Recapitulation

Pantokrator from Ayia Sofia

This is my third post on Irenaeus of late, and probably the last for a while. One of the important parts of Irenaeus’ vision of theology is called recapitulation. It is a beautiful theory that I first met in Robert E Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicallism for a Postmodern World (pp. 56ff).

The idea is that the human race by committing evil is tending towards destruction. We have turned from our sustainer and creator and therefore shall all die. God, in a grand rescue plan became a human being like us. In Against the Heresies, he writes:

Therefore, as I have already said, he caused man to become one wiht God. For unless a man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately vanquished. And again: unless God had freely given salvation, we would not now possess it securely. And unless man had been joined to God, he could never have become a partaker of incorruptibility. For it was incumbent upon the Mediator between God and men, by his relationship to both, to bring both to friendship and concord, and present man to God, while he revealed God to man. (3.19.6, in A New Eusebius, p. 119)

For those, like me, who cannot read second-century theology without an eye to the future, will see shades of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Gregory of Nazianzus’ famous dictum, ‘What has not been assumed cannot be healed.’ The incarnation, the irruption of God as a man into human history changes the game.

Many people have maintained that Irenaeus’ theology has no place for the Cross, that simply by being incarnate Christ effected our salvation. However, Gustav Aulén, in his class work on the subject Christus Victor, demonstrates that when Irenaeus says incarnation he includes crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension in the bundle. Aulén puts it thus:

Assuredly, then, the death of Christ holds a central place in Irenaeus’ thought. But, we must add at once, it is not the death in isolation; it is the death seen in connection, on the one hand, with the life-work of Christ as a whole, and on the other with the Resurrection and the Ascension; the death irradiated with the ligh tof Easter and Pentecost. (48)

Aulén immediately gives us this footnote:

Some words of Zankow (The Orthodox Eastern Church, p. 55) are as true of Irenaeus, and of the later Greek Fathers, as of Eastern Christianity in general: “Christ’s Resurrection is inseparably connected with His death on the cross. For the Orthodox Church, as well for its theology as for its popular conceptions, salvation is only finally complete in the Resurrection. Sin and death are conquered, and life is bestowed upon men. Only the Resurrection is the real earnest of salvation and of eternal life.” (n. 2, p. 48)

Who does Christ triumph over? Christ is the conqueror of sin and death. And the devil, who is bound up with both. Because of all that transpired in the incarnation, we are set free from the power of sin, death, devil.

And what is the recapitulation bit of this Christ the Victor?

Christ brings us back to what one may call the ‘Adamic’ state. As the second Adam, a concept Irenaeus develops, Christ undoes the evil of Adam. The cosmic effects of the fall as well as the human effects are reversed, and we are able to enter into communion with God through faith in Christ.

Part of the ethical consequences of the cosmic nature of Irenaean recapitulation is our attitude towards the rest of creation. If creation was cursed with us and healed with us, we must treat it well. We are to live now as though we have already come into the Kingdom of the Heavens. This is a good thing, seeking to live in harmony with ‘nature’ (as Zeno the founder of Stoicism once said).

Irenaeus puts it best, and Webber puts it better than I.

I do not believe that recapitulation nullifies other views of the atonement. I believe that it works alongside them and shows different nuances to the wilful sacrifice of God for humanity and how that relates to us and the world around us.

The Rule of Faith

Throughout his works, Irenaeus of Lyons (born in Asia Minor, d. c. 200) has many statements that could be termed ‘credal’. For a discussion of many of them, check out JND Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, pp. 76 ff. Here’s the most famous:

For the Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the incarnate ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole huiman race in order that . . . he should execute just judgement towards all; that he may send spiritual wickednesses, and the angels who transgressed and came into a state of rebellion together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into the everlasting fire; but may, as an act of Grace, confer immortality on the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning, and others from their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against the Heresies 1.10.1, in A New Eusebius, pp. 111-112)

The basic outline of the creeds, Apostles‘ and Nicene, is here, as Irenaeus combines the old baptismal-type formulae of, say, the Didache with 1 Corinthians 8:6:

But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. (KJV)

Irenaeus proclaims that the whole church throughout the world believes this regula fidei, or ‘rule of faith’ (the Greek is lost). A regula is a rule as in a straight line or a ruler. The regula is a guide to the content of the faith. His multiple statements vary in wording and in how much Irenaeus puts in, but they never differ. This, for Irenaeus, is Apostolic orthodoxy, handed down to the churches through the Apostolic Succession (we looked at this here); it runs counter to his great opponents, the Marcionites and the Gnostics.

Some may wonder how widespread Irenaeus’ orthodoxy really was; I would wager it was common enough in Gaul (France) for him to be elected bishop of Lyons, common enough in Asia Minor for him to think it traditional. It was common enough in Rome for Justin’s regula to be about the same, as well as for Tertullian’s Carthaginian regula. It looks like earlier and contemporaneous eastern baptismal formulae as well.

What this means, friends, is that something that looks very much like orthodoxy pre-dates Constantine. It may not be as precise as Nicene orthodoxy, but it is part of the journey that leads through Nicaea to Chalcedon. Yes, there were competing ‘orthodoxies’ or ‘Christianities’ such as the various forms of ‘Gnosticism’ and the Montanists of last week and the Marcionites and the ‘Judaising’ elements (‘Ebionites’ and ‘Quartodecimans’) and, later on, Donatists and Meletians and Paul of Samosata.

It also reminds us that the Church has ever sought to keep itself aligned with Scripture and that lenses such as Creeds exist to help us read the Bible well. Some claim, ‘No Creed but Christ!’ But the Gnostics read many of the same Scriptures as us, as did the Arians, and they came to very different conclusions. How can we know what is the true deposit of the faith, how can we know our reading of Scripture is faithful?

Irenaeus, with his rule of faith, shows us. If we believe these things, we are on the right path. If you remain unconvinced, I recommend works by Baptist scholar DH Williams; the introduction to Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation is the quickest, accessible route to his thought.

If you are convinced, I hope you will not discard the creeds and their content, even if you tire of their exact wording. They help preserve an unbroken line of teaching that brings us to the very feet of the Apostles who walked with our Lord Christ.

The Martyrs of Lyons and Vienne (saints for the week)

This week, one of the classes I’m running tutorial seminars for is looking at martyrdom. Amidst the many interesting texts (from A New Eusebius, 2nd ed, 16-17, 20-24) was the account of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, in AD 177 (#23). This account was contained in a letter sent to the churches of Asia (Minor) because the ties between the Gallic and Asian churches were strong, many Gallic Christians being in fact from Asia. Their next bishop, St Irenaeus, was himself from Asia.

This particular persecution seems to have broken out as mob violence at first; the Christians were attacked and dragged before the magistrates by their fellowmen. The authorities, now confronted with these Christians, investigated what the charges against them were — beyond the usual ‘Christians are bad as business’, as old as the riots at Ephesus in Acts.

Some of the Christians recanted their faith. Many did not. All of them, ‘apostate’ or not, were tortured and tried for their crimes — including not just being Christians and therefore not burning incense to the genius of the Emperor but also ‘Thyestean banquests and Oedipodean intercourse.’ Freud has made the second reference obvious to us; the former is to cannibalism, specifically of children; in myth, Atreus served up to his brother, Thyestes, the man’s own children. Read the play Thyestes by Seneca for the full horror of what that would entail.

This time, recantation did not help anyone. And some, when being tortured, and seeing how the faithful held up under torture, returned to the Christian faith that they had shunned to avoid a torture that had arrived anyway.

The faithful held up well in prison:

They went forth with joy, great glory and grace blended on their countenances, so that even their chains hung around them like a goodly ornament, as a bride adorned with golden fringes of diverse colours, perfumed the while with the sweet savour of Christ, hence some supposed that they had been anointed with earthly ointment as well. (ch. 35)

According to this account, people were converted to the Way by the bravery of the martyrs in the arena. I am reminded by the famous Tertullian quote:

The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

For a population fond of Stoicism and its ideals of enduring with dignity any horrors and terrors of this life, the brave face put on by many Christians when faced by beasts — if non-citizens — or the sword — if citizens — would have been appealing. They would have seen that these dying people had found something truly worth living for; these Christians were people who were truly living according to the balance of nature, perhaps!

During this persecution, many members of the church at Lyons were gathered up by the authorities and tortured. 47 or 48 of them were slain for their faith. What makes this account notable for me is that many of them were afraid of torture and and actually cried out in pain — a far cry from Perpetua or Polycarp. Something a bit more human. For did our Lord not also cry out on the Cross?

Another realistic detail is the fact that while Blandina, after being tortured, is put in a basket to be tossed around by a bull. The text says:

For a time the animal tossed her, but she had now lost all perception of what was happening, thanks to the hope she cherished, her grasp of the objects of her faith, and her intercourse with Christ. (ch. 56)

I cannot help think that perhaps she was simply in shock. I know I would have been.

The martyrs were perceived as combatants. These, not monks, are the original milites Christi — soldiers of Christ. They are the brave souls whose faithfulness to and faith in Christ are truly put to the ultimate test. Are you willing to gain the world by renouncing him at the risk of your soul? What matters more — this earthly life or the heavenly life?

These are the questions posed to us by the martyrs. How faithful will we be today in our soft lives of ease?