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.

“Orthodoxy” and “Gnosticism” in Post-Nicene Egypt: Thinking on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and Others

If you sit down with a history of the Early Church or patristic doctrine such as Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church or J N D Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, a picture emerges of an Egypt where before Nicaea the proto-orthodox look to have won out over the ‘Gnostics’ — ‘Arianism’ being a debate between factions within proto-orthodoxy, indeed amongst Origenists (see my post here).

Athanasius of Alexandria was the champion and forger of the Nicene cause. Antony was revered by him and many of the Fathers for his holiness. The monks of Egypt, with whom Athanasius hid in exile, were notoriously orthodox, doing the bidding of the unflinchingly orthodox Theophilus in desecrating pagan temples. Cyril is one of the ‘orthodox’ party’s strongest voices, as is his contemporary monastic fellow Shenoute of Atripe.

Egypt seems to be very much orthodox, especially by 381. And, once you’ve wrapped your mind around the Chalcedonian debate, perhaps they never even stopped (see my post on ‘Monophysites’).

Archaeology has been telling us a new story, perhaps a parallel one. From the sands of Egypt, most notably Nag Hammadi, have come a wealth of ‘Gnostic’ documents — frequently called ‘Gospels’, largely in Coptic. These documents are often from the fourth century, as is the momentarily-famous ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’. Some are possibly later, such as the Books of Yu, themselves possibly representing an entirely different mystery religion of its own.

Having read Hurtado’s take on the business-card sized papyrus on Jesus’ wife and that of Gathercole, as well as Dr King’s own cautious statements in the flamboyant news reports, this is a document wherein Jesus mentions ‘My wife’ (or ‘my woman’). This may bring us into the realm of Gnostic allegory. It may bring us into a text trying to legimitate Christian marriage by saying Jesus was married (a point on which our earliest sources are silent).

What it brings us into is ‘Gnosticism’, a term applied to an amorphous group of religious beliefs and practices that are often related in some way to Christianity, sometimes claiming to represent the true tradition thereof, but not always, and not always necessarily related to the Church itself at all (as with one possible reading of the Books of Yu).

From what I’ve seen, by Nicaea, the mainstream or proto-orthodox Church — the institutional Christianity from which all of today’s churches descend — is not necessarily grappling with Gnosticism and Gnostics. They seem to have at times had their books, as described by Eusebius, when bishops hand over heretical scriptures to the Roman authorities. And their are, I understand, certain Valentinian influences on the letters of St Antony the Great and possibly elsewhere amongst the Desert Fathers.

But these appear to be just traces. Gnosticism seems not to be leaving a great impact upon the wider Church in the fourth century, unlike in the second when Irenaeus wrote his Against the Heresies in opposition to certain of these groups.

But they were still around. They left us papyri in the desert. Where did they go? How did they interact with their ‘orthodox’ neighbours? Did they eventually disappear through assimilation into mainstream Christianity after the official sponsoring thereof by the Emperors?

I don’t know. Do any of you?