Here is a final installment of my reflections on Irenaeus’ Against Heresies book 3. Post one was praising Irenaeus to no end for taking up the question, Who is God? and answering that question by appeal to the biblical narrative to which God has chosen to bind himself. Post two was a celebration of Irenaeus’ insistence that Jesus be truly human in order for that narrative to which God has bound himself to come to its rightful conclusion. Mmm… Adam Christology and recapitulation…
This gets us into questions that continue to plague Christian interpretations of the Bible, particularly since the advent of historical criticism. Let’s see where this comes up in Irenaeus.
First, there is the question of what sort of “God” language clearly indicates some sort of divinity? Here, Irenaeus has one line of reading that clearly indicates “son of God” and even “gods” can mean humans adopted into God’s family. However, he does not pause to consider that in some contexts this might be what’s going on as the NT writers speak of Jesus as well.
Speaking on the birth of Jesus to a virgin in Matthew 7, Irenaeus highlights that the text tells us Christ was born of a virgin. What this means is that the human born was the Christ, and he is called Emmanuel so that the Christ should not be considered “a mere man…” The human plus divine nature of Jesus Christ is seen in this passage (Against Heresies, 3.16.2).
Of course, what Irenaeus says is theologically true. But is it, perhaps, over-reading the significance of “Emmanuel”? The context for the “Emmanuel” verse in the OT is that the child’s birth signifies the saving action of God, not that the child is himself God incarnate. Might the same thing be going on in Matthew? Maybe Matthew means more, but maybe not.
Throughout, there is an assumption, perhaps cemented due to the terms of the debate with the Gnostics, that both “Christ” and “son of God” refer to something like “divinity.” Because that was a shared assumption, the arguments worked well in their context, but I find them less persuasive for ours.
In the next section after the one in which he cites the virgin birth narrative, Irenaeus cites Romans 1:3-4: Jesus was born of David’s seed according to the flesh, and was appointed son of God by the resurrection according to the Spirit. He ties this Son of God language into Mark 1, which declares the story to be one about “the Son of God.”
Again, insofar as Ireneaus is arguing against people who wanted to separate Jesus the human from Christ the divine spirit, the line of argumentation is great. It underscores that the Christ is none other than the Jesus about whom the passages speak. But perhaps both could have done well to weigh the “son of God” and “anointed” language from the OT as those phrases spoke of Israel’s human kings. This would, I think, have helped Irenaeus’ case against the Gnostics. Jesus can be son of God only because he is a man from the line of David.
Related to this is Irenaeus’ argument that the Septuagint of Isaiah 7, “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son…” really means “virgin,” not “young girl,” and that this virgin birth is a proof of God’s being incarnate in Jesus.
He argues that its translation from Hebrew into Greek well before the birth of Christ is proof positive that the point of the verse is that a woman who has known no man will bear a baby who is the incarnation of God (3.21).
But the larger problem seems to be not what the word may or may not have meant. Rather, it’s what Isaiah 7 means! The point of Isaiah 7 is that God is going to save the people of Israel within 12-15 years. In the context of Isaiah “virgin” means “young girl,” and “Emmanuel” means that God is with the people, has not abandoned them, and will in fact deliver them from the Syrio-Ephraimite coalition.
The other day I had a post in defense of low Christology (that is: in defense of recognizing it as one of the theological voices in the New Testament). The point of that post and this is basically the same: we sometimes see divinity where the text doesn’t require it because that is the theology we bring with us to the text.
There is a complicated relationship between “virgin birth” in Isaiah, in Matthew, and in the Christian tradition. There is a complicated relationship between “son of God” in the OT, Synoptics, John, Pauline letters, and the Christian tradition. There is a complicated relation between “Christ” in the OT, NT, and Christian tradition.
And that’s why I didn’t find these “Jesus is God” lines of arguments as compelling as the rest. There is an assumption about the significance of words and ideas such as “son of God” and “messiah” that cannot always be sustained in the texts invoked.