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Exploring the Christian Way of Life - The Identity of Jesus - Church History (Pre-Reformation) - Irenaeus

Starting from Irenaeus, Christology, in some respects, moves on. A big part of this would have been due to the “gnostic” controversies. It became increasingly important to clarify the relationship between Father and Son and to minimize their distinctiveness, while still maintaining Jesus’ full humanity. From this point on, clashes over heresy about the nature of Christ and discussions related to Trinitarian theology dominate Christological discussion to the point that the original emphasis on Jesus’ Messianic identity fades to the background.[1] Maintaining the affirmation that Jesus was both human and divine was critical for Irenaeus and those after him because they saw that as the necessary grounds of salvation.[2]

Of particular interest to Irenaeus was the baptism of Jesus. What happened when he received the Spirit?[3] It was not the means by which the Word entered Jesus. He was not merely human before that point.[4] Rather it was a divinization of the human nature of Jesus, a nature that was already connected to the divine Word, and in line with the divinization of the king pictured in some of the Psalms as we discussed in our first paper. It empowered the human Jesus for Messianic ministry, presumably by unifying the wills of the human and divine natures of Jesus more fully and culminated in the resurrection. The reception of the Spirit in Jesus also is what paves the way for our own divinization and hence our salvation.

What was Jesus status in the Trinity? In a passage like Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 7, Irenaeus can sound like he was a subordinationist. However Irenaeus makes crystal clear statements on the matter in Against Heresies III.VI, referring to the Father and the Son, “Therefore neither would the Lord, nor the Holy Spirit, nor the apostles, have ever named as God, definitely and absolutely, him who was not God, unless he were truly God…”[5] Thus, what we find in Irenaeus is only functional subordination, not ontological subordination like what Justin argued for.[6] The increased focus on Jesus’ unity with the Father in Irenaeus is not solely driven by his clashes with the “gnostics.” If God is to be made known, or seen, through Jesus then there must be the utmost unity.[7]

Jesus still maintains Messianic identity and is presented in kingly terms by Irenaeus. The focus of his kingship has expended as, “…the Christ is called Son of God and King of the Gentiles, that is, of all mankind…”[8] which is part of the core of a lengthy exposition on Jesus’ identity.[9] It was God’s plan to install Jesus as king forever on David’s throne, and “…he awaits the time appointed by the Father for the judgment when all enemies shall be put under him.”[10] All of this is very traditional Christological belief. Given its position of prominence in the Demonstration, I take it to be the most central of his beliefs about Jesus.[11] Jesus’ status as divine king remained central for Irenaeus. This kingdom also remained very much an earthly kingdom, as he expected Jesus to reign on earth for 1000 years after the resurrection.[12] This is in contrast to Justin who understood the kingdom spiritually, even while continuing to claim a physical resurrection. For Irenaeus, Jesus was the king who restores and heals his creation at great cost to himself and in revelation of his divinity.[13]

[1] The fact that we can discuss Christology apart from Messianic identity, given what the root word for Christ in the Greek meant to the earliest followers of Jesus, is amazing.
[2] Smith 1997 p. 622. For a discussion on the nature of the union of the two natures in Irenaeus’ thought see Briggman 2013 passim.
[3] For this entire paragraph I am deeply indebted to Smith 1997.
[4] See e.g., Against Heresies 3.IX.3
[5] Translation from Ante-Nicean Fathers Vol. 1. This passage is emphasized helpfully by Presley 2012 p. 169.
[6] Minns 2010 pp. 60-62 argues persuasively that if anything Irenaeus was a modalist.
[7] See Slusser 2012 passim for an exposition on the centrality of Christ as revealer for Irenaeus. The argument here seems to be anticipating the fuller elaboration we find in Barth.
[8] Dem. 49. All translations from the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching are from Robinson as printed in Mackenzie 2002.
[9] It roughly covers Dem 31-88. Though see the arguments that 42b-97 is focused more on the Holy Spirit in Wiegel 2014,pp. 122-26, 129-30. Even if granting that, I would simply say that the focus on the Holy Spirit is on his role as witness to Christ, which Wiegel does grant, “the reader should expect the section on the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the work and person of Christ” p. 130. See also MacKenzie 2002,p. 177.
[10] Dem. 85.
[11] In my opinion, a positive pedagogical work is more likely to emphasize his core or central beliefs rather than a negative work like Against Heresies.
[12] See e.g., Against Heresies 5.XXXIII-XXXVI, esp 5.XXXVI.3. See Minns 2010 pp.140-47 for an extended discussion of Irenaeus’ eschatology.
[13] In addition to the just cited texts of Against Heresies, Dem. 67-69, also with a focus on judgment of the wicked.


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