Irenaeus on the Preeminence of Christ

One of the goals that I hope to accomplish here at Reformissio is to promote Evangelical Calvinism in a way that reveals it to be not new or innovative (as some might suppose) but rather deeply rooted in the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. For this reason, I would like to follow my third entry in the series Reforming Calvinism with a post on how one of my favorite patristic theologians Irenaeus of Lyons articulated something very similar in his famous work Against Heresies. Irenaeus is remembered not only as one of the great defenders of the Christian faith against various ‘gnostic’ heresies that arose in the second century but also as the disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna who was himself a disciple of the apostle John. Here is Irenaeus as he ponders the primacy of Christ with respect to all humanity:

saint_irenaeus_oflyonsWherefore 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. [1]

Notice here how Irenaeus engages with the biblical text. He first mentions the genealogy of Jesus recorded in Luke 3:23-38. In contrast with Matthew’s genealogy which begins with Abraham and moves forward through history to arrive at Jesus’ birth, Irenaeus notes that Luke travels in the opposite direction, beginning with Christ and going backward until he arrives not only to Abraham but to Adam who was the “son of God”. It is not accidental that the term Luke applies to Adam – “son of God” – is properly ascribed to Christ himself throughout his gospel. As Irenaeus detects, there is something much deeper going on here than a mere recounting of Jesus’ family tree. Luke is intent on showing that the “Son of God” who historically came generations after Adam was, in reality, the one who preceded Adam as his true beginning and goal. Or as John the Baptist would say in John 1:30: “‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.” This is important for Irenaeus, for he discerns that Luke’s underlying motivation in tracing Christ’s lineage in this way is eminently theological: he wants to reveal how Christ sums up in himself, in his own incarnate humanity, “all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself” In other words, Luke, according to Irenaeus, wants us to think of Christ not merely as a human being among many, but rather as the human being in whose image humanity was first created and in whom fallen Adamic humanity is now renewed and restored. We cannot, therefore, understand we who are as humans created and restored in the image of God until we ultimately understand who Christ is, the true image of God, for whom we were created and in whom we are recreated.

Irenaeus finds this to be confirmed in what Paul states in Romans 5:14, namely, that Adam was only “a type of the one to come.” Irenaeus concludes that “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 remarkable. It reflects what we Evangelical Calvinists like to call, in the footsteps of Karl Barth, a “supralapsarian Christology”. Basically what this means is that prior to anything else in the divine plan, God determined to be Emmanuel, God with us in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no dark, mysterious decree (decretum absolutum) obscured behind God’s determination to be with us and for us (pro nobis) in Christ. There is no divine decision to elect individual humans, to create the world, to permit the fall, or anything else that logically precedes God’s eternal decision to be the kind of God that we come to know in Christ, the God who turns toward us in the overflowing bounty of his grace and love, the God who refuses to be God without us and who will pursue us even to the point of the death of the Son. As Barth would say: this “election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ.” [2]

When Paul says in Ephesians 1:4 that we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, when he says in Colossians 1:16 that all things were created through Christ and for Christ, he is not speaking of the second member of the Trinity abstracted from his historical identity as Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, astonishingly, it is the God-man Jesus Christ, the Word-who-was-to-become-incarnate (the Logos incarnandus) who is identified as the locus of these divine works. This means, as T.F. Torrance loved to say, there is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ. The God that we see and know in Jesus Christ is God as he is antecedently and eternally in himself. This also means that we cannot understand any of God’s ways and works as they are revealed in Scripture without reference to Christ. Indeed, Christ is “the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Col. 1:18). Indeed, Christ must be preeminent in all things, not least in the way that we interpret Scripture and do theology. As Calvin remarked, “Unless we look straight toward [Christ], we shall wander through endless labyrinths.” [3]

In conclusion, Irenaeus demonstrates for us in this brief example how to read the biblical text ‘for all its worth’, that is, with a Christo-preeminent hermeneutic, one that does not content itself with the bare facts lying on the surface of the page, so to speak, but one that rather seeks to penetrate deeply into the inner logic that gives rise to and binds together all of the individual witnesses of canonical Scripture, namely the person of the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ. This was the passion and commitment that drove Irenaeus in his reading of Scripture and defense of the truth in the second century, and this is also what we as Evangelical Calvinist hope to retrieve and promote in the twenty-first.


[1] Irenaeus of Lyons, 1885. Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 455.

[2]  Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark, p.94.

[3] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p.545.


3 thoughts on “Irenaeus on the Preeminence of Christ

  1. Bobby Grow 15 July 2016 / 07:50

    Keep’m coming, Jonathan! Great stuff here! Irenaeus is actually probably my favorite too; if I had to pick 🙂 . Julie Canlis, in her book Calvin’s Ladder has some really rich stuff on Irenaeus, and she brings him into discussion with Calvin. Not sure if you’ve read that one yet, but I think you’d love it. I once wrote a little blog review of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Reformissionary 15 July 2016 / 16:40

      Her book is one that I have been meaning to read but so far have not done so. Maybe I need to put it higher on my priority list! Thanks for the recommendation.

      Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.