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Thoughts on the Irenaeus Doctrine of Atonement

Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon believed that salvation is a process of God’s preparation of mankind to an ultimate likeness in divinity. In his doctrine of atonement looks at salvation as a process that was initiated by God himself even before the period of Jesus. The nature of man and the earth as created is imperfect in this doctrine. God’s intention is to restore the world to its perfect form and bring man back to a state of perfection that He intends for all human beings. As such, salvation is a seen in his doctrine as a maturation process. Man is slowly being prepared by God to assume the divine likeness that was the intention of God from the time of creation. The coming of Jesus Christ and his life is seen as the climax of the atonement process. By Jesus living the actual life of all beings and being crucified and dying, he sanctifies all aspects of human life as he is the true messenger of God.

In explanation of this process, he uses the bible and especially the epistles of Paul in proving the position that God had intended this salvation for man before even creation existed. As such, some variations into the discourse about the incarnation of the savior opines that Irenaeus implied that even without the fall of man, the salvation process would still be on course as intended by God.

This doctrine of atonement can be understood by analyzing his teachings and writings about the valentinian Gnosticism that was in existence during his days. In a harsh criticism to these Gnostics, Irenaeus rebukes their use of the gospel to propagate their position and shows the absurdity of their deceptive teachings.

The valentinian Gnostics believed that the creation that God had made is perfect as it is. It defines three classes of human beings that is the material, the spiritual and the psychic. Only the spiritual will attain the salvation as they have the capacity to receive the great knowledge that is passed down to them from the creator. Jesus Christ has no role in this kind of salvation and in most instances is criticized for altering the message of God. For instance, the Gnostics believed that through the difference in though that Jesus had from the teachers of the law at the temple, He (Jesus) was attempting to alter the message of God that had been given to these spiritual teachers through their attainment of knowledge (Osborne, 2001).

An examination of the Irenaeus doctrine form these writings to counter the position held by heretics at the time show the theologian built his argument and subsequent doctrine on the exegesis of the bible. First he opines that the heretics have a flawed position on the creation of the world and the fall of man. He states that these fallacies that the heretics proclaim about the perfect creation of the earth have no basis. In fact most of its principle is so shrouded in secrecy that is thought to only be known to them. Apart from the secrecy and lack of any proof for their position on salvation, Irenaeus explains that their conception of the role of Jesus Christ is misconstrued by their use of anecdotal evidence in the life of Jesus (Book 1, Ch. 3).

The doctrine of salvation is supported by a great amount of evidence from the bible especially the epistles of Paul. Irenaeus uses a variety of texts in explaining his doctrine of salvation which makes it a well built and supported doctrine of the time. During his life, Irenaeus was a member of the episcopate. Due to this position, he is expected to have supported the traditions and belief of the church at that time. Salvation through Jesus Christ was one of the beliefs that the church held dearly. However, with the rise of heretics like the valentinians, it was inevitable that the Christians of the time be taught and given proof on the true nature of God’s intended salvation. At the time when some Christians relied on either one gospel or more than four, Irenaeus gives them hope and points to the fact that the true gospel of orthodox Christianity (Book 3 Ch. 11). These gospels are Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. From this point, it is again clear that his intention is to demystify any kind of salvation that is not given through Jesus Christ. In fact, a reading of the gospels reveals that the climax of the salvation of mankind begins with the life and times of Jesus Christ. From this assessment therefore, the doctrine of salvation by Bishop Irenaeus is a complete well thought of doctrine that is based on facts and understanding of the bible.

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