As we have noted (IRENAEUS OF LYONS ON THE BEATIFIC VISION, PART I), the Son’s revealing of the Father to men and women has been a continual one, yet it has not always been in the same fullness throughout history. There have been differing degrees of the vision of and knowledge of God in history (Against heresies 4.20.5). For Irenaeus, this vision and knowledge is a gradual one, thus implying a progressive revelation of God in history. This progressive revelation of God (through various economies) occurred because of humanity’s imperfection and men and women thus needed to be accustomed (assuescere) to bear the vision of God (Against heresies 4.14.2). See also Irenaeus’ use of assuescere with regard to man’s learning to receive the Spirit of God: Against heresies 3.20.2, 16.5; 4.5.4, 12.4, 14.2, 21.3.
History is therefore conceived by Irenaeus to be a process; a process by which imperfect man ascends (an ascent made possible by God) to a more perfect vision of God. Even Adam, who was created in the image and likeness of God was a child spiritually who needed to grow. Irenaeus found this view of Adam as being a child in the thought of Theophilus of Antioch. See To Autolycus 2.25; cf. Against heresies 3.22.4; 4.38.1.
Even if there had not been a Fall there would have been spiritual growth. Adam was given as much of the Spirit as he could bear. Adam therefore received a fragile incorruptibility (Against heresies 4.40.3; 5.16.2). In Irenaeus’ thinking, his loss of it was more through carelessness than malice. Yet, Irenaeus still sees it as sin and the essential cause of sin in the world.
However, the Fall does not alter God’s essential plan, that is, the raising of man to perfection and a perfect vision of God. True perfection, the destination of humanity, is nothing less than the vision of God, the crown of spiritual growth (Against heresies 4.11.1). Man, as a being of temporality, must learn to travel gradually towards God, who is not subject to time.
Old Testament history thus became, for Irenaeus, God’s work of “adjusting the human race, in manifold ways, to harmony with salvation” (Against heresies 4.14.2, 21.3, 38.1, 3, 39.2). Heresy was, therefore, for Irenaeus, an ignoring of God’s dispensations through history; that is, rejecting the historical provisions God has made for humanity’s salvation, perfection and ultimate destiny. See Against heresies 3.12.2, 16.8; 4.27.2, 29.1, 2, 35.2; 5.19.2.
Three further remarks of clarification are needed with regard to Irenaeus’ belief in the spiritual education of humanity. First, the ascending path of humanity to God in history is quite distinct from any Gnostic belief in the ascent of man to God. For Irenaeus it is the Holy Spirit which confers on man the possibility of progress.
Second, Irenaeus is not urging a cheap belief in progress qua progress. Progress is always connected to sonship and communion with God.
Third, history is intimately connected to eschatology. History does not continue ad infinitum. History has an end; but until the eschatological consummation humanity is constantly “on the way.”