On Friday, January 21, Pope Francis officially declared Saint Irenaeus of Lyon the 37th Doctor of the Church with the title Doctor unitatis.
In his decree, the Pope wrote, “Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, who came from the East, exercised his episcopal ministry in the West: he was a spiritual and theological bridge between Eastern and Western Christians. His name, Irenaeus, expresses that peace which comes from the Lord and which reconciles, restoring unity. May the teaching of this great Master increasingly encourage the journey of all the Lord’s disciples towards full communion.”
St. Irenaeus, Bishop of what is now Lyon in the late 2nd century, was an example of ecumenical bridge-building in theology and practice. His best-known work, Against Heresies, refuted the Gnostics by defending the centrality of the Incarnation of Christ in human flesh as instrumental for human salvation and for humanity’s eventual incorporation into the Divine.
For Irenaeus, the salvific act of the fullness of Jesus’ Incarnation (birth, life, death, and resurrection) did not merely restore humans to what they were before the fall of Adam and Eve- it actually improved their situation by giving them divine potential. This infusion of divinity moved humanity’s relationship with God to a completely different level: humanity is now capax dei, capable of being part of the divine, capable of experiencing the love God has for them in a new and more profound way.
Irenaeus suggested that this new, more-than-restored, recapitulated reality for humanity is the culmination of what was intended in creation. Adam and Eve were not the perfect picture of humanity’s potential, but an immature, not-fully-developed version of what people could eventually become. Because of the fall, a natural outcome of free will, and the intervention by God in the Incarnation, people are recapacitated to have a fuller relationship with God than they ever had before. Irenaeus shows us a loving God in pursuit of God’s people, a God who from the beginning brought them out of nothing so that they could eventually be incorporated into God.
As a theology student and a person who straddles multiple Christian denominations, I’ve been entangled in my share of ecumenical conversations on salvation that wade into the issues of free will and God’s motives in creation and redemption and get stuck there. Irenaeus gives us a way to frame the issue of free will and the question of the divine dilemma that is filled to the brim with divine love. God, in creating humanity, saw the potential for our divinization, and when it wasn’t fully realized, God found a creative way to bring it into being. While creation itself, including humanity, came from nothing, the solution to the dilemma came from something– from the stuff humans were made of, from their unique grace-filled imprint of the divine image, coupled with the divine nature itself, in an ultimate act of divine love.
This is a much better story than if Adam and Eve had never eaten the fruit in the first place.