“Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies” by James Payton, Jr.

Posted: March 13, 2013 in Book and Article Reviews, Irenaeus
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Irenaeus compiled a list of apostolic successi...

Irenaeus compiled a list of apostolic succession, including the immediate successors of Peter and Paul” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

James Payton’s purpose in writing this book is to make Irenaeus’ Against Heresies more accessible and less cumbersome to engage.  His primary method for achieving this end is shortening Books 1 and 2, which sets out the Gnostic doctrine as it is taught.  Although large sections are removed from these two books, enough is left to provide a brief and succinct overview of the Gnostic thought and Irenaeus’ primary objections to it.  Payton does a good job of maintaining the key ideas in Irenaeus’ assessment of the Gnostics while presenting an abridged version.

Irenaeus is often described as a polemical figure.  Undoubtedly, he tackles the Gnostic problem head on without much reservation.  However, it should be noted, by Irenaeus’ own words, that this is not the primary motivation.  Irenaeus is polemical only in the sense that he is trying to preserve something.  Irenaeus describes the situation with his opponents as such: “This is how the adversaries with whom we have to deal act: like slippery serpents, they try to escape at all points.  Consequently, they need to be opposed at all points, so that possibly, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth” (57).  The preservation and proclamation of the Truth is at the heart of Irenaeus’ purpose in writing.  As such, he hopes that by writing even the Gnostics might come to know Truth that has been handed down from Christ to the apostles for the Church.

After reading the way that Irenaeus re-orients the Old Testament in light of Christ, I find John Lawson’s categories for Irenaeus untenable.  Lawson states that Irenaeus did not know or adequately comprehend the history behind the Old Testament.  However, I believe that Irenaeus has a rich understanding of the Old Testament, which he reads in light of Christ.  He does not read the Old Testament in isolation from its preparation for Christ.  Thus, the importance does not sit upon the historical context but on the way that Christ fulfills and completes that which is in the Old Testament.  For instance, Irenaeus re-functions the Old Testament texts that talk about swords being beaten into plowshares to bring about a fuller comprehension of the cross.  An instrument intended for violence becomes God’s instrument of peace through which the harvest of the eschaton will be gathered.  Irenaeus does not ignore the historical context but says that the purpose is realized in Christ.

This is essential for Irenaeus’ argument against Gnosticism.  After all, Irenaeus wants to maintain the continuity between Jesus and the Creator God of the Old Testament.  What better way to do that than showing how Christ corrects and fulfills the Law and the Prophets.  Irenaeus is not allegorizing every Scripture and twisting it.  Rather, his exegesis is quite stunning in many respects.  For instance, Irenaeus employs the stories of the patriarchs in appropriate ways to the promised hope that is embodied in Jesus.

Recapitulation or ontic participation is scattered all throughout Irenaeus’ writings.  Although they are slightly different, they cannot be separated from one another.  Christ takes on the fullness of humanity so that through Christ humanity might enjoy all of God.  Jesus becomes the second Adam by treading the same ground that Adam tread but was found obedient, even unto death.  And, it is through Christ’s obedience that we see the fullest intentions and purpose of humanity!  We are able, at every stage, to see what it means to be a fully mature human: Christ!  In this way, Christ is the exemplar of what it means to participate in the very life of God.  In fact, Irenaeus states: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (116).

The main purpose for Irenaeus in salvation or recapitulation is that humanity might finally achieve its end: “join[ing] the end to the beginning – that is, humanity to God” (114).  He also views ontic participation as a relational ontology (to use modern vernacular), stating: “Without life it is impossible to live, and the means of life is found in fellowship with God.  But fellowship with God is to know God and to enjoy his goodness” (115).  And, this fellowship of love is demonstrated as obedience.  Which highlights the value of Christ’s recapitulating obedience.

Irenaeus’ concept of the Triune God working simultaneously and spontaneously together is intriguing.  We can learn a lot from him here.  In all ways, the Father, Son, and Spirit are working in unison and cooperation toward a common telos.  There is not a true sense of hierarchy or modalism that pervades the Trinity.  Instead, there is a relational mutuality that is inherent in God.  Now, Irenaeus typically talks about the “Two Hands of God” (Son and Spirit, Word and Wisdom).  However, by separating these out, Irenaeus only moves to put them back together again.  There is a constant tension that shows the continuity of God both in the old covenant and the new covenant.  As opposed to Gnostic thought, Irenaeus maintains that God is both God of Creation and God of salvation.

In fact, it is only through this cooperation that God is fully revealed.  He states, “God the Father was shown forth through all these operations, with the Spirit working and the Son ministering, while the Father was approving – and that salvation for humankind was being achieved” (115).  This is important given the tension between God’s transcendence and immanence.  Gnostics held that God could not truly be known and that the Pleroma were not God.  Irenaeus maintains God’s transcendence but maintains that God can be known because of the Son and the Spirit.  Most specifically, it is the Son’s flesh that reveals the invisible God in visible ways to humanity.  This is a brilliant tactic in dispelling his opponents’ arguments.

I particularly found Irenaeus’ concepts of recapitulation and ontic participation refreshing.  His emphasis that the Incarnation was going to happen even before the Fall, not because of it, was powerful.  The purpose of Creation from the beginning was to enjoy fellowship with God.  This shapes the understanding of the cross in significant ways that push back on the penal substitution so popular in our churches.  It pushes back on the Gnostic idea that Creation is bad and spirit is pure.  And, it challenges our separation of Christ’s work from the purposes of the Creator.  Our end is in our beginning.  Creation is salvation and salvation is creation, because it is God that works both.

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