What’s Irenaeus’ Christology Teaches Us about the Goodness of our Bodies

The Christian tradition has always had an uneasy relationship with the materiality of creation. Dirt, liquid, sex, blood, and bodies—the world and the flesh stand in company with the Devil as two of the three great enemies of the saints. Mundus, caro, et diabolus, as the old Latin saying goes. And not without reason. The path to glory is littered with the lives of those who let go of God to take hold of the lesser goods of this world. St. Augustine’s honest confession is still true today, “It was the lovely things that kept me far from you.”

Yet there is more to the creation than its potentiality to shipwreck one’s faith. From the earliest pages of the Bible we encounter a good God who made a good world. The material creation is not the malformed work of an evil demiurge (so said the Gnostics), nor is the body a prison-house of the soul (so said the Platonists). Nor are earthly pleasures to be shunned as counterfeit goods (so said the Stoics). God’s good creation, including our own embodiment, is to be received with thanks, humbly enjoyed, and returned with gratitude to the God who gave it.

St. Irenaeus’ Christology, and corresponding anthropology, is especially helpful in reminding the church about the beauty of our materiality.

Irenaeus, Jesus’ body, and the Imago Dei

Central to Irenaeus’ anthropology is the idea that humanity was created in the ‘image and likeness of God’ [imago et similitudo Dei]. This basic anthropological insight is rooted in the opening chapters of Genesis, and is central to Jewish and Christian anthropologies. A wide range of opinions can be found in both traditions about the exact meaning of this phrase. Very often in both traditions, the human body does not factor as part of the divine image stamped on humanity. Such is not the case however, for Irenaeus. In his treatment of the Genesis creation account, Irenaeus clearly links the image of God to the visible, material “form” of humanity. He writes,

But the man he formed [pla,ssw] with his own hands,taking from the earth that which was purest and finest [lepto,j], and mingling in a measure of his own power [du,namij]with the earth. For he traced [periti,qhmi] his own form [pla,sma] on the formation,that that which should be seen should be of divine form [qeoeidh,j]: for the image of God was the man formed and set on the earth. And that he might become living, he breathed on his face the breath of life; that both for the breath and for the formation the man should be like unto God.1

And again,

Now humanity is a mixed organization of soul and flesh[Homo est enim temperatio animae et carnis], who was formed after the likeness [similtudinem] of God, and molded by his hands, that is, by the Son and Holy Spirit, to whom also he said, ‘Let us make humanity’….For whatsoever all the heretics may have advanced with the utmost solemnity, they come to this at last, that they blaspheme the Creator, and disallow the salvation of God’s workmanship [plasmatis Dei], which the flesh truly is [quod quidem est caro].2

For Irenaeus, the connection between the body and the image of God only makes sense when considered in relation to the human Jesus Christ, who is simultaneously the very Son of God. For Irenaeus, humanity is made according to the image of God insofar as humanity is made according to the image of the incarnate Son. “For he made humanity in the image of God; and the image of God is the Son, after whose image humanity was made: and for this cause he appeared in the end of the times that he might show the image [to be] like unto himself.”3 (Note here that Irenaeus does not connect the imago Dei to the non-embodied Father, but to the embodied Son).

For Irenaeus, the Son’s existence as the image of God is not an abstraction independent of the man Jesus Christ. The Son who is the image of God is the Son who “appeared in the end of times” and who manifested God through the flesh. An accurate reading of Irenaeus’s Christology, then, must begin with the man Jesus Christ who is also the eternal Son, rather than the reverse. For Irenaeus, humanity is made according to the image of the Son insofar as the Son himself is enfleshed humanity.

Though humanity was first in order of time, Christ’s humanity was first in order of divine intent and pre-eminence. Irenaeus’ typological anthropology here is helpfully clarified by setting it in parallel with the New Testament’s typological reading of the Passover lamb. For the New Testament, the Passover Lamb of the Exodus was first in order of time, but was nonetheless understood by the New Testament writers to be patterned after the future sacrifice of Christ; the lamb of the Passover is but a shadow of the Lamb of God, and the lesser (historically earlier) lamb finds its meaning and identity in the fact that it points to and participates in the greater (historically later) Lamb. In the same way, Irenaeus understands humanity, though historically prior to Christ, to be typologically pointing toward the true human, Jesus. For Irenaeus, Adamic humanity is made according to the image of Christ’s humanity. It is this typological relationship between humanity and Christ that for Irenaeus provides the basis of embodied humanity’s value and worth.

Notably, the typological relationship between humanity and Christ underscores the value of not only Adam’s humanity, but even more so, Christ’s humanity. Christ’s humanity, indeed Christ’s flesh, is the arch-type according to which fleshly humanity is made. For Irenaeus, since Christ’ incarnation precedes (logically, even though not temporally) the creation of Adam, it is valuable in its own right, and part of the Son’s identity.

Conclusion

All of which is to say, only if we embrace a Platonic or Stoic anthropology, wherein the body is not essential to the human being, can we conceive of a disembodied, non-material soteriological framework. Irenaeus’ Christology resists this mistake from the outset by insisting that the image of God latent within humanity corresponds to Jesus’ own humanity. To be embodied, to be material, is to be made according to the image of God that is the human Jesus Christ. Thus ascending to God does not require shedding the body (as the Platonists and Stoics believed), but rather healing and perfecting the body. Jesus resurrection is, of course, the first fruit and the surety that such a thing will come to pass. And because Jesus is eternally embodied, we are freed up to receive our bodies gratefully as a gift (as did the Son), to be used in service of our Lord. As St. Paul reminds us, the body is “meant for the Lord.”

Gerald Hiestand is the Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, and the Director of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He blogs at www.pastortheologians.com.

References   [ + ]

1. Epid.11.
2. Haer. book 4, preface, 4. For additional passages in Irenaeus, see Haer.1.24.1, 2.30.3, 3.22.1.
3. Epid. 22. See also 11 and 55 where Irenaeus speaks of humanity as made in the image and likeness of God.