“The Glory of God Is a Man Fully Alive”—Well, Not Exactly

You have all heard this quotation from Irenaeus before.  And it is has been popularized and graphically represented in many different ways.

A quick internet scan for images related to this phrase reveals pictures of a man or woman, and usually a young man or woman, arms raised and spread wide open, chest thrust out,

running along the seashore
standing on top of a mountain
running through a field of hay, clover, or tall grass
standing in the middle of a river or lake

or, in various other postures,

jumping into a pile of leaves
climbing a mountain
going down a zip line
riding a horse in the open country
riding a surf board
sitting on a pier doing yoga
riding a Harley
going on a hike
doing acrobatics
singing karaoke
riding a surfboard
engaging in martial arts

And there are many other images available.

There is a bit of a problem with all this, however.  I doubt this quotation from Irenaeus would ever have become so popular if it had not been actually been a misquotation.  Irenaeus never said this.  Or, to be more precise, he didn’t say this, exactly.  If you drop the word “fully,” then you will get back to the original.  The literal translation from the Latin text is, simply, “The glory of God is a living man.”

What Irenaeus actually said is theologically profound in its own right.  But the addition of the word “fully” has allowed some to take the thought into areas where it was never meant to go.  On one track, the quotation has been used to argue that a person must live life on the edge.  The implication is that you are not fully alive if you are not “going for the gusto,” engaging in extreme sports, climbing mountains, getting out of your comfort zone, etc.  After all, Irenaeus said the glory of God is a man fully (i.e., extremely) alive.

Along another track, the citation had been taken to argue for the well-balanced life.  I have heard seminary students told that they need to do more than just study theology; they need to get out and do physical activity, run, play sports, do hobbies, socialize—anything to get away from the stuffy halls of academia.  After all, Irenaeus said the glory of God is a man fully (i.e., diversely) alive.

Now, there is lot of good practical advice given in these two tracks.  For the first one, I think of Eric Liddell, who said that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure.  And for the second track, one only has to go back to that old aphorism, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”  The sentiments expressed in these two tracks are good and practical.  But neither of them is what Irenaeus had in mind when he said, “The glory of God is a living human being.”  Listen to the citation in its larger context, in his work, Against Heresies.  The quotation itself is found in 4.20.7; but I also provide here an additional citation from 3.20.2, which I think helps to shed light on what Irenaeus is communicating.  The translations are taken from John Behr’s recent volume, Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity.

For the glory of God is a living human being; and the life of the human consists in beholding God.  For if the manifestation of God which is made by means of the creation, affords life to all living in the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God. (4.20.7)

Such then was the patience of God, that the human being, passing through all things and acquiring knowledge of death, then attaining to the resurrection from the dead, and learning by experience from whence he has been delivered, may thus always gives thanks to the Lord, having received from him the gift of incorruptibility, and may love him the more, for ‘he to whom more is forgiven, loves more,’ and may himself know how mortal and weak he is, but also understand that God is so immortal and powerful as to bestow immortality on the mortal and eternity on the temporal, and that he may also know the other powers of God made manifest in himself and, being taught by them, may think of God in accordance with the greatness of God.  For the glory of the human being is God . . .

The glory of God is what he does for the fallen human being who has been lost and ruined by the fall.  Christ, the “second Adam from above,” by his life and death and resurrection, “recapitulates” humanity, recovering what was lost in the first Adam.  The Spirit of God revivifies human beings, bringing them back from the dead, breathing into them new life, and giving them a vision of the greatness and the goodness and the majesty of God.  The glory of God is the impartation of this new life to human beings.  But the new life of human beings consists of beholding the vision of God.

I am glad that this is what Irenaeus meant when he said, “The glory of God is a living human being.”  And I am glad that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).  I am so glad that saints in wheelchairs, saints who are in hospital beds which they will never leave in this life, saints who are blind, or deaf, or dumb, saints who are retired, saints whose bodies just don’t seem to cooperate any more—I am so glad that even though they cannot climb high mountains, surf the waves, or run though the fields, they are still those of whom it can be said, “The glory of God is a living human being.”

And I am so glad that saints whose life circumstances simply do not permit them to live a well-balanced life, a full-orbed existence, a life of many and diverse pursuits and pleasures, and saints whose occupational and life settings are perhaps routine, less than glamorous, or what we would normally think of as being fulfilling, who work long hours at what are considered to be mundane jobs, and have to just to keep the bills paid—I am so glad that of them, too, it can be said, “The glory of God is a living human being.”

And I am also glad, for both these groups, that by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and by the power of his Spirit, it can be said, properly understood, that they have life, and that they have it to the full.  God has given them new life in Christ.  And that life is not sustained by a living-on-edge lifestyle, or even by a well-balanced and full-orbed existence.  It is sustained by beholding the face of God. “For the glory of God is a living human being; and the life of the human consists in beholding God.”  It is sustained by being a theologian, and, in particular, by doing your theology in the second-person: in worship, prayer, and contemplation of the holiness and majesty of the triune God.

So, on this eve of the feast day of St. Irenaeus in the Orthodox Church (August 23), and on the eve of the second anniversary of this blog, “The Recapitulator,” I give you this admonition: If you are able and are so inclined to live life on the edge, go ahead and do so.  And if you are able to live a well-balanced life and are so inclined, then go ahead and do so.  But do not confuse either of these two things with “living life to the fullest,” or with what it means to be a saint whose life is one that reflects the glory of God.  Rather, remember this. “The glory of God is a living human being.” This is what God has already done in you by giving you new life in Christ.  And remember this.  “The life of the human consists in beholding God.”  The way to sustain the new life which God has given you is by looking into the face of God, always beholding the face of your Father in heaven.

“The glory of God is a living human being.”  A God-infused life.

“The life of the human consists in beholding God.”  A God-focused life.

If Irenaeus had actually used the word “fully,” this is what he would have meant.

Jerry Shepherd
August 22, 2015