Irenaeus on the Incarnation (3)

Today’s installment in this series comes again from the Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, chap. 32.  The translation is John Behr’s.

But whence, then, was the substance of the first-formed?  From the will and the wisdom of God and from virgin earth—”For God had not caused it rain,” says Scripture, before man was made, “and there was no man to till the ground.”  So, from this earth, while it was still virgin, God “took mud from the earth and fashioned man,” the beginning of mankind.  Thus, the Lord, recapitulating this man, received the same arrangement of embodiment as this one, being born of the Virgin by the will and wisdom of God, that he might also demonstrate the likeness of the embodiment to Adam, and might become the man, written in the beginning, “according to the image and likeness of God.”

What Irenaeus says here might be considered strange by us today.  He tries to draw a comparison between Adam and Christ by saying that both of them came from a virgin—Adam from the virgin earth, and Christ from the virgin Mary.  We might perhaps regard this as unwarranted, arbitrary allegory.  How can one seriously compare virgin earth or soil to the virgin Mary?  It appears fanciful and forced.

On the other hand, I would argue that the drawing of the comparison, though perhaps forced, does not count as an example of arbitrary allegory.  Rather, it is a bit of typology.  Irenaeus is not asking the reader to discount the creation of the first man as non-historical, or to regard the dust of the earth from which Adam was created as something other than the actual dust of the earth, or to interpret the dust as some abstract philosophical principle drawn out of thin air.  Instead, Irenaeus is demonstrating a concrete connection, asking the reader to note that these two men, Adam and Christ, had extraordinary and unique formations as human beings.  No other person in human history was fashioned directly from the dust of the earth, as was Adam.  No other person in human history was born of a virgin, as was the man Christ Jesus.  Therefore, in each case, we should see demonstrated the intentional “will and wisdom of God.”  God intentionally made the first man from the dust of the earth to be his own likeness and image.  God intentionally formed Christ in the womb of the virgin Mary to be his own likeness and image.  Christ “sent his Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4), to “recapitulate,” to replicate and bring to completion what Adam was meant to be.  Christ has come as the second Adam, to be the image of God, recovering that which had become terribly marred in the first Adam; and he also came to remake us in the image of God, conforming us “to the likeness of his dear Son” (Romans 8:29; which I am intentionally conflating with Colossians 1:13).

What I just said in this last paragraph, was also said, more poetically and more artistically, in one of our great Christmas carols, written by Charles Wesley (though somewhat altered over the years):

Come, Desire of nations, come;
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conquering Seed;
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface;
Stamp thine image in its place;
Second Adam, from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

A few of lines Wesley’s original lyrics, not usually printed in hymnals today, but bearing on our theme, are as follows:

Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the life, the inner man:
O, to all thyself impart,
Form’d in each believing heart.

Thanks be to God.

Jerry Shepherd
December 6, 2013

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