Notes on St Irenaeus

In my reading of St Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, I have noticed that he likes the metaphor of containment to describe the relationship between Creator and creature:

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. (AH 4.20.1)

Truly, then, the Scripture declared, which says, “First of all believe that there is one God, who has established all things, and completed them, and having caused that from what had no being, all things should come into existence:” He who contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one. Rightly also has Malachi said among the prophets: “Is it not one God who hath established us? Have we not all one Father?” (AH 4.20.2)

But as He who worketh all things in all is God, [as to the points] of what nature and how great He is, [God] is invisible and indescribable to all things which have been made by Him, but He is by no means unknown: for all things learn through His Word that there is one God the Father, who contains all things, and who grants existence to all, as is written in the Gospel: “No man hath seen God at any time, except the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father; He has declared [Him.]” (AH 4.20.6)

And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ. (AH 5.2.3)

For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself. (AH 5.18.3)

God contains all things within himself. I like this metaphor of containment.  I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul, as reported by St Luke: “Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'” (Acts 17-27-28). The image of God containing the universe might sound a tad pantheistic (though not to my ears) but Irenaeus immediately qualifies the metaphor: no being contains the divine Creator. But perhaps there’s an exception:

And in all these things, and by them all, the same God the Father is manifested, who fashioned man, and gave promise of the inheritance of the earth to the fathers, who brought it (the creature) forth [from bondage] at the resurrection of the just, and fulfills the promises for the kingdom of His Son; subsequently bestowing in a paternal manner those things which neither the eye has seen, nor the ear has heard, nor has [thought concerning them] arisen within the heart of man, For there is the one Son, who accomplished His Father’s will; and one human race also in which the mysteries of God are wrought, “which the angels desire to look into;” and they are not able to search out the wisdom of God, by means of which His handiwork, confirmed and incorporated with His Son, is brought to perfection; that His offspring, the First- begotten Word, should descend to the creature (facturam), that is, to what had been molded (plasma), and that it should be contained by Him; and, on the other hand, the creature should contain the Word, and ascend to Him, passing beyond the angels, and be made after the image and likeness of God. (AH 5.36.3)

A couple of interpretive possibilities of the last two sentences come to mind, but I thought I’d throw it out to my readers.

Also, please note that the image of creative containment is extended to both the Word and the Spirit in the above citations.

(Go to next note)

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One Response to Notes on St Irenaeus

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    There is the eschatological context of 5.36.1-2 (and the first part of 5.36.3), but that is related to Incarnation and that as salvific (cf. “those things among which transgression has occurred” in 1) and that by “His handiwork, confirmed and incorporated with His Son”. Not only is the Word’s creaturely humanity as the man, Jesus, contained and containing, but the saved concrete humans incorporated in Him (God and man) contain Him.

    I take it that in the Against Heresies context, we see both the constant propriety of creation – and creation by God and not by some ‘sub-(fully-)divine demiurge(s)’ – and the proper enduring ‘containment’ of God (rather than temporary ‘imprisonment’ as ‘Divine spark(s)’) in Incarnation and incorporation.


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