St Irenaeus: not a psychobabble practitioner

Saint irenee saint irenee
Window of St Irenaeus by Lucien Bégule (1901)

The single most celebrated quotation from St Irenaeus, the apostolic Father who lived from about 130 to about 202AD is “Gloria Dei vivens homo.” (Adversus Haereses 20-1-7) As my old patristics teacher, Father Antonio Orbe once said as politely as he could to a student who wanted to study the dictum for his dissertation: “This phrase is very often cited, but always wrongly understood.”

Not a statement of self-actualising psychobabble

The venerable professor said this because the much-quoted statement used to be widely misused to enlist St Irenaeus as a supporter of the personalist psychology of the 1970s. In this context, it would usually be quoted as “The glory of God is man fully alive” by which is meant man fully self-actualised, replete with “healthy” self-esteem.

You could find this misinterpretation of St Irenaeus in books written by priest psychologists, in pastoral letters, and in sermons. I have sadly even seen it filter down to Catholic schools as a way of getting across the message of affirmation and so-called unconditional love. I even found a reference to a school that had bowlderised the text itself into “Gloria Dei est homo totaliter vivens.”

Fr Orbe was particularly pained because none of these interpretations gets anywhere close to the meaning of Saint Irenaeus. It is as if the great second-century Father from Smyrna were mistaken for a new-age mindfulness practitioner in one of our trendier suburbs.

A breathtaking vista of creation and salvation

Saint Irenaeus was much more fascinating than that. The equivalent of new-age devotees in his time were the heretics against whom he wrote his five books of enduring genius. His close link with the apostles and their immediate successors enabled him to develop a great treatise of theology that drew especially upon the teaching and vision of Saint Paul.

The gnostic heretics wrongly demoted the Son to a secondary being, a sub-creator who was responsible for what was visible, for the material universe. They denied the goodness of the flesh and saw salvation as a path of escaping from the body and passing through the aeons into the great silence and unknowability which was their “real” God.

St Irenaeus insisted that the Word and the Spirit were the means by which we do have contact with the invisible God. The prophets made known the invisible creator by means of the visible word which was the seed of future glory. When finally the Word Himself became flesh, our very humanity became immortal in Him. Further, when the Word was glorified, our humanity was able to lay hold of the vision of God through adoption, until the time that we would finally see Him face to face in the beatific vision.

In this orthodox Catholic approach, we do not lay hold upon God by escaping from the flesh but in the very flesh itself. The Word becomes flesh, sanctifies our flesh and makes it possibly for our very bodies themselves to communicate with the divine, by means of the sacraments in which we share in the flesh of Jesus Christ. A few years later, Tertullian summarised it famously by saying “Caro salutis est cardo.” (The flesh is the hinge of salvation.)

Summed up in Himself

Saint Irenaeus considered that St Paul was not just using a pretty phrase when He referred to Christ as the “first Adam.” He understood it to mean that the Word actually summed up our human nature in His own person. This idea of summing up the whole of human nature is also the doctrine of Saint Paul. In Ephesians 1:10, he used one of the most elaborate words of his epistles when he said that it was the good pleasure of the Father “in the dispensation of the fullness of times, to re-establish all things in Christ.”

That word, given in the Douai-Rheims as “re-establish” is ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι [anakephalaiosasthai] (for grammar freaks, it is the aorist infinitive middle of ἀνακεφαλαιόω.) It means something like “to sum up and bring together to a head in himself.” St Paul probably used it as a tour-de-force to try to get across the magnificence of what he was describing. St Irenaeus developed the same idea to answer the heretics.

He described the Word as summing up all creation in Himself, so that we could have the vision of God that we were made for, that vision itself being the greatest fulfilment of the human person. The advent of sin meant that this recapitulation in Christ would now be wrought through the pain and suffering of the cross, but would still result in the glory of God being communicated to us through the Word. It is Christ who is ultimately the “living man” and we are made alive in Him.

It was therefore indeed something of a climax in the magnum opus of St Irenaeus to proclaim “gloria Dei vivens homo, vita autem hominis visio Dei” - the glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God. But it is not a piece of psychobabble about human flourishing, it is one of the great apostolic Fathers explaining how it is that we may through the flesh come to be in union with the living God.

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