Jesus's Mission -- Irenaeus's View

In reviewing the book God Does Not . . . I commented on Daniel Bell's attempt to deal with the atonement. His point is that God doesn't demand blood -- that is Jesus didn't die so as to appease God's wrath or satisfy some need for blood to resolve legal issues. It is a challenge to traditional penal substitutionary atonement theology. I applaud him for the attempt, but feel it needs more work!

As we contemplate the biblical understanding of the Cross -- something that we will be doing soon on Good Friday (see my reflections in my book A Cry from the Cross) -- it is proper to remember that in the early years of the church there were a number of attempts to understand the cross and Jesus' life and death and resurrection. One of the most important early theologians was Irenaeus, whose Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) attempted to refute Gnostic attempts to separate Jesus Christ from his body. In developing his defense of Christianity, he described Jesus' life in terms of "recapitulation" -- that is, in his life and death and resurrection, Jesus lived a human life so as to undo that which was lost by Adam in the fall. It was not merely Jesus' death that saves us, but the entirety of his life that overcame sin and death.

I will try to lay out some of what Irenaeus had to say (and let me say too that Elaine Pagels has given Irenaeus an undeserved bad rap!), because I think it's helpful. Consider this statement by Ireneaus about Jesus' words of forgiveness from the cross:

By the fact that on the cross the Lord said, "Father let them go, for they do not know what they are doing," the long -suffering and patience and mercy and goodness of Christ are shown, so that the very one who suffers is the one who forgives his persecutors. The word of God which he spoke to us -- "Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you" [Matt. 5:44 -- he enacted on the cross. He loved the human race so much that he interceded for those who were doing him to death.

If three is anyone who thinks that there were two Christs and passes judgment on them, he will discover that the Christ who, in spite of his own wounds and stripes and the other things they did to him, was beneficent and willing to forget the evil done him, was much better and more patient and truly good than the Christ who "flew away" and did not suffer injury or opprobrium. (Irenaeus, from The Christological Controversy, edited and translated by Richard A. Norris, Fortress, 1980, p. 53).

This one who suffered for us -- really suffered (unlike what the Gnostics were saying) -- has shown us a way of living before God. And as our teacher, we can become like him, but before that he has undone what has caused us pain.

But as our Lord is the only true teacher, he is also the true Son of God, who is good and who suffers in patience -- the Logos of God the Father become Son of man. He struggled and conquered. He was a human being, fighting on behalf of his fathers. Through his obedience he dissolved disobedience, for he tied up the strong man and set free the weak. He gave salvation to the being he had shaped by destroying sin. He is the most faithful and merciful Lord and the lover of the human race. (p. 53).

Nothing here is said about propitiating the wrath of God, or satisfying God's legal claims, but he does speak of Jesus expressing God's love for humanity.


charles & jenny said…
This is a HUGE can of worms that would probably need to built out over a few posts. My simple question would be.. why did Christ have to die? Why did he predict his death? What about all the animal sacrifices in the OT? Why were they stopped?

I know I have learned one specific way and I enjoy your honesty in posts. Please don't view the questions as attacks, but simply a way of understanding the position. Its a position that can bring about a lot of questions from my perspective.


I'm anticipating playing with this topic some in the coming days. On the animal sacrifices -- in Judaism they stopped because the Temple was destroyed. But remember that the sacrifices had a number of meanings -- they were seen often as offerings to God -- not to appease God but to give thanks to God.

What is interesting here is that Irenaeus is probably the first important post-biblical theologian of the church. Thus, it's important that we pay attention to his thinking.
"Father let them go, for they do not know what they are doing..."

These words speak powerfully against the view that people "freely choose" sin and perpetually invite Christians to an enlightened and non-judgmental understanding of wrongdoing as ignorance.
John said…
I was thinking about the Prodigal son story told by Jesus. In Jesus' telling of the story, the prodigal is redeemed and restored into right relationship with the father, and there is no apparent christological element in the redemptive process. The son repents of his own accord and returns to the father, making himself available to the healing love of the father and that healing love is freely given. There is no wrath of God, there is no required blood sacrifice, there is no price whatsoever to be paid as a necessary prelude to the son's redemption.

The only sacrifice to be made is the fatted calf, and this is not for purposes of appeasing any divine requirement but in order to provide food for the celebration which the father wishes to undertake in response to the son's redemptive homecoming.

Is this an alternative model of Christian redemption?

charles & jenny said…
I always get a little concerned blogging b/c I don't my tone to be misunderstood. I ask these questions as a conversation among believers, not to start arguments.
Clearly, the OT reference that states a need for the blood sacrifice was Passover. The Prodigal Son is a parable as you stated John, so I would see it more as a representation as to how we become in right relationship with the Lord vs a way around the need for a sacrifice. Its the last parable of three that all talk of things or people being lost and then found.. and the "partying" that takes place afterwards. The fun thought is this takes place as Jesus talks to a table full of sinners and the Pharisees look on from a distance. I bet it was a partying crowd around Jesus and he tells these great stories of lost people coming home and parties that result. Ok.. I am way off base.. I look forward to see where Bob goes with this, but I only state that there are many NT verses talking about Jesus' sacrifice for us. And again.. I have to ask the basic question, if Jesus didn't need to be a sacrifice, why did he need to die?

John said…
I recognize that it is a parable, put forth in the context of a series of related parables. I also recognize that there are references to Jesus' death being for the forgiveness of sin.

As for Hebrew Scriptural requirements for blood sacrifices, I am not completely sold on the argument that such requirements continue in force after the birth of Jesus. God the father is no less forgiving and merciful than Jesus was. If we accept that as true, what leads us to conclude that this perfectly merciful God would compel a blood sacrifice of n innocent human just to comply with an outdated Hebrew Scriptural ritual.

Assuming arguendo that his death was not an atoning sacrifice, perhaps his death was a sign? A sign of the unresolved condition of the human heart? We are sinners, Jesus life and death notwithstanding. And perhaps his resurrection was a sign of God's merciful conquest of sin and death.

Or perhaps it was a sign of God's commitment to God's relationship with humanity? "To lay down one's life for another...."


On Passover, in Jewish tradition, the observance has nothing to do with atonement -- that is something different. The passover sacrifice is set up not to deal with the sins of the people, but to mark them as God's people -- when the angel of death passes by.

I do think that John is on to something with the Prodigal Son. The father freely accepts the son and requires nothing of him. Yes there are sacrificial texts, but as we read them sometimes we need to read them in the light of other texts. We usually read Jesus in the light of Paul, but perhaps Paul needs to be read in the light of Jesus.
ElderChild said…
Why is it that so many questions are asked? and concerns shared? when the questions were answered and the concerns addressed some two thousand years ago?

Why is it no one will take heed and listen?

Simply, because that which it calls itself "religion" has had it's way with the multitudes, and especially the educated, those who were taught that reading, memorizing and then passing a test on that which is in a book is the source of "knowledge" ;-(

Sadly all that is "known" is but "the colored marks written on a dead tree" ;-(

Such "head" knowledge is a prime reason that today, natural Creation(land, air, water, vegetation, creatures) is being destroyed, and that which is of The Spirit(Light, Truth, Love, Peace, Life, Hope, Grace, Mercy, Faith, etc.) is being perverted ;-(

Sadder yet, those who "see" religion for what it is, yet allow religion to have it's way with them ;-(

The prime purpose of that which is called "religion" is to insure that "The Way of Truth will be evil spoken of" ;-( (2Peter2:2)

Once again, some two thousand years past, the answers to what Truly matters were revealed".

"How are we ever going to improve things with the culture and lifestyles we are so entrenched in?"

"Love not the world, neither the things in the world!" (1Jn2:15)
And, "Whoever loves this world is the enemy of GOD!" (James4:4)
For "The WHOLE world is under the control of the evil one!" (1Jn5:19)

"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me(The Messiah) before it hated you." (John15:18)

And it was promised that "evil men and seducers would grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived". (2Timothy3:13)

The Messiah did not come to make this wicked, evil world a better place!

So, for the "entrenched", "The Call" was given and yet remains, "Come out of her, MY people!" (Revelations18:4)

"Come Out" of this wicked, evil world and it's systems of religion!

"Improve things"? No! Simply, "Come Out" from among those who are destroying and perverting Creation! No longer be of those who believe they "know" what is best! Be of those who desire above all else, "Father(Creator), not my will, But THY Will Be Done!"

I believe the "imag"ination of those reading this, and who despise "religion", is
quite active now, "imag"ining, "ah, this one's just another catholic or christian, must be but another one of those "religious" hypocrites!"

Or the religious ones reading this, even as they have their portion in the destruction and perversion of Creation, "imag"ining, "Who does he think he is?", "Nobody's perfect!", and a favorite line of both the religious and irreligious, "You can't judge me" ;-( When in Truth it is their own Creator given conscience that convicts them!

Truth is, "Pure religion and undefiled before GOD The Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted by the world." (James1:27)

Simply, all other "religion" is impure and defiled!

Sadly, there are many who have allowed what is called "religion" to have it's way with them, and so it is that many who "see" the destruction and perversion of Creation return to their "mother earth", yet sadly never experience The Oneness that is in and of "Our Father", HE WHO IS in Heaven ;-(

Yet there is Hope!

For Miracles do happen!

Hope is there would be those who experience The Miracle that is receiving "a love of The Truth" for they will "see" The Light that is The Messiah, and they will take heed unto The Call of "Our Father" to "Come out of her, MY people!"

They will no longer be of those who are destroying and perverting Creation.

They will "see" that "A Simple and Spiritual Life is the only Life that will survive!"

Peace, in spite of the dis-ease(destruction and perversion) that is of this world and it's systems of religion, for "the WHOLE world is under the control of the evil one" indeed and Truth.......

Truth is never ending.......

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