A Word from the Holy Fathers:
I would like today to offer a brief word from the writings of our father among the saints, Irenaeus of Lyons, a father that I mentioned in the very first of our broadcasts in this series, nearly forty episodes ago. Today I would like to look specifically at St. Irenaeus’ words, not on the fashioning of man, but particularly the fashioning of woman, and the very nature of God creating a world in which man and woman comprise the human race.
The quotation I shall read is drawn from the shorter of the two extant texts by St. Irenaeus, the text known as The Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, or, at times, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. This is an interesting book inasmuch as, if you read it carefully, it makes no particular mention of the apostles or their preaching, and sometimes leads one to wonder where precisely its title comes from. What one discovers in this short text is in fact an explanation, an exegesis, of the whole history of creation and salvation, beginning from Genesis and working fully through to the redemption offered in Christ.
It is a Christian reading of the sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament demonstrating how they point to Christ, just as Christ himself had demonstrated to the apostles after his resurrection how the Scriptures pointed to himself. Why is it called “a demonstration of the apostolic preaching”? Precisely because, St. Irenaeus is keen to remind us, this is the way the apostles preached, not by inventing new thoughts, new theologies, new ideas, but by exposing the eternity of the Christian Gospel and its antiquity; by showing that the Scriptures, which had been handed down from the most ancient days, are in fact Christian Scriptures; that the Old Testament is the Gospel; that it is the message of Christ himself, and when we look into it rightly, we discover our Christian faith, begun at the beginning of creation, at the beginning of time, fully manifested rather than begun anew in the Incarnation.
In that light, St. Irenaeus turns his attention towards the front of this text, towards creation, of the world, of angels, of humanity. And in chapter 13—and the 13th chapter, like most in this book, is just a single paragraph in length—St. Irenaeus looks specifically at the creation of woman, the fashioning of Eve.
He writes the following:
While man was walking around in paradise, God brought before him all the animals, and commanded him to give names to them all. And whatever Adam called each living being, that was its name. And God decided also to make a helper for the man. For in this manner, God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. Let us make a helper fit for him, since among all the other living things, no helper was found equal and like unto Adam.”
And so God himself cast a deep sleep upon Adam, and put him to sleep. And, that a work might be accomplished out of a work, sleep not yet being in paradise, it came upon Adam by the will of God. And God took one of Adam’s ribs and filled up flesh in its place, and he built up the rib which he took into a woman, and in this way brought her before Adam. And he, seeing her, said, “This at last is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh, and she shall be called woman, for she was taken from her man.”
That reading is of the 13th chapter of The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching [cf. Genesis 2:19-23].
It is clear that St. Irenaeus here is commenting upon and directly exegeting the text from Genesis, and in fact about a quarter of that passage that I’ve just read is simply quotation from the Genesis account of Eve’s creation. What is of particular importance and such revealing insight is the emphasis that St. Irenaeus draws out of this unique moment. Adam has been placed in paradise, and all of creation, all of the animal kingdom brought to him, he as its lord. And elsewhere in the text, St. Irenaeus draws attention to the fact that Adam is kyrios, lord of creation. And all the animals are brought to him as their lord, to be his companion. But not just his companion—this is St. Irenaeus’ insight—to be his helper.
St. Irenaeus uses a very specific vocabulary throughout this passage. Adam is provided with these animals that he may find a helper, not just someone to be a companion and a friend, but someone to assist him in growth, in maturation, in the life that God has fashioned for him. And he calls in due course, as the Scriptures say, all the animals before him. He gives names to them all. He sees their function, he finds their identity, and, as the text says, whatever he called them, that was their name.
St. Irenaeus’ real insight comes in this observation mid-way through that text: among all other living things, no helper was found equal and like unto Adam. In all of creation, Adam was unique: the human handiwork of the Lord. The dust he had fashioned with the his own hands into a human creature is unique and precious, unlike all else. As much as all of the animals that were brought to their lord were helpers in certain ways, were companions in certain manners, Adam remained, in a profound manner, alone. Who was like and similar unto him who could help him unto salvation? The only way for this to be accomplished, St. Irenaeus finds in the text, is for someone truly like him, of his own flesh, of his own bone, to be his companion and aid, and so Eve comes about from the rib of Adam.
In some styles of interpretation that have been found or have been popular over the past decades and years, Eve’s creation out of Adam—woman’s creation out of man—has been misread as a kind of misogyny or a second-class status to female sex. Man is created directly by God but woman is a derivative of the “better” male creation. So has this text from Genesis been misread, not only in recent decades, but also throughout the centuries of history.
St. Irenaeus, on the other hand, finds a much more spiritual, beautiful vision to the text. It is not that Adam is created first and therefore better, and Eve, as a derivation of Adam, is lesser; rather that true companionship—the kind of companionship that allows one to be a helper likened unto one who is helped—means that one must be truly, intimately connected, united, of the same spirit, the same flesh, the same bone. In the case of Adam and Eve—the first family, the first human community—this connection is so intimate that their very origins are united.
God does not simply create two people side by side and insist: “Be a community; be a family. Help one another.” Rather, he draws one from the other, so that they are, by their very nature, interconnected, the companions, down to the very levels of flesh and bone, of one another. Their very existence is designed to be of benefit to the other. This is not simply true in terms of Eve’s relationship to Adam, but also of his relationship to her. They share the same flesh; they share the same bones. The role of Christians, the role of all humans to be the helpmeet of all others, is built in to our nature. To be a community, to be of assistance and support in growth and development to those around us, is not an option; it’s not something we do with ourselves simply because we have made the choice so to do. It is something built into our very fabric as human creatures. “My creation, your creation” means that we are intrinsically connected.
So what is natural is to be helpmeet, to be support, to be companion to those we encounter. What is deeply unnatural is to absent ourselves from such relationships; to view compassion, love, alms, as optional extras in the way we interact with those around us. Sometimes in the world today we characterize people who are extremely compassionate, extremely forgiving, who offer their lives wholly to the service of others: we characterize them in the modern vernacular as almost super-human in their relationships to others, super-human in the way they offer themselves to strangers. But, in fact, such people have discovered how to be truly human, whereas those of us who live in broken relationships, who see a brother or sister, and rather than seeing a companion who can help us and whom we can help in our spiritual life, we see a stranger, a foreigner, an other. We are the subnatural, the subhuman examples of life in this world. Those who have offered themselves to the other demonstrate simple, natural, precious, true humanity. This is what the Genesis story can show us.
This is what St. Irenaeus finds in a passage that has either traditionally been misinterpreted or has been ignored as insignificant. Yet in this act of Eve receiving her substance, her being, from Adam, we find the very foundation of Christian community. We find the true source and substance of our responsibility, one for another, and we find the true blessing of human creation: that in all of creation, we are, one to another, unlike anything else. We are truly helpmeets, or so we can be in repentance and self-offering.
When we see our brother, when we see our sister, let us look upon them with eyes informed by this knowledge. In all creation, there is none like them but us, their brothers and sisters in this life. The weight is on our shoulders to love, to forgive, to help, to support all whom we encounter, whatever their circumstances and whatever ours, that we, as one family created by the Lord Jesus Christ, may grow into his redemption and love. Through the prayers of our father among the saints, Irenaeus of Lyons, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.