“The glory of God is humanity fully alive.” — St. Irenaeus
Today is the Feast Day of St. Irenaeus (Orthodox Church celebrates St. Irenaeus on August 23). St. Irenaeus was Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, then a part of the Roman Empire (now Lyons, France), the area where Teilhard de Chardin spent many of his formative years. St. Irenaeus was an early Church Father and apologist, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. He was a student of St. Polycarp, who in turn was traditionally a disciple of St. John the Evangelist.
St. Irenaeus’ best-known book, Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies (c. 180) is a detailed attack on Gnosticism, which was then a serious threat to the Church, and especially on the system of the Gnostic Valentinus. As one of the first great Christian theologians, he emphasized the traditional elements in the Church, especially the episcopate, Scripture, and tradition. Against the Gnostics, who said that they possessed a secret oral tradition from Jesus himself, Irenaeus maintained that the bishops in different cities are known as far back as the Apostles—and none of them was a Gnostic—and that the bishops provided the only safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture. His writings, with those of St. Clement and St. Ignatius of Antioch, are taken as among the earliest signs of the developing doctrine of the primacy of Rome. St. Irenaeus is the earliest witness to recognition of the canonical character of all four gospels.
Irenaeus’ writings had a significant influence on the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin. Irenaeus repeatedly insists that God began the world and has been overseeing it ever since this creative act; everything that has happened is part of his plan for humanity. The essence of this plan is a process of maturation: Irenaeus believes that humanity was created immature, and God intended his creatures to take a long time to grow into or assume the divine likeness. Thus, Adam and Eve were created as children. Their Fall was thus not a full-blown rebellion but rather a childish spat, a desire to grow up before their time and have everything with immediacy.
Everything that has happened since has therefore been planned by God to help humanity overcome this initial mishap and achieve spiritual maturity. The world has been intentionally designed by God as a difficult place, where human beings are forced to make moral decisions, as only in this way can they mature as moral agents. Irenaeus likens death to the big fish that swallowed Jonah: it was only in the depths of the whale’s belly that Jonah could turn to God and act according to the divine will. Similarly, death and suffering appear as evils, but without them we could never come to know God.
According to Irenaeus, the high point in salvation history is the advent of Jesus. Irenaeus believed that Christ would always have been sent, even if humanity had never sinned; but the fact that they did sin determines his role as a savior. He sees Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did.
Teilhard de Chardin took the core ideas of Irenaeus and expanded upon them in light of the the understandings from 20th century cosmology and evolutionary biology. The core similarities of St. Irenaeus and Teilhard de Chardin are as follows:
- Matter is created by God as good (as opposed to the gnostics that view matter as evil).
- God is continuing to create in the Universe.
- Humanity and all of creation are evolving as part of God’s plan to draw humans closer to himself.
- Christ is an integral part of the Universe, both in the human incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth and as the Cosmic Christ.
- Suffering and death help humans grow in our moral evolution, both in empathy and selflessness, bringing humans closer to God.