This is an older paper from my master’s program that I had thought I had posted here before, but apparently hadn’t. It’s sketchy theology, but it’s fun…and I think I might believe it. A lot.
November 10, 2008
The Secondary Nature of the Atonement
Born about 130 AD, Irenaeus was the first major theologian to confront heresy for the church. His motivation was purely pastoral as he sought to protect his congregation from the heresy of the Gnostics by creating a theological system that was intellectually credible and still practical for everyday life. This system of thought emphasized the aspiration of perfect union between God, as Creator, and all creation, including mankind. According to Irenaeus, salvation history is the story of God and man growing towards a perfect union; a story which was highlighted by the life Jesus who was the perfect union of Creator and creation. “For Irenaeus the Incarnation is the key to the entire history of salvation” (Danielou, 167). God is glorified through the perfect union found in Jesus Christ and creation also fulfills its purpose when it is united to the divine God. According to Irenaeus, the atoning work of the cross, then, becomes only a mere contribution to a single story of redemption that has been playing out since the dawn of creation.
In prehistory God existed in a united community of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. An unfathomable mystery, the Creator God exists as three while existing as one (Deuteronomy 6:4); God is One while God is Trinity. The nature of the Trinity expresses the characteristic of God as being fully and absolutely united as one. When God creates man in His image, then, there must be a characteristic reflection of unity. This is seen in Genesis 2:18, when God remarks, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (NAS) Adam was not designed for solitary life, so God creates an additional human being to fulfill the design of unity in humanity. This design for unity continues to spread as Jesus prays in the garden that believers “may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us” (John 17:21, NAS). The passionate desire of Jesus (who is fully God) is the unity of all those who follow the ways and teachings of God.
So as God is united and humans are designed for a parallel unity, the story of all creation converges to a uniting of God and creation. The Old Testament serves as a period of accustomization for God and men, as they grow closer and closer together. “For Irenaeus…the gulf between God and the world had to be filled in; but it was filled in not by intermediate ‘emanated’ beings [as presented in the Gnostic heresy] but by God’s own word and Spirit” (Smith, 24). The covenants of Adam, Noah, Moses and finally of Jesus Christ continue to point in this direction. “In the Old Testament, not only does God habituate himself to man, but in addition, man adapts himself to God” (Danielou, 169). Where the heresy of Irenaeus’ day sought to fill the gap between God and man with innumerable impersonable god-forces, the true nature of God is only served by God and man filling the gap between them with themselves (Smith 24). God must, by His very nature of unity move towards unity with his creation. Men also, by their characteristic of a desire for unity have an innate motivation towards their creator.
To further reveal the authentic goal for creation (to be united with God), all creation was originated with immense potential. All creation was declared good, but not perfect. It was whole and complete, but not as majestic as it could possibly be. In order to mature into full unity, mankind had to have free will and the ability to choose growth or not. Mankind was created “free to choose and God’s purpose brings man from childhood in Adam to maturity in Christ” (Osborn). Even Jesus “continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom” (Luke 2:40), because of His close relationship to God through the Scriptures. Creation was given potential so that it could mature through instruction and relationship to the incarnate Word of God.
Creation was not made to sin. Jesus’ material body was not simply made to atone for the sin of men. “For if the flesh were not in a position to be saved, the Word of God would in no wise have become flesh. And if the blood of the righteous were not to be inquired after, the Lord would certainly not have had blood” (Irenaeus V.14.1). Jesus’ incarnation was primarily intended to display the perfect unity of invisible, spiritual God and material creation. While the Gnostics did not think this was possible because of their belief in the evil nature of all material, Irenaeus did not see salvation as being possible without full unity of God with the material creation; Christ had to live a human life. In Jesus’ life we see the perfection of God’s design for creation. When sin slithered into creation, it was like a wall was created in the storyline of God and men. Perfect unity now had to hurdle this wall in order to reach the goal that God had for His creation. The atoning work of the cross merely overcomes sin; the cross only jumps this one hurdle. To see the cross as the high point of all salvation history completely disregards the beautiful union that is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The purpose of Christ must be more than death, it must be life; both His own and the life that is found in Him. “More than a mere ‘reconciliation’ in the sense of putting off of wrath; the expression implies…a readmission in some degree to the privileged position held by Adam as a companion of God.” (Smith 30) In fact, without a full union of spiritual and material, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is ineligible to atone for the sin that has corrupted.
Much more than just a holding pattern before the event of the cross, the life and teachings of Jesus were instructional for growth and unity. Holy living is found in the life of Jesus Christ, through which He completely did away with disobedience (Flew, 136). While his death and resurrection provide an absolutely necessary element to ultimate unity with God, it only works to make the growth possible. His atoning sacrifice is a path, but it is not the treasure that the path leads to. While the path is needed to move closer to the treasure, one does not simply celebrate the path and remain there forever. Unity with God is the treasure that is offered through the cross. This unity is perfected, though, in the real life of Jesus Christ here on this earth. Christ is salvation because of the union of flesh and divinity; “For He would not have been one truly possessing flesh and blood, by which He redeemed us, unless He had summed up in Himself the ancient formation of Adam” (Irenaeus V.1.2). To focus merely on the atonement at the price of the unity that is seen in the incarnation is a grave mistake that denies the divine purpose of creation.
Irenaeus argued with specific regard to the Gnostic heresy, whose main thrusts were a radical dualism, which separated the humanity and divinity of Christ, and a novel view of the creation narrative. In order to resonate with Adam, Christ had to be human and have a particularly close union with God the Father, just like Adam. Since Christ was fully God and fully man, He was inseparable from the creation narrative. “For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, molded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished” (Irenaeus V.14.1). Thus, the biblical account of creation must be held to also hold any effect from the life and death of Christ.
For Irenaeus nothing was more important than helping people live the Christian faith in a manner that was faithful to Jesus Christ and to the God ordained purpose of all creation. “Perfection is the goal of the human development, the beatific vision when man is finally fit to look upon the face of God” (Flew, 137). Full growth and development of believers burned in Irenaeus’ pastoral heart. He desperately sought to strengthen believers, so that they would not be swayed from the truth by the Gnostic heresy that was gaining momentum in his time. Irenaeus worked diligently to develop a strong theological system that would stand against the heresy of his day and bring people to an understanding of God that would promote unity among God’s people and ultimately with God Himself. The cross itself was not sufficient if the unity of God and creation was not perfected in Jesus Christ.
HOLY BIBLE. 1995. New American Standard Edition. LaHabra, CA., Lockman Foundation.
DANIELOU, JEAN A. 1973. A History of Early Christian Doctrine Volume II: Gospel Message and Hellenistic Culture. Philadelphia, Westminster Press.
FLEW, R.N. The Idea of Perfection in Christian Theology. New York, Humanities Press.
IRENAEUS. n.d. Against Heresies. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/shaff/anf01.toc.html. Last accessed November 10, 2008.
OSBORN, ERIC. 1981. The Beginning of Christian Philosophy. New York, Cambridge University Press.
SMITH, JOSEPH P. St. Irenaeus: Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. New York, Newman Press.