Irenaeus and what the Bible is about

In my last post I pointed out the close match between the description in Genesis chapter 10 of the migration of Semitic peoples to lower Mesopotamia, and the story of the Akkadian Empire of Sargon the great, and also the general correspondence between the table of nations and the western (but not eastern) Neolithic radiation. I suggested how this was an indicator that the writer of Genesis must have been fully aware that non-descendants of Adam existed at this time, and quite plausibly in the time of Adam himself, given his habit of ignoring outsiders.

This is all part of the jigsaw I have been trying to piece together, on the basis that Adam was not the first “human” and that the writer of Genesis was aware of this, actually assuming the existence of others in order to establish the universality of Adam’s mission to a wider humanity, parallel to that of Israel at the time of Moses.

My thesis, as I discussed here, here and elsewhere is that Genesis 1 culminates in the creation of a mankind having the creation role of ruling the creatures of the earth, but that Genesis 2 is where the real action begins, as God sets apart a particular man for something more – the transformation of the whole cosmos so that God should be all in all, and his glory fill heaven and earth.

Now, you may doubt that this novel idea is truly to be found in the Bible. And this is possible – but it’s not, in its core thesis, a truly novel idea at all. In fact it goes back to the first great post-apostolic theologian, Irenaeus, who lived in the second century (c.120-200). He has always been an important source because he learned his Christianity from Papias, who learned it from the apostle John. I was alerted to this by a passage in my friend Nick Needham’s book of daily readings in the Church Fathers, from Irenaeus’s Proof of the Aposolic Preaching. Nick’s own translation is excellently clear, but unfortunately doesn’t cover the important section before the one he quotes, so I’ll have to use an older one. The two sections cover Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3, respectively.

11. But man He formed with His own hands, taking from the earth that which was purest and finest, and mingling in measure His own power with the earth. For He traced His own form on the formation, that that which should ‘be seen should be of divine form: for (as) the image of God was man formed and set on the earth. And that he might become living, He breathed on his face the breath of life; that both for the breath and for the formation man should be like unto God. Moreover he was free and self-controlled, being made by God for this end, that he might rule all those things that were upon the earth. And this great created world, prepared by God before the formation of man, was given to man as his place, containing all things within itself. And there were in this place also with (their) tasks the servants of that God who formed all things; and the steward, who was set over all his fellow-servants received this place. Now the servants were angels, and the steward was the archangel.

12. Now, having made man lord of the earth and all things in it, He secretly appointed him lord also of those who were servants in it. They however were in their perfection; but the lord, that is, man, was (but) small; for he was a child; and it was necessary that he should grow, and so come to (his) perfection. And, that he might have his nourishment and growth with festive and dainty meats, He prepared him a place better than this world, excelling in air, beauty, light, food, plants, fruit, water, and all other necessaries of life: and its name is Paradise. And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness. But man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver.

Now, what I want to point out is the contrast expressed between these two chapters. In the first, man is created to rule the earth, with the angels to help (as in Psalm 8 or Hebrews 2), and the archangel (presumably Satan) to organise this. This is a public role, and works well.

The problem occurs with a change in that situation, which Irenaeus expresses as a secret plan of God’s to make mankind the lord of the angels too – which effectively means being God’s co-regent for the whole cosmos. Paradise – an area set apart from the rest of the created earth – is set aside for this, and the personal tutelage and fellowship of the Son as Logos was, to Irenaeus, what the garden was about. The end of my quotation introduces Irenaeus’s particular understanding of the fall of mankind as being due to immaturity. And it is certainly the case that, as a ruler of the universe, the naked ape had a lot less experience than the archangel.

Now to Irenaeus Adam was the first man. There is no evidence that he had any notion of other men existing, to exercise the limited rule of the earthly creatures, before him. And in fact his opinion was that Adam sinned the by nightfall of the very day of his creation. But there is no doubt that he saw the commission of mankind as two separate stages; the first being to rule the earth by dint of being the highest of the “animal” creation of Day 6; the second, the purpose within God’s secret counsel (but guessed by Satan, perhaps?) that this lowly physical being, because created in God’s image, should go on to rule even the angels. As I suggested in a previous post, that was a very good cause for Satan’s envy, and for his attempt to scuttle God’s plan before it had got very far.

But the creation ordinance of Irenaeus’s chapter 11 is perfectly good as far as it goes, and if (as I believe) Scripture does not preclude the existence of men before Adam, and even assumes it in its structure, then what we actually learn about mankind from ancient history and archaeology completely fits that scenario. From palaeolithic times humankind began to gain mastery both of its fellow-creatures and its environment, a mastery which by the Neolithic becomes very marked – witness Stonehenge, Catal Huyuk, the Indus Valley culture and so on.

Remember that the description the creation account gives is of God reigning unopposed in his “sabbath rest”, but in the heavenly “Holy Place” of the cosmic temple. As Richard Middleton has pointed out, uniquely of Old Testament temples, God’s glory was not said to fill it – and as has been pointed out from antiquity, the first sabbath has no evening – creation is still a work uncompleted. Hence my understanding of mankind as worshipping God, but at a distance by natural perception. The work started in Eden, to complete that creation through mankind, is something new, and not another way of describing the creeation of Genesis 1. And in that Irenaeus appears to me to agree.

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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2 Responses to Irenaeus and what the Bible is about

  1. drnmud says:


    I’m not sure why you’re drawing from Irenaeus’ beliefs. Because unlike you, Irenaeus believed 1) Adam was the first man, and 2) man was formed by God from the dust (i.e. not from another animal).

    I guess you draw what you like and ignore what you don’t.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      I guess you draw what you like and ignore what you don’t.

      Sure thing – or actually, not quite. I treat the Fathers as excellent interpreters, and close to the origin of apostolic teaching, but not infallible, especially where the issues are philosophical or scientific.

      So as far as the textual evidence goes, his great knowledge of Scripture is to be taken serious;ly when he sees a change of direction between ch1 and ch2.

      But he hasn’t the benefit of knowing the prevalence of “creation from earth” analogies in ANE literature, and he is working entirely without the insights (or the problems posed by) anthropology, archaeology, genetics and so on.

      Most significantly, he has no basis on which to define what he means by “man”, since he did not have to consider Neanderthals, palaeolithic humans showing no evidence of knowing Yahweh, etc. We do, or find ourselves departing from Irenaeus’s basic stance of the rational application of Scripture, in favour of a blind textualism.

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