In recent years I have been greatly attracted to words attributed to Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon (France) around 200 AD: ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’. I quoted it in an article I wrote last autumn, and added my own commentary:
“To be fully alive we need to be all that we can be – living life to the full by using our heart and our mind, our soul and our strength, to discover more and more the goodness of God’s creation.”
Then to my dismay I discovered that I had totally misunderstood Irenaeus. My one consolation is that I have not been alone in misunderstanding Irenaeus – most people misunderstand him too. For if you scan the internet for images related to this phrase, you’ll discover pictures of young men and women running along the seashore, standing on top of a mountain, going down a zip line, or even riding a powerful Harley motorbike. Living life to the full is interpreted as making the most of life in this world.
But, as I have now discovered, Irenaeus never said that ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive’. He actually wrote, ‘The glory of God is a living human being’ – the word ‘fully’ is not present in the Latin version, gloria enim Dei vivens homo (Against Heresies 4.20.7). What is more, Irenaeus went on to say in the same sentence: ‘and human life is the vision of God (vita autem hominis visio Dei). Irenaeus was not talking about making the most of life in this world through engaging in such things as sporting activities or cultural pursuits. He was talking about encountering God.
This is confirmed by his very next sentence: “For if the manifestation of God which is made by means of creation, affords life to all living on the earth, much more does that revelation of the Father which comes through the Word, give life to those who see God”. Irenaeus was talking not ab out the difference we can make to life, but rather the difference that God can make to our lives. Or to put it another way, Irenaeus was not writing about ‘self-fulfilment’ but about ‘divine fulfilment’. The glory of God is experienced as we discover what God has done for us in Jesus.
This becomes even clearer in an earlier section of Irenaeus’ book:
Such then was the patience of God, that the human being, passing through all things and acquiring knowledge of death, then attaining to the resurrection from the dead, and learning by experience from when he has been delivered, may thus always give thanks to the Lord, having receiving from him the gift of incorruptibility, and may love him the more, for ‘he to whom more is forgiven, loves more’, and may himself know how mortal and weak he is, but also understand that God is so immortal and powerful as to bestow immortality on the moral and eternity on the temporal,. and that he may also know the other powers of God made manifest in himself and, being taught by them, may think of God in accordance with the greatness of God. For the glory of the human being is God… (Against Heresies 3.20.2)
Or as Jesus himself said: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10). ‘Abundant life’ is found in the first place through ‘knowing God’ (see John 17.23) or as Irenaeus expressed it, through ‘seeing God’. In the words of a modern translation of Irenaeus’ words: “For the glory of God is a living human being; and the life of the human consists in beholding God”.
It is when we encounter God, whether it be in worship and prayer, or in the reading of Scriptures and in the fellowship of his people, that we truly come alive. To paraphrase the words of an old Gospel home, it is then that ‘heaven comes down and glory fills our soul’. Or as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “It is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4.6).
“The glory of God is a human being alive” – alive that is in Christ. Wonderful though it might to experience the splendour of creation as we walk along the sea shore or to stand on top of a mountain, it is even more wonderful to experience God’s love in the new creation to which Irenaeus refers. Furthermore, this ‘glory of God’, sustained by regularly beholding God, can be known not just by the young and the strong, but also by the frail and the elderly – and everybody else too.