The Atonement of Irenaeus
Imagine if one of the twelve disciples of Jesus had personally discipled a man whose pupil had written a short book for us, a book that explains the barest essentials of the apostles’ teaching. What a treasure it would be if we found such a book! In 1904, a priest of the Oriental Orthodox Church of Armenia uncovered exactly such a book, the Demonstration of the Preaching of the Apostles. Its author, Bishop Irenaeus of Lugdunum (modern Lyons, France) had learned under Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus wrote this short book of roughly fifty pages to his beloved friend Marcianus. Just one generation removed from the Apostle John, Irenaeus gifted Marcianus (and us) with an early “manual of essentials” so that Marcianus (and we) could learn “in a short space all the members of the body of truth.”1 This book by Irenaeus surprised me in three ways:
By quoting almost exclusively from the Old Testament Scriptures rather than from the Apostles.
By framing most of his topics through the overarching theme of authority, beginning with that of God, then moving consecutively through the authority Adam, then Satan, and finally Jesus.
By resolving the problem of sin, not through justice or a substitutionary death, but through the transformation of humanity. It is this surprise which I present for consideration today, the resolution of the problem sin according to Irenaeus.
THREE IRENAEIC PROBLEMS
Just a few sentences into Demonstration, Irenaeus encouraged his beloved Marcianus to stay on the “one way” which leads to the kingdom of heaven. Then he warned him, “Other ways bring down to death, separating man from God.”2 At the outset, Irenaeus was concerned not about the torments of hell, but of death’s chief power: “separating man from God.” He then framed the purpose of the incarnation of Jesus, not for justice nor for satisfying divine wrath, but, “in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man.”3
A little further on, Irenaeus recounted the fall of humanity at Eden. Surprisingly, he laid the blame for humanity’s fall at the feet of Satan rather than Adam: “But man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver.”4 When describing Satan’s persuasion, Irenaeus credited him with the transformation of humanity, saying he “made man sinful.”5 So Irenaeus added a second problem for Jesus to solve. Not only was humanity separated from God, but humanity had also been transformed from innocence into sinfulness.
Finally, Irenaeus wrote about human bondage. He said God appointed humanity to rule over all the earth, even over the angels and the archangel Satan who Irenaeus said dwelled here.6 Yet after summarizing the Old Testament, Irenaeus said that Satan had enslaved us instead: “in the original formation of Adam all of us were tied and bound up with death . . . death reigned over the flesh . . . flesh which sin had ruled and dominated . . .”7 The pupil of the Apostle John’s disciple presented three human problems: separation, transformation, and bondage. He did not emphasize God’s wrath, nor damnation, nor justice, nor any debt owed toward God.
As noted above, Irenaeus first framed the incarnation of our Lord for the purpose of “establishing a community of union between God and man.” Having laid out the problems of our transformation into sin and bondage to Satan, he then returned to that first thought in chapter 31: “So then He united man with God, and established a community of union between God and man . . .”
The word “atonement” has become heavy-laden with theology over the years, but it simply means “unity” or “reconciliation.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines atonement as, “The condition of being at one with others.” We might expect Irenaeus to tell us that Jesus atoned us unto God by suffering His wrath in our place, but he made no such claim. For Irenaeus, atonement occurred through Jesus’ becoming “the last Adam,” and through our being “born again.”
In the West, we tend to consider the incarnation as simply the preparation for suffering. We view Christmas primarily as equipping Jesus to experience human suffering by giving Him a human body. In contrast, Irenaeus claimed the apostles presented the incarnation as the equivalent of Adam’s work:
Jesus summed up humanity: “God took dust of the earth and formed the man, the beginning of mankind. So then the Lord, summing up afresh this man, took the same dispensation of entry into flesh, being born from the Virgin by the Will and the Wisdom of God; that He also should show forth the likeness of Adam’s entry into flesh and there should be that which was written in the beginning: man after the image and likeness of God.”8
- Jesus counteracted Adam: “And just as through a disobedient virgin, man was stricken down and fell into death; so through the Virgin who was obedient to the Word of God, man was reanimated and received life.”9
- Jesus swallowed death: “For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality.”10
- Jesus killed rebellion: “And the trespass which came by the tree was undone by the tree of obedience, when, hearkening unto God, the Son of man was nailed to the tree; thereby putting away the knowledge of evil and bringing in and establishing the knowledge of good: now evil it is to disobey God . . .”11
- Obeying destroyed disobeying: “So then by the obedience wherewith He obeyed even unto death, hanging on the tree, He put away the old disobedience which was wrought in the tree.”12
- Jesus formed a better humanity: “He manifested the resurrection, Himself becoming the first begotten of the dead, and in Himself raising up man that was fallen, lifting him up far above the heaven to the right hand of the glory of the Father.”13
ENTERING THE ATONEMENT
We would ask Irenaeus then, how someone can benefit from the atonement of the Lord Jesus. He taught us that there are two forms of humanity, the fallen lineage of Adam and the risen lineage of Jesus. How then, does one manage to move from the old to the new, from dead humanity to living humanity? Irenaeus would reply that we enter the living humanity in the same way we entered dead humanity, by being born:
- “And that this baptism is the seal of eternal life, and is the new birth unto God, that we should no longer be the sons of mortal men, but of the eternal and perpetual God.”14
- “And for this reason the baptism of our regeneration proceeds through these three points: God the Father bestowing on us regeneration through His Son by the Holy Spirit.”15
RESULT OF ATONEMENT
Irenaeus filled most of his little book for Marcianus with Old Testament prophecies of Jesus (including some from the books of Baruch and Sirach), but he ended with the claim that the second birth renders us completely new persons:
- “those inflict no hurt at all who in the former time were, through their rapacity, like wild beasts in manners and disposition.”16
- “Coming together in one name, they have acquired righteous habits by the grace of God, changing their wild and untamed nature.”17
- “. . . so great is the transformation which faith in Christ the Son of God effects for those who believe on Him.”18
- “Behold, with the Father we speak, and in His presence we stand, being children in malice, and grown strong in all righteousness and soberness.”19
- “For no longer shall the Law say, “Do not commit adultery,” to him who has no desire at all for another’s wife; and “Thou shalt not kill,” to him who has put away from himself all anger and enmity; and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s field or ox or ass,” to those who have no care at all for earthly things ...”20
Finally, what we believe about atonement strongly shapes how we live our lives. Did Jesus only get me off of the hook from my punishment, or did he utterly transform me? If I believe that He rescued me from punishment, then I might find righteous living optional since unrighteousness no longer bears consequences. If I try to reflect righteous living, then my motive will be gratitude rather than absolute necessity.
If atonement actually transforms us though, then my unrighteous deeds will rightly cause me to question whether I have truly been atoned. I must necessarily forsake unrighteousness or realize that I am not in fact atoned to God. If I believe that atonement completely transformed me, then I do not try to reflect righteous living since such is the natural outcome of atonement. Rather, I must ask the scriptures and Christian traditions how it is that I am hindering the Holy Spirit from displaying the righteousness which is now natural to me. This latter question I have found best answered thus far by the Eastern Orthodox tradition. For those interested in an outsider’s investigation of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, I recommend The Spirituality of the Christian East by Roman Catholic Cardinal Tomas Spidlik.
- Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, (The MacMillen Co, New York, 1920), paragraph 1
- ibid, 1
- ibid, 6
- ibid, 12
- ibid, 16
- ibid, 11-13
- ibid, 31
- ibid, 32
- ibid, 33
- ibid, 33
- ibid, 34
- ibid, 34
- ibid, 38
- ibid, 3
- ibid, 7
- ibid, 61
- ibid, 61
- ibid, 61
- ibid, 96
- ibid, 96