Notes on St Irenaeus

To see God is to know God, and to know God is to enter into the salvation that is the life of God:

Now this is His Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the last times was made a man among men, that He might join the end to the beginning, that is, man to God. Wherefore the prophets, receiving the prophetic gift from the same Word, announced His advent according to the flesh, by which the blending and communion of God and man took place according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Word of God foretelling from the beginning that God should be seen by men, and hold converse with them upon earth, should confer with them, and should be present with His own creation, saving it, and becoming capable of being perceived by it, and freeing us from the hands of all that hate us, that is, from every spirit of wickedness; and causing us to serve Him in holiness and righteousness all our days, in order that man, having embraced the Spirit of God, might pass into the glory of the Father. …

The prophets, then, indicated beforehand that God should be seen by men; as the Lord also says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” But in respect to His greatness, and His wonderful glory, “no man shall see God and live,” for the Father is incomprehensible; but in regard to His love, and kindness, and as to His infinite power, even this He grants to those who love Him, that is, to see God, which thing the prophets did also predict. “For those things that are impossible with men, are possible with God.”

For man does not see God by his own powers; but when He pleases He is seen by men, by whom He wills, and when He wills, and as He wills. For God is powerful in all things, having been seen at that time indeed, prophetically through the Spirit, and seen, too, adoptively through the Son; and He shall also be seen paternally in the kingdom of heaven, the Spirit truly preparing man in the Son of God, and the Son leading him to the Father, while the Father, too, confers [upon him] incorruption for eternal life, which comes to every one from the fact of his seeing God. For as those who see the light are within the light, and partake of its brilliancy; even so, those who see God are in God, and receive of His splendor. But [His] splendor vivifies them; those, therefore, who see God, do receive life. And for this reason, He, [although] beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith. For as His greatness is past finding out, so also His goodness is beyond expression; by which having been seen, He bestows life upon those who see Him. It is not possible to live apart from life, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God; but fellowship with God is to know God, and to enjoy His goodness. (AH 4.20.4-5)

No man can see God and live—for God is beyond our finite comprehension—yet in Jesus Christ mankind has been given to see God and be saved in his life. An Eastern Orthodox believer might be excused for wondering whether we encounter here an early expression of the Palamite distinction between the divine essence and energies. In his greatness God transcends all of our measurements and cannot be comprehended; but his love, perhaps we might say, God in his self-communication, can be be known and participated. This indeed was the point of the Incarnation—to make it possible for finite humanity to see God in the flesh and thus to share in his light and life.

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One Response to Notes on St Irenaeus

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    It raises the question – in the person of Christ incarnate we only behold his energies, and not (also) the divine nature? And more generally – is it possible to behold a person’s energy without also disclosing her nature? The distinction appears quite counter-intuitive.

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