Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons from 177-202 AD, is a helpful Christian thinker on the subject of human evil. He was an early opponent of Gnostic views, which held that the physical world was less important than the spiritual world. Irenaeus knew that because of God’s original commitment to the physical world, God has acted in Christ to redeem not only the souls of people, but also the bodies and the entire physical creation. Irenaeus taught that Jesus came, not to satisfy the retributive justice of God, but to resolve a problem within human nature itself, and offer back to us his renewed humanity.
First, Irenaeus says that Jesus took his humanity from the same human nature that we all share, to renew it and save it. He did not start a different type of human being, because that would have been of no help to us. This is why Irenaeus constantly referred to Jesus’ person and work as the “recapitulation” – or the summing up, or literally, the re-“heading” – of all humanity. Taking this concept from Paul (Eph 1:10), Irenaeus says that Jesus is the “second Adam” (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49), the one from whom a new life passes into all other human beings.
Therefore, as I have already said, He caused man (human nature) to cleave to and to become, one with God …. But the law coming, which was given by Moses, and testifying of sin that it is a sinner, did truly take away his (death’s) kingdom, showing that he was no king, but a robber; and it revealed him as a murderer. It laid, however, a weighty burden upon man, who had sin in himself, showing that he was liable to death. For as the law was spiritual, it merely made sin to stand out in relief, but did not destroy it …. For it behooved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should go forth from death …. Thus, then, was the Word of God made man …. God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true. (Against Heresies 3.18.7, see also 2.12.4; 3.18.1; 5.1.3)
Second, Irenaeus explains how sin infected human beings in the first place by commenting on Genesis 3. But instead of arguing that the exile from the garden of Eden was a punitive act, Irenaeus held that God had no choice, because of His love. He could not allow evil to lodge itself permanently in humanity:
Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God. (Against Heresies 3.23.6)
Third, Irenaeus explains why God gave human beings genuine free will, beginning from creation but continuing at all times. This is vital to explaining why God does not intervene by rendering human beings into mechanical puppets. Human free will finds deep theological ground in the character of God:
…God made man a free [being] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all …” (Against Heresies 4.37.1 – 2, see the whole chapter; cf. 4.4.3; 4.39; 5:37)
Irenaeus even quotes Paul’s “potter and clay” passage from Romans 9. Iranaeus did not see in it the determinism of Augustine and his heirs, but rather, like the other early theologians, and continuing on into the Eastern Orthodox Church, he saw in it free will in partnership with God for the formation of our own human nature:
Offer to Him thy heart in a soft and tractable state, and preserve the form in which the Creator has fashioned thee, having moisture in thyself, lest, by becoming hardened, thou lose the impressions of His fingers. But by preserving the framework thou shalt ascend to that which is perfect, for the moist clay which is in thee is hidden [there] by the workmanship of God. His hand fashioned thy substance; He will cover thee over within and without with pure gold and silver, and He will adorn thee to such a degree, that even “the King Himself shall have pleasure in thy beauty.” But if thou, being obstinately hardened, dost reject the operation of His skill, and show thyself ungrateful towards Him, because thou wert created a [mere] man, by becoming thus ungrateful to God, thou hast at once lost both His workmanship and life. For creation is an attribute of the goodness of God but to be created [i.e., consummated] is that of human nature. If then, thou shalt deliver up to Him what is thine, that is, faith towards Him and subjection, thou shalt receive His handiwork, and shall be a perfect work of God. (Against Heresies 4.39.2, see the whole chapter)
Irenaeus marvels that God has worked out a way to purify human beings in a loving way consistent with His own loving nature. God had to personally acquire a human body in the person of His Son and by His Spirit. He had to heal human nature of the sinful corruption that stained it – the true object of His wrath – through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And God offers the new humanity of Jesus back to every single person by the Spirit in order to purify us of evil. Thus does God remain committed to human free will from start to finish because of His love for all humanity. With Irenaeus’ help, we can proclaim that God is good, that God is love, and that God is opposed, in the here and now, to human evil in the world.
Mako Nagasawa is Director of the New Humanity Institute. He, his wife Ming, and their two children live in a Christian intentional community involved with urban ministry in Dorchester.