Yielding Control: Irenaeus of Lyon On What It Means to Be a Created Being

In a world that praises the drive for self-actualization and quickly ascribes success to a visibly empowered self, the task of humbling ourselves – both as individuals and a collective species – can be rather difficult.

Indeed, with all the remarkable accomplishments human beings have made over the course of history, it’s become easy to adopt the mindset that there’s truly nothing we can’t do.

Yet, when we look at the world around us – plagued as it is by conflict and corruption that spans the peoples and nations of this earth – we are quickly faced with the stark truth of our reality: we are an imperfect creation; flawed beings with limitations that prevent us from claiming the sovereignty and supremacy we so often aspire to.

The question that arises, then, is why? Why is it that humans were created imperfectly? Particularly for believers in a God “abundant in power” (Psalm 147:5), our imperfection poses a significant challenge to our understanding of His capabilities.

“Someone might say, ‘Why is this? Was God unable to make humanity perfect from the start?’”, writes Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202 AD), a leading Christian theologian from the 2nd century, in Book IV of his work Against Heresies (~180 AD), a series of writings used to refute the teachings of various forms of Gnosticism that were gaining dominance in the early centuries after Christ.

Irenaeus quotes

Understanding our imperfection begins with acknowledging the relationship between the Creator and the created:

“He [man] should realize that because God was not born and always remains the same, he can do anything, as far as depends on himself. The things he made had to be lesser than himself, however, precisely because they were to be made and have a beginning.”

Because we have a beginning (unlike God who has existed for all eternity), we have limitations:

“Because they [humans] come later, they are immature; as such they are inexperienced and not trained to perfect understanding. A mother, for example, can provide perfect food for a child, but at that point he cannot digest food which is suitable for someone older. Similarly, God himself certainly could have provided humanity with perfection from the beginning. Humanity, however, was immature and unable to lay hold of it.”

In fact, God had to come to us in human form so that we could grasp Him:

“The Word of God, then, did not take on humanity’s immaturity for his own sake, since he was perfect; rather, because of humanity’s immaturity was he made susceptible of being grasped by humans. The inadequacy and impossibility were not on God’s part but on the part of humanity, since it was not uncreated but had just been made.”

But, we are not doomed to a life of immaturity; we can grow in perfection:

“God therefore has dominion over all things since he alone is uncreated, is before all things, and is the cause of the existence of all things. All else remains subjected to God. Submission to God is incorruption, and continuance in incorruption is the glory of the uncreated. Through this system, such arrangement, and this kind of governance, humanity was created according to the image and established in the likeness of the uncreated God…[h]umanity slowly progresses, approaches perfection, and draws near to the uncreated God.”

It’s a process that naturally unfolds from the relationship between the created and the uncreated:

“The perfect is the uncreated, God. It was therefore appropriate for humanity first to be made, being made to grow, having grown to be strengthened, being stronger to multiple, having multiplied to recover from illness, having recovered to be glorified, and once glorified to see its Lord.”

The problem is that sometimes we like to be our own god, attempting to exercise control as self-sufficient, independent beings:

That we have struggled from the beginning of time with the idea of being a “lesser” being is evident in countless stories, perhaps most notably in the Garden of Eden, when Satan successfully tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit so that she will “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

But striving for omnipotence is a mistake:

“People who do not wait for the period of growth, who attribute the weakness of their nature to God, are completely unreasonable. They understand neither God nor themselves; they are ungrateful and never satisfied. At the outset they refuse to be what they were made: human beings who are subject to passions. They override the law of human nature; they already want to be like God the Creator before they even become human beings. They want to do away with all the differences between the uncreated God and the created humans.”

When we surrender control, allowing God to be the potter and us the clay, something beautiful happens:

“You do not make God; God makes you. If you are God’s artifact, then wait for the hand of the Master which makes everything at the proper time, at the time proper for you who are being created. Offer him a soft and malleable heart; then keep the shape in which the Master molds you. Retain your moisture, so that you do not harden and lose the imprint of his fingers. By preserving your structure you will rise to perfection. God’s artistry will conceal what clay is in you. His hand fashioned a foundation in you; he will cover you inside and out with pure gold and silver. He will so adorn you that the King himself will desire your beauty.”

But for those who struggle to break free from the potter’s hands:

“If, however, you immediately harden yourself and reject his artistry, if you rebel against God and are ungrateful because he made you human, then you have lost not only his artistry but life itself at the same time. To create belongs to God’s goodness; to be created belongs to human nature. If, therefore, you commit to him the submission and trust in him which are yours, then you hold on to his artistry and will be God’s perfect work.”

Ultimately, since God never forces us into submission, we have a choice:

“God’s skill is not deficient; he can raise up children to Abraham from the stones [Matt. 3:9]. The person who does not acquire that artistry is himself the cause of his imperfection. People who have blinded themselves do not thereby make the light inadequate. The light remains just as it is while those blinded through their own fault are plunged into darkness. As the light does not subdue anyone by compulsion, neither does God force the person who refuses to retain his artistry. Those who stood outside the paternal light and transgressed the law of liberty had been given free choice and power over themselves; they separated themselves through their own fault.”

So, God has, in fact, given us great responsibility and control…but it comes at a great cost:

“On those who seek and return to the light of incorruptibility, he graciously bestows the light they desire. For those who despise it and turn away, who run from it and blind themselves, he has prepared the darkness fitting for opponents of the light.”

Let us remember, then:

“Submission to God is eternal rest.”

Irenaeus quotes

Irenaeus of Lyons (130-202 AD) was a leading Christian theologian from the 2nd century. While he wrote Against Heresies to refute the teachings of various forms of Gnosticism that were gaining dominance in the early centuries after Christ, it sets forth many beliefs that came to encapsulate Christian theology.

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