Irenaeus


This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

Central to the biblical understanding of the human being is the affirmation that we are created in the Image and Likeness of God (Gen 1:26) and this affirmation became fundamental to the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being. Creation establishes a relationship between God and humankind. Moreover, Jesus Christ, the true Image of God was the model according to which we were created, even before His Incarnation. We are images of Christ and therefore images of the Father, although not in the absolute way that He is. This is what gives human beings their true worth.

Central to our being created in the Image of God is the freedom and royal dignity that we have as human beings, and this freedom is a reflection of God’s own freedom. However, instead of using this freedom to stay close to God and to continue to grow in relationship with Him, human beings used their freedom to drift away from God. The early Fathers developed this understanding in various ways, but they were aware that the Image of God in us has been affected by the entry of sin into the world. This Image is not destroyed, but has become tarnished and corrupted. Some of them spoke about having kept the Image and lost the Likeness, but, whatever the vocabulary, there was a recognition that we are no longer able to reflect the divine likeness as we were created to do.

The Christian answer to this state of alienation from God came in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the Image according to which we were created, and by assuming our human nature, He restored what had become corrupted, and by His death and Resurrection destroyed the power of death. Through this He opened up the way for us to recover the Image and Likeness of God according to which we have been created. It is, fundamentally, about the restoration of our original beauty, a beauty that resides deep within us but which has been covered up and distorted by sin. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Evil, however, overlaying the Godlike pattern, has made the good useless to you, hidden under a curtain of shame. If, by conscientious living, you wash away once more the filth that has accumulated on your heart, the Godlike beauty will again shine forth for you.

The reference that Saint Gregory makes here to the heart is central to the understanding of the Fathers of the Church. What is called for is not simply a moral response, nor is the heart about something emotional. Rather, in the biblical and patristic tradition, the heart is the centre of the human person and the seat of all consciousness and desires. What is required is the transformation of “the inner person of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4) or, as Saint Paul puts it, “the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2) – and we should note that the word “nous” that is translated mind is far closer to the biblical “heart” than it is to the modern idea of the cerebral mind. Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes this transformation as follows:

When iron is stripped of rust by a whetstone, what once was dull itself shines as it faces the sun and gives forth beams and shafts of light. So also, when the inner human being, which is what the Lord calls “the heart,” has wiped off the rusty filth that has spread by evil decay over its form, it will again recover its likeness to its model and be good. What is like the good is surely good.

This salvation is a life-long task. It can be said to be both Christological and Pneumatological in that it relies on the work of both Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom St Irenaeus describes as the two hands of God, and who work together in a reciprocal relationship. We are fashioned and refashioned after the Image of Christ who shares and renews our human nature. But it is also accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, for the whole purpose of our life is to become a Spirit-bearer, to live and breathe in the Spirit of God whose task it is to refashion us into the Image of the Son, enabling us to return to the Father and to become partakers of the Divine Nature. (2 Pet 1:4)

…in this way, He gloriously accomplished our salvation and fulfilled the promise made to the patriarchs and dissolved the old disobedience – the Son of God become the Son of David and the Son of Abraham: for, in accomplishing and recapitulating these things in Himself, in order to obtain life for us, “the Word of God became flesh” by the economy of the Virgin, in order to undo death and to vivify man, for we were in the prison of sin, we who have become sinners and fallen under [the power of] death. Rich in mercy was God the Father: He sent the creative Word, who, coming to save us, was in the same place and situation as we were when we lost life, breaking the bonds of the prison; and His light appeared and dispelled the darkness of the the prison, and sanctified our birth and abolished death, loosening the same bonds by which we were trapped. And He demonstrated the resurrection, becoming Himself “the firstborn from the dead,” and raising in Himself fallen man, raising [him] above to the highest heaven, to the right hand of the glory of the Father, as God had promised, by the prophets, saying, “I will raise up the fallen tabernacle of David,” that is, the flesh [descended] from David: and our Lord Jesus Christ truly accomplished this, gloriously achieving our salvation, that He might truly raise us up, saving us for the Father.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, On the Apostolic Preaching, 37.

It’s rather late to wish people a blessed Pascha, but Pascha is not yet over, and I’m afraid that I have been occupied with things other than blogging, so “Christ is Risen!” Although I have been neglecting Saint Irenaeus, I love this quote which resonates with so much in the texts that we sang last weekend. Last Easter I said that the longer I am Orthodox the more I realise the truth of Archimandrite Cyprian Kern’s statement that “The church choir is a chair of theology.” And I suspect that I will probably go on saying that for the rest of my life!

Finally, if anyone is interested, here is the Paschal troparion in Afrikaans (and Greek):

Saint Irenaeus insists that God the Father is Creator of all, and Lord of all that exists, and of all people – the Jews, the Gentiles, and the faithful. To the Jews He is Lord and Lawgiver and to the Gentiles He is Creator and Almighty. However, “to the faithful He is as Father” since in these last times He has adopted us as sons. For all of us, though, He is Nourisher and King and Judge. [8]

Our world is encompassed by seven heavens which derive from the seven forms of service noted by the prophet Isaiah (11:2-3).

Hence, the first heaven, from the top, which includes the others, is [that] of wisdom; and the second, after it, [that] of understanding; and the third, [that] of counsel; and the fourth, counting from the top, [that] of might; the fifth [that] of knowledge; the sixth [that] of piety; and the seventh, this firmament of ours, [is] full of the fear of this Spirit who illuminates the heavens. From this pattern Moses received the seven-branched candlestick which continually shines in the sanctuary; since he received the service as a pattern of heaven, as the Word says to him, “You shall make everything after the pattern , which you have seen on the mountain”. [9]

This God is glorified by His Word and His Spirit, and by their powers who are called Cherubim and Seraphim, so that “everything, whatsoever that is in the heavenly realm, gives glory to God the Father of all.” [10]

Quotes from Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, On the Apostolic Preaching.

There is of course much that could profitably be unpacked and discussed here, but time precludes that. Suffice it to note the relationship between heaven – and heavenly powers, and all the symbolism that that entails – and worship. The Liturgy is an ascent to the Kingdom of heaven, and it is also something that includes the whole cosmos.

And this is the order of our faith, the foundation of the edifice and the support of our conduct: God, the Father, uncreated, uncontainable, invisible, one God, the Creator of all: this is the first article of our faith. And the second article: the Word of God, the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was revealed by the prophets according to the character of their prophecy and according to the nature of the economies of the Father, by whom all things were made, and who, in the last times, to recapitulate all things, became a man amongst men, visible and palpable, in order to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and man. And the third article: the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs learnt the things of God and the righteous were led in the path of righteousness, and who, in the last times, was poured out in a new fashion upon the human race renewing man, throughout the world, to God.

For this reason the baptism of our regeneration takes place through these three articles, granting us regeneration unto God the Father through His Son by the Holy Spirit: for those who bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son, while the Son presents them to the Father, and the Father furnishes incorruptibility. Thus, without the Spirit it is not possible to see the Word of God, and without the Son one is not able to approach the Father; for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit, while the Spirit, according to the good-pleasure of the Father, the Son administers, to whom the Father wills and as He wills.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, On the Apostolic Preaching, 6-7.

Yes, I know, I probably shouldn’t just be quoting this – apart from anything else, if I do it too much St Vlad’s may end up suing me! But who am I to improve on St Irenaeus? And this seemed worth posting in its entirety.

A couple of thoughts come to mind. Firstly, I think that it was Karl Rahner who said – I think approvingly – that if the Trinity were dropped from the language of the last few centuries of western theology, it wouldn’t make much difference to Christian life. The more I have been immersed in Orthodox liturgy, the more I have realised that this is the last thing that could be said about Orthodoxy, and reading Irenaeus here just confirms that! Secondly, the theme of recapitulation   (cf. Ephesians 1:10) is absolutely central to Irenaeus’ thought, and indeed to the faith of the Church, something that we are made particularly aware of in the Lenten and Paschal texts. Yet until a few years ago, I was barely aware of this! And, thirdly, leading on from there, salvation is not a juridical act, but the destruction of death in our flesh in order to re-establish life and incorruptibility and renew us to God.

So, faith procures this for us, as the elders, the disciples of the apostles, have handed down to us: firstly it exhorts us to remember that we have received baptism for the remission of sins, in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, [who was] incarnate, and died, and was raised, and in the Holy Spirit of God; and that this baptism is the seal of eternal life and rebirth unto God, that we may no longer be sons of mortal men, but of the eternal and everlasting God; and that the eternal and everlasting God is above everything that has come into being and everything is subjected to Him, and that which is subject to Him is all made by Him, so that God does not rule nor is Lord over what is another’s, but over His own, and all things are God’s: and therefore God is the almighty and everything is from God. [3]

Saint Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching

We see here Saint Irenaeus insisting both on the link to the apostles and that God is the Creator of all, which establishes a relationship between God and His creatures. He proceeds by insisting that God was not made by anyone else, but that everything was made by him, and that there can be no other God or creator. Moreover, God creates by His Word and His Spirit:

…since the Word ‘establishes’, that is, works bodily and confers existence, while the Spirit arranges and forms the various ‘powers’, so rightly is the Son called Word and the Spirit the Wisdom of God. Hence, His apostle Paul also well says, “One God, the Father, who is above all, and through all and in us all” – because ‘above all’ is the Father, and ‘through all’ is the Word – since through Him everything was made by the Father – while ‘in us all’ is the Spirit, who cries “Abba, Father,” and forms man to the likeness of God. Thus the Spirit demonstrates the Word, and, because of this the prophets announced the Son of God, while the Word articulates the Spirit, and therefore it is He Himself who interprets the prophets and brings man to the Father. [4]

Very quick notes: The link to the apostles is clearly crucial for Irenaeus. His insistence on God as Creator and Father is in contrast to Gnosticism. Somewhere in his book on the Trinity, Fr Boris Bobrinskoy discusses Irenaeus’ thought more fully – if I had the book here and the time, I would look it up, maybe again! Finally, it is illuminating to see how the both the doctrines of the Church and of the Trinity were clearly by the end of the second century.

For the way of all those who see is single and upward, illumined by the heavenly light, but the ways of those who do not see are many, dark and divergent; the one leads to the kingdom, uniting man to God, while the others lead down to death, separating from God. [1]

Saint Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching

Saint Irenaeus begins by addressing this work to Marcianus and stating that its aim is that he may “understand all the members of the body of truth” and “bear your salvation like fruit,” able to confound those who hold false opinions.

In the second paragraph he notes – against the Gnostics – the necessary unity of body and soul: “For these rejoice together and join forces to lead man to the presence of God.” In words that will be echoed by later Fathers, he insists on a link between holiness and knowledge.

And, in order to know the truth, it is necessary that we keep the rule (canon) of faith,

for faith is established upon things truly real, that we may believe what really is, as it is, and believing what really is, we may always keep our conviction of it firm. Since, then, the conserver of our salvation is faith, it is necessary to take great care of it, that we may have a true comprehension of what is.

I have recently thought of writing a post about the whole phenomenon of blogging, and of social media more generally. This isn’t that post, which may or may not get written. It is no secret that I have been neglecting this blog – largely because I simply am too busy, but also because I’m a little unclear what direction it should take and am aware that it could fulfill different functions if I had the time. I generally have all sorts of ideas about things to write on, but turning that into reality isn’t so simple. However, one fairly important purpose of the blog has been that it has at times helped me to process or simply to record what I read, and I have found this a valuable aid in promoting a certain discipline and seriousness in reading, even if I do have a tendency to go into too much detail and then become overwhelmed at the thought of trying to summarise something.

There is no way that I am going to be able to produce long summaries of serious works in the near future. However, I have been concerned recently that my reading has become scattered and have realised that I need to focus on something short and manageable and that regular blogging can be a valuable aid to this – and I hope that those do not become my famous last words!

Saint Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching recently arrived in the post (Father John Behr’s translation published in the Popular Patristics Series). Some years ago I had read through this with a group I was teaching in the monastery and was surprised at how well we all resonated with it. I have since thought that it would be good to return to it, and also that it could form a helpful basis for introducing people both to the faith of the Church and to an Orthodox understanding of Scripture. Whether anything comes of that remains to be seen, but I have decided to read through it slowly during what remains of Lent (although it will probably take longer than that) and to try and write regular short posts on it.

This does not purport to be a scholarly reading (and I am writing this in Cape Town while all my patristics books, such as they are, are in Robertson, so I can’t even look things up). But for anyone interested who doesn’t know anything about Saint Irenaeus, he was bishop of Lyon in the last quarter of second century. He was originally from Smyrna and had known Saint Polycarp, who had known Saint John the Apostle. This link to the apostles was very important to him and, in his major contribution in countering the heresy of Gnosticism, he was to appeal to the Rule of Faith that is passed on in the visible Church, and made a major contribution in clarifying the basis of the Church’s faith. (I have touched on this here, here and here).

In this book, which was lost until the beginning of the twentieth century, Irenaeus sets out the content of the Rule of Faith that he had received from the apostles.

I have been wanting to get back to a discussion of our understanding of Scripture, Tradition and the Gospel for months now – motivated partly, I suppose, out of frustration that I keep coming across people who identify their particular theology, often Calvinism, with “what the Bible teaches”, or, alternatively, people who hold all interpretations as equally valid. I don’t know when I’ll get back to this, but in the meantime Father Stephen Freeman has an excellent post on these matters today. He writes:

Where does the Gospel begin?

That the Gospel would begin by reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) would seem the handiest answer to that question. But this leaves another question unanswered: how do we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? St. Irenaeus (2nd century) gives an extremely insightful example in a discussion directed to Gnostics, whom he contended could not read the gospels correctly.

Irenaeus believed there was an unbroken line of tradition from the apostles, to those they mentored, and eventually down to himself and other Christian leaders. The Gnostics interpreted the Scriptures according to their own tradition. “In doing so, however,” Irenaeus warned, “they disregard the order and connection of the Scriptures and … dismember and destroy the truth.” So while their biblical theology may at first appear to be the precious jewel of orthodoxy, it was actually an imitation in glass. Put together properly, Irenaeus said, the parts of Scripture were like a mosaic in which the gems or tiles form the portrait of a king. But the Gnostics rearranged the tiles into the form of a dog or fox.

As a pastor, then, Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies in order to describe the heresies that were threatening his congregation and to present the apostolic interpretation of the Scriptures. He revealed the cloaked deception for what it was and displayed the apostolic tradition as a saving reminder to the faithful.

Quoted from Christianity Today’s Church History site.

Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), it is worth noting, knew St. Polycarp, who knew St. John. Thus he was third-generation in the life of the Christian Church.

Irenaeus’ contention that those who are not in the line and community of the Christian Tradition are not able to properly interpret Scriptures (in a Christian manner) is dramatically important. It sets the Scriptures in a non-objective context. The Scriptures are not “self-interpreting,” as some modern Protestants would contend, neither is their reading and interpretation a matter of reason or historical knowledge. Their reading is ecclesiastical, traditional, liturgical or, in Irenaeus’ language, “according to the Apostolic Hypothesis.” In short, the Scriptures are understood within the life of the Church and cannot be rightly read in any other manner. St. Paul’s letters are written to Churches or individuals holding positions within the Church. None of his letters are addressed, “To whom it may concern.”

Go and read the whole post here.

The Scriptures are the “ground and pillar of our faith,” says Irenaeus. If the Bible is dismembered to serve an exotic theological program and biblical texts are deployed willy-nilly (as the Gnostics did), the Scriptures will remain a closed book and it will not be possible “to find the truth in them.” Without a grasp of the plot that holds everything together, the Bible is as vacuous as a mosaic in which the tiles have been arbitrarily rearranged without reference to the original design or as a poem constructed by stringing together random verses from the Iliad and Odyssey and imagining it was Homer. In Clement of Alexandria the Bible’s plan is implicit, suggested by a word here, a phrase there; in Irenaeus the outline  is set out in bold. So successful was Irenaeus’s approach to the interpretation of the Bible that it informed all later interpretation. Whether one reads Athanasius against Arius, Augustine against Pelagius, or Cyril of Alexandria against Nestorius, all assume that individual passages are to be read in the light of the story that gives meaning to the whole.

Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Seeking the Face of God, 67-68.

This really is an extraordinarily good book, despite the fact that my reading of it has been terribly disrupted.  The chapter on Scripture is particularly good. Highly recommended so far!

I know that this has been horribly disrupted, but I want to try and finish this series of posts on the opening chapters of Father John Behr’s The Way to Nicaea (previous posts here and here). They may be dense, but the issues they raise are of crucial importance and once I’ve got these posts done I hope to write something that draws on this material to address some of the misunderstandings of Tradition that are all-too-common among contemporary Christians.

Having established the key relationship between Scripture – meaning the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – and the Gospel, Father Behr turns his attention to the relationship between this symbolic coherence of Scripture – which is effected by the word of the Cross – and the appeal to canon and tradition. This coherence of Scripture which is expressed most explicitly in Saint Irenaeus’ The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, forms the basis for Irenaeus’ appeal to canon and tradition, which he develops in Against the Heresies. This involves a challenge to those, in particular the Valentinians, who “speak the same, but think otherwise.” While they quote Scripture, they have disregarded “the order and connection of the Scriptures” and so distorted it.

They have not accepted the coherence of the Scriptures, as speaking about Christ, but have preferred their own fabrication, created by adapting passages of Scripture to a different hypothesis, attempting to endow it with persuasive plausibility. (32)

To understand Scripture, it is crucially important that one has the correct hypothesis. While for some branches of knowledge finding the right hypothesis may be a tentative and pragmatic thing, we cannot philosophically demand demonstrations of first principles.

This means, as Clement of Alexandria points out, that the search for the first principles of demonstration ends up with undemonstrable faith. For Christian faith, according to Clement, it is the Scriptures, and in particular, the Lord who speaks in them, that is the first principle of all knowledge. It is the voice of the Lord, speaking throughout Scripture, that is the first principle, the (nonhypothetical) hypothesis of all demonstrations from Scripture, by which Christians are led to the knowledge of the truth. (33)

It is these first principles that are the basis for subsequent demonstrations and function as a canon to evaluate other claims to truth. Knowledge is impossible without such a canon, for enquiry would simply degenerate into endless regression and it is for this reason that Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement appealed to a canon to counter the constantly mutating Gnostic claims. Irenaeus writes:

…anyone who keeps unswervingly in himself the canon of truth received through baptism will recognize the names and sayings and parables from the Scriptures, but this blasphemous hypothesis of theirs he will not recognize. For if he recognizes the jewels, he will not accept the fox for the image of a king. He will restore each one of the passages to its proper order and, having fit it into the body of truth, he will lay bare the fabrication and show that it is without support. (34-35)

While Irenaeus enunciates the content of the faith that was delivered to the apostles, and sees this as received through baptism, the forms of this rule of faith is not as fixed as it would later become, for

The point of the canon is not so much to give fixed, and abstract, statements of Christian doctrine. Nor does it provide a narrative description of Christian belief, the literary hyposthesis of Scripture. Rather, the canon of truth expresses the correct hypothesis of Scripture itself, that by which one can see in Scripture the picture of a king, Christ, rather than a dog or fox. It is ultimately the presupposition of the apostolic Christ himself, the one who is “according to the Scripture” and, in reverse, the subject of Scripture throughout, being spoken of by the Spirit through the prophets, so revealing the one God and Father. … For Irenaeus, the canon of truth is the embodiment or crystallization of the coherence of Scripture, read as speaking of the Christ who is revealed in the Gospel, the apostolic preaching of Christ “according to Scripture.” (35-36)

Thus the canon is a mode of interpretation, and

The key elements of the faith delivered by the apostles are crystallized in the canon of truth. This canon expresses the basic elements of the one Gospel, maintained and preached in the Church, in an ever-changing context. The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects or facets of the same Gospel be drawn out to address contemporary challenges. However, while the context continually changes, the content of that tradition does not – it is the same Gospel.

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