Even those unfamiliar with Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, have perhaps come across two of his more famous quotes. One of them I first read in that John Eldredge book that says a man can only be a real man if he lives in Colorado, where rock climbing, white water rafting, and fly fishing can be everyday pursuits. In Dunmurry, the most manly thing I can do is order a late night kebab from Ali’s take away, and I don’t even like kebabs. Lucky for me I don’t buy into Eldredge’s stereotypical notions of manhood and masculinity. I am perfectly content to find my identity as a man in my ability to play soccer, so go sell your idyllic Colorado lifestyle somewhere else, John. I'm all stocked up here!
Anyway, that quote. It goes something like this, depending on where you read it: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Or, “the glory of God is a living man.” Or, to be more accurate, “The glory of God is human beings fully alive.” Either way, that truly is an inspirational quote, worthy of a place at the beginning of a new chapter, or on a Facebook status update. It seems to echo Jesus when he told us that he came so that we could have “life to the full” or “abundant life.” We may not be quite sure of what such a life consists, but it sounds good. I think of the cartoon version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (still the best version), and the scene where the children first hear the name “Aslan” and a smile comes across their faces, even though they don’t know who Aslan is.
Thankfully, Irenaeus doesn’t leave us in the dark as regards the content of a life that is fully alive, though the very next part of the passage is almost always left out. Perhaps it is a little too “theological” or “religious” or “mystical.” Perhaps it strikes us as heretical, or impossible, or as a quaint desire of past generations that no longer holds sway in our modern world. I mean, what else was there to do back then? But Irenaeus will not budge. “The glory of God is living human beings; and the life of human beings consists in beholding God” (Against Heresies, Book IV, chapter 20).
That a full life consists in the vision of God is not an idiosyncrasy of Irenaeus but is, as Vladimir Lossky shows us, a major theme in Christian literature, from Scripture through Maximus the Confessor and beyond. The human’s perception of God is something I hope to touch on in my dissertation next summer, but whatever else it means, it means that what is properly called “life” and “living” must be intimately related to God. That is why the evangelistic message of Christians can be summed up by the phrase “Be reconciled to God!” In this reconciliation is found life. In beholding this God in the face of Jesus Christ we find truth, goodness, and beauty, though not in a form we could ever have imagined.
Which leads on to the second of Irenaeus’s hit quotes. “He became like us so that we could become like Him.” Or, “[Our Jesus Christ became] what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Call it theosis, call it divinization, call it sanctification, call it transfiguration. It should all point to the same reality, namely, that we are conformed to the image of Christ, who is the image of God. What this does to the “infinite qualitative distinction" between God and man that Barth talks about in his commentary on Romans (borrowing from Kierkegaard), or the difference between Being Itself and begins that is central to DB Hart’s theology, remains a question mark. It is unclear whether the incarnation dissolves this difference or accentuates it. There is, after all, only one Incarnate One, yet there also really is a human who is god, a human who calls us his brothers and sisters.
We are not to grasp at divinity, which is the primordial sin, yet by grace we are made participants in the divine nature. This can sound like too grand and lofty a thing for us, like the sort of doctrine that fuels our enlightened egos. Yet it only sounds like this if we understand the term “divine nature” or “divinity” apart from Christ, the form of a servant, the crucified Jew. Neither Barth, nor Irenaeus, nor Hart (though perhaps his new book will change this) will allow us such an understanding.