Notes on St Irenaeus

In Irenaeus we find a clear affirmation of the freedom of the human being, so characteristic of the Eastern tradition. Clearly he is responding to gnostic teachings that he believes compromise or deny this God-given freedom, but I long ago forgot whatever I once knew about 2nd century gnosticism:

This expression [of our Lord], “How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldest not,” set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests (ad utendum sententia) of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all. And in man, as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice (for angels are rational beings), so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves. On the other hand, they who have not obeyed shall, with justice, be not found in possession of the good, and shall receive condign punishment: for God did kindly bestow on them what was good; but they themselves did not diligently keep it, nor deem it something precious, but poured contempt upon His super-eminent goodness. Rejecting therefore the good, and as it were spuing it out, they shall all deservedly incur the just judgment of God, which also the Apostle Paul testifies in his Epistle to the Romans, where he says, “But dost thou despise the riches of His goodness, and patience, and long-suffering, being ignorant that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But according to thy hardness and impenitent heart, thou treasurest to thyself wrath against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” “But glory and honor,” he says, “to every one that doeth good.” God therefore has given that which is good, as the apostle tells us in this Epistle, and they who work it shall receive glory and honor, because they have done that which is good when they had it in their power not to do it; but those who do it not shall receive the just judgment of God, because they did not work good when they had it in their power so to do.

But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for such were they created; nor would the former be reprehensible, for thus they were made [originally]. But since all men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good; and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it, — some do justly receive praise even among men who are under the control of good laws (and much more from God), and obtain deserved testimony of their choice of good in general, and of persevering therein; but the others are blamed, and receive a just condemnation, because of their rejection of what is fair and good. And therefore the prophets used to exhort men to what was good, to act justly and to work righteousness, as I have so largely demonstrated, because it is in our power so to do, and because by excessive negligence we might become forgetful, and thus stand in need of that good counsel which the good God has given us to know by means of the prophets. (AH 4.37.1-2)

Personal freedom is implied in God’s commandments to do good and to avoid evil. God would be unjust if he were to punish us for disobeying his commandments when we lacked the power to obey.  An Augustinian Irenaeus was not.

Question: How did Irenaeus understand divine punishment? He appears to be advocating a retributive position: if we disobey the will of God, we deserve the divine infliction of suffering and pain.

I also note the following important claim: “For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually.” This theme seems to be quite popular on the internet at the moment. But what does Irenaeus mean by coercion? How might the transcendent Creator exercise coercion within the world that he envelops and contains? Does he mean that God never violently punishes his people in history? Surely the Bible testifies to multiple occasions of such punishment. How does Irenaeus interpret those passages?

(Go to next note)

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6 Responses to Notes on St Irenaeus

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    One possibility I have seen suggested is that the punishment of God for rejecting the good is that one is allowed to do so and left to the consequences of their decisions, as the prodigal son is not dragged back and beaten by his father, but left to find out what happens when the money runs out, your hangers-on desert you and you have no-one to turn to when the famine comes.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, this is, as you know, a popular defense of eternal damnation. The damned are responsible for their condition. God has done all he can do, but he can’t force the prodigal to return. It sounds all very commonsensical. God hits his limit at the point of our freedom. The Final Judgment thus becomes God’s ratification of our self-chosen exclusion from his presence and communion.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        How does or doesn’t the ‘eternizing’ enter here? When he says, “they who have not obeyed shall, with justice, be not found in possession of the good, and shall receive condign punishment”, what is included in that ‘finding’ and who is included in those who shall find? For, conversion and responsibly suffering improvement (or however best to put it) must presuppose a significant degree of finding oneself not in possession of the good. Again, what is the ‘punishment’, and to what end? And what is being ‘condign’ – to what is it fitted?

        If “they did not work good when they had it in their power so to do”, how do they come to no longer having that power, to ceasing to have that power? Are they ‘coerced’ into knowing their being ‘not in possession of the good’ in impotence to repent and responsibly suffering improvement? If no, what?

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Pope Benedict XVI expressed the mode of self-damnation in these words: “With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell.”

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Thank you – interesting!

            What if we imagine that, quite without his sisters and most friends knowing it, Lazarus of Bethany had reached such a spiritual point – before Jesus called, “Lazarus, come forth!”? What becomes of that “irrevocable” “destruction of good”, and “life-choice” become “definitive”?

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          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            En route to looking up something else, I just encountered what sounds like an interesting book: Jeffrey A. Trumbower, Rescue for the Dead : The Posthumous Salvation of Non-Christians in Early Christianity (OUP, 2001).

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