Prior to Gustaf Wingren's publication of Man and the Incarnation
in 1947 -- and more particularly the more accessible English translation in 1959 -- St Irenaeus of Lyons had received an extremely poor receipt in the patristic scholarship of the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the giant names that fashioned the tradition of modern patristic studies -- Harnack, Loofs and others -- had little time for Irenaeus, and viewed him as a second-rate thinker, incoherent at best. The great field of studies had thus paid Irenaeus little attention; and what words were written on him were regularly dismissive, or outrite invective in tone.
All this changed with Wingren's publication, which turned the tide on Ireanean scholarship. Rather than accept the dismissive characterisations of Harnack, who saw Irenaeus as essentially disorganised and incoherent by the standards of a 19th-century systematics that Harnack himself championed, Wingren saw in the second-century bishop of Lyons a dynamic conception of theology grounded in the ongoing, transforming, maturing relation of God and man in the incarnation. For the first time, the vast 'biblicism' of Irenaeus was explored in detail: how does he use the scriptures? How does he see the incarnation as the key to scriptural testimony? How is man understood by Irenaeus as the locus of the economy of salvation
- a term he himself seems to have been the first to employ.
Wingren's study is masterful, and not only turned the tide on Irenaean studies in the mid-twentieth century, but remains a critical work even today. Much has changed since its writing: characterisations of 'Gnosticism' have been much refined, understandings of the second century in general much advanced, etc. Certain patterns of methodology have been improved, such that there are times in which Wingren writes to a past mould that scholars today would no longer employ. This is only to be expected for a book some 60 years in circulation. Nonetheless, there is a sense of 'the true Irenaeus' in Wingren's writing that remains potent and engaging even today.
A few quotations give a sense of his perceptive grasp of Irenaeus, as well as his own style. In a section entitled Defeat
, in which Wingren explores Irenaeus' conception of sin and its effects on humanity and the cosmos, he has the following to say:
"Man's 'growth' is destroyed through the circumstances of his attachment to evil, and the 'child' ceases to progress towards his destiny which has been appointed by God--this is one of the main aspects of the discussion [on the corruption of man]. Man is created in order to conform to the imago and similitudo of God, but in actual fact he fails to achieve his destiny. It is the opposite which he achieves--disobedience to God's will and anmity with God--allied as he is with God's chief enemy. Since the true imago and similitudo of God in Creation is the Son, the Word who effects Creation, man's thraldom to the Serpent is a departure from the Son, and therefore a kind of alien status before the coming Christ, in whom he would otherwise, were he wholly and entirely human, see a true expression of his own nature and being. His humanity has been spoiled, and he cannot clearly see what it means to be man. Man's immaturity and the enormous gulf between him and Christ is therefore due not to his having been created by God as a 'child', and to that extent imperfect, for there is no sinful defect in God's Creation, but is rather something for which man is responsible--it brings guilt in its train. If sin had not entered man's life he would have increased and progressed from his status as a child to the age of manhood, since God creates and gives, and therefore those who are in communion with Him increase and receive His gifts. But it is this very communion with God which is broken and severed by reason of man's disobedience. Man is cut off from the source of his life." (pp. 51, 52)
It is perhaps this linkage of image
to the whole of Irenaeus' theological vision that is the capstone contribution of Wingren's volume. Rather than treat them as a side-issue in a larger systematic collection, he explores Irenaeus' whole conception of creation and redemption through their lens. So he can characterise Irenaeus' vision of salvation thus:
"Irenaeus does not begin by thinking of pure humanity as being complete and finished and then go on to argue whether or not this humanity will be saved. Salvation would then be something supernatural, an addition to man's humanity. But salvation is life, human life, lived under the 'hands' of God. To be saved is to be man. To resist God is to destroy one's very manhood. But there is no 'failure' of God's purpose of recapitulation in such self-destruction [i.e. man's own sin and consequent death], for death is the logical consequence of resistance to God. Salvation embraces all that is man, for salvation is precisely unimpaired human life in its wholeness and uncorrupt form. In Christ this salvation for the whole of mankind is achieved without restriction. The Incarnate One's recapitulatio of Adam encompasses the whole of human life to all eternity." (p. 200)
To those who may have spent some time with Irenaeus, to whom some of these issues may appear familiar, it is worth noting that they have become part of the 'standard appreciation' of Irenaeus largely due to the impetus that came from Wingren's work. Over and again, the sense of transformation
that so mark out Irenaeus, comes across in this volume. Seeing salvation as part of human creation, Wingren writes:
"Consequently, man is not a merely static being to whom salvation is applied as something additional. Man is a child who was ordained by God to grow to full human life, and who is afflicted by Satan, but healed by Christ. The healing work of the incarnate Saviour extends over the period from His birth of the Virgin Mary to the delivering up of the Kingdom to the Father after the Last Judgement. The whole of Christ's work in man's salvation is termed recapitulatio." (pp. 200, 201)
Linking salvation to creation in the recapitulative work of Christ, Wingren clearly reveals Irenaeus' perception of redemption extending beyond any single moment -- of Christ's incarnate life, or any other. Salvation is the whole work of God throughout all history, summed up in Christ who brings it to his father.
No work is perfect, and there are bones to pick with Man and the Incarnation
. Wingren is clearly aware that he is instigating a deep change in perceptions of Irenaeus, and for this reason the text is sometimes scattered -- there is so much to fit in, that at times it loses a touch of its focus. Some of his perception of contemporary theological views in the early period are questionable. But these matters fully acknowledged and accepted, this remains an extraordinary text. Even with the sixty years of Irenaean studies that have come since, it has a vibrancy and perceptiveness that makes it both beautiful and helpful. It was, when it was first published, an important volume; and it remains today a key text in early patristic studies.The new paperback edition by Wipf & Stock
It was my great joy to learn that Wipf & Stock were to republish this volume in 2004, in a handsome paperback edition. The original had long been out of print and hard to find, despite being an essential volume for anyone wishing to study Irenaeus seriously. When it was found, it was often unaffordable. But the new edition is an accessible $26.00, and makes Wingren's text available to a wider readership in a new generation.
I have not myself a copy of the new paperback edition (quotations and page numbers above are from the hardcopy 1959 English edition), but it is indicated as being a reprinting of the 1959 translation, and as such should be identical in content to the earlier hardcopy.