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Are Ignatius and Irenaeus reliable interpreters of Romans 1:3?

Well, we’re still not quite done with the purported incarnational christology of Romans 1:3. Matthew Bates makes the claim in a brief section of his excellent book Gospel Allegiance (51-52), and at greater length in a 2015 CBQ article (117-21), that in this verse the aorist participle genomenou means not simply that Jesus was “born” a descendant of David (for which Paul would have used the verb gennaō), but that he “came into being” in the flesh, having previously existed in heaven.

This seems wrong to me for two basic reasons.

First, I have argued that there is nothing in verse 3 that cannot be explained by the “contrast” with the statement about the resurrected Jesus in verse 4. This is not an absolute contrast—“but” (alla) would be out of place. There is a progression between verse 3 and verse 4, but it entails a pointed differentiation between two modes of sonship: as a mortal descendant of David according to the flesh, on the one hand; as an immortal heavenly king according to the Spirit, on the other.

Secondly, there is plenty of evidence in the Septuagint and other Hellenistic-Jewish writings that the simple verb ginomai is appropriate for genealogical-type statements about the existence of a person in the past. Paul does not use gennaō here because he is not thinking specifically about the birth of Jesus. The point he makes is that the resurrected and exalted Lord known to the saints in Rome previously existed as a son of David according to the flesh. The statistical arguments about Paul’s use of ginomai and gennaō are, therefore, irrelevant.

The theological misinterpretation of scripture

One aspect of Bates’ argument that I have not addressed is his appeal to reception history and the claim that Paul’s earliest interpreters found a reference to the incarnation in Romans 1:3. In effect, Bates is defending an early Theological Interpretation of Scripture. In his CBQ article he writes:

In the haste of modern biblical schol­arship to cast off the burdensome shackles that traditional readings of the Bible were felt to have imposed, there has been a general failure to appreciate that legit­imate historical-critical control must take into account not just developmental ori­gins but also the subsequent influence of any given text. (118)

This makes me more than a little nervous. Obviously, there is a case for thinking that contemporary interpreters may have had a better grasp of a New Testament text than modern readers. It’s their language and culture, after all.

But as we move away from the original text—historically and culturally—all sorts of disruptive factors are likely to interpose themselves. Language changes over time. Gentile Christians did not share the same worldview and religious heritage as Jewish Christians. Theological developments and prejudices may have distorted ancient readings. Would we trust a Greek-speaking, second century Gnostic Christian to provide us with a reliable interpretation of Paul’s argument about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15? No, because we would be suspicious of ideological bias. It’s an extreme example, but the hermeneutical implications are the same.

The incarnational bias of Ignatius and Irenaeus

The later writers cited by Bates plainly give Romans 1:3 an explicitly incarnational spin, and they do it in ways that make it clear that they have misunderstood—or at least have over-interpreted—Paul.

Ignatius directly identifies Jesus as God (importing a dubious reading of Romans 9:5), carried in Mary’s womb; and the action of the Holy Spirit has been shifted from the raising of Jesus from the dead to his conception (“of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit”): 1

For our God, Jesus the Christ, was carried in the womb by Mary according to God’s plan—of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit—who was born (egenēthē) and baptized that by his suffering he might purify the water. (Ign. Eph. 18:2, Schoedel)

Thus it is Ignatius, not Paul, who conflates the statement about being from the seed of David with the accounts of the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in Matthew and Luke. He has bent the text to fit a different theological programme.

Significantly, Ignatius uses gennaō for “was born,” because he is thinking specifically about the event of Jesus’ birth. This is entirely appropriate. Ignatius has made this a statement about the incarnation, about the actual birth of Jesus; therefore, he uses the normal verb for giving birth. Paul uses ginomai in Romans 1:3 precisely because he is not here thinking about the birth of Jesus—or about the becoming flesh of a pre-existent Son of God—but only about his prior historical existence as one “from the seed of David.”

Irenaeus’ incarnational bias is evident in a different way. Here is the passage from the Latin text Adversus haereses:

…plainly indicating one God, who did by the prophets make promise of the Son, and one Jesus Christ our Lord, who was of the seed of David according to His birth from Mary; and that Jesus Christ was appointed the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead, as being the first begotten in all the creation; the Son of God being made the Son of man, that through Him we may receive the adoption—humanity sustaining, and receiving, and embracing the Son of God. (Adversus haereses 3.16.3)

In this case it is the idea that the pre-existent Son of God becomes the human Son of Man—the Son of God is embraced by our humanity—which betrays a post-biblical conceptuality. Irenaeus is already working with an incarnational amendment of the New Testament categories.

(Is this a development facilitated by the translation of Hellenistic-Jewish terms into Latin: “Filius Dei, hominis filius factus”? Irenaeus was a native Greek speaker from Smyrna, who lived through the second half of the second century; but he moved to Lyon in France at a fairly young age, where he became bishop.)

In biblical terms, at least as I understand these things, “Son of God” designates not a pre-existent figure but a human person or community in intimate covenant relationship with YHWH; and “Son of Man,” as it is principally used in the New Testament, signifies a human person or group which has been vindicated and exalted, according to the terms of the apocalyptic narrative of Daniel 7.

The same is true for the passage from Irenaeus’ The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, which Bates also cites—a text known to us only from an Armenian translation. Jesus is the “Son of God, who became the Son of man; that is, who became the fruit of that Virgin who had her descent from David” (36).

If we think that Irenaeus sheds light on Paul’s meaning, we must also accept his mistaken premise. But then we are reading Paul not as a first century Jewish Christian but as a second century Greek theologian whose overriding purpose was not to proclaim the Jewish king who would soon rule over the nations, but to refute the claims of Gnosticism. I don’t see how the methodology can be defended.

So there is clear evidence in both Ignatius and Irenaeus, I think, that they have read the idea of incarnation into Romans 1:3. Ignatius adds the thought that Jesus was God, born of Mary by the Holy Spirit. Irenaeus overlays Paul’s language with an ontological antithesis between Son of God and Son of Man that is alien to the biblical texts.

But enough of this quibbling (again)…

The final point to make, I think, is that the reception history does not show that “from the seed of David” is an “oblique reference to Mary” (118). Ignatius and Irenaeus bring Mary’s role—and the actual birth of Jesus—into focus because they wish to make this a statement about the incarnation. But this is hardly a necessary inference from Paul’s statement in Romans 1:3.

The argument of Irenaeus in both texts is that the pre-existent Son of God became Son of Man by being born of Mary; and because he was born of Mary, he was also a descendant of David according to the flesh. Being “from the seed of David” is a genealogical implication of the incarnation; it is not another way of saying that the pre-existent divine Son became incarnate of the Virgin Mary.

But enough of this quibbling. Next to a more constructive review of the book…

  • 1. Cf. W.R. Schoedel, A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (1985), 84: “in the formula preserved by Paul (Rom 1:3–4) Christ’s dignity “according to the Spirit of holiness” is linked with the resurrection, whereas in Ignatius it is connected with Christ’s birth.