The Glory of God is Man Fully Alive – Did St Irenaeus Really Say This?

One of my favorite quotes, which I repeat often is the famous line from Saint Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
Saint Irenaeus lived in the second century and this quote is rightly celebrated as one of the most profound incites into theological anthropology – a five dollar term for the theology of human nature. God receives external glory when humans are truly alive, presumably alive in God.
However, I recently read this article by Father Patrick Henry Reardon (an Antiochian Orthodox priest) that attempts to explain how people naively misuse the quote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
Here’s Father Reardon’s article in three bullets:

  • Saint Irenaeus didn’t write “man fully alive” but just “living man.” It’s preserved in Latin as  “Gloria Dei est vivens homo.” If you know Latin you can see what he means.
  • The cult of “self-fulfillment” has co-opted the quote.
  • True fulfillment is only in Christ, not in “self.”
Father Reardon situates the original quote in context. Saint Irenaeus goes on to say, “the life of a man is the vision of God.” So the context reveals that “living man” or “man fully alive” is in actuality rooted in the beatific vision, that is, Heaven.
However, I wonder if Father Reardon is pushing on this a bit too much! From a Thomistic point of view, there is an analogy between the life of glory in Heaven and the life of grace on earth.
For example, I don’t think we want to say that the Blessed Virgin Mary was not “fully alive” while on earth. True, she wasn’t in Heaven. So in that sense, she was not yet fully alive. Nevertheless, there is an obvious analogy to Heaven and living on earth with the Holy Trinity in your soul. Did the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Paul, and the Little Flower demonstrate the “glory of God” while living on earth? 
You betcha.
Strictly speaking Father Reardon is right. People do abuse the quote. However, I don’t think that we have restrict the passage to human persons being fully alive in Heaven. God is truly glorified when we live the life of grace here on earth.
Gloria Dei est vivens homo!

Let’s open the comments: Had you heard this quote before? How was it being used? Do you think it can have application in this life?
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  • Graeme

    The second part of the sentence has ” and the life of man is the vision of God” (Adversus haereses IV, 20, 7) which was not often quoted in the heady days of the 1960s and 70s in theology and catechetical publications! Eben Alexander’s recent NDE and his struggle to express his extraordinary experience is a valid human revelation about what the vision of God might entail.

  • Joseph

    Yes, it is myopic to leave out the second clause: “the life of man is the vision of God”, because without that, the phrase becomes unduly man-centred, but with it, God takes centre stage – which is His place alone.

  • vt

    I’ve been reading a book of selections from the early Greek fathers (mainly abbots). A recurrent theme occurs: that any object of beauty that draws the eye or fascinates the mind must be excised. For it will draw you to love of the things of this world. I don’t see in the Gospels that Jesus ever intimated such. Where did such a loathing of the world arise? I read we are to be the salt of the earth, fully engaged in bringing about his kingdom. I read God the created the world not as a wasteland to be lived in. Where and why did the Church ever fabricate the hatred of the world, its art, music, its tender moments of social life. I don’t think Jesus, who enjoyed a festive wedding and a good banquet, would approve. The church went wrong somewhere early on.

  • eloerien

    It’s not so bad if you read it christologically. It’s pretty good. As the prologue of John’s Gospel puts it, the glory of God is Jesus. Never was—and is—a human being more alive. Jesus is raised to undying life. Jesus is how God chose to reveal God’s glory most definitively… so in Jesus, the glory of God is a human being fully alive. The more we become like Jesus, the more we begin to reveal God’s glory too. It’s actually pretty good theology, even if Irenaeus didn’t say it…

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  • bullschuck

    “incites” or “insights”?

  • Ricky

    When I first encountered this quote, I took it to mean that a man detached from sin was fully alive. He would thus be a more clear reflection and image of God. I always imagine the same imagery that C.S Lewis uses in The Great Divorce with the lizard of lust–when the man is set free from his attachment to lust, he could understandably be considered fully alive: “There was riding if you like! I came out as quickly as I could from among the bushes to follow them with my eyes; but already they were only like a shooting star far off on the green plain, and soon among the foothills of the mountains. Then, still like a star, I saw them winding up, scaling what seemed impossible steeps, and quicker every moment, till near the dim brow of the landscape, so high that I must strain my neck to see them, they vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”

  • Clarence

    I think it suggests that the Glory of God is Love alive in humanity.

    In each human person.

    It’s the fulfillment of the great commandments.

    Our life in God – God’s life in us. “Thy will be done on earth as in Heaven…. ”

    So it must be realisable to some degree in this world too. I have not realised it or anywhere near. But I can kinda imagine in my mind – heart perhaps.

    I see ‘grace’ as the ‘love of God’ anyway – so it’s similar to what you said Taylor. I think. I am no theologian or scholar. I am just a poor boy and my story’s seldom told.

    Regarding beauty being a distraction. I don’t see this to be true at all or what those men and/or women were suggesting. Rather that when God is the centre, fullness of life in us, we see God in everything that is beautiful. In this world too.

    What God created was ‘good’. We are not to call what is ‘good’ – ‘evil’. We ourselves are ‘images’ of God and so image the ultimate in Beauty.

    When we love we are beautiful.

    • Pam

      Amen, Clarence.

  • Ebai Godlove

    when does eternal life actually begin

    • Mark Munsey

      When one is “born from above” (vis-a-vis Jn 3:3, 16)

  • Anna Djintcharadze

    Hello everyone,

    With Saint Irenaeus you cannot have the scholastic division into “vision on earth” and “vision in heaven” — most of the early Church theologians believed in the possibility of the beatific vision already on earth. This has to do with the Theosis theology that implies the difference between Divine Essence and Energies, which Latin scholasticism gradually forgot as it dismissed the theory of illumination. Hence from XIIIth century on, it introduces the notion of analogy. I would reecommend a book by Lossky “Vision of God” for a detailed notion of Saint Irenaeus’ and other early writers’ notion of the vision of God.

  • Ursula Brown

    Father John Behr has a lot to say about this in ‘Becoming Human.’ At the risk of putting words in his mouth, I understand him to say that in Genesis, God commences a project to create a human being and completes the project when Christ says on the cross, ‘It is finished.’ Pilot announces it when he says, ‘There is the man’ or ‘Behold, the Human Being.’ Ireneus, on the way to his execution tells his friends not to save his life, because through martyrdom he would find his life and become a human being. Father John says that Christ shows us what it is to be God by how he died as a human being.

  • I realize that this discussion is two years old, but I just came across it while researching this quote. I think the truth is a bit of a balance. God does want us to become our best – with the help of grace – so we can love and serve more effectively. But God’s glory – and therefore our glory – is not man for man’s sake. It’s what grace does in the soul (thus the second part of the quote).