Saturday, December 20, 2014

Created Good

Jan Brueghel: The Younger Creation of Adam
A fundamental aspect of how we see the world around us and how we understand Christianity stems from how we understand who we are. What is our nature as humans? If we were created by a good God why is there suffering? 

Christians for centuries have been trying to answer these questions. Many of the voices in Protestantism about human nature come from theologians around the time of the reformation. You may notice that people like John Wesley and Rob Bell have a very different perspective than your average evangelical Christian. Their theology is strongly influenced by a 3rd century theologian named Irenaeus whose work laid the foundation for the beliefs the church would grow on. There were many different sects who claimed to follow Jesus' teachings that were far from what you or I believe about God, and Irenaeus wrote directly confronting those groups and in doing so laid out a convincing perspective that continues to have appeal even today. Irenaeus had this concept that we were created good and that makes all the difference. Below is a paper I wrote attempting to explain this concept in some depth. I hope you are able to see truth in it that you have known with your life, and that you can see aspects of things you hear in a Methodist church, or even in Rob Bell's books/videos.

Created Good

In writing against specific heretical communities, Irenaeus provides an understanding of Jesus Christ as the recapitulation of humanity that redeems the first Adam’s disobedience, freeing humankind for perfection and restoring unity with the good God in whose image we were made. By examining the creation story and Adam’s first offense in the Garden of Eden one can see that humanity is good but imperfect, and in need of a mediator to restore the goodness of humankind. Understanding the heretical communities allows one to interpret Irenaeus’ emphasis on the goodness of God, whose image humankind was created in, and appreciate his interpretation of human capacity for good. The incarnation of Jesus Christ re-heads humanity, restoring us to our full potential, and fulfills the economy of salvation. How salvation is achieved through Christ is further indication of the capacity for love that God exemplifies in God’s pursuit of unity with creation.

A Brief Introduction to Irenaeus
Saint Irenaeus of Lyon lived from 115-202AD[i]. He was born in Smyrna and spent his early years in church with Polycarp before serving as a priest in the city of Lyon. While serving in Lyon, many Christians were suffering imprisonment and even being killed, like Blandina (Minns 95) and Justin Martyr (Minns 140). For ministry in the midst of great persecution, the importance of knowing why you believe what you do, specifically in comparison to a similar less persecuted community, is of the utmost importance.  When Polycarp was martyred it had a great impact on Irenaeus (Minns 95) and could have contributed to Irenaeus’ greatest known work Against Heresies. Only two of Irenaeus’ writings remain neither of which are in the original Greek (Minns 111); Against Heresies being one of them, functionally began the formation of an orthodox belief for Christianity and pointed toward teachings that should or should not be accepted. The primary communities that Irenaeus battles in his writing are a specific brand of Valentinian Gnosticism and Marcionism. The establishment of an orthodox position via Against Heresies cemented Irenaeus concept of the created good as a foundation from which theology could be built and how scripture gets interpreted.

Irenaeus uses the term “economy” in reference to the order in which the persons of God were revealed according to God’s plan for salvation (Minns 614). The unity of God in the persons of: Creator, Word/Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, is central to Irenaeus’ belief and understanding of creation and salvation. Just as the persons of the trinity are one, Irenaeus’ understanding of creation and salvation are equally inseparable, Matthew Steenberg concludes in Irenaeus on Creation, “for our author creation and salvation are not distinct elements of address” (On Creation 213). Therefore we must look at the creation to understand the full value of Jesus Christ the benevolent creator in whose image humanity was created.

The Creation Story
In order to understand the created good, we will first examine the stories of creation. The Holy Scripture of the Old Testament contains two creation stories back to back in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and 2:5-3:24. The interpretation of these stories directly reflects a person’s anthropology and impacts their entire theology. We read in verse 26 of chapter one that God decided to “Make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;” and in verse 27 God did what God decided to do and created humankind in the image of God.

Within the second creation story, humanity takes on the singular form of Adam who God formed from the “dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7). In verse 15, God puts the human into the Garden of Eden to “till it and keep it,” following with instructions on what Adam should do and one requirement of what not to do. Then God made Eve. God continued to interact with the humans in Chapter 3 verse 8, which says “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the Garden,” and verse 9 “The Lord called to the man.” Unfortunately, the man at this point had done the thing that God had asked him not to do. It appears that a serpent convinced the human to go against what God said and, as a result, humanity was punished.

Later Christian theologians focus on the first sin and punishment as an indication of total depravity, which has its roots in Irenaeus’ understanding that we are in need of a mediator to restore unity with God; nonetheless, Irenaeus emphasis is rooted in how humankind was made. The book Of God and Man points out, “The ancient confession humanity as ‘in the image and likeness of God’ is used by Irenaeus to reveal the means through which this union is made real in the life of the created person” (Steenberg 16). Humankind being created in the image and likeness of God, and being called good in the first creation story, unifies a powerful creation with its powerful creator and provides the capacity for participation in divine life. Adam’s choice to disobey God’s command breaks the fullness of unity between creature and Creator.

God’s continued interaction with the humans, clothing them in 3:21, is an indication of human nature. If humanity had lost all of its created goodness, then a perfect God could not associate with them. He says in Book 3 Chapter 5 of Against Heresies, “darkness has no fellowship with light.” By saying this, we can interpret him to imply that light had to remain with Adam in some extent, even in his disobedience or God, being the light, would not have interacted with the darkness of humankind. By this standard, humanity must remain good; however, by the actions of the first human one can see that humanity is imperfect. Instead, what changes is humankind’s ability to realize its full created potential. If we accept humanity as good but imperfect then we can re-examine what is happening when Adam first disobeys God.

The First Offense
Genesis chapter three captures the story of humankind’s first offense toward God. The chapter begins with a snake saying to the woman, “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” (Gen 3:1) To this question, she replied, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, you shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden nor shall you touch it, or you will die” (Gen 3:2-3). At this point in the conversation we already see that the woman knows God’s instruction, which is not a given because God commanded Adam concerning the tree before the woman was created.
The serpent tells the woman, “you will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5). With this one statement, the serpent directly contradicts what God told Adam by saying “you will not die” and, in the same moment, causes the woman to doubt the capacity of human kind. The great lie told by the serpent is that “you will be like God,” because humankind was already created in the image and likeness of God. Yet the woman partakes of the fruit and shares some with Adam, who was with her. “Then the eyes of both were opened” (Gen 3:7), and they hid themselves from God because they were ashamed of their nakedness.

When God finds Adam and Eve, they assigned blame outside themselves. Adam says, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit from the tree and I ate” (Gen 3:12 emphasis added), then the woman blames the serpent, instead of accepting responsibility for their actions. Because of this disobedience, God increases their suffering through childbirth and thorns. God removes them from the garden forever in order that they would not eat from the tree of life and gain immortality (Gen 3:22). In this first offense, humankind displayed its ability to choose, and they chose disobedience. Through this disobedience, humankind gave up its freedom and became “conquered and had been dashed to pieces by its disobedience,” (AH 3:18:2).

After having been conquered, the original human was no longer free to grow into the fullness of the image of God in which it was created without the help of a mediator. Irenaues articulates this point quite clearly in Book three, Chapter 18 of Against Heresies by pointing out that Jesus had to become incarnate in order that humankind “might receive what we had lost in Adam, namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God.” By articulating that “Adam had lost,” Irenaeus makes clear his understanding of the goodness of Adam’s initial creation, he was free to grow into perfection until Adam chose to disobey. Therefore, by eating the fruit which God had forbid, the first man and woman did not “become like God,” but instead, gave up their sharing in divine life and therefore created need for a re-heading of the image of God.

After Adam’s first offense, the serpent continues to work. All of humanity is bound to the sin of disobedience through Adam’s bloodline.
“Irenaeus demonstrates again an insistance on the solidarity of all humankind through the lineage of blood received from Adam. Sin as disobedience mandates that only the individual can be responsible for sin, as disobedience is a personal act; yet the members of a family, of an heritage, are interconnected in their communal experience” (Steenberg I.o C 208).
As we share in life on Earth so we shared in the communal experience of life after Eden, in which humanity is bound by the “strong one.”  Bound to death by disobedience, all of humanity was in need of being saved from the death. “When it was injured by the serpent who corrupted it, would no longer return to life but would be altogether abandoned to death,” (AH 3:23:1).

A Heretical Interpretation
The reason Irenaeus speaks about what Adam had lost is because there were other communities of people who claimed a different interpretation of the story, in which Adam is simply confused and forgets who he is, that he already has divinity within him. This interpretation leads to a different understanding of the relationship between humankind and God. Against Heresies was speaking to Valentinian Gnostics and Marcions, who both spoke of a dualism between Good and Evil.

Both the Gnostics and the Marcionites understood the God of the Old Testament to be Evil. For the Gnostics, the very creation of humankind was an entrapment of divine beings by Evil or Darkness, and the serpent was a representative of the Light or the Good one. By directing the original humans toward the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent is leading the humans to a saving knowledge that the divine can be found within them and that they are not of this world.[1] In Gnostic Religion in Antiquity, it says of the Gnostic experience: “Above all, gnosis is a personal, existential certainty: I come from God, I partake in his essence, I will return to him. It is an enlightened insight into the origin, present situation, and destiny of mankind” (Roelof 136). Irenaeus, by pointing out that we are created good, directly confronts the notion that humanity is an entrapment or coerced existence, while also challenging humankind’s ability to return to God without additional help from the Jesus.

Irenaeus would certainly agree that, as a human, one could acknowledge that one comes from God and could “participate in his essence” but instead, challenges how that participation is achieved. Steenberg says of Irenaeus, “By rejecting the concept of multiple creative agents, Irenaeus will articulate the immediate working of the Father through his Son, who is not an external mediator but a ‘hand’ of the Father himself” (Steenberg 22). By way of Christ, who is God himself, the goodness of God who created all things is revealed. Even still, one can see that we were created into a world where evil and suffering exist, so we were either created by an evil God as argued by the Gnostics and the Marcions, or suffering must serve a good purpose. The good purpose of suffering, for Irenaeus, is understood that suffering exists because of our choice to disobey and that God allows us to suffer so that we might grow. For our growth to reach its potential and for us to live into the fullness of the image of God, we needed help and this is the purpose for the incarnation.

Since Irenaeus believed that we were created in the image and likeness of a good God, he argues that God provided the help we need in the person of Jesus Christ. Having chosen disobedience, we need Christ’s help in refashioning ourselves to “obtain the prize of victory” (AH 3:18:2). Jesus Christ came as a recapitulation of Adam and won that victory in, “restoring to all the participation in God.” (AH 3:18:7). Through the incarnation, God himself would “restore liberty to men,” and “bestow on them the inheritance of incorruption” (AH 3:5:3). The term “restore” intentionally guides the reader to understand that, in humankind’s original state, there was liberty and that it was lost through the sickness of our disobedience. “The Lord came as Physician for those who were ill,” (AH 3:5:2) and by doing this, God heals humanity back to its original created goodness and frees us for perfection.

We are now able to grow into the fullness of the image of God exemplified in its perfection through the person of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus’ life, we are given the full picture of God’s image and an example of the life in which humankind was created for. These are the accomplishments achieved through the incarnation and further indication of the goodness of God, and therefore the goodness of creation. These great acts could not be accomplished by humanity on our own, nor could they be accomplished by an evil God.

The Marcionites would agree that these great acts could not be accomplished by an evil God; instead they understand Jesus to be the good version of God who saves humanity from the evil God of the Old Testament. “Jesus Christ, according to Marcion, was not at all to be understood as the son of this God of creation. To the contrary, Christ made manifest a God and means of salvation that were wholly foreign to this world and opposed to its creator” (Pollock 18). Irenaeus rightly refutes this view of Christ and the Creator, because Christ and God are one. Therefore the agent who unifies humankind to God and “bestow(s) on them (us) the inheritance of incorruptuion,” (AH 3:5:3) is more than just a mediator.

Irenaeus shows unity between Creator and Christ by this passage: “the word of God - for all things were made through Him - and the lord took mud from the earth and fashioned man. In like manner, since He is the Word recapitulating Adam in Himself” (AH 3:21:10). Through this and other passages one can understand that, unlike the Gnostics and the Marcions, Jesus is the Word of God who created the world and all living things. This re-heading of humanity through the creator God becoming incarnate shows a great deal about the God in whose image we were made, and how that God feels about us. “Christ Jesus the Son of God, who, becasue of His surpassing love toward the creature He fashioned, accepted to be born of a Virgin” (AH 3:4:2).

In Jesus Christ the image of God, in which Adam was created, is restored to its fullness and is given the ability again to participate in divine life. Thus, Christ as the second Adam provides a summary of the full human history, and brings humankind to a state of freedom from disobedience that allows anyone to share in the life of Christ through our willing choice to participate in the continued renewing of this world. “He bound the strong one by the second Man, and plundered his vessels, and abolished death by vivifying the man who had been killed” (AH 3:23:1).

The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, “united with his handiwork and became man, capable of suffering” (AH 3:18:1). The Word of God, in order to restore unity between creature and creator, “Became incarnate in humanity for the sake of humanity, and fulfilled the entire economy concerning humanity” (AH 3:17:4). “Put another way, the incarnate Word reveals, in a new way, the starting point of the creature in creation” (Steenberg OGM 162).

By Christ becoming fully human he provided the victory that allows us to re-claim our created freedom to choose good. “He caused humanity to adhere to and be united with God. For if humankind had not overcome the enemy of humankind, the enemy would not justly have been overcome. Again, unless God had given the salvation, we would not posess it securely,” (AH 3:18:7). “By obedience He destroyed disobedience, because he bound the strong one and loosed the weak ones and gave salvation ot his handiwork by destroying sin” (AH 3:18:6). Thus, “he has recapitulated in Himself even the ancient first-fashioned man” (AH 3:21:10).

Freedom for Perfection
By the recapitulation of Adam in Jesus Christ, humanity is freed from its corruption, and humankind is no longer bound by the disobedience of the first offense. Irenaeus, himself, does not go into great length, nor does he provide a catalogue, regarding our sin. Equally thin are statements about what divine life should look like, rather, one can find that Jesus frees humanity to live into its created goodness.

Why God choose to redeem this world puzzles many people even today. When individuals cannot reconcile a good God with the existence of suffering, it becomes easy to develop an escapist theology - that we were not meant for this world and it can have no effect on us. The persecuted audience to which Irenaeus wrote was more than familiar with this notion, as escapism was a central part of the heresies he addressed. The all-powerful God could certainly have chosen to scratch this project of humanity and start over. If left to our own devices certainly we would wipe ourselves out, yet God continues to invest in the renewing of this creation.

Irenaeus offers an answer to this question in a simple yet profound way. He believes that God considers creation his “handiwork” and actually enjoys the good nature of our existence, even calling God an “Artisan.” The passage says, “Because the Word as Artisan of all things had designed beforehand, with a view to Himself, the future economy relating to the Son of God on behalf of the human race; namely, God destined the first, the ensouled man {Adam}, that he might be saved by the spiritual man {Christ}” (AH 3:22:3). If it is true that God desires his creation, then we can accept that creation comes from a benevolent God, instead of the malevolent Deity espoused by the Gnostic and Marcion Heresies. We are saved in this world and for this world, because it was part of the original economy of salvation.

We are free from coercion to free choice. Having seen the perfect example of what it means to be human combined with what it means to be God, humanity now has a free choice to participate in divine life. This choice is a product of the information we have received through Christ. One cannot fully choose to follow God unless God revealed God-self, to follow a God who had not been shown to us would be following a figment of our imagination. The risk in doing that would be that, if God is a product of our minds, then God is made in our image and could begin to hate the things and people we hate. Instead we should understand that God is beyond our reason or our evaluation of the world. If God love one and hates another Irenaeus statement here would be negated: “Just as the Sun, God’s creation, is one and the same throughout the world” (AH 3:10:1). If one sees that God’s creation is the same throughout the world, then one can choose to appreciate the “handiwork” and the image of God within all humanity. Appreciating the image of God within those whom the world calls our enemy, allows us the free choice of loving our neighbor as ourself. Without the information revealed in Christ one could be convinced that the fruits of hate, sin, and disobedience are desirable fruits to partake in.

We are free for incorruptibility. “He would bestow on them as a grace the gift of incorruption and clothe them with everlasting Glory” (AH 3:10:1). In Christ, humanity is redeemed for participation in divine life and gets to share in the blamelessness of Christ. Steenberg says, “the relationship of the incorruptible God to his corruptible creation is perceived in the participatory life of the human person,” (OGM 162). Therefore in participating in the re-newing of creation, re-newing of ourselves and the world around us, we are united to God in the freedom of incorruption.

In a modern reference of biology, one can understand our new found incorruption as cell replication. Healthy cells replicate and produce more healthy cells, however when cell replication misfires and becomes infected, the cell then reproduces infected cells. When we became infected with the sickness of sin, the product of our participation in creation was sinful. To this standard Irenaeus says, “ Therefore, the lord brought knowledge to His disciples, by which He both cured the ailing and forced sinners away from their sin” (AH 3:5:2). Having been healed by Christ our participation in this world is now free to produce uncorrupted good things.

We are free for perfection through following the perfect example of what our human capacity is in the person of Jesus Christ. As a reminder, this freedom is not something humanity accomplished on its own, for God “came to men by a manifestation of Himself. He it is who said, ‘I have shown myself to those who did not seek for me” (AH 3:6:1). When we did not know to seek God because of our disobedience, God sought out humanity that we might participate in the renewing of this world to a more perfect place.

Life in the Fullness
            Jesus taught the disciples to pray including the phrase, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The inclusion of “on earth as it is in heaven” indicates that the world here and now holds utmost importance to participating in the fullness of life. This concept is contrary to escapist theologies, including that of the Gnostics. For the Gnostics, the fullness was in the pleroma and that when one gained a saving gnosis one would no longer be concerned with this present world nor bothered by its suffering. If this world is not important then we can look toward a future event and ignore our present reality.

The fullness of God’s intention, the fullness of divine life, is directly tied to our present reality. We should not ignore suffering because God “became man, capable of suffering” (AH 3:18:1). When we follow the perfect example of God in Jesus Christ and live into the fullness of our created good, our hearts are moved to solidarity with suffering that we might participate in the healing of broken hearts. Life in the fullness is not about somewhere else, it is about being fully present to the world around us, responding to the basic needs of others.

Jesus lays the blueprint for how we should approach the world and people around us in Matthew 25 by the story of judgment in Verse 31 - 46. The Scripture says:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:31-46)
One can see that to participate in eternal life, one must meet the basic needs of others. Feeding the Hungry, Clothing the naked, and caring for the sick without assumption or aim for reward is what the incarnate God asks of us. He elevates these actions toward the least by suggesting that service of others is service toward God and therefore participation in divine life.

To realize the fullness of our created good we follow in the example and instruction of the Word to love neighbor, love God and serve all.

Having examined the creation of humanity, and our disobedience, one sees that God is one benevolent being who continues even now to create good things. Through our disobedience we were not able to live into the full potential of our created goodness, nor were we able to participate in the divine invitation to be co-creators with God. For this reason God revealed the economy of salvation by becoming incarnate himself and recapitulated humanity, providing the perfect example of how to live. In God’s action we return to our created freedom for perfection. All of these things combined are how one should understand Irenaeus’ concept of the created good.

Works Cited (clickable links to purchase on Amazon)

[1] Comes from notes taken during Christian Heritage lecture by Dr. Lee.       

[i] Class notes

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