“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.


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

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