Irenaeus on the Fall

[This is something I posted yesterday at Arts & Faith.  Given how often I’ve written here about Shestov, and the topic of the Fall, it’s clearly relevant here too.  It also represents a shift in my thinking.]

I just borrowed from the library, and am reading for the first time, M. C. Steenberg’s 2008 book Irenaeus On Creation : The Cosmic Christ and the Saga of Redemption.  This is hardly my first exposure to Irenaeus.  I’ve read a number of books about his theology and, along with Maximus the Confessor, I’d say he is my co-favorite church father.  Steenberg’s book includes a lengthy explication (chapter four) of Irenaeus’ position on the Fall.  The section in that chapter titled “The tree and the prohibition” is fascinating.  I was already familiar with the basic features of Irenaeus’ position on the Fall, but Steenberg draws out several aspects that I hadn’t appreciated before.  Down below, I will post some excerpts from this section of his book.  However, for the sake of those who only want a condensed version, I offer the following perhaps outrageously oversimplified (“CliffsNotes”) version that summarizes two views discussed here already, with Irenaeus’ view listed third:

Standard interpretation:
God’s prohibition was a moral test for man.  Death was not intrinsic to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Man could have eaten ten pieces of the fruit, or a hundred, and there would have been no harm in it, so long as God had okayed the act first.  Knowledge had nothing to do with it.  [God as heavy-handed, “yank and crank,” Koehler-style dog trainer – teaching man that obedience is the be-all and end-all.]

Shestov’s interpretation:
God’s prohibition was no test.  Death was intrinsic to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The moment man ate one piece of fruit, the knowledge he thereby gained made him mortal.  Knowledge had everything to do with it.  [God as, in effect, spreader of poison – He warned man not to eat the poison, didn’t He?]

Irenaeus’ interpretation:
God’s prohibition was no test.  Death was not intrinsic to the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Knowledge, in fact, is intrinsically good.  But, man was not yet ready or mature enough to have this knowledge and so, by ignoring God’s command and eating the fruit, death was the outcome.  Man ruined his prospects and the fruit’s (knowledge’s) too, i.e. both the eater and the eaten became one in their ruination.  He would therefore have to find his true path (to true knowledge) another way (through the subsequent incarnation of Christ).  Man’s act had to do with both knowledge (in a qualified sense) and disobedience (sin).  [God as patient and loving teacher who, in effect, warned immature man that the tree’s knowledge was “too hot” for him to handle yet, and when the pupil disobeyed and burned himself anyway, chastised him severely, but didn’t abandon him, and came up with “Plan B.”]

While it’s tempting to see Shestov and Irenaeus as miles apart, and in a way they are, I think it’s also true that the line between a poison and a medicine is a fine one.  Some of the best medicines are, in fact, poisons.  You just have to take them at the right time, and in the right dosage.  I submit that Irenaeus’ position is, in a way, a more subtle, discerning and balanced (and, yes, I can see it now – truer) formulation of Shestov’s position.  The outlier to me is the standard interpretation.  I just can’t see that one at all.

Excerpts from chapter four of Irenaeus On Creation : The Cosmic Christ and the Saga of Redemption, by M. C. Steenberg:

We cannot simply say that the story of creation here becomes one of a ‘fall’, for there is an important sense in which Irenaeus’ view of the human economy cannot be paired with what has long become the traditional conception of such a fall; or certainly of ‘The Fall’ with its consequent division of human nature into pre- and post-lapsidic states.  Attempts are still made to read Irenaeus in this way, but by and large scholarship knows better.  In his reading of creation’s interruption, Irenaeus shares much in common with the Jewish readers of Genesis 3, and at times surprisingly little with his near-contemporaries in the early Christian Church.  . . .

‘And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”‘  Irenaeus extrapolates, from the insertion of this prohibition into the very heart of the creation saga in its anthropogonic element, that the commandment itself forms part of the formative work of the creator upon his creation.  The prohibition is an active manoeuvre of God in fashioning his human formation, even as were the drawing up from the dust and the breathing of the divine breath.  It is not merely a negative proscription, but a positive affirmation of the proper limits of human knowing in its present stage of development.  It is in this sense that Irenaeus utilises the text of the prohibition at Epideixis 15, where it is placed at the end of his long treatment of the creation saga, in some sense completing all that has gone before:

But, in order that the man should not entertain thoughts of grandeur nor be exalted, as if he had no Lord, and, because of the authority given to the man and the boldness towards God his creator, sin, passing beyond his own measure, and adopt an attitude of self-conceited arrogance against God, a law was given to him from God, that he might know that he had as lord the Lord of all.  And he placed certain limits upon him, so that, if he should keep the commandment of God, he would remain always as he was, that is, immortal; if, however, he should not keep it, he would become mortal, dissolving into the earth whence his frame was taken.  And the commandment was this: ‘You may eat freely from every tree of paradise, but of that tree alone, whence is the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for on the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die’ (Gen 2.16-17).

. . .

The prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge is, for Irenaeus, God’s establishment of the proper realm within which the human creature’s intellect and reason may be employed in the course of its growth.  This is a unique observation on his part.  Through it, Irenaeus puts forth the idea that knowledge itself, as an element within the composite being of humankind, must have reign only within the proper scope of its capabilities and preparedness at any given point in its development.  Knowledge must not ‘exalt’ humanity to a state of self-professed grandeur that exceeds ‘its own measure’.  To do so is to use improperly the ‘authority’, the rational faculty given to the race by God, for a purpose beyond that for which it is intended.  The prohibition of 2.16-17 is a ‘safety’ provided to guard against a potential danger inherent in humanity’s possession of a free and self-determining will.  . . .

All this is in stark contrast to the broadly Valentinian view on knowledge, which Irenaeus has been attacking throughout the Adversus haereses . . .  For these, a ‘knowledge that knows more than it should’ is, provided that the knowledge in question is true and genuine, hardly a possibility.  It is only false knowledge – deception or ignorant belief – that is harmful; the restoration of true knowledge and true knowing is indeed the primary aim of ‘Gnostic’ praxis.  . . .

Irenaeus, however, insists that at humanity’s creation, even true and genuine knowledge, be it in too full a measure for the limited status of the newly-formed creature, can be harmful to the race.  Here he follows Theophilus precisely, from a text in the Ad Autolycum commonly accepted as having been an important source for Irenaeus’ exegesis:

The tree of knowledge was itself good, and its fruit was good.  For the tree did not contain death, as some suppose; death was the result of disobedience.  For there was nothing in the fruit but knowledge, and knowledge is good when one uses it properly.

. . .

In all this, Irenaeus is markedly in line with Theophilus in his reading of the same Genesis text.  God sets forth the prohibition, and the departure from obedience to this commandment brings consequences not through the tree itself or the knowledge it presents, but from the disobedience of the eater.  Yet Irenaeus goes further than Theophilus, and while he does place emphasis on Adam and Eve’s disobedience as at fault in the transgression of God’s prohibition against the tree of knowledge, he refrains from any implication that a test of obedience was the primary reason for it.  Rather, the commandment is an important and integral element in the economy of human maturation, preventing the newly-fashioned creature from laying hold of that which it is unable to bear, preserving the fullness of knowledge for a time – and there will be a time – when humanity shall be ready and able to partake of the full knowledge God offers.  . . .

Irenaeus employs the prohibition, at Epid. 15 and AH 5.20.2, to considerable effect, and its importance may be encapsulated in the observance that the divine commandment of those verses, the sole prohibition of Eden, is interpreted anthropocentrically by Irenaeus as pertaining to the life and growth of the human creature in Christ, and not primarily to the sovereignty or otherwise independent will of God who therein tests his new creation.  It is not the exertion of God’s authority, but his dedication to the perfection of his handiwork.     . . .

Irenaeus is again careful to explain that this death was not caused by the fruit but by human disobedience, for ‘disobedience to God entails death’.  His wording at the close of 5.23.1 is especially interesting:

For along with the fruit [emphasis Steenberg’s] they did also fall under the power of death, because they did eat in disobedience.

The fruit itself, the potential for genuine knowledge of good and evil, the capability for godly knowledge in humanity, is, together with that humanity, become forfeit to death in the eating.  The human person’s disobedience to the divine prohibition not only entails the death of his personal being – the immediate and direct consequence of his defiance of God’s economy – it entails also the disruption of the very nature of his potential within the economy designed and wrought for his sake.  Adam and Eve’s ‘eating in disobedience’ does not disturb solely the eaters, but the very fruit of which they are partaking.  This represents a substantial Irenaean insight.  The forfeiture of life is both personal and historical: Adam and Eve would die ‘on that same day’, but so also will all human generations from that time forward perish and the fruit of the tree of knowledge will become more elusive still.  . . .  Adam’s potential for growth in the course of the economy has been altered.  This loss shall require restoration.

Is this, then, not a ‘fall’?  In some sense, the answer must be yes.  . . .  God created life, but Adam became ‘the beginning of those who die’.  His turning aside from God is his forfeiture of life, and as Adam was given this life in his genesis, there is without any question a genuine and real loss in consequence of the transgression in the garden.  . . .  An attempt to read Irenaeus as presenting no scheme whatever of an Edenic ‘fall’ would be to over-estimate the case.  But of the loss itself, Irenaeus presents the scenario, absent among Christian writers before and rare among those since, of humanity losing that which it did not in actuality possess.  This loss of potential, rather than the loss of actualised realities, is one of the most important nuances of Irenaeus’ treatment of sin and human nature, and for its explanation there is still no better analogy than that drawn some fifty years ago by Wingren:

A healthy, newborn child is unable to talk, for example, but it has every likelihood of being able to do so in the future, and provided only that the child grows, it will reach the stage of being able to talk.  An injury to the child, however, may prevent it from ever beginning to talk.  This is the situation of the first man.  He is a child, created in the image of God, but he is not the image of God.  That he lacks something, however, is not due to sin.  No injury has yet happened to the child.  He is uninjured, but he is just a child – he does not yet realise what he is to be.

We need not greatly expand on this description, for Wingren’s comments make clear the manner in which Irenaeus is able to speak of the loss of what he also claims Adam and Eve did not at that time possess.  What is of interest is the manner in which Irenaeus’ understanding of perfection as an eschatological, and more so a Christological, concept, causes him to read such texts at a remarkable degree of face value.  He does not speak of the transgression of God’s prohibition as effecting a change in human nature any more than does the text of the scriptural account.  There is a loss incurred through sin, a ‘fall’ in this sense; but Irenaeus does not read into this fall anything beyond the direct measure of the text.  These children are not perfect at their formation, as no child can be; and his understanding of human nature after the expulsion from Eden remains largely unchanged from this initial state.  Protology, for all its profundity and – in sin – its cataclysm, remains nonetheless a beginning; and this beginning, orientated toward Christ, remains orientated toward him as much in its state of transgression as before it.  It is primarily humanity’s relationship to the cosmos, God and other human persons that is altered, and this through the transgression proper and the circumstances under which Eve and then Adam were to violate the divine command.

This entry was posted in Fall of man, Irenaeus, Russian religious philosophy, Scandinavian creation theology, Shestov, Lev, Steenberg, Matthew Craig, Wingren, Gustaf. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Irenaeus on the Fall

  1. Pingback: Maximus the Confessor, on the trees of Paradise | Extravagant Creation

  2. samdorrer says:

    This is really great stuff. Keep it up!

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