Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies by Hans Urs von Balthasar

My summary notes from this book. Read it as part of a Patrology class
in 1st Theology. Hans Ur von Balthasar arranges quotes from St. Irenaeus
in a thematic way in order to show the unity of his Christian view of
the world.

“Everything in Irenaeus is bathed in a warm and radiant joy, a wise and majestic gentleness. His words of struggle are hard as iron and crystal clear,… so penetrating that they cannot fail to enlighten the unbiased observer” ~ Hans Urs von Balthasar


  • HUVB -Irenaeus was the greatest theologian of the 2nd century. Irenaeus is theology’s founding father. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, in AD 180, composed his ‘Five Books on the Unmasking and Refutation of the Falsely Named Gnosis‘.
  • HUVB – Gnosticism was an enormous threat in the early Church. The problem with Gnosticism was that they did not want to leave the Church. They claimed to offer a superior and more authentic exposition of Scripture, though, of course, this was only for the ‘superior souls’. Fundamental dogma of Gnosticism = the belief that the lower, material sphere, the ‘flesh’, the world of the ‘psychic’ was contemptible, something to be vanquished (the world came into existence as a result of a tragic accident, a disaster, a fall), while the higher, spiritual world was all that was excellent, the only thing worth cultivating. This ‘knowledge’ ensured spiritual power.
  • HUVB – Irenaeus refuted Gnosticism by contemplating Christian revelation in its unity. For the Christian, God’s creation, in its material and spiritual totality, is ‘very good’. Christianity is based on the Word becoming flesh. “Caro cardo salutis” = the flesh is the hinge ~ Tertullian –> this is the decisive criterion of salvation and the centre of Irenaeus’ theology.

Chapter 1: The Sign of the Son of Man

  • HUVB – Irenaeus is the outspoken champion of the ‘realism’ of Christian theology. The Son of Man, who unites heaven and earth, is the centre of Irenaeus’ theology and the way to understand the paradox that God by nature is invisible, yet man by nature desires the vision of God.

Chapter 2: The True God and the False God

  • HUVB – The hallmarks of Irenaeus’ doctrine of God are an unrelenting emphasis on God’s freedom with regard to the world and a deep reverence for the unfathomable mystery of His being. Don’t separate the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity revealed in salvation history. Irenaeus’ reverence before the impenetrable mystery of the Godhead VS. Gnostic speculations about processions in God.
  • I – “The name ‘Christ’ implies the Anointer, the Anointed, and the Unction with which He is anointed. Now the Father is the Anointer, the Son is the Anointed, and the Spirit in whom He is anointed is the Unction” ~ III 18,3

Faith and Gnosis

  • HUVB – The contradiction of Gnostic thought is resolved in the fundamental relationship of analogy between God and the world. Man, composed of body and soul, is made in the ‘image and likeness of God’, who towers above him in (greater) unlikeness.
  • I – The arrogance of Gnosticism is all heretics think they have found something higher than the truth. They are verbal sophists.
  • I – “As regards His grandeur, we cannot know God, for it is impossible to measure the Father. But as regards His love (for that is what leads us through the Word of God), those who obey Him are evermore learning that there is such a great God” ~ IV 20, 1
  • I – “From the beginning, the Son is the revealer of the Father, since from the beginning He is with the Father… For the glory of God is the living man, and the life of man is the vision of God” ~ IV 20, 6-7

Salvation History

  • I – “And so in these last times the Lord has restored us to His friendship by His Incarnation” V 17, 1
  • I – “The Word is the ‘exegete’ of the Father” ~ IV 20, 11

Incarnation as Recapitulation

  • HUVB – God becomes ‘nothing’, so that the ‘nothings’ might become God – Irenaeus calls this wonderful thing recapitulation. Sinful, lost and wandering man is not just put back on course by the companionship of love; more profoundly, he is taken into that love. The self-abasement of Christ, by which He gets down to man and lifts him up to God. The Gnostics tear Christ into two pieces; a mortal man and a spiritual being incapable of suffering; in so doing, they disown the heart of Christianity. The Eucharist becomes the pledge of redemption: here the fruit of the dark earth itself is transformed into grace.
  • I – “In His immeasurable love, He became what we are in order to make us what He is” ~ V, preface. Man is brought back by persuasion, not violence.
  • I – “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was united through the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve tied through unbelief, the Virgin Mary set free through faith” ~III 22, 4
  • I – “For the glory of man is God, and the receptacle of God’s work and wisdom and power is man” ~ III, 20, 2
  • I – Continuity in salvation history. The New Testament is hidden in the Old. The Church –> tradition from Apostles is the perfect gnosis. Church in Rome founded on Peter & Paul is the most ancient & glorious. Jesus implanted the truth in the Apostles & presbyters have the charism of truth as Apostle’s successors. Secret traditions of Gnostics VS. public character of Church. True gnosis = Scripture + Tradition.
  • I – The Eucharist is based on creation. We are nourished by means of creation. Our opinion is in harmony with the Eucharist and the Eucharist confirms our opinion ~ IV 18, 4-5 –> Irenaeus takes the Eucharist for granted and talks about it in order to make his point about the bodily resurrection. Since our flesh is nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, it is worthy of resurrection too.

Fulfillment in God

  • HUVB – The unity of body and soul is fundamental to the objective plan of salvation as revealed from above: as involving the unity of matter and spirit, law and love, nature and grace. The resurrection of the flesh is the ultimate affirmation of the earthly world.
  • I – The complete man is made up of three things – flesh, soul, and Spirit. The Spirit saves and forms. The flesh is saved and formed. The soul is between the other two (it can live with the Spirit or go into the fleshy things). The glory of man is to persevere and remain in the service of God. Much more difficult to make man from dust than restore man to original dignity. God is not subject to created things; created things are subject to God, and all things serve His will.

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