Merry Christmas Now and Forever: Irenaeus on the Incarnation of Christ

Irenaeus (AD 125–202) was the bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (modern Lyons, France). He was a stalwart opponent of heresy and an influential defender of the Christian faith. Irenaeus studied under Polycarp, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John. John’s gospel begins,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3).

The Word-become-flesh (John 1:14) was the rock upon which Irenaeus built his theology. The incarnation served as his Christ-centered theological starting point for understanding all things. Christ was the beginning and end all aspects of his theological understanding; creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Therefore, Irenaeus rejected any and all attempts to pit creation against redemption. For Irenaeus, history is integral to the incarnation. Christ is taking on our entire story and in the life of Christ, we see all of salvation history recapitulated.

Thus, Irenaeus compared and contrasted the two Adams of the Bible in relation to salvation. The first Adam (Gen 3:6-20) led the human race astray through the original sin, so, “the last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45), the Word-become-flesh came to bring fallen humanity back to God (John 1). Jesus of Nazareth, came in flesh and blood, the living Word, in Mary’s womb in order to redeem a fleshly, fallen race. Irenaeus writes,  

For I have shown that the Son of God did not then begin to exist, being with the Father from the beginning; but when He became incarnate, and was made man, He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam—namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God—that we might recover in Christ Jesus.1

In The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus explains,

And, because in the original formation of Adam all of us were tied and bound up with death through his disobedience, it was right that through the obedience of Him who was made man for us we should be released from death: and because death reigned over the flesh, it was right that through the flesh it should lose its force and let man go free from its oppression. So the Word was made flesh, that, through that very flesh which sin had ruled and dominated, it should lose its force and be no longer in us. And therefore our Lord took that same original formation as (His) entry into flesh, so that He might draw near and contend on behalf of the fathers, and conquer by Adam that which by Adam had stricken us down.2

Or as the sermon of Hebrews asserts,

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. or surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham (Hebrews 2:14-16).

For Iranaeus, the incarnation of Christ is of one cloth with God’s purposes from the beginning of the created order. Adam was always heading toward Christ. The last Adam was always heading toward eschatological consummation. As Paul explains, all things are happening “with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him” (Ephesians 1:10). As the creator of all things, the Word is at work summing up all thing in Himself, on earth and in heaven.

He received testimony from all that He was very man, and that He was very God, from the Father, from the Spirit, from angels, from the creation itself, from men, from apostate spirits and demons, from the enemy, and last of all, from death itself. But the Son, administering all things for the Father, works from the beginning even to the end, and without Him no man can attain the knowledge of God. For the Son is the knowledge of the Father; but the knowledge of the Son is in the Father, and has been revealed through the Son; and this was the reason why the Lord declared: “No man knoweth the Son, but the Father; nor the Father, save the Son, and those to whomsoever the Son shall reveal [Him].” For “shall reveal” was said not with reference to the future alone, as if then [only] the Word had begun to manifest the Father when He was born of Mary, but it applies indifferently throughout all time. For the Son, being present with His own handiwork from the beginning, reveals the Father to all; to whom He wills, and when He wills, and as the Father wills. Wherefore, then, in all things, and through all things, there is one God, the Father, and one Word, and one Son, and one Spirit, and one salvation to all who believe in Him.3

Merry Christmas now and forever!


  1. Irenaeus, The Writings of Irenæus A. Roberts & J. Donaldson, Eds., A. Roberts & W. H. Rambaut, Trans. (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: T. & T. Clark; Hamilton & Co.; John Robertson & Co, 1868-1869): 1: 338
  2. Irenæus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching W. J. S. Simpson & W. K. L. Clarke, Eds., J. A. Robinson, Trans. (London; New York: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; The Macmillan Co., 1920), 98.
  3. Irenaeus, The Writings of Irenæus A. Roberts & J. Donaldson, Eds., A. Roberts & W. H. Rambaut, Trans. (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: T. & T. Clark; Hamilton & Co.; John Robertson & Co., 1868-1869), 1:393.
By |December 19th, 2018|Categories: Blog, Featured|

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today