What is essential to remember, here [in the thought of St Irenaeus], is, on the one hand, the double movement of the Father who sends the Spirit on creation through the Son, but also of the Spirit who returns and brings the creature back to the Father, also through the Son. The Son will always be the mediator in all things; man’s entire life, his most incarnate, most fleshly human existence, will be summoned and made capable of being transparent to the action of the Spirit. Consequently, the Holy Spirit knows no boundaries in His work of permeating, of penetrating, precisely, this flesh or this human being He must soften, which He must constitute into one bread, one body, the Body of Christ. … It is the same action of the Holy Spirit on the Son and on the Church; it is the same action of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments and in man himself. Man too, to the degree that he becomes conformed to Christ, in the Church, through the Holy Spirit, becomes, in turn, “sacrament”: he becomes a sacrament of the new life, which means that his body rediscovers why it was created. The totality of the human psycho-physical composite, our entire created reality is capable of being penetrated, of being filled with the divine life. If the sacraments are symbols, if they are signs, they are this because the human body, man’s natural being, is this in the first place. I would call this the anthropological finality, and the continuity of the sacraments in the life and in the building up of the new man.

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 205-206.

This faith, which we have received from the Church, which we preserve carefully, because, through the action of the Spirit of God, like a deposit of great price enclosed in a pure vessel, it rejuvenates ceaselessly, and makes the vessel that contains it to be rejuvenated. It is to the Church herself that the gift of God has been imparted, as the breath had been to the created man, so that all the members may partake of it and be vivified thereby; it is in her that the communion with Christ, that is, the Holy Spirit has been deposited, the Earnest-money of incorruption, a confirmation of our faith, and the ladder of our ascent to God […]. For where the Church is, there is also the Spirit of God and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace. And the Spirit is Truth.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Adv. Haereses, III, 24, 1, quoted in Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 199.

I said previously that I hoped to post some things from Father John Behr’s introductory chapters in The Way to Nicaea, but have been putting off doing so because they are rather dense and touch on many issues. However, I have also been aware, particularly recently when in conversation with evangelical Christians, that questions around authority, hermeneutics and the sources of revealed truth are often unaddressed but nevertheless constitute a serious stumbling block to real communication. All too often evangelical colleagues will tell me what “the Bible says” and assume that that settles things. And given that I am not very good at responding with chapter and verse proof texts, and that the context usually precludes a serious discussion of hermeneutics and their underlying presuppositions, this can be rather frustrating and I usually just end up pointing out that that is their interpretation of what the Bible says and leave it at that!

But I have also been aware – and reading Father Behr highlights this – that the popular Orthodox (and Catholic) response to such a challenge, while not entirely untrue, is both simplistic and not without its own dangers. Such a response is of course to point out that the Bible is the Church’s book, that it was the Church that decided on the canon of Scripture, and that Scripture can only be properly interpreted within the Church. But the danger with that is that it can objectify the Scriptures and can appear to view the Church as being above the Scriptures. In an extreme form one ends up with “Scripture” and “Tradition” as two separate sources of authority as the (Roman Catholic) Council of Trent taught. Such developments would appear to fit better in a scholastic mode of theologising than in a patristic one.

As Father Behr notes, the early Christian struggle for truth – and the establishment of a normative Orthodox understanding of the Gospel – was inseparable from the engagement with a particular set of texts and with the correct interpretation of these texts. The two key challenges that the early Christians encountered regarding these came from Marcion and from Valentinus.

Marcion wanted to discard the Jewish (and some of the Christian) Scriptures and to emphasise the discontinuity between the vengeful and malicious God of the Old Testament, and the gospel of Jesus. Thus he establishes an opposition between the Law and the Gospel and attempts to sever the Gospel from the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets – an attempt, incidentally, that von Harnack thought Protestantism should have followed.

If Marcion wanted to fix a (reduced) body of authoritative writings, then the Gnostic Valentinus saw no need to do this, but sought rather to creatively reuse texts and images from Scripture in a way that resonates with people’s hearts but without any relationship to an objective authority. There is thus no distinction between Scripture and commentary, or between source and interpretation. As Frances Young notes, “Gnostic doctrine is revelatory, rather than traditional, textual or rational.” (21) Or, as Ireneaus notes, such a reading produces the reader’s own fabrication rather than the handiwork of God. However, the use that they make of Scripture, can give the impression that they are really being “biblical”.

Such usages of Scripture were rejected by the Church and the Orthodox position on the correct understanding of the Scriptures became established through the work of people like Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus of Lyon in the first two centuries of the Church’s life. Father Behr writes:

In their own ways, these all maintained a text-interpretive framework for revelation, the point that Christ was preached by the apostles as having been crucified and risen “according to the Scriptures.” So, what sense does it make to say that Christ is proclaimed “according to the Scriptures”? What is the relationship between Christ, the Gospel, and the Scriptures? (23)

To be continued.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy continues his discussion of Tradition in the ninth chapter of The Compassion of the Father by distinguishing between the “horizontality” of what is transmitted in the Church and the “verticality” of the work of the Holy Spirit. In the work of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons we find the explication of Tradition as something whose content is one and the same and cannot be added to nor diminished, but which is also not impoverished by human transmission “because the Holy Spirit always makes us contemporaries to the history of salvation.” (159) By expounding on the doctrine of apostolic succession, Irenaeus showed the continuity of transmission in the Church. However,

the living apostolic Tradition is, above all, a transmission. In a transmission, there is, indeed, a double movement. First, there is a reception through the ages, through the centuries: we receive, and what we receive becomes a part of ourselves, or rather, we become that which we receive; we assimilate one another, identify ourselves with the content of the Tradition. Next, there is a transmission through us, of what has been received in a chain unbroken to the end of the ages. In this respect, it is appropriate to make another distinction between Tradition as a living transmission and Tradition as the content of the faith. (160)

This living transmission is the work of the Holy Spirit and it is fundamentally relational.

the Tradition is the work of the Spirit who penetrates into the content of the deposit of the transmitted faith, and who enlightens the one who receives it. This transmission is always of the order of a relationship and of personal progress, of a dialogue from heart to heart, from mouth to ear, of an interiorization. More than a phenomenon, we are faced with a true mystery: spiritual fatherhood.

For the deposit of faith to be transmitted unchanged and unchangeable from generation to generation, to retain its integrity, fullness, and simplicity – such as it has been uttered, carried out, and realized in Jesus Christ – the Holy Spirit must act and allow those who have received it and are in agreement with this life and message faithfully to transmit it. In this sense, the concept of spiritual fatherhood, of spiritual begetting, most appropriately expresses what constitutes the nerve, axis, and spinal cord of this living reality of the Tradition – irreducible to the external transmission of a truth or a philosophy. (160)

While the concept of fatherhood is a broad one, and while various forms of fatherhood exist in the Church, it is fundamentally connected to the transmission of life itself.

Transmission becomes a genuine experience. What is transmitted is fire. As long as truths remain on the intellectual, cerebral plane, there will be no chance of transmission because they are aloof and cold. Only that which burns can illumine and kindle the core of a being. (160)


This fatherhood is an essential act of the Holy Spirit, in which the two dimensions meet: “horizontality” and “verticality”; “horizontality” because it is uninterrupted since the first centuries until today and will remain so until the end of time; “verticality” because, beyond all human mediations and pedagogies, God is and remains our only Father, Christ our only Lord, and the Holy Spirit our only physician in the growth of the faith. (161)



For, in what way could we be partakers of the adoption of sons, unless we had received from Him through the Son that fellowship which refers to Himself, unless His Word, having been made flesh, had entered into communion with us? Wherefore also He passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God. … For it behoved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should go forth from death. For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so was it necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation. Thus, then, was the Word of God made man, as also Moses says: “God, true are His works.” But if, not having been made flesh, He did appear as if flesh, His work was not a true one. But what He did appear, that He also was: God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true.

Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. III, 18, 7


The theory of recapitulation stands at the center of Irenaeus’ theological system and describes best the role of Jesus Christ in His Incarnation. It connotes a re-beginning of the human race, now, however, back in the opposite direction where Adam originally found himself upon his creation. Christ reverses the process that hurtled sin-infected man and the entire cosmos that was under his dominion away from true Light, Life and Incorruption towards sin, chaos and death. God gathers up again in His Logos His entire work by fulfilling it according to His original plan through an intimate association with the living Logos in the individual human being, made according to this Image and Likeness of God that is Christ

George Maloney, SJ, Man, the Divine Icon. The Patristic Doctrine of Man Made according to the Image of God (Pecos, NM: Dove Publications, 1973) 43-44


I was supposed to be preparing classes on Saint Irenaeus these last couple of weeks, but my preparation was put on hold due to the necessity of finishing painting the Paschal candle, something that I left far too late! However, I have been conscious of his idea of recapitulation while working on it, of the wonder of our entire humanity being taken up in Christ and thus transformed. Christ does not simply do something for us, but in us; He reconstitutes our entire being, revealing the mystery of humanity to itself, defeating evil in all its manifestations and drawing us up into His Light.

A blessed Easter!

(As an aside: One of the things I have been wondering about in writing on this blog is what to do about inclusive language. This is also a problem in the posts on Zizioulas. I am enough of a – one-time? – feminist to find the generic use of “man” problematic, but I’m not sure that I have the right to edit other people’s work and find constantly inserting sic! rather pedantic. The problem is of course particularly acute when dealing Patristic anthropology and theology, where it is precisely Christ’s taking on of our entire humanity – female as well as male – that is of crucial importance: I think for instance of Gregory of Nazianzus’ “What is unassumed is unhealed”, something that appears to be being undermined in what is sometimes called “New Catholic feminism,” but more on that another time.

While on the subject, it may be worth noting that when I painted the Paschal candle four years ago, I insisted on doing an icon of the Resurrection in which the Risen Christ grasps both Adam and Eve by the hand. I am now less bothered by such “inclusivism,” for what is conveyed is the meeting between the Old Adam and the New Adam and the identification between them. And that is about humanity and has nothing to do with gender. Feminists may find that I’m selling out, but I will also argue tooth and nail with anyone – such as Balthasar and his followers – who tries to assign ontological significance to gender or to suggest that women are any less identified with Christ than anyone else!)

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