Death as Containing Sin in Irenaeus

A key shift entailed in Augustine’s misreading of Romans 5:12, concerns the meaning of death. Where Irenaeus, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Ambrose, up to Maximus the Confessor, held that death was a prevention of the immortalizing of sinfulness (a containment of sin), Augustine sees death as a penalty incurred due to sin (probably the prevailing understanding today).[1] He says, “We used our immortality so badly as to incur the penalty of death: Christ used His mortality so well as to restore us to life.”[2] In On the Trinity he concludes, death is a “just retribution.” He explains, “Just as the judge inflicts punishment on the guilty; yet it is not the justice of the judge, but the desert of the crime, which is the cause of the punishment.”[3] For Augustine, death is simply the infliction of punishment and through this (mis)understanding, the groundwork is laid for a shift not only in the meaning of death but the meaning of punishment (focused on the second death).  Those attuned to the Augustinian depiction may not recognize the contrast this poses with the teaching that preceded him, in which death is not retribution for sin but the beginning of rescue from sin.

Augustine’s point of departure concerning death (that it is visited upon all due to the guilt inherited from Adam), stands in contrast to the teaching of the earliest church father’s such as Irenaeus, who saw death as limiting sin’s possibility. Irenaeus, as one of the earliest church theologians and one whose experience included both east and west, stood in a direct line, through Polycarp, to the teaching of the Apostles. In other words, he represents the clearest teaching concerning death and sin in the post-Apostolic period up to Augustine. This is especially true, since he is concerned to refute Gnostics (such as Valentinus), who also have a perverted view of sin and death. Where Augustine will make a gnostic-like move in privileging human interiority and rationality (focusing on thought, word, and will) as containing the “image of God,” Irenaeus locates the image of God in the body and in human relationality through the body. Where the body is subject to death and corruption, the image of God in humans is marred (but certainly not completely spoiled).

 One way of getting at the difference between Augustine and Irenaeus (but also between Irenaeus and the modern), is to note Irenaeus’ appreciation for the body and relationality, which is more post-Wittgensteinian than modern. For Irenaeus, to be human is to be a physical body and this entails relationality. As Mako Nagasawa depicts it, Irenaeus had a relational, marital, and physical understanding of what “the image of God” meant for human beings. The marital/physical relationality was paradigmatic, such that to explain how the individual, and not just the married couple bore the image, he “appealed to the relational identity of the Word-Son as the image of God.” So too every “human being was meant to be in relation to God by the Spirit, in some sense mirroring an internal relation of the Son to the Father in the Spirit.” The image could be traced in marital relationship or in relationship to God, but Irenaeus had no notion of an isolated individual bearing the image of God. Nagasawa concludes, “Irenaeus’ theological anthropology was relational to its core.”[4]

This embodied notion of relationality as bearing the image, explains how physical death impacts the image bearing capacity. Irenaeus appeals to the Genesis story and the formation of man from earth, and the giving of breath, seeming to relish the earthy nature of the image as a contrast to gnostic denigration of flesh. “For He traced His own form on the formation, that that which should be seen should be of divine form: for (as) the image of God was man formed and set on the earth. And that he might become living, He breathed on his face the breath of life; that both for the breath and for the formation man should be like unto God.”[5] As he explains in this same paragraph, “And this great created world, prepared by God before the formation of man, was given to man as his place, containing all things within itself.” Though this world contains “all things,” God also prepares a place where he can give himself: “And so fair and good was this Paradise, that the Word of God continually resorted thither, and walked and talked with the man, figuring beforehand the things that should be in the future, (namely) that He should dwell with him and talk with him, and should be with men, teaching them righteousness.”[6] The physical body, the breath from God, God’s presence, and the male/female presence, together constitute the fulness of this relational image.

Irenaeus also pictured the first humans as having free will as part of their image bearing, such that their decision for the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” constituted not only disobedience but a willful rejection of life (in the “tree of life” or in God’s presence); a rejection which God honored. In this sense, death was the fulfillment of the desire of sin; namely, to be free of God’s arbitration of the good (life). Now they would be the arbiters of their own ethics (“knowing good and evil” in the absence of life).

Death though, is the built-in limit to sin: “But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.” Death poses a definitive boundary to sin, so that there is no possibility “that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable.”[7] Death is not a punishment then, but the first step in rescue, but at the same time death potentially contains the deception of the serpent. “For at the first Adam became a vessel in his (Satan’s) possession, whom he did also hold under his power, that is, by bringing sin on him iniquitously, and under color of immortality entailing death upon him.”[8] The original lie held out the promise of immortality but brought about death, and death continues to hold out the possibility of this deception in Irenaeus depiction.

Though the tendency, even among expositors explaining Irenaeus, is to pose an aspect to death that is not physical (that is the tendency is to separate out physical and spiritual death). Irenaeus could not be clearer: death refers not to soul or spirit but to the fleshly, physical body.

What, then, are mortal bodies? Can they be souls? Nay, for souls are incorporeal when put in comparison with mortal bodies; for God breathed into the face of man the breath of life, and man became a living soul. Now the breath of life is an incorporeal thing. And certainly they cannot maintain that the very breath of life is mortal. . .. Neither, on the other hand, can they say that the spirit is the mortal body. What therefore is there left to which we may apply the term mortal body, unless it be the thing that was moulded, that is, the flesh, of which it is also said that God will vivify it?[9]

Death then, describes the corruption of the physical body,

For this it is which dies and is decomposed, but not the soul or the spirit. For to die is to lose vital power, and to become henceforth breathless, inanimate, and devoid of motion, and to melt away into those [component parts] from which also it derived the commencement of [its] substance. But this event happens neither to the soul, for it is the breath of life; nor to the spirit, for the spirit is simple and not composite, so that it cannot be decomposed, and is itself the life of those who receive it. We must therefore conclude that it is in reference to the flesh that death is mentioned; which [flesh], after the soul’s departure, becomes breathless and inanimate, and is decomposed gradually into the earth from which it was taken.[10]

This captivity to death, by its very nature, indicates the absence of God: “The flesh, therefore, when destitute of the Spirit, is dead, not having life, and cannot possess the kingdom of God: [it is as] irrational blood, like water poured out upon the ground. And therefore he says, ‘As is the earthy, such are they that are earthy.’”[11] The earthy are subject to the mortality and corruption of the flesh, indicating “a certain dominion of death,” which unless resisted through the soul and spirit describes the state of the man. One succumbs to the corruption of death by being fleshly and living according to the principle of the flesh.

Irenaeus patiently spells out over several chapters that this is what Paul means when he says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom.” It is not that flesh and blood will be gotten rid of in the Kingdom, but the spirit added to the body (flesh and blood) does indeed inherit the Kingdom. As he puts it in the title of book 5 chapter 14: “Unless the flesh were to be saved, the Word would not have taken upon Him flesh of the same substance as ours: from this it would follow that neither should we have been reconciled by Him.” Christ has reconciled us in the flesh by his flesh, not by getting rid of the flesh but adding to it the life of the spirit. Afterall, to be human is to be flesh and blood, even in the Kingdom, as it is by such that we have life in the first place: “Now, since man is a living being compounded of soul and flesh, he must needs exist by both of these.”[12] He concludes, “If, therefore, flesh and blood are the things which procure for us life, it has not been declared of flesh and blood, in the literal meaning (proprie) of the terms, that they cannot inherit the kingdom of God; but [these words apply] to those carnal deeds already mentioned, which, perverting man to sin, deprive him of life.”[13]

Physical, bodily, death can be a bondage as the principle of the flesh is taken as an end in itself, without admixture or resistance of soul and spirit. Irenaeus equates this condition with the “falsehood” put into place by the serpent, and he sees this lie as potentially fragmenting the person: “For godliness is obscured and dulled by the soiling and the staining of the flesh, and is broken and polluted and no more entire, if falsehood enter into the soul.” This corruption is a loss or corruption of the self, just as keeping the self or maintaining wholeness is possible “when truth is constant in the soul” and the flesh is pure.[14]

This in turn, explains the specific nature of the work of Christ as explained by Paul: “And it is this of which he also says, ‘He shall also quicken your mortal bodies.’ And therefore in reference to it he says, in the first [Epistle] to the Corinthians: ‘So also is the resurrection of the dead: it is sown in corruption, it rises in incorruption.’ For he declares, ‘That which thou sowest cannot be quickened, unless first it die.’” As Irenaeus puts it in the title of chapter 7: “Inasmuch as Christ did rise in our flesh, it follows that we shall be also raised in the same; since the resurrection promised to us should not be referred to spirits naturally immortal, but to bodies in themselves mortal.”[15] He does refer to this raised body as a “spiritual body” but in no way is this a departure from the physical body. As he states it, “This, however does not take place by a casting away of the flesh, but by the impartation of the Spirit.”[16]

This may be shocking for those weaned on the Augustinian idea that death is a punishment and the Calvinist notion focused on the second death (eternal torturous punishment in hell). In this  understanding, physical death has next to nothing to do with the human predicament, focused as Calvin is on hell and rescue from infinite torture. (In this sense, evil is immortalized, over and against Irenaeus’ notion that this was the very point of death – to limit evil.) This of course makes nonsense of Paul’s explanation, which Irenaeus is building upon, that sin reigns in and through death. Death is the occasion for sin as where “death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12), where “death reigned” (v. 14), where “the many died” then “sin reigned in death” (v. 21). Here death is not a punishment and is not even necessarily connected to sin, as Paul describes those who have not sinned in the manner of Adam – “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam” (v. 14). All people are subject to death, but apparently there are entire classes of people that have not sinned (e.g., infants and children).  As Paul explains in Corinthians it is not that death is the punishment or sting of death but just the opposite, “the sting of death is sin” (I Cor. 15:56).

In Irenaeus explanation, it is not that death of necessity contains the pollution or is itself sin, but he links sin to an inclination of the soul implicit (or contained in a second sense) in death (a deception?).[17] The corruption of death takes up residence in the soul through sin, unless the counter to sin and death is displaced by the spirit of life.  

[1] This is the claim of Mako A. Nagasawa, “Penal Substitution vs. Medical-Ontological Substitution: A Historical Comparison,” The Anastasis Center Documents/atonement/article-penal-substitution-vs-ontological-substitution-historical-comparison.pdf

[2] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1.14. Yet, in this same passage there is a picture of the work of Christ as healing from the sin sickness (we are still far from Calvin’s penal substitution), but death, in this understanding, has no constructive purpose.

[3] Augustine, On the Trinity, 4.12

[4] Ibid. Nagasawa.

[5] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, paragraph 11 p. 81

[6] Ibid, p. 82

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.23.6

[8] Ibid, 3.23.1.

[9] Ibid, 5.7.1

[10] Ibid,

[11] Ibid, 5.9.3.

[12] Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, paragraph 2. p.71.

[13] Ibid, 5.14.4

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, Irenaeus, 7.

[16] Ibid, Irenaeus 8.1.12

[17] So sin is contained in death in a two-fold sense: death contains an inclination to sin but delimits it or contains it.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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