Faith of Our Fathers: Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching (pt. 3)

3. The “Recapitulation” of All Things

Irenaeus, Church Fathers, Christianity

Irenaeus was one of the Early Christian Church Fathers

In our last post, we had begun to look at Irenaeus’s commentary on the Trinitarian baptismal formula. The first pillar of the Christian faith was the nature of God the Father. Another crucial element of the Christian faith is the work of the Son through the incarnation. It is important to note that Irenaeus begins with God the Father because of preeminence, not because he thinks we can actually know God the Father apart from the Son, whose incarnation reveals the Father to the world. We now turn to the work of the Son.  There is no way a commentary can capture the theological density and beauty of the relevant passage. Hence, we cite it in full for the reader’s pleasure:

And the second article: The Word of God, The Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets according to the character of their prophecy and according to the nature of the economies of the Father, by whom all things were made, and who, in the last times, to recapitulate all things, became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and man. (43)

The briefest comment must suffice to draw attention to the main elements of the profound theological claims in this creedal statement (we will meet with these elements in greater detail later in Irenaeus’ grand work, Against Heresies). We begin with “the economies of the Father.”  Irenaeus is representative of the general view in patristic theology that God has a grand educational programme for humanity regardless of the Fall. The incarnation, as Father John Behr told us in his lecture on patristic humanism, is not God’s plan ‘B’ after the Fall. Rather, from the beginning, humanity was to be trained in god-likeness, becoming evermore like the perfect image of God–that is, like Jesus the Christ. And the incarnation was always part of that educational program, so that Christ’s words “it is finished,” refer to the creation of the new humanity. All of God’s dealings with Israel, all his covenants or “economies,” and the giving of the Mosaic law had this as their ultimate goal: History as the training ground for humanity.

Next, we note the term “recapitulation.” The ambiguity of the referent for the relative pronoun “by whom all things were made,” captures the profound sense that the very God who created all things and is incomprehensible became “man among men” in order to “recapitulate all things.” This is Irenaeus’ great hymn to the incarnation, the culmination of God’s educational purpose for human beings. The supernatural end of human beings had always been intimate communion with God and immortality.  When God became a human being, living a human life, He entered into his human creature, united with it, as it were, and took humanity up into divinity. Of course, this has implications for all of creation, not just for human beings. As Irenaeus points out, God ‘recapitulates all things’–not just man; however, this recapitulation includes man especially, for whom creation was made as a habitat.  This astounding mystery that God would become one of us to take us up into God, is Irenaeus’s gospel.

I may be wrong, but this does not seem to be the standard evangelical interpretation of Christianity. In the church where you worship, does the pastor greet the congregation with the words, “Welcome, in the name of the God who made all things, and who, in Jesus our Lord, summed up his creation in himself, became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and ourselves?” When was the last time you heard that we are in church because the gates of heaven are opened, death is vanquished once and for all, and because life – the uncreated source of life itself—took on humanity in order to heal it so that we could truly live and demonstrate true life out of the intimate communion with God made possible by this event? The church fathers lived out of this vision, and from its fullness they transformed culture. Could it be that this vision accounts for the profound difference between our Christian humanist ancestors and current evangelical culture? Why does popular evangelical culture still exhibit a fortress mentality, viewing evangelical theology as a last bastion of truth from which narrow-minded sorties are made to slaughter the enemy (evolution, old earth, scriptural inerrancy based on verbal inspiration etc.) or preaching a rule-governed Christianity? How do any of these things reflect our becoming like God by ‘demonstrating life’?  In the next post, we will look at the third crucial element of Christianity contained in Irenaeus’s Trinitarian baptismal formula: namely, the role of the Holy Spirit.

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