Irenaeus and the Cross

Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)
Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)

One of the questions that arose in Cyprus was the place the Cross holds in the theology of St Irenaeus. The concern, and it is a not uncommon concern, is that Irenaeus has a very strong emphasis on the Incarnation and our salvation as a result of the Word having become flesh and having pitched his tent among us. This is a concern that Aulén addresses in Christuss Victor (itself a short book with an incisive chapter on Irenaeus), but I don’t have those notes with me in Firenze.

However, I have been trying to catch up with Read the Fathers. So here’s some of what’s been read tonight:

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God — all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. (Against the Heresies 5.1.1)

For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such
as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself
grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills1812). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. (5.2.2*)

And in every Epistle the apostle plainly testifies, that through the flesh of our Lord, and through His blood, we havebeen saved. (5.14.3; more anti-docetic than pro-crucifixion, but there it is)

Jeremiah also says to the same purport: “The word of God cleaveth the rock as an axe.” This word, then, what was hidden from us, did the dispensation of the tree make manifest, as I have already remarked. For as we lost it by means of a tree, by means of a tree again was it made manifest to all, showing the height, the length, the breadth, the depth in itself (5.17.4)

For indeed the creation could not have sustained Him [on the cross], if He had sent forth [simply by commission] what was the fruit of ignorance and defect. Now we have repeatedly shown that the incarnate Word of God was suspended upon a tree, and even the very heretics do acknowledge that He was crucified. (5.18.1)

And, from earlier readings in Against the Heresies:

Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.(2.22.4)

The main purpose of Against the Heresies is the refutation of the ‘Gnostic’ and other heterodox groups whom Irenaeus felt were a threat to the spiritual health of the Church. Therefore, he does not spend a lot of time on the Cross (although there is more about it than this; again, these are from the notes I have with me at present). Nonetheless, it is an inescapable fact that the Cross and death and saving blood of Jesus are an important part of Irenaeus’ theology.

As we enter Lent, let us ensure that the Cross is an important part of our own theology and, thus, of our lives.

*Here we see already in the second century the intimate link between Christology and the Eucharist, a link that was tied up in the fifth-century debates surrounding Nestorius, Cyril, and Leo.


Irenaeus and Athanasius

I almost typed Athanasios. I’ve been Hellenising everything all week. Tonight, I spoke about the ecclesiastical history of Cyprus from Barnabas to Epiphanius to 478 when Cyprus became autocephalous. Tomorrow, it’s Trinity and Mission, with a brief history of Christology from Irenaios to Khalkedon.

I’ve fallen behind in Read the Fathers whilst in Cyprus, and tonight, doing my catch-up, I found something interesting in Irenaios. He is trying to prove that all the generations and processions of the Gnostic Basilidians are false, and does so by demonstrating that light begotten of light is necessarily one in substance, not multiple:

If, again, the Æons were derived from Logos, Logos from Nous, and Nous from Bythus, just as lights are kindled from a light—as, for example, torches are from a torch—then they may no doubt differ in generation and size from one another; but since they are of the same substance with the Author of their production, they must either all remain for ever impassible, or their Father Himself must participate in passion. For the torch which has been kindled subsequently cannot be possessed of a different kind of light from that which preceded it. Wherefore also their lights, when blended in one, return to the original identity, since that one light is then formed which has existed even from the beginning. But we cannot speak, with respect to light itself, of some part being more recent in its origin, and another being more ancient (for the whole is but one light); nor can we so speak even in regard to those torches which have received the light (for these are all contemporary as respects their material substance, for the substance of torches is one and the same), but simply as to [the time of] its being kindled, since one was lighted a little while ago, and another has just now been kindled. (Irenaios, Against the Heresies, 2.17.4)

This is not dissimilar to arguments used by Athanasios which I shall discuss tomorrow night — but Athanasios is using them to prove positively that Jesus is homoousios with the Father:

We see that the radiance from the sun is integral to it, and that the substance of the sun is not divided or diminished; but its substance is entire, and its radiance perfect and entire, and the radiance does not diminish the substance of the light, but is as it were a genuine offspring from it. thus we see that the Son is begotten not from without, but ‘from the Father,’ and that Father remains entire, while the ‘stamp of his substance’ [Heb 1:3] exists always and preserves the likeness and image without alteration. (Athanasios, Orations Against the Arians 2.33)

Here we see the intellectual heritage of Athanasios, standing in the trajectory that leads from Irenaios straight to Kyrillos. I mean, Cyril. (With whom I saw Athanasios in a big ikon at Faneromeni church the other day.)



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.

Thoughts on Apostolic Succession (with reference to Irenaeus & Tertullian)

The Seventy Apostles

In some church bodies, it is a big deal to be within the Apostolic Succession, for which there are certain rules of succession that apply. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy stand out in this way most prominently, but the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Apostolic Church all claim a direct line of episcopal descent from the apostles, as does the Anglican Communion, through the Archbishops of Canterbury, many of whom (as well as some others) were consecrated by the Popes of the Early Middle Ages.

This idea of a succession of church overseers crops up in Irenaeus (d. 202) for the first time, from what I can tell. In Against the Heresies, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in Gaul, calls to the reader’s mind the orthodoxy of the bishops of Rome, who can be traced from Peter (Pope of the Month here) through Linus and Clement (Pope of the Month here) to Eleutherus (c. 174-189).

Irenaeus is writing against various Gnostic sects and uses the apostolic origins of the bishops of Rome to demonstrate the truth of their teaching — if the apostles had secret knowledge, they would have passed it along to their successors. As it is, what is visible from the standard tradition of the Church of Rome in the days from Justin through Hippolytus (about whom read this but also this) is what we think of as ‘orthodoxy’ or, in some scholarly circles, ‘proto-orthodoxy.’ That is — not Gnosticism.

The purpose of the Apostolic Succession for Irenaeus is to demonstrate orthodoxy. The Bishops of Rome believe the following; they trace their teaching and authority from the Apostles; therefore, we can trust them. Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, c. 190, uses the idea in a similar way.

This is important to consider. Today, Anglicans are passed over by the Church of Rome because a nineteenth-century committee decided we are outside of the Apostolic Succession. Anglicans are concerned about the viability of Methodist holy orders because John Wesley stepped outside the Apostolic Succession to promote their movement. The Orthodox at times claim that Protestants in breaking with Rome have removed themselves (ourselves?) from the Apostolic Succession and tradition, explaining the many strange journeys we have taken in the past 500 years.

For Irenaeus and Tertullian, however, Apostolic Succession is not simply a question of the validity of holy orders or whether a gathering of Christians is a true ‘Church’. Their concern with the Apostolic Succession is the guardianship of orthodoxy. We can trust these teachers to be true because we know where their teaching came from — especially important in a semi-oral culture that did most of its teaching orally. The Gnostics claim special knowledge but are distinct from the Apostles’ visible successors.

To take the question of the Methodists, we know where their tradition came from, and — even if their ordinations were irregular and uncanonical — we know that it is, in fact, within the bounds of orthodoxy. This seems to be the point of the earliest attestations of Apostolic Succession. Why, then, do we use it to exclude Methodists from our Communion?