Irenaeus and Augustine – heavyweight contest or tag team?

Once again on BioLogos, Irenaeus has been enlisted as a recruit for an evolutionary view of sin, providing a debunking of Augustine’s view of both  sin and the fall. As I and others pointed out there, this “Irenaean theodicy” is actually filtered through the view of the very much more modern, and probably less evangelical, John Hick. The basic premise, though, is that rather than sin being the radical historic fall of an actual first man into a state alien to his God-given nature, “sin” (now largely repackaged as “selfishness”) is an inevitable part of our evolutionary heritage, and so is to be seen (this is where Irenaeus comes in) as a stage of immaturity in mankind’s spiritual development. It solves the historic Adam problem as it brings theology into line with the assured facts of science.

I’ve discussed this before here, here, and here, and church-historian James Penman has added his great knowledge of Patristic writing to the same effect in comments. The same story, though, keeps coming round on BioLogos and elsewhere, and keeps receiving the approbation of ordinary TEs as a good rapprochement between science and orthodox theology. My guess this is because (a) nobody has any reason to listen to me – nor enough real interest to consider the original sources rather than their modern interpreters and (b) ideas are usually acceptable because they match the spirit of the age rather than because they’re true. That is why error flies round the world before truth has got its boots on.

At the risk of repetition, then, I’m going to do a whistle-stop comparison between Irenaeus and Augustine, and especially concentrate on the former as the alleged proto-TE, to summarise what they said and, importantly, why they said it. For as pngarrison said in a BioLogos comment, Irenaeus is not our final authority. As Eddie pointed out in reply, he’s nevertheless generally used as an authoritative supporter from the catholic tradition in the TE community, rather than his arguments being closely examined as arguments. But of course, willy-nilly, someone whose writings have been accounted as orthodox and foundational for the whole history of the Church is worth having on your side – even if it means pitting him against another such figure like Augustine.

The first point is that Irenaeus didn’t even attempt a theology of sin, original or otherwise – that’s important. He wrote against heresis, and so used unassailably orthodox arguments to do so. The first relevant section I’ll mention is Adv Haer Book 5, ch 5. I might mention ch 4 has spoken of the deception of those who place another Father, “the good God” beyond him who created the world and its inhabitants, insistng that the Father who creates the spirit in man likewise creates the body. You may see there some relevance to free-process creation thinking, perhaps? Irenaeus got very familiar with demiurges in his work against gnosticism.

Ch 5, though, is a defence of the long lives of the antediluvians (literally understood), in which he mentions that Adam was placed in paradise, but cast out into “this world” because of his sin.

Adam next appears in ch23, in which Irenaeus is insisting that all good things are from God, and none from Satan as some heretics believed. The example of Adam is given as showing Satan’s proclivity for falsehood. Since the passage is about Satan, we would expect his role to be emphasised, yet apart from his deception, the disobedience of the first couple to God’s specific command is whatbrings them the forfeit of death. Does this teach a mitigating immaturity? Well, in one sense only, yes – and it doesn’t help the cause of evolutionary sin one jot. The eating of the fruit, he says, occurred on the very first day they were created, and was recapitulated in Christ’s death on the 6th day (meaning, I guess, Friday sunset). They were immature, then, not because their long evolution hadn’t yet brought them to spiritual completion, but because they were brand spanking new. We’ll see next that they were brand-spanking righteous, too.

Bk 3 ch 23ff is addressed against the claim of Tatian that Adam will not be saved. Irenaeus argues that it is fitting that he would be – incidentally demonstrating beyond doubt that he believes in a historical first man – you don’t spend several chapters answering a meaningless question. Here’s a summary:
(1) Adam suffered condemnation for disobedience.
(2) But God’s salvation was intended to prove that God cannot be conquered, or his wisdom seen to be diminished in the eyes of his creation.
(3) Adam’s final damnation would be a victory over God for Satan, who corrupted Adam, since God’s will was for Adam to live.
(4) And so it was right for Adam to be first to be freed from Satan’s power by Christ.
(5) Extended analogy: if prisoners of war are enslaved and bear children in captivity, it would be wrong to release the children and not those first captured. Note this not only shows that Adam is a special person and case, but that Irenaeus considers his whole progeny to have become enslaved to death, sin and punishment. That’s “original sin” to you.
(6) This further explains (he argues) why Adam himself was not cursed, but only the ground on his behalf, Satan being the truly accursed one. Yet the punishments in the Genesis 3 account are for Adam and Eve’s transgression – the sin, then, was neither inevitable from their nature, nor a mere childhood error to grow out of.
(7) Hence the eternal fire was (as Jesus taught) made first for Satan and his angels, not man. But those who persevere in their wickedness and refuse to repent will certainly suffer it too. This was not Adam’s fate because he immediately repented. Can you see a non-historic Adam in this anywhere, so far?
(8) Yet Adam had now acquired (as if Irenaeus had read Augustine!) an inherent corruption:

… the lustful propensity of his flesh (since he had lost his natural disposition and child-like mind and had come to a knowledge of evil things).

Now remember, the theory is that the evil things were inherited through 3 billion years of evolution before humans appeared, and the “child” is a metaphor for an immature spiritual state. Irenaeus seems to have badly misunderstood the Irenaean theodicy.

(9) Irenaeus puts a prayer of repentance in his mouth: Adam refers to his loss of “the robe of sanctity he had from the Spirit” [which sounds exactly like Augustinian original righteousness], and to the need for God to cover his newly-corrupt nature.
(10) God exiled him from paradise for pity, lest his sin become immortal. By ending in death, perhaps he might learn to live to God.
(11) The salvation of Adam, as first man, results in the conquest of death, because death came to man through him in the first place.

Remember this argument was to establish that Adam would be saved. If it poses a question beyond that, it is, “Why did sinless Adam sin?” This presupposes that there was an Adam, he was sinless, and he did sin and so enslave humanity. And the answerhe gives to that question is, “Satan deceived him, and he was gullible and disobedient, and paid a severe penaty for it, but not eternally – unlike those of his children who continue in the sin to which he enslaved them apart from Christ.”

Augustine’s question was completely different. Not “Why did Adam sin?”, but “How can there be evil if God created everything good?” His anaswer is essentially the free-will defence – evil is only ever a negation of God’s good by evil wills, of which Adam’s disobedience was a prime example: he departed rebelliously from an original created righteousness, and became thereby subject to death and in bondage to evil. So far so Irenaeus – what he says is entirely compatible with the separate question of Satan’s deception and Adam’s disobedience, but the stress is on his guilt rather than his gullibility or Satan’s guile. But Irenaeus would agree that he was punished for disobedience, not gullibility.

In fact Augustine doesn’t really attempt a psychological explanation as Irenaeus (sketchily) does. Instead, Augustine is interested in the character of the evil itself, theologically. The net result, however, is identical in both: a righteous first man plunges himself and his entire progeny into (a) death (b) punishment and (c) a new propensity to evil through the loss of original righteousness. Only the salvation of Christ restores things to order (and Augustine goes on to say how that last order is better even than the first).

Now, it may perhaps be that the entire theological basis of sin, death and salvation needs to be changed in the light of evolution – to start Christian doctrine off from scratch after two millennia of error. I’ve been saying for several years that it doesn’t, but I could of course be wrong.

But if that is the case, I am absolutely certain that it will not be with the approval of either Irenaeus or Augustine, for whom the ideas being presented would certainly call out an extra chapter of Against Heresies from Irenaeus, and cause Augustine to leave the stuff on Pelagius on the back burner while he sorted out this more dangerous threat to the catholic and apostolic faith. If you disagree they’re both on the same team defending what is now called the traditional view of the fall (and was probably than just “the tradition”), then I invite you to prove it from their writings and not from those modern writers who pit them against each other.

And of course, if their lack of final authority makes their thinking of realtively little importance, the key question is what constitutes a greater authority in establishing gospel doctrine. With respect. John Schneider doesn’t cut the mustard with me.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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8 Responses to Irenaeus and Augustine – heavyweight contest or tag team?

  1. pngarrison says:

    What does Jon Garvey think? (About an actual Adam.)

    As for me and my house (apartment) we will be somewhat agnostic for the moment. 🙂 My inclination is to say the violence, etc. in the distant human past is attributable to the fact that the humans (biologically) weren’t yet humans spiritually, so what went on was directly comparable to all the unpleasantness (to us) that goes on with other species. At some discrete point, someone was given whatever it is that makes us morally and spiritually responsible, and a fall quickly ensued. The science makes it unlikely that one couple were the sole ancestors of everyone who lived after that point, so a representative couple makes sense to me, but beyond that I’m fuzzy on the details.

    Tolkien was bothered by the fact that he never properly accounted for a fall in Middle Earth, and I think that’s a sound theological instinct, but I don’t see any reason to think that the Genesis account is a literal description of what happened. I don’t understand the people who say, “no Adam, no fall, no sin, no salvation.” Our own sin is a much more immediate reality and need than any theological construct.

    C. S. Lewis discusses the question of whether Adam and Eve were immature or mature in Preface to Paradise Lost, and I was surprised that many of the traditional theologians thought they were mature. The story itself seems to me to present them as new to the world, and I would think they are for the moment innocent, but naive. Their disobedience is sin because they were plainly told not to do what they then do, but they have no experience by which to anticipate the wiles of Satan, so regarding them as spiritually mature seems wrong to me.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi pngarrison

      Agnosticism is an excellent position when one has insufficient evidence to resolve an uncertainty! And until that happens I retain a degree of it too – being unable to share Irenaeus’s certainty about the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 prevalent in his day. My aim above is just to represent what he says faithfully rather, than be his yes-man.

      Specifically, for example, his argument for a more or less immediate fall after creation seems based on his therory of recapitulation: if Christ died on the 6th day, so must Adam. Neat, but not conclusive – and he makes big assumptions about Genesis 1 and 2 describing the same events, which seems unlikely on the best scholarship.

      Given such uncertainty, the answer that currently works for me best is along your own lines – “At some discrete point, someone was given whatever it is that makes us morally and spiritually responsible, and a fall quickly ensued.” I wouldn’t assume “quickly” means the same day, but otherwise the idea of a newly awakened spiritual humanity fits Irenaeus’ deduction from Scripture to a tee, including the important fact of retaining the biblical nature of sin as disobedience to a command of the true God – and not just a reflection of nature’s supposed selfishness or violence. As you quite rightly say, hominids not in the image of God, with the moral sense that includes, are not sinning if they engage in cannibalism – they are operating under a God-given, but non-human, nature just like lions or crocodiles do, according to Scripture (and the Fathers!). That view retains, incidentally, the equally central theological idea that creation is good, and from God himself – hence my mention of the otherwise irrelevant Book V ch 4 above.

      “Awakened” above means, in my view, “awakened to the living God and his ways”, whatever home-grown spirituality might have pre-existed that as represented at Göbekli Tepe, Neandethal burials etc. This is primarily about divine revelation, not a quasi-evolutionary step up.

      If you want more (tentative) detail, I suggest that “Eden” would be well-represented by a secluded sacred precinct somewhere, and the ANE in chalcolithic times is as reasonable a setting as anywhere, as well as being the selfsame setting identified in the text. The genre explains many of the mythological elements – maybe that was in them days the only way to tell that level of truth as it is.

      Taken that way, Adam would be a representative in the sense of “one chosen by grace from the species H sapiens“, but also a progenitor as described in Genesis in that both this divine image and, sadly, its corruption, pass somehow to encompass all of us today. Both aspects are covered by the term “archetype”, which is John Walton’s preferred term for what actually exists in ANE literature.

      Incidentally, any interpretation of Genesis that regards it as inspired, but talking about something that happened through evolution, is on dodgy ground from the start for just the same reason as those suggesting Genesis conceals modern science: it’s a supernaturalist dictation view that sidelines both the original author and his audience, who knew nothing of evolution or the Big Bang. What’s bad for Creationists to do is bad for TEs too.

      In that general scenario, “spiritual immaturity”, “childlikeness” etc become what they are for Irenaeus – a psychological explanation for why they fell, with a degree of mitigation accounting for why God continues to act in saving mercy as he does not with the devil. Now that, once one is freed-up from Irenaeus’ “same-day” timescale, remains somewhat speculative, but is plausible AND orthodox. But Irenaeus doesn’t build a whole theory of evil on such a slight foundation (even though in his view the chronology gave it solid support), whereas the new guys, on a pure speculation about immaturity, do. They are brave theologians indeed.

      If one wants a comparison in terms of Adam’s culpability, it’s like the children who murdered an infant here a few years ago, rather than what seems to be the “Irenaean theodicy’s” picture of an average child who throws a tantrum – the second is just immaturity – the first is something more deeply evil and surprising.

      I was struck by Steve Sterley’s reply to Eddie over at BioLogos, which to me says a lot about what is wrong with much Evangelical thinking on these things, especially in the US sadly: “Of course it would be nice to have a church father that we could appeal to, but the only thing that really matters is whether this theory on the reason for sin and suffering is one that is plausible or not.”

      There’s a lack of clarity there about what “plausibility” entails – less, for example, than is evident when he speaks of science, which he seems to see as a solid foundation growing up from sound principles that must be retained at all costs. The Fathers – and their successors forming the body of Christ for 2000 years since and its core traditions – didn’t do plausibility, but faithfulness to what they had received in Scripture and the use made of it by “catholic” authors.

      Theology should be no less rigorous, under its own parameters, as science. “Plausibility” is not sufficient grounds to reject relativity or thermodynamics – with the additional consideration that in the latter two, eternal salvation is not at stake.

      Sorry about long post – I woke from a dream at 4am in which I was trying to explain my position on science-faith to a bunch of hostile Christian university students in the bar. Waking up didn’t even interrupt the mental turmoil!

      • pngarrison says:

        “’Plausibility’ is not sufficient grounds to reject relativity or thermodynamics – with the additional consideration that in the latter two, eternal salvation is not at stake.”

        Yikes. I didn’t realize anyone’s salvation was at stake in this discussion. What percentage of the theological points do we have to be correct about? This is more serious than I thought. 🙂

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


          Correctness of theological points isn’t the issue. But if your doctrine of sin becomes, as it almost inevitably does in the outworking of the “Irenaean theodicy”, a doctrine of the amorality of evolution making mankind’s selfishness an inevitable part of how God made creation, then there is a significant shift of culpability from man to God.

          God set off the evolutionary process that favoured “evil acts”, and made them the universal pattern for several billion years. Whether human consciousness and moral/spiritual sense arose by evolution or by divine endowment, it was nevertheless God who, it is said, pitted it against the strongest instincts and drives we have, and left us to get on with it. That’s like a parent who leaves a toddler alone in the house and punishes him when he floods the place. The toddler is not to blame. The parent is.

          So if sin is the result of immaturity (as opposed to Irenaeus, for whom it was the mitigation that left room for redemption), then the punishment of death, exile from God’s presence and eternal judgement is not just excessive, but unjust – rather God is in the dock for letting it happen.

          But sin seems to be regarded in the new scheme more as a rite of adolescent passage than anything, so nobody’s in the dock – no more to see here than acne, folks.

          (1) The universal biblical account of sin as a terrible offence against God is as wrong as the Church’s acceptance of Augustine and the real Irenaeus down the millennia. Sin was just people acting according to how God indirectly made them, which is more plausible in the lighgt of evolution.
          (2) Grace is not undeserved favour, but God’s duty – and any lack of universality in final salvation is down to his failure to sort out the mess he made.
          (3) Sinners don’t need to repent – just to grow into maturity. They don’t need conversion but education. They are not saved but moved forward to the next stage. There is no divine wrath (unless it’s redirected self-reproach) but the smiling divine paternal equivalent of “I was like that too at your age,” or “boys will be boys.” (Familiar Victorian liberal religion, in other words).
          (4) If you don’t need to repent, you won’t. To be anecdotal, it was only when I realised my complacency about my sin was leading me to destruction that I saw my need for Christ.
          (5) The cross can no longer be Christ being made sin for us – what would that even mean? So already not only substitionary atonement but all the images of the cross as sacrifice for sin, becoming a curse, redemption, ransom etc have been sidelined to fit the new parameters of sin. As I argued with George Murphy, to make “Christus Victor” the only model of atonement is to deny ythe majority of the biblical witness (as well as noyt actually being about “atonement” anyway, which is the aversion of wrath).

          I’m sure one could trace out other ramifications – at least, it’s significant that this issue is being raised as part of a whole raft of theological revisions, from divine inspiration to the sovereignty of God. If the true nature of sin, and therefore of salvation, doesn’t have implications for salvation, then I’m not sure what does.

          To think it’s all merely about whether or not there was a piece of protoplasm called Adam is to miss the significance of what’s being challenged, and the theological motive forces behind that challenge, in my view.

  2. GD GD says:

    I am trying to get my mind around what seems like a question, but then again, I ask myself, is there a question in this discussion?. So for the sake of discussion, I have considered the matter in a particular way, and have come up with the following:

    (a) A desire to feel/believe that a TE/or evangelist/or creationist would be told that someone was an eye witness as God went about creating Adam, and a scribe wrote it down word for word as God undertook the exercise, and then this chap would look through what Darwin had said, and based on his observations, come up with a scientific account that was also theological (and obviously a big improvement on Genesis).
    (b) A modern scholar/intellectual who has come to a complete understanding of the Bible, Israel, science, human history etc etc, and he can now inform the rest of us (we of such poor intellect) on all details covering any and every event in the past, and we can finally believe (and have faith in ….. whom? And in what?).
    (c) That we understand that throughout human history, various civilisations have classified humanity as ‘human’ (or civilised) and barbarians, sub-humans and in some cases as animals. We can add examples such as Egypt where half human half animal creatures as deity or part of the supernatural order, and I think we can find other cultures in which the distinction between human and animal was blurred – perhaps Genesis should be modified to include such outlooks, and presto, we add a Darwinian (modern account) to get it right).

    What is the point of these remarks? It is to show that almost any attempt to treat Adam and Eve to ‘correct’, or ‘modify’, or bring it into ‘the Darwinian context’ will fail.

    What we can confidently say is that God became directly involved in creating ‘true humans’, which means free, able to choose, possess an identify or soul, and understand they are responsible for their decisions and outcomes of our actions. These true humans are the same that populate this planet.

    Perhaps when we wish to step out of Genesis and become obsessed with the ‘Sunday school’ teaching of the past, and how these differ from teachings in biology and Darwin, it may be useful to realise that both of these accounts are simplistic, and trying to mix both could make it twice as wrong. I sympathise with the agnostic position, although I would add that there is so little in Genesis that I can directly relate to any scientific account, let alone Darwinian thinking, that I find it fun to try and understand the attempts of those who seem excited by the prospect of a synthesis of Genesis and Darwin.

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    What we can confidently say is that God became directly involved in creating ‘true humans’, which means free, able to choose, possess an identify or soul, and understand they are responsible for their decisions and outcomes of our actions. These true humans are the same that populate this planet.

    You’d think so, GD, except for the fact that it seems everything that can be disputed will be disputed, by somebody.

    In this case I can think of the prevalence of naturalism regarding human origins amongst “sciency” Christians – somehow, the soul evolves naturally, so not a few people. And your last sentence was certainly disputed by the early anthroplogists, who were attracted to the persistence of “pre-adamic man” as an explanation for anyone they considered worth colonising or enslaving – a mantle inherited by some of the social-darwinism advocates like Haeckel, who considered the gap between a European and an Aborigine greater than that between the latter and an ape.

    Yet in all honesty, Scripture isn’t as obscure as all that, as I think your post affirms. I have another post to do on inspiration in a day or two…

    • GD GD says:

      Just as an aside Jon, I recently came across a comment from a ‘disappointed’ Christian who noted that the OT is a record of failure at God creating a nation, the crucifixion is evidence of a failure by God to set up His kingdom, and our faith, from what this person understands, is a faith in failure. This outlook takes the view that God should have made a better world, into God has failed at everything He has tried. I can discuss paradoxes and perhaps the greatest paradox is humanity as it struggles to understand the good; this theology of failure however, takes these outlooks way out there. Yet scripture has a way of finding our innermost thoughts and feelings – I have at times pondered on Is 28:10 and 13. I cannot help but think that some people want God to try harder to convince them, and if He does not, it must be His failure – such an extraordinary outlook.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


        I guess certain individuals will always become disappointed, from psychological or other reasons. But in some current theologies that’s pretty close to becoming institutionalised. Open Theology for example tends to have a God who’s currently disappointed in most things, free agents having not lived up to what he desires, but to put his final victory somewhere in the future, after his dogged persistence in being self-emptying etc. But as a minority of one amongst billions of other free agents, it’s a risky strategy for him.

        The weakness of God guys seem to go even further, in making a virtue of God’s defeat even in the end – it shows his willingness to suffer with his suffering creation. Even if he never gets what he wants, he at least created autonomous beings, which is the main thing.

        In the end, unless one wants a Masochistic God, the sovereignty displayed throughout the Christian revelation is absolutely central to who and what God is. Without a concept of God’s subversive strategy in history, your disappointed Christian can’t really be refuted. The choice seems to be between “Yeah, well history hasn’t gone my way so far – and even evolution didn’t turn out so well – but I’m optimistic about the future, fingers crossed;” and the unfashionable alternative put forward by those pre-post-modern primitives who talked about “the plan of him who works out everything according to the purpose of his will.” My, they even put that in the same sentence as individual predestination! How illiberal is that?

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