Saturday, May 29, 2010

St. Irenaeus on Man's Infancy

Chapter 38 of the fourth book of St. Irenaeus's Adversus Haeraeses addresses the question of why God did not simply make man perfect from the beginning so that he would not have sinned.

St. Irenaeus's answer is that this comparative imperfection is simply part of what it means to be a created being. Created beings, "from the very fact of their later origin", are inferior to the Creator, who possesses perfection eternally. Instead, nature reflects the glory of the eternal God through growth and duration:
With God there are simultaneously exhibited power, wisdom, and goodness. His power and goodness [appear] in this, that of His own will He called into being and fashioned things having no previous existence; His wisdom [is shown] in His having made created things parts of one harmonious and consistent whole; and those things which, through His super-eminent kindness, receive growth and a long period of existence, do reflect the glory of the uncreated One, of that God who bestows what is good ungrudgingly. For from the very fact of these things having been created, [it follows] that they are not uncreated; but by their continuing in being throughout a long course of ages, they shall receive a faculty of the Uncreated, through the gratuitous bestowal of eternal existence upon them by God. (4.38.3, ANF 1, 521)
Man, like the rest of creation, shares this pattern of development over time, and, thus, though God could have bestowed perfection, the first man was not capable of recieving it, being merely in "infancy". This is both parallel to and different from the view of St. Augustine, who pictures Adam not just as free from sin and death, but something close to perfection, saving for the changeableness that comes with being a creature. (See Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 362, and references cited there). The latter view would seem to render an ideal of man that is basically static, with his mutability being a defect that has no particular aim. In the former view, on the other hand, this mutability is neutral or even positive, at least in its divine intent. Its aim is an reflection, within time, of God's perfection. It would seem to lead to a view of man that is more like, or at least leaves more room for, a modern view of development through history.

Of course, on some level, this sort of just begs the question. Sure, man is part of creation and creation is subject to change, growth and decay, but couldn't an omnipotent God have made creation different? Well, maybe. St. Irenaeus (and St. Augustine, I think) seem to be saying, however, that this is simply part of what it means to be created. A created being not subject to growth and change would be a contradiction in terms, like a triangle with four sides. Those wishing it were otherwise are really wishing to be something other than human, like animals who blame God for not making them men, when the mere fact of our existence is entirely a gift.

Instead we ought to marvel at the glory of what God has done, making in man, in his very creatureliness, an image of God's own perfection.
By this arrangement, therefore, and these harmonies, and a sequence of this nature, man, a created and organized being, is rendered after the image and likeness of the uncreated God, the Father planning everything well and giving His commands, the Son carrying these into execution and performing the work of creating, and the Spirit nourishing and increasing [what is made], but man making progress day by day, and ascending towards the perfect, that is, approximating to the uncreated One. For the Uncreated is perfect, that is, God. Now it was necessary that man should in the first instance be created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound; and having abounded, should recover [from the disease of sin]; and having recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord. For God is He who is yet to be seen, and the beholding of God is productive of immortality, but immortality renders one nigh unto God. (4.38.3)

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