Several years ago, I participated in the annual meeting of the Academy of Catholic Theology, a group of about 50 theologians dedicated to thinking according to the mind of the church. Our general topic was the Trinity, and I had been invited to give one of the papers. I chose to focus on the work of St. Irenaeus, one of the earliest and most important of the fathers of the church.
Irenaeus was born around 125 in the town of Smyrna in Asia Minor. As a young man, he became a disciple of Polycarp who, in turn, had been a student of John the Evangelist. Later in life, Irenaeus journeyed to Rome and eventually to Lyons, where he became bishop after the martyrdom of the previous leader. Irenaeus died around the year 200, most likely as a martyr, though the exact details of his death are lost to history.
His theological masterpiece is called Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), but it is much more than a refutation of the major objections to Christian faith in his time. It is one of the most impressive expressions of Christian doctrine in the history of the church, easily ranking with the De Trinitate of St. Augustine and the Summa theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas. In my Washington paper, I argued that the master idea in Irenaeus’s theology is that God has no need of anything outside of himself. I realize that this seems, at first blush, rather discouraging, but if we follow Irenaeus’s lead, we see how, spiritually speaking, it opens up a whole new world.
Irenaeus knew all about the pagan gods and goddesses who stood in desperate need of human praise and sacrifice, and he saw that a chief consequence of this theology is that people lived in fear. Since the gods needed us, they were wont to manipulate us to satisfy their desires, and if they were not sufficiently honored, they could (and would) lash out. But the God of the Bible, who is utterly perfect in himself, has no need of anything at all. Even in his great act of making the universe, he doesn’t require any pre-existing material with which to work; rather (and Irenaeus was the first major Christian theologian to see this), he creates the universe ex nihilo (from nothing). And precisely because he doesn’t need the world, he makes the world in a sheerly generous act of love. Love, as I never tire of repeating, is not primarily a feeling or a sentiment, but instead an act of the will. It is to will the good of the other as other. Well, the God who has no self-interest at all, can only love.
From this intuition, the whole theology of Irenaeus flows. God creates the cosmos in an explosion of generosity, giving rise to myriad plants, animals, planets, stars, angels, and human beings, all designed to reflect some aspect of his own splendor. Irenaeus loves to ring the changes on the metaphor of God as artist. Each element of creation is like a color applied to the canvas or a stone in the mosaic, or a note in an overarching harmony. If we can’t appreciate the consonance of the many features of God’s universe, it is only because our minds are too small to take in the Master’s design. And his entire purpose in creating this symphonic order is to allow other realities to participate in his perfection. At the summit of God’s physical creation stands the human being, loved into existence as all things are, but invited to participate even more fully in God’s perfection by loving his Creator in return. The most oft-cited quote from Irenaeus is from the fourth book of the Adversus Haereses, and it runs as follows: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Do you see how this is precisely correlative to the assertion that God needs nothing? The glory of the pagan gods and goddesses was not a human being fully alive, but rather a human being in submission, a human being doing what he’s been commanded to do. But the true God doesn’t play such manipulative games. He finds his joy in willing, in the fullest measure, our good.
One of the most beautiful and intriguing of Irenaeus’ ideas is that God functions as a sort of benevolent teacher, gradually educating the human race in the ways of love. He imagined Adam and Eve, not so much as adults endowed with every spiritual and intellectual perfection, but more as children or teenagers, inevitably awkward in their expression of freedom. The long history of salvation is, therefore, God’s patient attempt to train his human creatures to be his friends. All of the covenants, laws, commandments, and rituals of both ancient Israel and the church should be seen in this light: not arbitrary impositions, but the structure that the Father God gives to order his children toward full flourishing.
There is much that we can learn from this ancient master of the Christian faith, especially concerning the good news of the God who doesn’t need us!
This piece was originally published on June 28, 2016, on WordonFire.org. Bishop Robert Barron is the bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.