Person-Nature in St. Irenaeus' Christology


And again David says, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool.’ The Lord sends forth from Zion a sceptre of power, rule in the midst of your enemies! With you <is dominion>, in the day of yoru power, in the splendour of the saints; from the womb before the morning star have I begotten you.  The Lord has sworn and will not repent, you are a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek.  The Lord, at your right hand, has crushed kings in the day of wrath.  He will judge among the nations, He will fill [them with the] fallen and will crush the heads of many upon earth.  He will drink from the brook in the way; therefore He will lift up His head.”  By this, then, he declared that He is before [all], and that He rules over the nations, and judges all men and the king<s> who now hate Him and persecute His name, for these are His enemies; and calling Him an eternal high priest of God, declares His immortality.  And by saying “He will drink from the brook in the way, therefore He will lift up His head,” he indicated the exaltation with glory according to His humanity after His humiliation and abasement.

On The Apostolic Preaching, Section 48

But “He will not judge according to appearance nor reprove according to report, but will render judgment to the lowly and will have compassion on the <humble of the earth>,” demonstrates His divinity much more, for to judge without respect of persons, not honoring the illustrious, and giving to the poor [that which is] proper and equitable is according to the <supreme> and highest righteousness of God, for God is not subject to influence from anyone, nor has pity except on the righteous; and to have mercy is expressly proper to God, who is able to save by His mercy; and “He shall smite the earth with a word, and shall slay the ungodly” with a word alone is [said] of God, who works all things by a word.  While in saying: “His loins will be girded with righteousness and His side wrapped in truth” he indicates His human form and His really supreme righteousness.

On the Apostolic Preaching, Section 60

One indication that a theologian embraces a person-nature distinction in Christology is the use of phrases such as “according to His humanity”.  Statements like these imply an understanding that a single divine Person can have two distinct natures.  Similarly, statements such as “He was abased according to his humanity” or “He was glorified according to his humanity” should be taken to indicate a belief that Christ’s human nature can be thought of as distinct from the divine Person who is God the Son, and as distinct from the divine nature that the Son shares with the Father and the Spirit.  If a theologian believes in the person-nature distinction, then when presented with what seem to be contradictions about what we can predicate of God the Son, we may resort to what Thomas Morris called “reduplicative predication” (The Logic of God Incarnate).  We can speak of Christ as invincible and abased, omniscient and ignorant, by predicating one of these properties of Christ’s humanity and another of his divinity.  If we avail ourselves of this strategy, then it implies we embrace a distinction between person and nature.

This is precisely what we see St. Irenaeus doing.  He distinguishes Christ’s person from “his human form” and Christ according to his divinity from Christ “according to his humanity”. The Saint also speaks of the experience of humiliation and abasement of the divine Person who is God the Son.  Even more potent is Irenaeus’ statement that distinguishes the divine glory of Christ according to his humanity (which is a gift from exaltation) from the divine glory of Christ according to his divinity.

The presence of this distinction in Irenaeus should alert us to the need to avoid word=concept fallacies.  For although a critic of Orthodox theology might rightly point out the absence of an explicitly-worded person-nature distinction in St. Irenaeus, the requisite concepts seem to all be present.  The antiquity of Irenaeus’ writing (preceding ecumenical councils and even the turn of the third century) should warn us against assumptions about how advanced early Christian theology could be at very early dates.


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