Incarnation without the Fall in St. Irenaeus


In the Third Book of his tome Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus writes,

…Luke points out that the pedigree which traces the generation of our Lord back to Adam contains seventy-two generations, connecting the end with the beginning, and implying that it is He who has summed up in Himself all nations dispersed from Adam downwards, and all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself. Hence also was Adam himself termed by Paul “the figure of Him that was to come,” because the Word, the Maker of all things, had formed beforehand for Himself the future dispensation of the human race, connected with the Son of God; God having predestined that the first man should be of an animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One. For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.


This is a rich and mysterious passage. Below, I will speculate that this selection teaches a variety of interesting doctrines, including the eternal generation of the Son (which some scholars think the Saint did not teach) and that the Incarnation would happen without the fall.[1] I recommend Perry’s post Cur Deus Homo as pre-reading. For a short summary of my analysis below, skip to the Conclusion and Why This Matters. 

Salvation as Security: St. Irenaeus says that God predestined the first man to be of animal nature so that he could be saved by the Word. What this sounds like is “God made man so that man would fall and then get saved when God sent Jesus”. Perhaps this is what St. Irenaeus is saying, but if so, it does not fit naturally with his understanding of evil as an unnecessary result of free will misused by humans in the struggle to attain virtue. It does not seem like St. Irenaeus thought God created man with the intention of making him fall. But if so, how do we deal with the fact that St. Irenaeus says that God predestined man to be saved by making man with an animal nature? It sounds like God made us weak animals prone to sin and die so that we would need salvation from sin, which would mean we were set up to sin. Perhaps we need a wider understanding of what it means to be saved. Salvation implies something has gone wrong. Or does it? Maybe all that salvation requires is the possibility of evil—not that evil actually exists. So maybe Adam and Eve needed salvation even in the Garden. But it would not be a salvation from their sins, for they had none at the time. Instead, it would be a salvation from the possibility of sin. It would be a deification of human nature that would make it share in God’s own Changeless Goodness. With the incarnation, it would be possible for humans to reach a state of being saved from insecure sharing in Good, saved from the ability to sin—an ability which is itself good, but dangerous. They would be made secure, unable to sin, only choosing the good: incorruptible. This fits well with the Saint’s emphasis elsewhere on secure participation in God as proper to the new covenant in contrast to the old.

Incarnation Without a Fall: This idea of salvation from the danger of evil also fits very well with the section which immediately follows:

4. In accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin.

This text strongly implies via contrast with Mary’s obedience to the design of God that Eve’s sin was not in accordance with the design of God. This suggests that God’s will that man be saved by the Word did not require that the fall happen. So when we combine the fact that Eve’s sin was not part of the plan with the fact that God planned to save us by the incarnation, we arrive at the idea that God willed the incarnation and our salvation without willing the fall. The incarnation would have happened without the fall. Why? To save us. From what? From the possibility of sin.

Predestination as Blueprint: There is similarity between what St. Irenaeus says about predestination here and St. Maximus’ understanding of the logoi. In speaking of predestination, these Fathers do not mean the divine decisions about what destinies to assign to elect or non-elect individuals. Predestination means God giving a creature its destiny according to its nature. The logoi are divine acts of predestination. They are blueprints for the destinies of creatures. These eternal, uncreated blueprints reside in the nature of each creature, with a different logos for each kind of nature. A squirrel has a “logos of squirrel nature” that resides within its squirrel nature. A human has a “logos of human nature” intrinsic to his or her humanity. These logoi are actions or energies, and they energize creatures, giving each created nature its proper end or goal that it should follow, as well as the power to move towards that goal. So to say that God predestined man to be of animal nature means that God’s blueprint for human nature was that humans would be animals (to say man has an “animal nature” probably means that humans have desires, and the possibility of corruption). St. Irenaeus speaks elsewhere of the predestination of humankind thus:

We —who were but lately created by the only best and good Being, by Him also who has the gift of immortality, having been formed after His likeness (predestinated, according to the prescience of the Father, that we, who had as yet no existence, might come into being), and made the first-fruits of creation have received, in the times known beforehand, [the blessings of salvation] according to the ministration of the Word…


Here, to be formed after the likeness of God follows from being predestined. There is a divine act of destining humans to come into existence and to be the first-fruits of creation. Given the image/likeness distinction in St. Irenaeus, and the fact that the likeness of God is the unfolding or activation of the divine power imparted in the image, it makes sense to see here the destiny of humankind as given by an initial blueprint—the divine image. (Note that St. Maximus teaches that the image of God is the logos of human nature—the divine blueprint for how human nature will and should develop; this fits perfectly with St. Irenaeus’ teachings)

The Word Exists BEFORE the Incarnation: St. Irenaeus speaks of the Son of God as one Who “had a pre-existence as a saving Being”. Here and elsewhere, St. Irenaeus makes it clear that the Word is an eternal Person, not a creature. He pre-exists, which is why He is also able to create all creatures.

Eternal Generation of the Son?: Many historians of theology doubt that the consensus of the writings of early Fathers like St. Ignatius, St. Irenaeus, and St. Hippolytus (including perhaps the so-called “pseudo-Hippolytus”) includes the teaching of the eternal generation of the Son. A temporal generation (incarnation) sure; and an eternal pre-existence too. But not an eternal generation; that is something which was held by some early writers, but not a point of consensus. It only became such later on, perhaps as late as the post-Nicene period. Not all historians would dispute that St. Irenaeus taught an eternal generation; but some would.

Yet in the passage we began with, there is the suggestion that the Son’s existence is somehow dependent on the existence of the Father. For St. Irenaeus implies that if the Father had not created, the Son would have existed in vain. Why? Because the Son is a saving being who exists to save. The Son seems to exist because He will serve the Father’s purpose; this suggests that the Son’s existence is dependent on the Father’s intention. The Father intends to save, and because of this the Son exists. So here we have an example (and not the only one, by my reckoning) of a pre-Nicene teaching that the Son is begotten of the Father before all worlds, though without the creedal language of “begotten” etc. Elsewhere, St. Irenaeus says that the Word and Spirit are the “two hands of God” at work in creation and salvation; this also suggests a kind of dependency of the Word and the Spirit on the Father.

The Word Exists FOR the Incarnation?: But what on earth does that talk about a “saving Being” all mean? Why does St. Irenaeus say God creates in order “that the Being who saves should not exist in vain”? That is a strange phrase. A problematic interpretation of it (and one inconsistent with the Saint’s Trintarianism) would be that God decided that the Son would exist because God wanted to save the world from sin (or perhaps the possibility of sin). But this sounds like it makes the Son’s existence dependent on the world in some sense; that smells of Arianism.

Perhaps we should return to the suggestion that the Incarnation would have happened without the fall, and that salvation fundamentally occurs in the Incarnation. Substitute phrases about “incarnation” in place of groups of words with the language of “salvation” and what do you get? An interesting paraphrase:

For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a [Being who existed so that He would be incarnated], it was necessary that what might be [receptive of the incarnation, namely creation and human nature,] should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who [existed so that He would become incarnate] should not exist in vain.

This presents a strange progression that goes perhaps something like this. The Father eternally causes the Logos to exist. The Logos receives, contains, and manifests the logoi which are the predestinings of the Father. The Logos thus exists for a “purpose”: to become incarnate. Hypothetically, if the creation did not come into existence, then the Logos would have failed to be incarnate. But it is impossible for the Logos to fail in this purpose.[2] So the Logos creates that He may be incarnate. As St. Maximus would later say, “the Word of God and God wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment”.

Does this perhaps imply creation is necessary? Consider: God must create, for if God wills that the Logos exist, then surely He must will that the incarnation happens, and God must create so that the Logos can be incarnate. And if the Logos is eternal, then it is impossible that the Logos not exist. Thus it looks like it is impossible to deny that if there must be the Logos, there must be an Incarnation, and there must be a creation.

But perhaps we have missed something. Maybe all that we have to say is that *given the fact that God has predestined an incarnation through the Logos*, the world must exist. This does not mean that God could not have had his Word without willing that his Word be incarnate. Maybe God could have refrained from performing the act of predestining human nature to receive the Word Incarnate. So perhaps the Word could have existed but not needed a world to be incarnate in.

Conclusion and Why This Matters: St. Irenaeus seems to teach something like the following. Salvation is broader than just the removal of evil; it can simply mean removing the possibility of evil. This is accomplished by the Incarnation of the Word, who makes human nature incorruptible by indwelling it. This would have happened even apart from the fall of the human race. And thus the Incarnation was part of God’s eternal plan, regardless of sin. God eternally begot the Son, and predestined the world with the Word as its blueprint. According to this blueprint, the universe exists in order for the Son to be incarnate.

Why does this all matter? For one thing, St. Irenaeus’ vision is just beautiful. What could be more glorious than an unfallen world in which the Son of God makes his habitation with humans, who are made incorruptible in Him? The fact that such a thing did not happen is not the issue; what matters is that God is so beautiful that He could have accomplished it. Another important consequence of saying the Incarnation is not brought about by the fall is that, to use Perry’s phrase,[3] “it puts God in the driver’s seat”. The most important thing that ever happened is not an afterthought by God, but part of the plan from the get-go. And if the incarnation could happen apart from the fall, then God does not need evil in order to bring about the highest good. This allows us to trust that God is not secretly “up to no good”, and that He is not behind the evils in the world (at least not in a way that would imply He needs or wills them).

We can also see that only by affirming that the Incarnation can happen apart from the fall can Christians maintain St. Irenaeus’ rejection of Gnosticism. Gnosticism taught the fundamental incompatibility of Creator and creation; God and the world were thought to be a pair of opposites. Now, if the world needs evil in order for the highest good (the Incarnation) to be accomplished, then the world is fundamentally opposed to God on some level. In order for Christians to maintain that God and the world are distinct but not opposed, they must say that God did not need something contrary to Him (evil) in order to bring about his will for creation (that the Son be Incarnate). Finally, it means that we do not have to experience evil in order to attain union with God. We can skip vice and go straight to virtue. It is within God’s power to bring about the Incarnation without the fall; so God must also be able to bring about our participation in Christ’s incarnate life without each of us individually falling. That does not mean we can avoid all corrupt circumstances and sufferings; but it does mean we do not have to consent to sin. And if we have consented in the past, we do not have to persist in it, so long as our will remains open and changeable to repentance.[4]

[1] I have no idea if this is the right interpretation of the strange passage, and I do not even know how good the Schaff and Wade translation of St. Irenaeus is.

[2] Though we can still say He is not determined to fulfill it in a particular way, and is thus free.

[3] See here:

[4] Thanks to Cyril for bringing up this quote, and thereby inspiring this post. See comment at February 18th, 9:47am


One Response to “Incarnation without the Fall in St. Irenaeus”

  1. Celal Says:

    Your write “if God wills that the Logos exists” . I believe traditional trinitarianism is more like the way Berkhof states it in page 84 of his Systematic Theology : “And this tri-personal existence is a necessity of the Divine Being, and not in any sense a result of a choice of God.”

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