Notes on St Irenaeus

This paragraph contains a famous Irenaean reference:

As regards His greatness, therefore, it is not possible to know God, for it is impossible that the Father can be measured; but as regards His love (for this it is which leads us to God by His Word), when we obey Him, we do always learn that there is so great a God, and that it is He who by Himself has established, and selected, and adorned, and contains all things; and among the all things, both ourselves and this our world. We also then were made, along with those things which are contained by Him. And this is He of whom the Scripture says, “And God formed man, taking clay of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life.” It was not angels, therefore, who made us, nor who formed us, neither had angels power to make an image of God, nor any one else, except the Word of the Lord, nor any Power remotely distant from the Father of all things. For God did not stand in need of these [beings], in order to the accomplishing of what He had Himself determined with Himself beforehand should be done, as if He did not possess His own hands. For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness;” He taking from Himself the substance of the creatures [formed], and the pattern of things made, and the type of all the adornments in the world. (AH 4.20.1)

Did you recognize it? Irenaeus speaks of the Word and Wisdom, i.e., the Son and Spirit, as the hands by which he brought the universe into being. He did not need angelic mediaries to create the universe. He created it directly and immediately by his Word and Wisdom, who have always been with him. The implication here, I think, is that Irenaeus does not consider the Son and Spirit to be created beings. If they were, they would be no different than the angelic powers that, he says, God did not need to create the universe. There was never a time when the Father was without his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit.

I note also the concern for human being as the image of God. Only the Word of the Lord, who presumably enjoys a relationship of personal and ontological intimacy with the Father, is capable of creating humanity in the image of God. Angels could not create an true image of God. Are angels considered to be created in the image of God? If not, why not? Presumably they too were created by the Father through the Son and Spirit.

Scholars, I’m sure, would tell us not to import later Nicene ontological categories into the second century, but St Irenaeus would appear to be laying the foundation upon which St Athanasius and the Cappadocians would later build. Arius would force the question: who and what are these hands?

(Go to next note)

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One Response to Notes on St Irenaeus

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    The mention of the freedom and spontaneity of the creative act is quite significant too. No prior need for any thing or any one outside himself except God’s own creative intent and power. This represented a sea-change in the reigning cosmology during those early centuries.

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