the martyr’s teachings well. Eusebius of Caesarea attributed several works to Irenaeus, but only two survive in their entirety: The Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching and The Identification and Refutation of Gnosis Falsely So-Called (hereafter Against Heresies).
An educated man, it is assumed that he spent time in Rome prior to his ministry in Lyons, and is known to have been sent back to Rome as a messenger on behalf of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne. Beyond this, and the letter Eusebius tells us he wrote to Victor, bishop of Rome, on behalf of the churches of Asia, almost nothing more is known of Irenaeus’s life.
His extant writings, however, are significant in the history of Christian thought, as they represent one of the first steps toward a systematic approach to Christian theology. Against Heresies, in particular, contains substantial material useful for the identification of a ‘theology of Irenaeus.’ Within his theology several themes are evident yet this space is insufficient to cover them all. This paper seeks to emphasize and discuss the ontologically-participatory aspects of Irenaeus’s thought in their nascent trinitarian setting. However, it would be negligent to proceed with this discussion without first acknowledging the context from which Irenaeus’s theology comes to us, and in relation to which it must be understood: the Gnostic threat.
“Gnosticism” is a very difficult term to define. Scholarly literature uses the word to describe a wide variety of religious phenomena. Chronologically, these religions can be found to exist from the first century A.D. to the ninth. Geographically they span a region that stretches from Gaul to Iran. The term describes “systems which ambivalently love and scorn the world and systems which explicitly hate the world.” It must be acknowledged, then, that using the term “Gnosticism” or “Gnostic” involves working under some considerable assumptions. Scholars have been careful to assert that the views Irenaeus opposed in Against Heresies are not necessarily those of all ‘Gnostics.’
Of the many systems of Gnosticism to which Irenaeus responded in Against Heresies, modern scholarship is best acquainted with Valentinianism. As was not unusual in Gnostic schools, the students of Valentinus developed and built upon his ideas, often reaching conclusions Valentinus never approached. Osborn details six “points of divergence” between Valentinus and his students: the creation of man, the unity and accessibility of “the father,” the number and nature of “Christs,” the good or evil nature of the world, the place (or lack thereof) of Sophia in the creation myth, and the interpretation of biblical texts.
It is to these divergences, particularly those touching on the unity of God and the nature of Christ and the world, that the theological elements outlined below respond. For the purposes of this paper ‘Gnosticism’ will refer to the thought of Valentinus’s students, as encountered by Irenaeus.
The stated purpose for Irenaeus’s writing of Against Heresies was “to expose and counteract [the Gnostics’s] machinations.” As bishop of Lyons, it was Irenaeus’s express obligation to protect his congregation from false teachings. The teaching role of the bishop is central to Irenaeus’s view of the church, and the writing of his great polemic work is the most lasting of his own efforts in that regard. Of the many things to which Irenaeus objects within Gnosticism, those aspects most pertinent to our purposes here are the disunity of God and the low view of humanity.
God’s disunity is an aspect of Gnostic thought that one hardly needs to dig for. Irenaeus spends a great deal of time outlining the often-complicated Gnostic views of God:
There is a perfect pre-existent Aeon, dwelling in the invisible and unnamable elevations; this is Pre-Beginning and Forefather and Depth. He is uncontainable and invisible, eternal and ungenerated, in quiet and in deep solitude for infinite aeons. With him is Thought, which is also called Grace and Silence. Once upon a time, Depth thought of emitting from himself a Beginning of all, like a seed, and he deposited this projected emission, as in a womb, in that Silence who is with him. Silence received this seed and became pregnant and bore Mind, which resembled and was equal to him who emitted him… Along with him, Truth was emitted; this makes the first Four, the root of all: Depth and Silence, then Mind and Truth.
Immediately in his description of the Gnostic heresy, the God described is not one, but rather four. Prior to any emanations, even, there are two characters on the divine stage: Depth and Silence. Depth, though involved in an apparently sexual fashion with Silence, is “in quiet and in deep solitude for infinite aeons.” The Gnostic God is both distant and many, both claims countered by Irenaeus in the later books of his work as he insisted on both the unity and immediacy of God.
Similarly, Gnostic theology held a low view of humanity:
There are these three elements in man: the material, also called “left,” which necessarily perishes since it cannot possibly receive the breath of imperishability; the psychic, also called “right,” which lies between the spiritual and the material and extends to either one as it has the inclination; the spiritual, which was sent forth to be shaped in union with the psychic and to be instructed with it in its conduct. This [last element] is the “salt” and the “light of the world” [Matt. 5:13-14]… And the Saviour came to this psychic element, since it has free will, in order to save it. He assumed the primary elements of those beings which he was going to save. From Achamoth he took the spiritual, from the Demiurge he put on the psychic Christ, and from the constitution of the universe he acquired a body which had psychic substance and was constructed by ineffable art so to be visible, tangible, and subject to passion. He acquired nothing material at all, for matter is not capable of being saved.
The division of mankind into three elements serves to justify the Gnostic separatism that Irenaeus confronts in Against Heresies. Further, there is a clear division between the physical world and the spiritual world, each categorically different from the other. Humans, then, can be portioned into these three elements. The physical material of the body and the earth surrounding it is irredeemable, unable to accept imperishability. The psychic part of the human exists in between the two poles of physicality and spirituality, and can be moved in either direction. Lastly is the spiritual, the spark of the divine which allows a human to understand the way reality is. Jesus, in this Gnostic system, came to the middle portion, in order to bring it to the spiritual side and ‘save it.’
Also evident in this passage, is the plurality not only of God, with both Achamoth and the Demiurge being referenced, but the plurality of Jesus Christ. The Gnostic system which Irenaeus details here divides the Savior into the spiritual emanation Jesus, and the psychic Christ, which work together, in an ineffably artistic body, to save the psychic element of humanity. Central to Irenaeus’s objections, and his subsequent alternatives, is the final assertion above, that the Savior did not include anything which was material, for matter was the first element, the purely physical one, and was not capable of being saved.
The above representations of Gnosticism come from Against Heresies and have been questioned as to their faithfulness given the polemical motivation of the work. Similar sentiments are found, however, in the Gnostic (Valentinian) document The Gospel of Truth. Irenaeus identified the work in Against Heresies, but briefly, and only just to note how wildly it differed from the canonical gospels. This document was found in 1945-1946 with the discovery of the Nag-Hammadi papyri along with a Gospel of Philip which also featured prominently in discussions of Valentinian Gnosticism. A certain passage from this text displays the faithfulness of Irenaeus’s presentation of his opponents:
There is a householder who had every conceivable thing, be it son or slave or cattle or dog or pig [or] barley or chaff or grass or […] or meat and acorn. [Now he was] a sensible fellow and he knew what the food of each one was. He served the children bread […]. He served the slaves […] meal. And [he threw barley] and chaff and grass to the cattle. He threw bones to [the] dogs, and to the pigs he threw acorns and slop. Compare the disciple of God: if he is a sensible fellow he understands what discipleship is all about. The bodily forms will not deceive him, but he will look at the condition of the soul of each one and speak with him. There are many animals in the world which are in human form. When he identifies them, to the swine he will throw acorns, to the cattle he will throw barley and chaff and grass, to the dogs he will throw bones. To the slaves he will give only the elementary lessons, to the children he will give the complete instruction.
This lengthy passage provides a highly metaphorical representation of the division of humanity into different hierarchically valuable segments corresponding to their ability to be saved. The children of the passage represent those capable of receiving the salvific knowledge, while the pigs or the ‘animals…which are in human form’ refer to those who are not. While the metaphor is elegant, the low view of humanity (and willingness to divide the body) expressed within this passage are intolerable for Irenaeus.
To these positions, amongst many others, Irenaeus wrote his Against Heresies. Central to his response was the unity of God and the participatory nature of salvation. God’s unity is shown forth in implicitly trinitarian language, as the transcendent God is made immediate through the actions of the Son and the Spirit, and salvation by secret knowledge, divorced from matter, is rejected as humanity’s role in the economy of salvation is embraced.
The Son and Ontic-Participation
Throughout Against Heresies, Irenaeus stresses the concept of unity: one God, one scripture, one faith handed down from the apostles. An important aspect of the unity of God in Irenaeus’s work is his defense that Jesus, Christ, and the Savior are all referring to the one Word of God. This conception of the unity of the Son was a necessary response to the Gnostic notion that each of these is separate.
The Word’s incarnate revelation of God and recapitulation of humanity through his fellowship and sacrifice gives full meaning to human participation in God. In this section, we will explore how humanity is brought into fellowship with God through the revelation of the Word and the doctrine of recapitulation in the writing of Irenaeus.
Images for the Son
Irenaeus uses many different names and titles to refer to the Son in Against Heresies. The most common way that Irenaeus refers to the Son is as the Word or Word of God. Other names and titles that Irenaeus uses to refer to the Son include: Son of God, Son of man, Jesus, Christ, Lord, second Adam, Salvation, ruler of heaven and earth, judge of the living and the dead, head of the church, first fruits of the resurrection, the fulfillment of the law. It was important for Irenaeus to show how each of these were simply different titles describing the economic activity of the One Son of God. The Gnostic teachers that Irenaeus rebuffed tended to break up the Son so that Jesus and Christ represented two different individuals.
The Son and Ontic-Participation as Revelation and Recapitulation
Throughout scripture and history, the Word has served as the revelation of God to humanity in several ways. Jesus is the Word through which God spoke creation into existence. The Word was the initial revelation of God by being the voice that spoke with Adam, Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. “In the last times the very same Word of God came to call humankind, reminding them of their doings, lives which they had tried to hide from the Lord. For just as at that time God spoke to Adam in the evening, searching him out, so in the last times, by means of the same voice searching out his posterity, he has visited them.”
The Word incarnate becomes the ultimate revelation of God, speaking words about the Father, living in the manner the Father desires, and inviting mutual relationship with all of Creation. “We could have learned no other way than by seeing our teacher and hearing his voice with our own ears.” The Word opens up space in us so that we might experience and participate in the new creation (salvation) God is working.
The Gnostics took Scripture and bent it to fit their schemes, packaged as a new and secret revelation, in the following ways: reinterpreting scripture in a manner different than the apostles, adding to scripture, and removing pieces that did not fit their Gnostic agenda. Central to Irenaeus’s mission was the protection of the revelation of God as presented in scripture and in the tradition passed down from the apostles, which proclaimed Christ.
“The Father made his salvation (that is, his Word) visible to all flesh, by the Word himself becoming incarnate, so that in all things their king might become manifest.” The Word taking on flesh was necessary for both God to be revealed to humanity, and humanity to be invited into fellowship with God. Irenaeus gives a good explanation of this in his interpretation of the Spirit descending on Jesus in his baptism:
By fellowshipping with him (Jesus), the Spirit became accustomed to living in the human race, resting upon human beings, and dwelling in the handiwork of God, in order to accomplish the will of the Father in them and renew them from their old habits into the newness of Christ.
The Word incarnate, fully God and fully human, is the conduit through which humanity and God are able to be in relationship. Jesus, the fully mature human, becomes the space where the Spirit becomes accustomed to dwelling among humanity. Just as the Spirit required the mediation of Jesus in order to be acclimated to humanity, humanity was able to receive the revelation of God because it was wrapped in flesh. Thus, the Word is the full revelation of God and the full revelation of humanity for the purpose of bringing God and humanity into fellowship. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of a human being consists in beholding God… the revelation of the Father which comes through the Word give(s) life to those who see God.” The purest example of God’s glory is shown in the life of a human who has beheld God in Christ and chosen to fully dive into the relationship of love that God extends to humanity. By beholding God, and receiving that revelation in a manner where the human responds in loving submission and obedience to the will of God, that human becomes fully alive in Christ and thus becomes a beacon of God’s glory to the rest of creation.
Recapitulation highlights the manner in which Jesus made it possible for humanity and God to be in fellowship. Irenaeus believed that it was the mission of the Word, by becoming human among humankind, to join the end to the beginning – that is, humanity to God. “When he became incarnate and was made human, he began anew the long line of human beings and, to state it briefly, furnished us with salvation. Consequently, what we had lost in Adam – namely, the image and likeness of God – we recovered in Christ Jesus.” In other words, because God took on the fullness of humanity, humanity might receive the fullness of God’s life.
Jesus lived his human life in a manner that revealed to the rest of humanity what it means to be a fully matured human. To Irenaeus, creation was made immature with the purpose of progressing toward maturity. Jesus lived a human life and faithfully endured everything that the first Adam faced. Where the first Adam displayed his immaturity, Jesus, the second Adam, displayed full maturity. By being obedient where the first Adam failed, Jesus embodied what it means to be a fully mature human. Jesus participated in God through loving obedience, to the point of death. Through the process of recapitulation Christ makes it possible for humanity to become the children of God. “He became the Son of man for this purpose, that humans also might become the children of God… so that he might win back to God that human nature which had departed from God.”
Irenaeus’s doctrine of recapitulation establishes the importance of the physical creation. By showing that God physically became human, and now dwells in and among humanity, Irenaeus destroys the Gnostic idea that the body is evil and salvation is only for the spirit or soul. This doctrine also serves as an argument for the unity of Jesus’s human and divine aspects since both were necessary to redeem humanity and restore fellowship.
Humanity and Christ in Ontic-Participation as Obedience and Eucharist
We have given two ways in which the Son has acted to facilitate ontic-participation: revelation and recapitulation. Now, we will consider two examples drawn from Irenaeus’s writing detailing humanity’s movement toward the Son in order to enter into a relational fellowship with God: obedienceand Eucharist.
Jesus redeemed us from apostasy with his own blood so that we could become a holy people. Unlike the Gnostics, who believed that participation in God came through knowledge, Irenaeus believed that humanity becomes the “holy people” of God through relationship (following God without fetters) with Christ which fosters obedience. People learn about relationship and obedience from the Church of which Christ is the head.
The Church maintains faithful teaching (revelation). People learn what is necessary to be obedient through discipleship and relationship. It is important to note that this obedience is different than obligation. Humanity was enslaved to sin. The law (given by the Word) provided a way for humanity to move closer to God by becoming enslaved to the law itself rather than to sin. Jesus provides complete freedom through relationship for people to be united with God and free from sin by being obedient out of love for the relationship rather than out of obligation. Irenaeus made it clear that the proper response to the revelation of God in Christ was not slavery to God but rather fellowship in a loving relationship.
The second way Irenaeus shows people participating in God through the Son is by partaking in Eucharist. The cup of blessing that we share is a sharing in the blood of Christ. This is significant to Irenaeus because the blood not only redeems us, but our bodies are united in the washing of Jesus blood. Through the bread we partake in the body of Christ. The Eucharist sums up the significance of the life and passion of Christ as Irenaeus saw it:
The Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our souls and his flesh for our flesh, and has poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and humankind, imparting to humanity by means of the Spirit. On the other hand he has united humanity to God by his own incarnation and, through communion with God, genuinely and lastingly bestowed immortality on us by his coming.
By partaking in the Eucharist we are obedient to Christ’s request to do so, and we are reminded how we are drawn into fellowship with God through Christ.
Through the revelation and recapitulation accomplished by the Word, Irenaeus gives us an understanding of the role that the Word plays in bringing God and humanity together:
He is a most holy and merciful Lord, and he loves humanity… He caused human nature to cleave to and become one with God… Unless humanity had been joined to God, humanity could never become a partaker of incorruptibility. So, it was incumbent upon the mediator between God and men, via his relationship to both, to bring them to friendship and peace, and so to present humankind to God, while revealing God to humankind.
Through Christ, humankind became accommodated to union with the divine, but it is through the Spirit that the divine becomes accommodated to humanity.
The Spirit and Ontic-Participation
A weak pneumatology fosters a narrow soteriology. Kärkkäinen demonstrates the connection between the lack of emphasis on theosis in the West and an insufficient pneumatology. Irenaeus develops his theology of theosis and participation in a thoroughly and robustly pneumatological context. In this regard, the irenic spirit that impelled his writing can provide an opportunity for irenic and ecumenical dialogue today.
Brendan Leahy argues that Irenaeus understands the trinity as the symphonic rhythm by which creation is brought to fulfillment. “The Spirit … is the ‘hand of God’ who is ‘hiding’ behind the works of creation, the economy of the Old Testament, the Incarnation, the baptism of Jesus Christ, the recapitulation of all things in Christ, and the Church. The Spirit is seen in his effects, principal among them our human fulfillment, glorification and deification.” In this section we will explore the theme of human transformation through the Spirit’s agency within creation in Irenaeus’s theology.
Images for the Holy Spirit
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus spends some time discussing the Holy Spirit. For him, the Holy Spirit is identified in the Old Testament as God’s spirit, holy spirit, or spirit. He uses Psalm 51:10-12 as an example of David’s pleading for the Holy Spirit. This connection is made explicit by pairing it with Pentecost:
This Spirit did David ask for the human race, saying, “And establish me with Thine all-governing Spirit” [Ps. 51:12]; who also, as Luke says, descended at the day of Pentecost upon the disciples after the Lord’s ascension, having power to admit all nations to the entrance of life… from whence also, with one accord in all languages, they uttered praise to God, the Spirit bringing distant tribes to unity, and offering to the Father the first-fruits of all nations.
Already in this one passage, Irenaeus has offered multiple metaphors and images for the Spirit’s action. The Spirit is “all-governing,” “divine power,” the “entrance of life,” “unity,” and “offering to the Father the first-fruits.”
Even more unique is Irenaeus’s use of “water” to depict the Holy Spirit’s activity. Thus, he says:
And as dry earth does not bring forth unless it receive moisture, in like manner we also, being originally a dry tree, could never have brought forth fruit unto life without the voluntary rain from above. For our bodies have received unity among themselves by means of that laver which leads to incorruption; but our souls by means of the Spirit … Our Lord compassionating that erring Samaritan woman … by pointing out and promising to her living water, so that she should thirst no more … The Lord, receiving this as a gift from His Father, does Himself also confer it upon those who are partakers of Himself, sending the Holy Spirit upon the earth.
This is a fascinating passage; in part because of the volume of images and scenes he is pulling together. The Spirit is like water that makes it possible for a tree to produce fruit, so the Spirit gives our souls and bodies the eternal life that would not be ours without the Spirit. This water is the water promised to the Samaritan woman at the well; it is also the Spirit the Father gave to Christ, and whom Christ gives to us. This latter image, the Spirit being shared with Christ and with us, and thereby transforming our lives into conformity with the abundance of his, is reiterated and recontextualized when Irenaeus later deals with the Eucharist.
But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.
The Spirit, who has already been identified as life giving, unifying (between persons), and power, is now the power of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. This gives form to the Spirit’s agency in a few ways. The Spirit, through communion, is the unity of our flesh and spirit. To elucidate this, Irenaeus offers an explanation that presumes the reader agrees; the Spirit does this work of unification within us just as the earthly bread and the heavenly elements are united in the Eucharist. It seems plausible to assume that Irenaeus intends the reader to also apprehend that the agent of this Eucharistic union is the Spirit, bringing the person of Christ into unity with the common elements.
Another remarkable aspect of Irenaeus’s pneumatology is that the union between our body and spirit which is achieved by the Spirit through the Eucharist is both the granting of incorruptibility to one’s body and making present the hope of resurrection. The Spirit’s life-giving power was given to Jesus at the baptism and works in us in communion.
In the context of Against Heresies, this pneumatology serves two main functions: 1) it demonstrates that the Spirit is the power who descended on Jesus at his baptism, which was contrary to the Gnostics who taught that at the baptism “Christ” descended and was incarnate; rather, Irenaeus argues, Jesus was already God-incarnate and became Spirit-empowered at the baptism scene; and 2) it argues for a more holistic anthropology; the Gnostics argued that the divine spark was given man even though man was created by the Demiurge, Irenaeus rebuts with the claim that body and spirit are both creaturely and have the same origin: God; further, we even rely on God to uphold and unify our very persons.
Hence, contra the Gnostics, the human spirit is not a semi-divine or divine spark endowed with immortality waiting to be free of the corrupt body, but is also corruptible, bound to the body, and in need of the Spirit’s unifying, life-giving breath to receive incorruptibility and the hope of resurrection (which does not happen without the body).
So, for Irenaeus, the Spirit is central – for the unity of the Godhead, communities, and body and soul; for the power of God, of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and for human action; for the life of God’s creation, for Jesus’s life and resurrection life, and for opening the entrance to eternal life in Christ for humans. Take away these significant actions of the Spirit and one is approaching the position of the Gnostics Irenaeus is arguing against. Uphold them and give them place of preference and one is significantly closer to a robust doctrine of trinity, atonement, and anthropology.
The Spirit and Ontic-Participation as Transformation and Obedience
The Spirit, at the baptism of Jesus, anoints Jesus in his humanity and thereby also becomes accommodated to humankind. That the anointing of the Spirit has positive effects for the Spirit as well as for Jesus and humankind suggests that Irenaeus conceived of the Spirit as a divine person and not merely an impersonal force, and that the Spirit’s role is necessary for the transformation of humankind. As Anthony Briggman argues, there are two benefits of the anointing at baptism: “First, the anointing of Jesus by the Spirit resulted in a non-qualitative empowerment of his humanity or the fulfillment of the christological mission. Second, Jesus’s anointing by the Spirit is the basis for the reception of salvation by the rest of the human race, for salvation comes to others by means of the Spirit as the unction of Jesus Christ.”
For Irenaeus, there are two parallel tensions which are determinative for human salvation: 1) the immaturity of humanity that led to the “fall” versus the goal for humanity to be enabled and made worthy of seeing God face to face, and 2) the disobedience of the primordial couple versus the need for obedience in transformation to god-likeness. The latter ideal in each pair stands on one side of the “ontological gulf between the Creator and His creatures;” so for humanity to attain to either the presence of God or the obedience upon which the former is requisite, God must be active to bring about the necessary transformation.
While this transformation is treated in christological terms, it is also robustly pneumatological. Christ gives the Spirit, but it is also the infusion of the Spirit that enables our union with Christ. For Christ, “uniting man to the Spirit and causing the Spirit to dwell in man, He is Himself made the head of the Spirit, and gives the Spirit to be the head of man, for it is by the Spirit that we see, hear, and speak.” Obedience to God and transformation into a form able to withstand God’s presence are contingent upon union to Christ.
As was demonstrated above, Irenaeus sees union as a proper action of the Spirit; where humans are united, where the Word and flesh are united, and where humans are united to the Word, there the Spirit is discernible and active. It is only insofar as the Spirit is the power of the activity of creatures that they are able to respond in faithful obedience to the Father, thereby being made fit to behold the fullness (pleroma) of God face to face. This obedience that culminates in the perfecting of the person, for Irenaeus, “is gained by tuning into the dynamics of God’s economy with its trinitarian rhythm.” It needs to be reiterated that this obedience is not merely a gracious response to what God has done, but, for Irenaeus, that persons are even capable of such obedience is evidence of the power of the Spirit working God’s love through them. Consequently, human obedience to God is a love-enabled activity and results in further transformation into Christ-likeness.
On their own and without the Spirit, humans are imperfect, both spiritually and physically. The Spirit transforms humans, “not for the rejection of the flesh, but for the communion of the Spirit.” Consequently, those who have been made spiritual are so thanks to the Spirit’s activity, not their own efforts and especially not because of a “suppression of the flesh.” This is not, however, a merely eschatological and distant transformation; so Leahy:
Life in the Spirit is not, however, reserved for the final fulfillment of history in the kingdom of the Father, but becomes a present reality because the incarnate Son has given the Spirit to humanity. Assisted by the Spirit, it is in living the Word and receiving the Word that the ‘new’ self can inherit the Kingdom of God and put on the ‘nuptial garment’ of the works of justice.
Finally, the unity of the Church, and the consistency of its preaching is due to the Spirit. It is because, “where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church,” that believers in the Church “enjoy communion with Christ… the pledge of incorruption.” This communion, empowered by the Spirit, is the opportunity of the Church to exist in a relationship of loving obedience with the Father. And this is participation in the triune God through the Spirit.
The Unity of God and Its Implications for Ontic Participation
“From the beginning to the end of his writings, Irenaeus declares the faith of the church in one father, one son and holy spirit.” The unity of God is essential for Irenaeus and enables him to make several important theological points. First, the Father of Jesus and the God of Creation are not separate individuals but one and the same. Second, the work of salvation and creation are integrally connected. Thus, the salvific work of God through Jesus and the Spirit fulfills the purpose of God’s work in and for Creation. Third, the unity of God is embodied in the unity of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, and its teachings.
The Gnostics argue that the God of Creation is evil, unlike the God of Salvation, which makes the Creation itself evil. Yet, for Irenaeus this does not compute because Jesus came in the flesh to restore all of Creation back to its intended purpose. In Jesus’ final moment on the cross, he breathes the Spirit into the Creation. Everything is shaken and new creation has begun. Thus, the unity of God is necessary to fully comprehend Jesus’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Without the unity of God and God’s mission, the Church, and the apostolic teaching, the narrative of the Gospels lose their coherence and is opened up to any “spiritualized” interpretation.
Irenaeus employs the image of the Two Hands of God working in the Creation to hold salvation and creation together as mutually compatible. It is the Spirit and Son working in unison with the Father in creation and salvation. In all things, Father, Son, and Spirit are working together, simultaneously to accomplish God’s purpose for Creation and humanity. Salvation is re-creation so that the entire Creation might once again be capable of God.
It is through the activity of Father, Son, and Spirit in Creation that God is fully revealed. Irenaeus states, “God the Father was shown forth through all these operations, with the Spirit working and the Son ministering, while the Father was approving – and that salvation for humankind was being achieved.” This is important given the tension between God’s transcendence and immanence.
Gnostics held that God (Bythos) could not truly be known and that while the 30 paired Aeons which make up the Pleroma were divine, even they were not able to know God once more than one ‘projection’ out from him. Irenaeus maintains God’s transcendence but also holds that God can be known because of the Son and the Spirit working in the Creation, like two hands in the soil. It is also the Son’s flesh that reveals the invisible God in visible ways to humanity, even as bread, water, and wine are tangible symbols through which we might come to know and participate in the life of God. The Spirit enlivens these elements and through them makes Christ known.
When Irenaeus focuses separately on one of the Persons of the trinity for sake of clarification, there is always an immediate counter-movement reuniting them again. Remember, Irenaeus is concerned about God’s unity in juxtaposition to the Gnostic heresies. There is a constant tension that shows the continuity of God both in the old covenant and the new covenant. As opposed to Gnostic thought, Irenaeus maintains that God is both God of Creation and God of salvation.
For Irenaeus, creation and salvation are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist without the other. What may be known about God is perceived through God’s activity in Creation (both in the creating and the saving of said Creation) by the Son and the Spirit. As mentioned previously, the Gnostics argue that God is unknowable, due to God’s transcendence. In this regard, Irenaeus responds:
As to his greatness, it is not possible to know God, for it is impossible to measure the Father; but as to his love, which is what leads us to God by his Word when we obey him, we always learn that there is so great a God, and that he himself established, selected, adorned, and contains all things – including us and our world. We were made, along with those things which are contained by him. He is the one who Scripture says formed humankind by taking clay of the earth and breathing into his face the breath of life… God did not need… assistance to do what he had already determined to do, as if he needed hands. With him the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, were always present, by whom and in whom he freely and spontaneously made all things – to whom he said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’
The connection for Irenaeus between creation and salvation, as well as, the overall unity of the Triune God is Love. Father, Son, and Spirit are a community whose Love is generative, both in creation and salvation. Creation and salvation are the generative overflow and desire within God to be in relationship with God’s Creation.
The Incarnation is the major symbol of God’s fundamental movement toward humanity and Creation. Through the Incarnation Christ reveals God to humanity and recapitulates humanity through faithful obedience to the Father. Thus, Father comes to humanity by Christ through the Spirit so that through the Spirit and by Christ we might come to the Father.
It is important to state here that Irenaeus’s conception of the relationship of Father, Spirit, and Son is not hierarchal or modalistic. There is a relational mutuality inherent between Father, Son, and Spirit. The Triune God is One. Hierarchal or modalistic images of God create steps between the will of the Father and the action of the Son and Spirit. There is no division between God’s willing and God’s acting. This creates far too much separation in God’s Person. God’s loving mutuality trumps any sense of rank within the Persons of God. The Two Hands of God does not communicate a power structure within the Godhead, but highlights the way God is visible and knowable to the Creation. At the same time, it demonstrates Father, Son, and Spirit working together to restore, redeem, and re-create.
Irenaeus develops the thought of relationship as the purpose of Creation, writing, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive, and the life of a human being consists in beholding God.” The problem is that it is impossible for humanity to behold God and live. Only by God’s grace is anyone capable of beholding God. Our participation in God’s life requires mediation. As such, the Incarnation unites God and humanity in Christ through the Spirit so that God and humanity might become accustomed to living together. The Incarnation becomes the vessel by which the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity dwell together.
So there is one God, who by the Word and Wisdom created and arranged all things. This is the creator who has granted this world to the human race and who, as to his greatness, is unknown to all whom he has made – for no one has searched out his height, whether among the ancients who have gone to their rest or any of those who are now alive. But in his love, he is always known through him by whose means he ordained all things. This Word is our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the last times was made a human among humankind, so that he might join the end to the beginning – that is, humanity to God.
Christ’s recapitulation enables and empowers our ontic participation. Christ takes on the fullness of humanity so that through Christ humanity might enjoy all of God. Jesus becomes the second Adam by treading the same ground (recapitulation) that the first Adam tread but was found obedient, even unto death. It is through Christ’s obedience that we see the fullest intentions and purpose of humanity! We are able, at every stage, to see what it means to be a fully mature human, living out our love for God through obedience: Christ! In this way, Christ is the example par excellence tangibly embodying the very life of God.
Humanity’s purpose is found in God, which begins in Creation. Irenaeus unfolds his views on ontic participation as relational ontology, to use modern vernacular: “Without life it is impossible to live, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God. But fellowship with God is to know God and to enjoy his goodness.” And, this fellowship of love is demonstrated as obedience, giving further weight to Christ’s recapitulating obedience. In other words, we were made for relationship, for community, and for union. Obedience is the grateful response to Christ’s invitation to participate in the life of Father, Spirit, and Son.
Interestingly, Irenaeus’s perception of the Incarnation is not contingent upon humanity’s failure to live in faithful obedience. Rather, the Incarnation was intended before the Creation. The purpose of Creation from the beginning was to enjoy fellowship with God! This shapes the understanding of the Incarnation and the cross in significant ways that push back on penal substitution so popular in contemporary churches, especially where it seems to put Son and Father in contention.
The Incarnation undermines the Gnostic idea that Creation is bad and spirit is pure. It is all a creation of God, who is good. Furthermore, the Incarnation challenges any separation of Christ’s work from the purposes of the Creator. After all, if Christ did not come in the flesh, God is deceptive and does not fully know or understand our plight. Yet, Jesus did come in the flesh. By this, God affirms the value of Creation and is included in God’s redemption of the Creation.
The prospect of “divinization” has been troublesome for many. John Lawson holds, “To teach that man is saved by becoming a ‘partaker in the divine nature’ (2 Peter 14) is a legitimate expression, so long as pagan pantheism is firmly excluded by a sound Biblical doctrine of God. The general proposition of ‘divinization’ is not to be rejected.” Lawson’s concern about taking “divinization” too far is warranted. Irenaeus does not intend to say that ontic participation dissolves us of our identities as creatures. Love does not strip us of our unique identities. Rather, our identities are maintained while facilitating ontic participation with the other. Irenaeus employs nuptial theology as a metaphor for union with God. Becoming one flesh does not dissolve us into the other. Instead, diversity and unity are held in creative tension.
Rather, our humanity becomes full and complete through union with God. Irenaeus frames it this way: “For while God is always the same, man when found in God will always advance towards God.” God is the one who creates while humanity remains the created. And, all of Creation is caught up in the work of salvation, which includes both spirit and flesh. Theosis, recapitulation, and ontic participation are holistic concepts that swallow up the corruptible with the incorruptible, the mortal with the immortal.
Humanity was created in the image and likeness of God. Irenaeus suggests that the image and the likeness are distinct aspects of what it means to be human. The image is something that is damaged but it is still retained in every human. It is a reflection of Christ, in whose image we are shaped. This image includes our flesh. The likeness is what is lost due to our disobedience. The likeness is the capacity for God. Christ re-constitutes that likeness through his obedience and makes it possible for humanity to once again enjoy God in fellowship, which is at the very heart of what it means to be human. The Spirit empowers and cultivates in humans the love necessary for obedience, through which we are transformed into the likeness of Christ to the glory of the Father. This basic trinitarian movement exemplified in Christ’s Spirit-empowered ministry is extended to include humans, so that they might also join the loving acts of God for the transformation of the cosmos.
Irenaeus’s Contribution for Wesleyan Concepts of Holiness
Holiness, in many ways, is deeply connected with ontic participation. Love is the heart of holiness. When using language of holiness or entire sanctification or perfection, we are not saying that we become God or that we cease to continue moving toward God. Rather, Irenaeus reminds us, “For while God is always the same, man when found in God will always advance towards God.” Holiness is about becoming fully human, maturing in and toward Christlikeness! It is to become by grace what God is by nature.
God alone is the One who is Holy. Our holiness is derivative of God’s holiness. Sanctification, the process of being made holy, is the work of Christ and the Spirit restoring the image and likeness of God in us, which begins at justification. Holiness is the process whereby we are growing in maturity towards Christ, who is our recapitulation. And, it is through Christ’s obedience that we are enabled and empowered to be obedient through covenantal love.
Like the Gnostics, we also have a tendency to think of holiness only in terms of the spiritual. In other words, we neglect the incarnational aspects of holiness. But, again, we must remember that God’s work, as seen in the Incarnation, is holistic. It includes both flesh and spirit. Because there is no true separation in us, we are both breath and dust, spirit and flesh, in order to be totally saved and made holy, it must include both aspects of our humanity. Holiness is not a ticket to some far-off, disembodied heaven. It is a call to embodied existence that reflects the character and nature of God back into the world. After all, the resurrection was an embodied resurrection, which we too shall enjoy.
This brings us to John Wesley’s communal conception of holiness: You cannot have personal holiness without social holiness. It is not solitary religion; it is a social faith (which does not exclude the personal aspect of faith). Christ recapitulates humanity, not merely each individual. Holiness includes the very flesh-and-bone realities of everyday living in community. It necessarily includes tangible obedience that demonstrates God’s love for us by loving our neighbors. It is important to remember that holiness is not merely about separation. It inevitably includes unity in community. As holiness people, we are constantly living in the tension of redemptive engagement and prophetic disengagement. But, even as we wrestle with that tension, we must remember that schism is a breach of love because it violates the very character and nature of God, who is One. Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer which points to the reality of heaven and earth being united, where God’s will is perfectly done, not only in “heaven” but in this physical world. Holiness calls us to live into that future as if it is already established.
Holiness should be understood as relationship and fellowship. If the Incarnation was planned from the beginning, not caused by our disobedience, then the whole purpose of Creation is relating with and to the Creator. Our end is in our beginning. Holiness is the capacity for relationship with God. Without holiness no person sees God. Participating in Christ’s righteousness (right relatedness) through loving obedience, we are once again restored to the capacity for knowing and seeing God and living in right relationship with God, others, and Creation.
And, if holiness is also a process of maturing, there is the potential for the exact opposite as well. God is not coercive. Love is not coercive. If love and relationship are coerced, then it is not true relationship. As such, holiness requires our active participation. We must respond to God’s invitation to love and to be in relationship. Son and Spirit empower us to respond, but they do not force us to respond.
Holiness is God’s work entirely, which we are invited to receive and partake, but we are never forced to take that gift. The content of holiness is not obedience merely to a moral code; it is love. That is why the heart of obedience is doxology, which is love. Obedience is the praise-filled response to God’s invitation to live empowered by the Holy Spirit, through Christ, and to the Father as reflections of God’s character and nature – which is Loving Community.
Can creation participate in God? This is the question that we have brought to Irenaeus and have heard a rich and resounding “yes” throughout his writings. In contrast to the “Gnostics,” Irenaeus tells us that participation is not merely “spiritual” nor noetic, neither is it something that some humans are capable of and others not. Rather, participation is made possible by the unity of God present to creation through God’s “Two Hands.” We have argued that each of the Two Hands of God have particular roles in bringing humanity to participate in God. Through recapitulation, Christ accommodated humanity to God through his obedience; so now humans are capable of the divine. By anointing Jesus’ at his baptism and humanity in their baptisms, the Spirit has accommodated the divine to humanity; the Spirit enables the obedience necessary to share in the new creation with Christ.
These unique acts of the Two Hands of God are not isolated or binitarian, they are the acts by which we come to know and share the life of the Triune God. This is the plan that the invisible God has intended from the beginning of creation and is brought to fulfillment and made visible in Jesus Christ. We have had the opportunity to compare Irenaeus’s understanding of atonement and divinization to some shortcomings in the Holiness Movement while also affirming Wesleyan conceptions of sanctification. By looking more closely at the unified conception of creation and redemption in Irenaeus, richer options are available to our denomination as it develops its practice and theology of sanctification.
Briggman, Anthony. “The Holy Spirit as the Unction of Christ in Irenaeus,” Journal of Theological Studies 60:1. April 2010. pp. 171-193.
Finch, Jeffrey. “Irenaeus on the Christological Basis of Human Divinization” in Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology. ed. Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharlamov. Eugene: Pickwick, 2006. pp. 86-103.
Grant, Robert M. Gnosticism: A Source Book of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961.
Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti. One With God: Salvation as Deification and Justification. Collegeville: Liturgical, 2004.
Lawson, John. The Biblical theology of Saint Irenaeus. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1948.
Leahy, Brendan. “‘Hiding behind the works’: the Holy Spirit in the trinitarian rhythm of human fulfillment in the theology of Irenaeus.” in The Holy Spirit in the Fathers of the Church: The Proceedings of the Seventh International Patristic Conference, Maynooth, 2008. Ed. D. Vincent Twomey SVD and Janet E. Rutherford. Portland: Four Courts, 2010. pp. 11-31.
Mulholland, M. Robert. Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993.
Minns, Denis. Irenaeus: An Introduction. New York: T & T Clark, 2010.
Osborn, Eric. Irenaeus of Lyons. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Payton, James R. Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies. Cambridge: James Clarke, 2012.
Robert M. Grant. Grosticism & Early Christianity. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1966.
Wesley W. Isenberg. Harold W. Attridge and George W. MacRae. eds. The Nag Hammadi Library. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988.
 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 5.20.1, translated by Christian Frederick Cruse, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 203.
 We must be cautious in how explicitly we discuss the presence of trinitarian theology in Irenaeus. Given his chronological distance from Nicaea and Constantinople, it amounts to little more than anachronism to claim anything more than that we can identify the roots of trinitarian theology in Irenaeus, much like what we find in scripture. Having said this, it must be admitted that a remarkably trinitarian picture appears in the Chapters 6 and 7 of Irenaeus’s Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching as he lays out the “three articles” which are “the plan of our faith, the foundation of the building and the glue of our way of life.” See Jack N. Sparks, trans., St. Irenaios’ The Preaching of the Apostles, (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1987), 29.
 Robert M. Grant, Gnosticism and Early Christianity, (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 6.
 Valentinus was a second century Christian teacher in Rome. Tertullian claims that he “had expected to become a bishop, because he was an able man both in genius and eloquence.” Tertullian, Against the Valentinians, 4, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. vol. 3, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. (Logos version)
 Eric Osborne, Irenaeus of Lyons, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 268.
 Robert M. Grant describes in his notes on Valentinian thought as presented in Gnosticism: A Source Book of Heretical Writings from the Early Christian Period, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), 162, that the primary form of Valentinianism against which Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is aimed is that represented and likely developed by Ptolemaeus. Therefore our use of ‘Gnosticism’ will refer not just to the teachings of Valentinus’ students but, even more specifically, to the system developed and promulgated by Ptolemaeus.
 AH I.pref.1, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, vol. 1 edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. (Logos version)
 This system of three elements played itself out in the way the Gnostics treated others within their communities. Ptolemaeus’ Letter to Flora is replete with exclusionary language: “for us who have been counted worthy…” from Grant’s Gnosticism: A Source Book, p. 184-190.
 Robert M. Grant, Grosticism & Early Christianity, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1966), 134.
 Wesley W. Isenberg, The Nag Hammadi Library, Harold W. Attridge and George W. MacRae, eds. (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 131.
 Gospel of Philip, 80, 23 – 81,14, in The Nag Hammadi Library, (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), 150.
 James R. Payton, Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies. Cambridge: James
Clarke, 2012, 62. For the remainder of this section, Payton will be cited in the format customary to Against
 It needs to be clarified that obedience is first and foremost a characteristic of the relationship of love shared between Christ (the Son) and the Father. It is not mere subordination or passive acceptance of a domineering father’s wishes; Irenaeus sees the Word and Wisdom – the two hands of God – as the intimate work of God within the good creation, consequently Christ’s obedience is the human counterpart (christologically speaking) of God’s intimate work in creation. When obedience is secondarily granted to humans, it is an extending of the filial relations between Father and Son through the love and power of the Holy Spirit. That humans can act obediently in Christ-like manner is a consequence of the person’s very being becoming a “partaker in the divine nature.”
 AH IV.13.1. Irenaeus provides nuptial theology that speaks powerfully to this sentiment. Our relationship with God is more like filial obedience and covenant of marriage than the bound duty of slavery.
 Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, One With God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (Collegeville: Liturgical, 2004), 32-33.
 Brendan Leahy, “‘Hiding behind the works’: the Holy Spirit in the trinitarian rhythm of human fulfillment in the theology of Irenaeus.” in The Holy Spirit in the Fathers of the Church: The Proceedings of the Seventh International Patristic Conference, Maynooth, 2008, ed. D. Vincent Twomey SVD and Janet E. Rutherford (Portland: Four Courts, 2010), 13.
 Two things are interesting in this regard: 1) that he assumes that the reader will understand the human body and spirit’s unity on analogy with that of the Eucharistic elements in some way suggests that the type of union he is articulating was commonly accepted and already understood in the context of the sacraments; and 2) Irenaeus does not explicitly say that these things are by the agency of the Spirit in this particular passage. Nonetheless, it seems plausible that he would agree with my reading him this way because i) the uses of capital “S” for the human spirit, which seems to suggest a connection between the unity of our body and spirit with the unifying activity of the divine Spirit, and ii) because unity (albeit between persons) has already been attributed to the Spirit’s working and is now being extended to the Spirit within a person’s life.
 This is important to note because the typical modern reading of human body and spirit would be strongly dualistic. Irenaeus is actually arguing for stronger unity between body and soul in contrast to the sharp distinction the gnostics make between the two. Further, that the soul/spirit itself has no intrinsic immortality and will not outlast the body is notable in contrast to modern Christian thinking (at least on the popular level) that would tend to look more like Gnosticism than Irenaeus in this debate, arguing for an abandonment of the body for the liberation of the soul to a non-physical heavenly paradise.
 On the former conclusion, cf. Anthony Briggman, “The Holy Spirit as the Unction of Christ in Irenaeus,” Journal of Theological Studies 60:1, April 2010, 171-193.
 AH IV.9.2, IV.11.4, IV.14.1, IV.20.5, IV.24, V.18.2.
AH III.23.6, III.24.1, IV.12, IV.13.2-4; “While God needs nothing, humans need fellowship with God, and this is the glory of a human being to continue and remain permanently in God’s service … they did not glorify him when they followed him, but that in following the Son of God they were glorified by him” (AH IV.14.1, Payton’s trans.); IV.17.4.
 Jeffrey Finch, “Irenaeus on the Christological Basis of Human Divinization” in Theosis: Deification in Christian Theology, ed. Stephen Finlan and Vladimir Kharlamov (Eugene: Pickwick, 2006), 91.
 AH V.20.2; Leahy’s translation.
 Leahy, 28; AH IV.36.6.
 AH III.24.1; Payton’s translation.
 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 89.
 Denis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction, (New York: T & T Clark, 2010), 22-23.
 AH III.18.1. Although the Incarnation is not causally related to humanity’s disobedience, it does become the primary vehicle for God’s redemptive activity.
 John Lawson, The Biblical theology of Saint Irenaeus (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1948), 165.
 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 43.
 Osborn, Irenaeus of Lyons, 43.
 M. Robert Mulholland. Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993, 159.