Irenaeus on the Incarnation (1)

When I first started this blog back in August, I noted in the “Introductory Article” that the blog was dedicated to Jesus Christ, “The Recapitulator,” and that, secondarily, it was dedicated to the second-century bishop and theologian, Irenaeus.  I noted at that time that not only was Irenaeus a theologian, but that he could also properly be called, “the father of biblical theology.”  Another epithet which I believe could be applied to Irenaeus is “theologian of the incarnation.”  Among the church fathers, usually, and rightly so, that title is given to the fourth-century bishop, Athanasius.  But, I believe that until Athanasius arrived on the scene, Irenaeus could be seen as the proper holder of the title.  Indeed, two significant works on Irenaeus emphasize this, Gustav Wingren’s Man and the Incarnation: A Study in the Biblical Theology of Irenaeus, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies.

As a Christmas gift to my readers, each day for these last three weeks leading up to Christmas, I will post significant quotations from Irenaeus regarding the incarnation of our Lord.  Some days, the citation will be the entirety of the post.  Other days, I will add a bit of commentary as well. I hope that, for a good number of you, these posts will prove to be helpful in your devotional meditation and celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

The first quotation comes from Irenaeus’s Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, chap. 30 (the chapters are really about the size of paragraphs).  In the paragraphs preceding this citation, Irenaeus has been recounting the history of the people of God in the Old Testament, and has just arrived at a point where he now introduces the work of the Old Testament prophets. The translation is that of John Behr.

Hither the prophets were sent from God; by the Holy Spirit they admonished the people and returned them to the God of the patriarchs, the Almighty, and were made heralds of the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, announcing that his flesh would blossom from the seed of David, and that he would be, according to the flesh, son of David, who was the son of Abraham, through a long succession, while, according to the Spirit, Son of God, being at first with the Father, born before all creation, and being revealed to all the world at the close of the age as man, “recapitulating all things,” in Himself, the Word of God, “things in heaven and things on earth.”

There are several things here I would call your attention to:

(1) Almost seamlessly, Irenaeus weaves together the thoughts contained in several biblical passages into this paragraph.  “Announcing that his flesh would blossom from the seed of David,” is a reworking of Isaiah 11:1.  The references to Christ as son of David (via Abraham) according to the flesh and Son of God according to the Spirit utilize both the genealogy in Matthew 1 as well as the Apostle Paul’s statements in Romans 1:3-4.  The idea of the “recapitulation” of all things is taken from Ephesians 1:10.  Irenaeus is a “whole Bible” biblical theologian who, in a very compressed space, has managed, without explicitly quoting, to reference at least four different passages of Scripture, and without “prooftexting” in his use of them.  Remarkable.

(2) Note his emphasis on how the Old Testament prophets became “heralds of the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Extremely important, not only for the New Testament authors, but the first few generations of church fathers, was this idea that the incarnation of Jesus Christ was not just an ad hoc “plan b” that God came up with to provide redemption, but that the incarnation was foretold centuries before its taking place by God’s servants, the prophets, and that, in some way, this “heralding” both in the prophets’ own day, as well as ours, was for the purpose of turning hearts back to God Almighty.

(3) Note that Irenaeus refers to the incarnation as taking place at the “close of the age.”  If you had asked either Irenaeus or the Apostle Paul, “When will the last days take place?” they would both have replied, “The last days have already begun!”  For two thousand years now, we have been living in the last days, the end of the ages.  We live between those two great redemptive deeds: the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, and his second coming in great power and glory.  Our lives as Christians are defined by these two events.

(4) Finally, and somewhat self-servingly, I call attention again to the one Old Testament prophecy to which Irenaeus actually alludes in this paragraph, Isaiah 11:1,

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

Which also gives rise to, and allows me to quote, in closing, my favorite Christmas carol:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming
As men of old have sung.
It came a Flower bright
Amid the cold of winter
When half-spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
This rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it,
The virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright
She bore to men a Savior
When half-spent was the night.

Jerry Shepherd
December 4, 2013

4 thoughts on “Irenaeus on the Incarnation (1)

  1. Always been my favourite carol, too!
    Looking forward to reading more of Irenaeus’s comments. There is a gentleman in our church who is a preterist and who has some pretty good arguments for it. (He makes a lot of sense of some NT that are problematic. Some obviously gaping holes, however.)
    A lot of his arguments stem from the unreliability of Irenaeus as a theologian and historian. It’s good to read him referred as the ‘father of Biblical theology’!

    • Irenaeus has usually been claimed, and perhaps rightly so, to be a millennialist, of the “pre” variety. But lately there has been some nuancing of this understanding. Sometime down the road I’ll try to address the question on the blog. But I consider Irenaeus to be a quite reliable theologian. Historian? As far as biblical history is concerned, he’s very reliable. I don’t know that he engaged in any other kind.

      Your favorite carol too, huh. Well, you know what they say about great minds . . . !

  2. Another observation: When Irenaeus says: “Hither the prophets were sent from God; by the Holy Spirit they admonished the people…”, could this be a further allusion to 2 Peter 1:21? If so, his paragraph gets even juicier.

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