"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Friday, 9 October 2015


Imagine if one of the twelve disciples of Jesus had personally discipled a man whose pupil had written a short book for us, a book that explains the barest essentials of the apostles’ teaching. What a treasure it would be if we found such a book! In 1904, a priest of the Oriental Orthodox Church of Armenia uncovered exactly such a book, the Demonstration of the Preaching of the Apostles. Its author, Bishop Irenaeus of Lugdunum (modern Lyons, France) had learned under Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus wrote this short book of roughly fifty pages to his beloved friend Marcianus. Just one generation removed from the Apostle John, Irenaeus gifted Marcianus (and us) with an early “manual of essentials” so that Marcianus (and we) could learn “in a short space all the members of the body of truth.”1 

This book by Irenaeus surprised me in three ways:

By quoting almost exclusively from the Old Testament Scriptures rather than from the Apostles.
By framing most of his topics through the overarching theme of authority, beginning with that of God, then moving consecutively through the authority Adam, then Satan, and finally Jesus.
By resolving the problem of sin, not through justice or a substitutionary death, but through the transformation of humanity. It is this surprise which I present for consideration today, the resolution of the problem sin according to Irenaeus.


Just a few sentences into Demonstration, Irenaeus encouraged his beloved Marcianus to stay on the “one way” which leads to the kingdom of heaven. Then he warned him, “Other ways bring down to death, separating man from God.”2 At the outset, Irenaeus was concerned not about the torments of hell, but of death’s chief power: “separating man from God.” He then framed the purpose of the incarnation of Jesus, not for justice nor for satisfying divine wrath, but, “in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man.”3

A little further on, Irenaeus recounted the fall of humanity at Eden. Surprisingly, he laid the blame for humanity’s fall at the feet of Satan rather than Adam: “But man was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected; wherefore also he was easily led astray by the deceiver.”4 When describing Satan’s persuasion, Irenaeus credited him with the transformation of humanity, saying he “made man sinful.”5 So Irenaeus added a second problem for Jesus to solve. Not only was humanity separated from God, but humanity had also been transformed from innocence into sinfulness.

Finally, Irenaeus wrote about human bondage. He said God appointed humanity to rule over all the earth, even over the angels and the archangel Satan who Irenaeus said dwelled here.6 Yet after summarizing the Old Testament, Irenaeus said that Satan had enslaved us instead: “in the original formation of Adam all of us were tied and bound up with death . . . death reigned over the flesh . . . flesh which sin had ruled and dominated . . .”7 The pupil of the Apostle John’s disciple presented three human problems: separation, transformation, and bondage. He did not emphasize God’s wrath, nor damnation, nor justice, nor any debt owed toward God.


As noted above, Irenaeus first framed the incarnation of our Lord for the purpose of “establishing a community of union between God and man.” Having laid out the problems of our transformation into sin and bondage to Satan, he then returned to that first thought in chapter 31: “So then He united man with God, and established a community of union between God and man . . .”

The word “atonement” has become heavy-laden with theology over the years, but it simply means “unity” or “reconciliation.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines atonement as, “The condition of being at one with others.” We might expect Irenaeus to tell us that Jesus atoned us unto God by suffering His wrath in our place, but he made no such claim. For Irenaeus, atonement occurred through Jesus’ becoming “the last Adam,” and through our being “born again.”

In the West, we tend to consider the incarnation as simply the preparation for suffering. We view Christmas primarily as equipping Jesus to experience human suffering by giving Him a human body. In contrast, Irenaeus claimed the apostles presented the incarnation as the equivalent of Adam’s work:

Jesus summed up humanity: “God took dust of the earth and formed the man, the beginning of mankind. So then the Lord, summing up afresh this man, took the same dispensation of entry into flesh, being born from the Virgin by the Will and the Wisdom of God; that He also should show forth the likeness of Adam’s entry into flesh and there should be that which was written in the beginning: man after the image and likeness of God.”8
Jesus counteracted Adam: “And just as through a disobedient virgin, man was stricken down and fell into death; so through the Virgin who was obedient to the Word of God, man was reanimated and received life.”9
Jesus swallowed death: “For it was necessary that Adam should be summed up in Christ, that mortality might be swallowed up and overwhelmed by immortality.”10
Jesus killed rebellion: “And the trespass which came by the tree was undone by the tree of obedience, when, hearkening unto God, the Son of man was nailed to the tree; thereby putting away the knowledge of evil and bringing in and establishing the knowledge of good: now evil it is to disobey God . . .”11
Obeying destroyed disobeying: “So then by the obedience wherewith He obeyed even unto death, hanging on the tree, He put away the old disobedience which was wrought in the tree.”12
Jesus formed a better humanity: “He manifested the resurrection, Himself becoming the first begotten of the dead, and in Himself raising up man that was fallen, lifting him up far above the heaven to the right hand of the glory of the Father.”13
According to the pupil of John’s disciple, the apostles preached an atonement quite foreign to many modern Christians. Irenaeus did not learn from the apostles that Jesus satisfied God’s wrath, nor that he had satisfied our legal penalties which divine justice had required. The pupil of John’s disciple said that the apostles taught our Lord’s atonement as the summing up of humanity in the last Adam and the reversal of Adam’s rebellion. Jesus swallowed Adamic rebellion and destroyed it, raising up an obedient form of humanity, in the image and likeness of God. Thus it was written to the Hebrews, “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb 2:14-15 NKJV).


We would ask Irenaeus then, how someone can benefit from the atonement of the Lord Jesus. He taught us that there are two forms of humanity, the fallen lineage of Adam and the risen lineage of Jesus. How then, does one manage to move from the old to the new, from dead humanity to living humanity? Irenaeus would reply that we enter the living humanity in the same way we entered dead humanity, by being born:

“And that this baptism is the seal of eternal life, and is the new birth unto God, that we should no longer be the sons of mortal men, but of the eternal and perpetual God.”14
“And for this reason the baptism of our regeneration proceeds through these three points: God the Father bestowing on us regeneration through His Son by the Holy Spirit.”15


Irenaeus filled most of his little book for Marcianus with Old Testament prophecies of Jesus (including some from the books of Baruch and Sirach), but he ended with the claim that the second birth renders us completely new persons:

“those inflict no hurt at all who in the former time were, through their rapacity, like wild beasts in manners and disposition.”16
“Coming together in one name, they have acquired righteous habits by the grace of God, changing their wild and untamed nature.”17
“. . . so great is the transformation which faith in Christ the Son of God effects for those who believe on Him.”18
“Behold, with the Father we speak, and in His presence we stand, being children in malice, and grown strong in all righteousness and soberness.”19
“For no longer shall the Law say, “Do not commit adultery,” to him who has no desire at all for another’s wife; and “Thou shalt not kill,” to him who has put away from himself all anger and enmity; and “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s field or ox or ass,” to those who have no care at all for earthly things . . .”20
This atonement will sound strange to many modern ears, but all Christians taught it in similar terms as Irenaeus until the 12th century. Today, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Assyrian Church of the East still present the atonement in this way. It is often called “Christus Victor” by those who are more accustomed to a justice-and-wrath view of atonement. Paul thoroughly explained our atonement in Romans 5:12-21, climaxing in verse nineteen: “For as through the disobedience of the one man, the many were constituted sinners: so also through the obedience of the One, shall the many be constituted righteous” (YLT).

Finally, what we believe about atonement strongly shapes how we live our lives. Did Jesus only get me off of the hook from my punishment, or did he utterly transform me? If I believe that He rescued me from punishment, then I might find righteous living optional since unrighteousness no longer bears consequences. If I try to reflect righteous living, then my motive will be gratitude rather than absolute necessity.

If atonement actually transforms us though, then my unrighteous deeds will rightly cause me to question whether I have truly been atoned. I must necessarily forsake unrighteousness or realize that I am not in fact atoned to God. If I believe that atonement completely transformed me, then I do not try to reflect righteous living since such is the natural outcome of atonement. Rather, I must ask the scriptures and Christian traditions how it is that I am hindering the Holy Spirit from displaying the righteousness which is now natural to me. This latter question I have found best answered thus far by the Eastern Orthodox tradition. For those interested in an outsider’s investigation of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, I recommend The Spirituality of the Christian East by Roman Catholic Cardinal Tomas Spidlik.


Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, (The MacMillen Co, New York, 1920), paragraph 1
ibid, 1
ibid, 6
ibid, 12
ibid, 16
ibid, 11-13
ibid, 31
ibid, 32
ibid, 33
ibid, 33
ibid, 34
ibid, 34
ibid, 38
ibid, 3
ibid, 7
ibid, 61
ibid, 61
ibid, 61
ibid, 96
ibid, 96
More recent translations of Demonstration include that of John Behr and that of Iain McKenzie.

David Bentley Hart and the Cosmic Rebellion of Christianity

Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart explains the cosmic rebellion of Christianity:

We today are probably somewhat prone to forget that, though the early Christians did indeed regard the gods of the pagan order as false gods, they did not necessarily understand this to mean simply that these gods were unreal; they understood it to mean that the gods were deceivers. Behind the pieties of the pagan world, Christians believed, lurked forces of great cruelty and guile: demons, malign elemental spirits, occult agencies masquerading as divinities, exploiting the human yearning for God, and working to thwart the designs of God, in order to bind humanity in slavery to darkness, ignorance, and death. And to renounce one’s bonds to these beings was an act of cosmic rebellion, a declaration that one had been emancipated from (in the language of John’s Gospel) “the prince of this world” or (in the somewhat more disturbing language of 2 Corinthians) “the god of this world.” In its fallen state, the cosmos lies under the reign of evil (1 John 5:19), but Christ came to save the world, to lead “captivity captive” (Ephesians 4:8), and to overthrow the empire of those “thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers” (Colossians 1:16, 1 Corinthians 2:8, Ephesians 1:21, 3:10) and “rulers on high” (Ephesians 6:12) that have imprisoned creation in corruption and evil.

Again, given the perspective of our age, we can scarcely avoid reading such language as mythological, thus reducing its import from cosmic to more personal or political dimensions. In so doing, however, we fail to grasp the scandal and exhilaration of early Christianity. These thrones and powers and principalities and so forth were not merely earthly princes or empires (though princes and empires served their ends); much less were they vague abstractions; they were according to Jewish Apocalyptic tradition, the angelic governors of the nations, the celestial “archons,” the often mutinous legions of the air, who—though they might be worshipped as gods, and might in themselves be both mighty and dreadful—were only creatures of the one true God. It was from the tyranny of these powers on high that Christ had come to set creation free. And so the life of faith was, for the early church, before else, spiritual warfare, waged between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this fallen world, and every Christian on the day of his or her baptism had been conscripted into that struggle on the side of Christ.

-Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 113-114

Hart vividly describes why the fundamental view we should take with the atonement is not a (relatively young) “penal substitution” view, but rather the view that primary purposes of Jesus’ death and resurrection was to deal the deathblow to the devil; to complete the “cosmic D-Day” invasion of a creation enslaved to death and Satan.

In short, Christus Victor.

Viva la Revolution.

 Just a short commentary by me:

There are two scenes in the Gospels that belong together, two feasts in the Church's calendar that are a pair with forty days between them. The two scenes are the Transfiguration and the Garden of Gethsemane; the two feast are the Transfiguration and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: each scene and each feast explains the other.  Peter, James and John sleep in both scenes, in one out of wonder and in the other out of sadness. Yet it is the very desperate struggle of Christ, intent on being obedient unto death in the most extreme circumstances that is the vehicle of God's uncreated light so evident in the Transfiguration.   The darkness of almost non-existence, brought about by radical disobedience to the Source of Light, is being dispersed by the light of Christ's obedience.   By death on the Cross, Christ is conquering death. The obliteration of darkness and the spreading of light throughout the world is the principal theme of the Easter Vigil.

Some western theologians stand out, way above their companions, in the twentieth century.  One of these is the Swedish Lutheran bishop called Gustaf Aulen in his book Christus Victor
Together with Dom Odo Casel and Romano Guardini in liturgy, the Orthodox Nicholas N. Afanassiev in ecclesiology, Hans urs von Balthazar and Henri de Lubac a host of others, including Brother Roger Schutz and the monastery of Taize, and, of course, the Charismatic Renewal in their approach to theology and the modern world, Aulen marks the end of the Middle Ages and of the Reformation and its Counter-reformation, and the beginning of a Catholicism renewed, with much input from Orthodox and Protestant sources. 

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