Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine

Irenaeus and Incarnation

I’m going to follow up here quickly on a post over at Reformation21 on Warfield and the Incarnation. Warfield notes that, even if the redeemed are able to trace out indications or foretellings of the Incarnation in the created order, that is only because the world God made is the one that would fall and be redeemed: the fall did not surprise God, but was already accounted for when the world came into existence, as was that world’s redemption and restoration. But the motive for the Incarnation itself is everywhere soteriological in Scripture.

One early non-canonical witness to the soteriological motive of the Incarnation is Irenaeus in Against Heresies 5.14, in which his famous motif of “recapitulation” appears. The keynote in this passage in on the susceptibility of the flesh–of human nature–to being saved; but it is sufficiently clear that the terms that would be required to explain the purpose of the Incarnation would be drawn from the same register: reconciliation, the establishment of friendship with God, and so on.1

1. And inasmuch as the apostle has not pronounced against the very substance of flesh and blood, that it cannot inherit the kingdom of God, the same apostle has everywhere adopted the term flesh and blood with regard to the Lord Jesus Christ, partly indeed to establish His human nature (for He did Himself speak of Himself as the Son of man), and partly that He might confirm the salvation of our flesh. For if the flesh were not in a position to be saved, the Word of God would in no wise have become flesh. And if the blood of the righteous were not to be inquired after, the Lord would certainly not have had blood [in His composition]. But inasmuch as blood cries out (vocalis est) from the beginning [of the world], God said to Cain, when he had slain his brother, The voice of your brother’s blood cries to Me. Genesis 4:10 And as their blood will be inquired after, He said to those with Noah, For your blood of your souls will I require, [even] from the hand of all beasts;and again, Whosoever will shed man’s blood, it shall be shed for his blood. In like manner, too, did the Lord say to those who should afterwards shed His blood, All righteous blood shall be required which is shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. He thus points out the recapitulation that should take place in his own person of the effusion of blood from the beginning, of all the righteous men and of the prophets, and that by means of Himself there should be a requisition of their blood. Now this [blood] could not be required unless it also had the capability of being saved; nor would the Lord have summed up these things in Himself, unless He had Himself been made flesh and blood after the way of the original formation [of man], saving in his own person at the end that which had in the beginning perished in Adam.

2. But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh. For flesh has been truly made [to consist in] a transmission of that thing moulded originally from the dust. But if it had been necessary for Him to draw the material [of His body] from another substance, the Father would at the beginning have moulded the material [of flesh] from a different substance [than from what He actually did]. But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. And for this cause the apostle, in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, And though you were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now you have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight. Colossians 1:21, etc. He says, You have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.

  1. I was directed to this passage by Turretin’s discussion of the Incarnation (Institutes loc. 13, q. 3 [vol. 2, 299ff. in the Giger translation]). 

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.