July 14th, 2024

By the Way: Life according to early Christian thinkers

By Roland Weisbrot on June 29, 2024.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend a five-day theological seminar on the topic of early Christian views on human nature-that is, what makes a human a human.

Inspired by Genesis 1, several early Christian thinkers made a big deal out of God breathing life into Adam. In their mind, this sharing of breath was essential to understanding what it meant to be human. After all, without breath, humans are just flesh and bones.

However, these early Christian thinkers also noted that breath was by nature temporary, and so they were faced with a dilemma.

Were humans not created to live forever with God?

To answer this somewhat scandalous question, two of the thinkers we studied, St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. early 2nd century AD) and St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. early 3rd century AD), pointed to Christ’s Passion, particularly His death on the Cross as recorded in the Gospel of John.

As John 19:30 attests: “when he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (NIV). Now the Greek word translated here as spirit can also mean “breath.”

As such, Ignatius and Irenaeus argued that Christ revealed that true humanity was expressed in the voluntary giving up of the breath bestowed upon each human by God for the sake of others (cf. John 15:13).

Put another way, Jesus meant what He said when He taught that ‘”whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'” (Matthew 16:24, NIV).

In exchange for giving up our breath, Ignatius and Irenaeus concluded that Jesus would give us His Holy Spirit to live by, leaning heavily on a specific interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:1-5.

Take or leave these early Christian thinkers as you will, but it is certainly interesting to meditate upon the idea of true humanity being inherently self-sacrificial.

Pastor Roland Weisbrot is Lead Pastor of Victory Lutheran Church

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