“Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy” by Sara Parvis and Paul Foster

            One of Irenaeus’ themes that piqued my interest is the idea of human freedom.  According to Irenaeus, evil came from decisions made or not made.   This play in human freedom is an interesting one given Irenaeus’ theology of ontic participation.  What I find most compelling by this human freedom to will is the notion of a relational ontology.  Salvation is not merely getting rid of the human nature.  Rather, it is restoring it to proper relationship in which we are able to participate in the divine life through Christ (having been clothed in the Holy Spirit).  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  To be sinful is to be enslaved.  

Sophie Cartwright tries to argue that Irenaeus actually gives up human independence or autonomy because of his comprehension of ontological participation as relationship.  I disagree.  Dependence does not mean loss of freedom, as Cartwright states it.  Irenaeus’ conception of the Spirit in the life of humanity does not then make us automatons.  In fact, there is great freedom, true freedom, within the boundaries of God’s life-giving creation!  As in a marriage relationship, dependence does not then mean that we cannot make genuine choices, both for good or ill.  There is freedom within the relationship.  To step outside of those bounds, however, does impact the relationship.  I do not think a Calvinistic understanding of determinism works well with Irenaeus’ depiction of the Spirit indwelling humanity.  

            Karl Shuve made a solid argument that Irenaeus’ nuptial theology shaped the groundwork for a more allegorical understanding of the Song of Songs.  This nuptial theology, supposedly, opens up a framework to understand the Song of Solomon as an allegory for the union of Christ and the Church.  Although it is quite possible to assume that Irenaeus may have contributed to this kind of reading, it is difficult to say that it originated or was even made popular by Irenaeus.  Remember, after all, Irenaeus was not keen on being novel but merely representing truth consistent with the apostles’ teaching.  That being said, it is quite possible, maybe even probable, that a nuptial theology pre-dates Irenaeus significantly.  After all, the New Testament has already made that move and opened the door for such interpretations to be made.  And, it may be that nuptial theology was already in existence as a Jewish interpretation of things like Song of Solomon.  Jesus own use of nuptial theology might suggest this is the lingua franca prior to Irenaeus.

            Charles Hill’s response to Moll was the strongest argument for the identity of the “Elder” in Against the Heresies.  Hill makes a very strong and cogent argument based on the use of “pais” to indicate Irenaeus’ age when he was learning from the presbyter that learned from the disciples.  I believe there was adequate evidence to show that “pais” may extend into one’s teenage years or beyond.  Irenaeus may have known Polycarp at an age that he could have retained, especially with repeated hearings, Polycarp’s teachings.  Also, in regards to age, it does seem strange that Irenaeus, if he was too young to remember these encounter(s), would be aware or concerned about Florinus’ motivations for being in the “royal court.”  This does seem to be a concern more for those that are preparing or are already a part of the public life in this manner.

There was also significant connection made between Polycarp being mentioned early in Against the Heresies while only being referred to as the Presbyter or Elder later in the same work.  This, to me, signifies a mark of humility.  If Irenaeus has already mentioned Polycarp, he does not need to continue to name drop, so to speak.  Irenaeus’ audience would have known the connection.  I also concur with Hill that Moll’s reading of Irenaeus is one of suspicion from the start.  Why is it that Irenaeus is faithful or truthful in other parts, except when it comes to his knowing Polycarp, by his own admission?  This seems strange, as Hill points out.  Overall, I found Moll’s thesis unsatisfying.   

            Slusser makes a case for magnitudo and dilectio as the “heart of Irenaeus’ theology” versus recapitulation.  I would venture to say that these are definitely a part of Irenaeus’ theology, as per Slusser.  They even play important roles in Irenaeus’ apologetic.  However, I think that there is an artificial/superficial line that Slusser uses to separate these two from recapitulation.  Undoubtedly, God’s love is what ultimately allows humanity to truly “know” God, despite God’s magnitudo.  Recapitulation is the way that love is expressed!  Slusser makes the effort to dissect Irenaeus’ conception of God’s love without fully realizing that Irenaeus is constructing a theology that is holistic, not merely emphasizing one part of the economy of God’s salvation.  Another way to say it is that Recapitulation is the bridge between magnitudo and dilectio.  Irenaeus’ view of ontic participation, which has everything to do with God’s character as Holy-Love, is at the very heart and center of his theology.  What I appreciate about Slusser’s approach, although it sounds much more like Luther’s mysterium tremendum, is that it highlights the significant need for recapitulation.  The chasm between God and humanity can only be re-connected by a fundamental movement of God toward humanity.  That is recapitulation; that is love!

            It is often suggested that the attraction toward Gnosticism for women is in direct correlation with a revolt or repulsion to the paternalism of Christianity and Judaism.  Sara Parvis makes a brilliant counter-argument that shows Irenaeus’ theology is actually quite open and appreciative of women… even more than Gnosticism!  Irenaeus’ Marion theology as recapitulation of Eve is probably the strongest argument for Parvis’ case.  Parvis adequately demonstrates Marcus’ form of Gnosticism is manipulative and exploitative of females.  Within the Gnostic framework, women are still blamed for evil or are lesser than the male gods.  Yet, Irenaeus’ is able to highlight God’s female attributes (i.e., breasts of comfort).  Furthermore, he seems to be quite comfortable with women playing a significant role in worship (i.e., prophesying). 

I think Irenaeus’ Marion theology actually challenges Gnostic scholars’ assumption concerning women in Christianity.  Although sin comes through Eve, salvation comes through Mary because it is by her that Christ receives the fullness of humanity.  I wish Parvis had articulated Irenaeus’ nuptial theology as a fuller supplement to her argument.  She touches on it briefly, but it would have been tremendous to connect the Church as bride of Christ in a fuller way.  The whole of redeemed humanity, the Church, is described through female imagery.  It is positive imagery!

Overall, this is a good book.  There were articles in it that I found less than helpful or interesting.  But, other articles were great insights into Irenaeus’ contribution to the Church.

Barren Belief or Fruitful Faith?

Will Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church and a well-known pastor and theologian, once stated, “A recent survey showed that 93% of Americans and 100% of demons believe in God.”  This tongue-in-cheek humor has its basis in the letter of James.  The author of James instructs early believers that faith and good works are to be held together.

Martin Luther, the great Reformation leader, called James an “epistle of straw” because he thought that the letter promoted works-based righteousness.  That is to say, he thought James was saying that we were saved by what we did.  James is not saying this at all.  Rather, “good works” are the natural outflow of faith.  Good works are the fruit of faith’s seed.

James says it this way: “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:18b-19).  In other words, if there is no fruit then the seed of faith must not have taken root in our lives.  John Wesley talked about faith and holiness as both personal and social, but never private.  It should impact our daily lives.  This should give us pause… I mean, we really should consider what James is telling us.  Faith not lived out in tangible ways is dead.

Yes, we have to be careful not to think that our good works make us more acceptable to God or somehow that we are made right because we do what is right.  Luther was right in saying that works do not save us.  But, that does not mean we should do nothing!  Remember, Jesus tells his disciples (and us) that part of what it means to be disciples is to learn everything that Jesus taught and live in obedience.  I like to think of it this way.  Our obedience is the thankful, grateful response to what God has done in and for us!  And… even our faith is a gift from God!

As we enter into this journey of Lent, a journey toward the Cross.  We reflect on the context and content of our lives.  What is the fruit of our lives?  What does the fruit of our lives suggest we have placed our faith in?  Do we reap the fruit of the Spirit?  Is it fruit of the Kingdom?  Is it good seed that dies and produces an abundant harvest in the lives of others?  What is the natural outflow of our faith?  More importantly, does it reflect Jesus to our world?

Tim Keel: Grace, and the hopeful honesty of Lent | Faith & Leadership

Tim Keel: Grace, and the hopeful honesty of Lent | Faith & Leadership.  Tim Keel is the pastor of Jacob’s Well in Kansas City.  This article is a great reflection on the ways that Lent “opens up space” in our lives so that we may more fully embrace God’s life.  I liked the use of creation language.  The creation of space, through seasons like Lent, connects the elements of creation and salvation.  God’s creation of space is a salvific act that gives, sustains, and blesses life.  Lent is a time where we are made aware of our sinfulness and brokenness.  Sometimes we have the idea that this is the purpose of Lent.  Far from it!  We are reminded of the Gospel, of our need for a savior.  Space is opened up.  In the midst of that space, room is created for deeper devotion and discipleship to Christ.

“The Desert and the Kingdom” by Dylon Brown

This is a recent blog post from a friend of mine.  He does an excellent job of pointing out the significance of Lent and how it can re-shape us to be more like Christ, if we let it.

Bel and the Dragon

The sun was beating down hard, and there was no shade, no protection from the 100 degree heat.  It was a hot Kansas City afternoon, and my wife Sam and I were stranded in the parking lot of the Kansas City Airport.  My car wasn’t broken down, I wasn’t lost…I had just lost my car.  Sam and I had just gotten back from a week-long trip to California to spend time with friends.  As we were getting on the parking lot bus a week earlier to leave, we had suddenly remembered that we needed to mark down where we had parked.  We got out our phones and texted ourselves the lot number as the bus pulled out, bringing us to our flight.  Well, there we were, a week later, and no car.  I had already been searching for over an hour.

I was beginning to suspect foul play.

Someone must…

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Irenaeus: An Introduction by Denis Minns

            Dennis Minns sets out a brief introduction of Irenaeus by following his polemical arguments in Against Heresies.  This document is Irenaeus’ refutation of the Gnostic tradition  as espoused by Valentinus, as well as, the Marcionites, who differentiated between the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus, as per Marcion.  By following Irenaeus’ arguments, Minns hopes to establish the ancient writer’s overarching theology, even though it far from a systematic work.  Minns uses this approach for Irenaeus since much of his biography is unknown and speculative at best.

            Due to the limited information concerning Irenaeus’ life, Minns suggests that Irenaeus must be understood in light of his polemic.  In other words, Irenaeus’ theology is forged in response to the “heretics” of the early Church.  Although Irenaeus does respond to the Gnostic problem, it is difficult to imagine this then qualifies him solely as a “polemical theologian.”  This label suggests his theology is merely response and reaction.  Plus, it suggests that it is entirely negative (i.e., “it is not this but this”).  I find this a difficult category to adequately contain the whole of Irenaeus’ work and legacy for the Church.  After all, Irenaeus helped form the canon and the regula fidei as guides for the Church.

We should remember that Irenaeus’ theology was formed under the tutelage of Polycarp long before Against Heresies was written.  In other words, Irenaeus’ theology is well-formed by the time he actually set out to respond to the Gnostics.  Furthermore, with so little knowledge about Irenaeus’ total life, it may be unfair to label him solely as a “polemical theologian” based on his limited writings.  As a “man of peace”, it could be that Irenaeus was much more than a “polemical theologian.”  In fact, Irenaeus’ “polemic response” may be more out of concern for unity than orthodoxy (although right doctrine is important).

            Irenaeus’ primary concern in Against Heresies is combating the false doctrine of Gnosticism.  Gnostics bifurcated all of life into spirit and flesh.  The body and everything material was considered evil and corrupted.  The spirit, on the other hand, was considered pure and good.  Those that had received special revelation were given the ability to transcend the material and would inherit eternal life in a disembodied heaven.  Irenaeus’ theological response to this issue is a great contribution to the Church.  We are both “dust and spirit or breath.”  We are both physical and spiritual creatures.  We cannot be human without both of those present.    

            Irenaeus outright rejects the Gnostic notion for several reasons.  His most powerful arguments center on the fact that to be human is to be embodied and part of the material world, despite its broken state.  We are all the progeny of the first Adam because we have been molded from the same mud by God’s hand.  Furthermore, God’s economy of salvation is established and completed in the work of Christ who is the second Adam.  Through Christ we participate in the new life of resurrection, which will be a bodily resurrection. 

The grace of God available through the sacraments of the Church attests this bodily redemption.  Baptism cleanses the body and the Eucharist allows us to receive Christ’s body into our own bodies.  By being joined with the glorified body of Christ, our bodies, too, are glorified by the Father.  Irenaeus employs the Scriptural notion of “recapitulation” to describe this reality.  Christ’s participation in our humanity makes way for our participation in his glorification.

            Marcion believed that the Creator God of the Old Testament was different than the loving God that Jesus claimed as Father.  As such, Marcion omitted the Old Testament and heavily redacted the New Testament in light of this conviction.  Conflicting views in the New Testament were harmonized or done away with altogether.  This violates Jesus’ own words that he came “to fulfill the Law and the Prophets.”  John’s Gospel, which was also popular among the Gnostics, connects the Logos (Christ) with the Creator God of Genesis 1.    

            Again, Irenaeus went to task against Marcion’s understanding.  Irenaeus integrally linked the economy of creation and salvation together.  Thus, the first creation is fundamentally a part of the new creation that will be ushered in with the New Jerusalem.  God’s Creation was created “good” not evil.  In other words, the work of the Creator God in the Old Testament cannot be separated from the work of Jesus’ Father in the New Testament.  Irenaeus will go on to point out that there is only One True God in Three Persons.   

There are not two gods, as the Gnostics and the Marcionites suggest.  Rather, there is only the One True God whose image is Christ.  Although Irenaeus tends to emphasize Jesus’ humanity, he does not do so to the detriment of Jesus’ relationship as Son to the Father.  Jesus is divine as well as human.  He is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the same mud as Adam through Mary.  This is an essential response to particular forms of Gnosticism, especially under Marcion, that conceived of as Jesus being fully human but adopted as God’s son.  Irenaeus holds Jesus’ humanity and divinity in full tension. 

Thus, in Christ both divinity and humanity are brought together.  Recapitulation of Christ as the second Adam bridges the gap between the “vengeful God” of the Old Testament and the “loving God” of the New Testament.  It is in the person of Christ that the full manifestation of the Word of God, God’s character and nature, are on full display for us to know and see.  And, at Jesus’ second coming, Irenaeus argues, we shall come to full maturity.  This is participatory language.  Through Christ’s participating in humanity, humanity participates in the very life of God – Father, Spirit, and Son.

“What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith” by Thomas G. Long

Thom Long is a well known preacher.  His writing does not disappoint.  In this short book, Long tackles the issue of theodicy.  Theodicy essentially is the question that wonders if a loving God could really allow evil to exist.  After highlighting that many pastors and theologians often counsel not to tackle this issue, Long says that it is often not a luxury that a pastor has.  Pastors are asked these questions when suffering arises.  That does not mean that we should offer pat answers, but we can’t ignore the question either.

Long begins by tracing the history of the question through the Enlightenment period.  How has this question come to fill the minds of people?  It is often the argument that many atheists or agnostics bring up to disprove God’s existence… at least a loving God’s existence.  Long undercuts the argument by noting that a great deal of this mentality is based on certain notions of God’s power.  Perhaps we need to revisit our definition of God’s power.  For more thorough analysis, I would definitely suggest reading Long’s book.

The final chapter is an attempt to wrestle with the theodicy question without diminishing suffering but sustaining God’s character.  Matthew 13, the wheat and the weeds, is the text Long chooses to use as a sermonic demonstration of ways that we can wrestle with the theodicy issue.  It is very well done and very tasteful.  It is not apologetic in nature, nor does it seek to be.  I actually think this is a strong point because God is not let off the hook for evil.  Mystery is maintained.  However, simultaneously, Long’s sermon upholds the fact that God is still working for good (wheat) to come to fruition, even though there are undoubtedly “weeds” in the field.

I would definitely suggest reading this pastoral approach to the issue of theodicy.  Again, it doesn’t explain away evil.  In fact, it acknowledges it as a part of this world.  Yet, there is hope that is highlighted through the Scriptural text of Matthew that helps re-focus us on the source of our Hope rather than the source of our hurt.

“A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society” by Eugene H. Peterson

Eugene Peterson has a wonderful style of writing that I find captivating.  The Scripture leaps off the page and into life.  I read this book over Christmas break and found it refreshing.  The book traces through the “Psalms of Ascent.”  These were the Psalms that were customarily used during the journey to Jerusalem during holy festivals.  Travelers walking and talking together would have used these songs to talk about what it means to be God’s people.

Eugene Peterson uses these Psalms as a background that shows the significance of a whole life lived in obedience over the long haul.  Our society turns everything into instantaneous satisfaction.  The life of discipleship is the call to “come and die.”  And, it is a long process of continual journey by which we are shaped to be God’s people.  The Psalms give voice to the many emotions and dilemmas that faith faces and how each turns trust, praise, and obedience back toward God… both in response to God’s grace and inspite of dire circumstances.

I highly recommend this book as a journey through the Psalms of Ascent.  It has wonderful reflection and will definitely be a book that I visit again in the near future.