Thursday, March 26, 2009

Irenaeus and the Covenant with Christ

The Covenant with Christ

The culmination of Irenaeus’s system was the revelation of Christ, the second Adam, the one who restored what had been lost by Adam, but “recapitulating” human life. By being born, living sinlessly, and dying, Jesus undid what Adam had done, and by rising from the dead conquered death for all. While we needn’t buy into Irenaeus’s system in its entirety, it does offer us a different way of looking at the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. What is interesting also is that he finds a way of including Mary in this system – for Mary recapitulates the story of Eve.

Christ, the second Adam

Christ, as the second Adam, summed up all history since the Fall, thereby reversing the effects of the fall of the first man, Adam (I Cor. 15:45-49; Rom. 5:17-19). As we have seen Irenaeus believed that Christ, the last Adam, was the founder of a new human race. While Adam's disobedience brought destruction, Christ's obedience brings salvation. While Adam yielded to temptation and became subject to the dominion of Satan, Christ overcame temptation and therefore defeated the power of the tempter. The result is the birth of a new humanity. Christ perfects what Adam defiled. While Adam's fall interrupted the progression toward maturity, in Christ, humanity again moves toward perfection.1

Doctrine of Recapitulation

To push this definition further, we must look more closely at Irenaeus' doctrine of Recapitulation. Christ's mission is to restore what Adam destroyed. Again, Irenaeus sees humanity mystically united in Christ as the second Adam. Irenaeus traced human history back to its original fountainhead, with Christ's life undoing each stage of humanity's fall. Thus, even as Adam was born of the virgin earth, so Christ was born of the Virgin Mary. Next, even as all humanity was present seminally in Adam, so Christ recapitulated the lives of these dispersed descendants back to Adam. As Jesus was born and grew and finally died, he went through each stage of human life, restoring or sanctifying what was lost or made unholy at each stage of life. This extends to every stage of human life. This led Irenaeus to believe that Christ lived to be fifty years of age. Christ identifies with us in our complete humanity. The Cross itself serves as part of this process of restoration or recapitulation.

“So the Lord manifestly came to his own, and, born by his own created order which he himself bears, he by his obedience on the tree renewed [and reversed] what has done by disobedience in [connection with] a tree; and [the power of] that seduction by which the virgin Eve, already betrothed to a man, had been wickedly seduced was broken when the angel in truth brought good tidings to the Virgin Mary, who already [by here betrothal belonged to a man . . . Then indeed the sin of the first-formed man was amended by the chastisement of the First-begotten, the wisdom of the serpent was conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death.” [Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., 5:19.1].2

Irenaeus affirmed that in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God dealt Satan an impressive defeat. But the true means of victory was the incarnation itself, not simply the cross and resurrection. The result is a new, redeemed humanity. 3

The Role of Mary

One sees in this doctrine an incipient Mariology. Not only does Christ recapitulate and therefore reverse the effects of Adam's sins, but Mary does the same for Eve. Mary's life served to recapitulate that of Eve.

To continue with the previous quotation, remember that Mary reversed the seduction of Eve through her obedience.

“For as Eve was seduced by the word of an angel to flee from God, having rebelled against his Word, so Mary by the Word of an angel received the glad tidings that she would bear God by obeying his Word. The former was seduced to disobey God [and so fell], but the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. As the human race was subjected to death through [the act of] a virgin, so was it saved by a virgin, and thus the disobedience of one virgin was precisely balanced by the obedience of another.” [Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 5:19].

Irenaeus doesn't minimize the importance of the cross, but he does believe that Jesus' life (and Mary's as well) have significant importance in the road to salvation. Did Irenaeus believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures -- most likely -- but one can understand these two figures as being metaphorical models while affirming the historical character of the lives of both Jesus and Mary. Adam and Eve can be seen as composite figures, representing all of humanity, while the historic figures of Jesus and Mary incorporate into their lives all of human experience.

1. Bengt Hagglund, History of Theology, (Concordia 1968), 48-49.

2. Irenaeus, "Against Heresies," in Early Christian Fathers, Cyril Richardson, ed., (Macmillan, 1970), 389.

3. JND Kelley, Early Christian Doctrines, (Harper-Collins), 172-173.


Brad Hart said...

Great stuff, Pastor Bob. I enjoyed all your posts on Irenaeus. Do you by chance know if there's an online database of his writings?

patrick said...

Irenaus was wrong in calling Jesus the 'second Adam'. This is NOT a scriptural term. The Greek (and the English) is clear...Jesus is referred to as the "second MAN" and "the LAST Adam".... a very important distinction!

With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, there is now a comepletly new way of our getting into a relationship with God. The way of the first Adam was unsuccessful - Jesus came as the second MAN (hence the new start)and the last Adam (hence the cessation of this way of relating to God through our own efforts).