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.