Against Heresies (Book IV, Chapter 38)

14 October 2023

Why we were not made perfect from the beginning.

(Saint Irenaeus ends the previous chapter, 37, by saying that God has arranged things in such a manner that we will be brought to perfection over time).

  1. But what if someone should say: ‘Could God not have made us perfect from beginning?’. They should know that God is always the same and unbegotten as regards himself, and all things are possible for him. But created things must be inferior to him who created them, simply because they came later; things that were recently created couldn’t previously have been uncreated [in the sense that God is]. But given that they aren’t uncreated [in this sense], this is precisely why they fall short of perfection. Because these things are of later date, they’re, as it were, infantile; they’re not accustomed to, and not practiced in, perfect discipline. It’s certainly within the power of a mother to give solid food to her baby, [though she doesn’t do so] because the child isn’t yet able to receive more substantial nourishment. In the same way, it was also possible for God to have made us perfect from the first, but we couldn’t have borne that, given our infant status. This is the reason why our Lord, in these latter times, came to us, not as he might have done, but as we were capable of beholding him. He might easily have come to us in his immortal glory, but in that case we could never have endured the greatness of that glory. And so it was that he, who was the perfect bread of the Father, offered himself to us as milk, as to infants. He did this when he appeared as a human person, so that, nourished as it were from the breast of his flesh, and having, by such a course of milk nourishment become used to eating and drinking the Word of God, we might better be able also to ingest into ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father.
  2. This is why Paul says to the Corinthians: ‘I have fed you with milk, not with solid food, for until now you were not able to receive it’ (1 Corinthians3,2). That is to say, you have, indeed, learned about the advent of our Lord in human form; but, because of your fragility, the Spirit of the Father hasn’t as yet come to rest on you. ‘For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans?’ (1 Corinthians3, 3). In other words, the Spirit of the Father wasn’t yet with them, on account of their imperfection and the shortcomings in their way life. The apostle certainly had the power to give them strong meat-  those on whom the apostles laid hands received the Holy Spirit, who is the food of life- but they weren’t capable of receiving it, because the sentient faculties of their soul were still feeble and not disciplined in the practice of things pertaining to God. By the same token, God had power to grant perfection to us from the very beginning; but as we’d only recently been created, we couldn’t possibly have received it. Even if we could have received it, we couldn’t have taken it in; or if we could have, we couldn’t have retained it. This is the reason why, although he was perfect, the Son of God passed through the state of infancy, in common with the rest of us. He shared this condition, not for his own benefit, but because we were at the stage of infancy, and he wanted us to be able to receive him. The fact that we weren’t uncreated as beings doesn’t mean that God was too weak or powerless to have made this happen. It’s simply that, given that we are created beings, it’s we who are weak and powerless.
  3. God exhibits power, wisdom, and goodness simultaneously. His power and goodness [are shown] in that, of his own will he called into being and fashioned things which had had no previous existence; his wisdom [is manifested] in that he’s made created things as parts of one harmonious and consistent whole. Those things which, through his abundance of kindness, receive growth and a long period of existence, reflect the glory of the uncreated One, the God who bestows what is good unstintingly. From the very fact that these things have been created, [it follows] that they’re not uncreated. Nevertheless, by continuing in being throughout a long course of ages, they’ll receive a portion of the Uncreated, because God will freely bestow eternal existence on them. And so God has the primacy in all things; he alone is uncreated, the first of all things, and the primary cause of the existence of everything, while all else remains subject to him. But subjection to God is immortality; and enduring immortality is uncreated glory. So, even though we ourselves are begotten and fashioned, through this order and through these arrangements and this training, we become the image and likeness of the uncreated God: the Father who administers everything well and gives commands; the Son who carries these into effect and creates; and the Spirit who nourishes and increases [what’s been made]. And we, making progress day by day, ascend towards the perfect, that is, we grow closer to the uncreated One. And the uncreated One, God, is perfect. Now, it was necessary that we be created in the first place; once created we had to grow; as we grew we had to mature; having matured, we needed to multiply; when we’d multiplied, we had to increase in strength; once strengthened, we could be glorified; and having been glorified, we might look upon our own Lord. For God is there to be seen. The sight of God makes for immortality, and immortality brings us close to God.

Saint Irenaeus was one of the earliest Church Fathers (2nd century). He was Bishop of Lugdunum (Lyons, in what is now France). Although he’s often presented as a Latin Father, he was too early for this distinction to be very meaningful. He was actually a Greek from Smyrna, in Asia Minor. His major work is generally known as Against Heresies, or by its Latin title Adversus omnes Haereses, though, in fact, it was originally written in Greek and therefore had a much longer title: The Rebuke and Refutation of Pseudonymous Knowledge. Only fragments of the Greek survive but fortunately one of these is the end of this extract, because the Latin translation at that point is somewhat disappointing [WJL].