Irenaeus of Lyons by Eric Osborn

Posted: April 5, 2013 in Book and Article Reviews, Irenaeus
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Eric Osborn notes the general difficulty for scholars reading Irenaeus.  This difficulty has often led scholars to brush Irenaeus aside as someone that has poor logic and arguments.  Osborn, however, contends that this is a misunderstanding of Irenaeus’ language, criteria, and concepts which compose his arguments against the Gnostics.  Plus, he supposes that a great deal of this attitude stems from the Modernist empathy toward the Gnostic agenda (i.e., the emphasis on mind and knowledge).  Thus, Osborn will attempt to uncover Irenaeus’ logic and aesthetic argument against Gnosticism.

            Osborn’s preface states, “Here Irenaeus follows Justin but with wider vision, for he is the first writer to have a Christian bible before him” (xi).  Osborn should clarify what he means by this statement.  Left unexplained, it sounds like Irenaeus had a fully formed canon.  However, this is anachronistic.  The canon is not finally formed until two centuries after Irenaeus’ death.  John Lawson makes a similar assumption in his assessment of Irenaeus as a biblical theologian.  That is not to say that Irenaeus doesn’t employ those texts, but it is not fully formed yet.  Plus, Irenaeus makes use of extra-biblical sources; he doesn’t only use the “Christian bible.”  It is not until several chapters later that Osborn qualifies his statement.

            Osborn makes a similar claim in his chapter: “Logic and the rule of truth.”  For instance, he writes, “Strictly, the compact body… of truth, in contrast to the fabrication… of the heretics, refers not to a written source but to absolute truth.  There is only one message of salvation and one reconciliation wrought in Christ incarnate.  The rule joins bible and tradition” (145).  I think there needs to be more caution in talking about “absolute truth” without distinction.  Is this remnant of modernist philosophy?  Is Osborn referring to some kind of natural law?  If so, this poses certain problems with Irenaeus’ vision of God. 

Also, Osborn makes a weird distinction between bible and tradition.  As argued above, the bible is not fully formed yet but the Scriptures are the tradition and the tradition is Christ!  The rule does not join what is already joined.  It testifies to that which has been handed down from Christ and the apostles!

            Osborn does finally say that the bible was not a fully formed document in Irenaeus’ day.  However, he still makes a problematic statement when he writes, “The bible is the highest source of truth because the prophets were inspired of God.”  Irenaeus did not say it in this way!  The highest source of truth was Christ.  Scripture was deemed authoritative for the community because it accurately testifies to who Christ is!  Osborn seems to talk out of both sides of his mouth on this point.  It is important to remember, as Osborn states, that the Gnostics also employed the Scriptures as their proofs!  Yet, Irenaeus deems their interpretations as false because they do not conform with the measure of truth, which is Christ! 

            Osborn did a great job of illustrating Irenaeus’ concern for the unity of God.  Irenaeus is trying to show that God demonstrated in Christ Jesus is the same God that created the world.  Thus, the unity of God is vital.  When the Persons of the Trinity are discussed separately, it is only for the benefit of understanding.  All should be thought to act together, simultaneously, and in coherence with one another.  To lose this connection is to also diminish the work of Christ.

            This unity applies not only to the three Persons of the Trinity.  For instance, what God thinks, God wills, and God acts simultaneously.  God does not act in stages.  This is important for the overall unity and cohesion of the Triune God: Father, Spirit, and Son.

            This unity spills out into other parts of Irenaeus’ theology.  Because God is One, so too is the Church.  The Church is unified by the fact that it is unified by the apostolic succession, which is the teaching of the apostles concerning Christ.  That is the tradition that has been handed down and to which Irenaeus refers in providing a succession list of Rome.  The Church speaks as if it “had one mouth.”  Thus, as a reflection of the Triune God, the Church is also One.

            Osborn understands Recapitulation to be “correction and perfection.”  I think this is an appropriate way to frame Irenaeus’ concept.  First, Jesus becomes human to embody what humanity was intended to be in the first Adam.  As the Second Adam, Christ lives in faithful obedience, even unto death.  Thus, as sin entered the world through Adam, Eve, and tree, so now that would be reversed through Jesus, Mary, and the cross.  Not only does Jesus provide a corrective, but by becoming all that humanity is, all that God is becomes fully available to humanity. 

            This is a necessary step in Irenaeus’ understanding of human maturation.  God and humanity must become accustomed to living with one another.  In Christ, God and humanity are held together.  Through this, God is shown to be the “wise architect and sovereign king” of creation and salvation.  Although God is transcendent and hidden, it is through the Two Hands of God working, shaping, molding in the creation that God is made known through Love in the world.  God desires “union and communion” with that which God creates.

Now, it is vital to understand that this does not mean we become God, as some have claimed or misunderstood.  God remains the One who creates while we remain the ones who are created.  God is holy; we are made holy.  In other words, we participate in the life of God but do not take God’s place.  We are joined through Christ into the very life of God.  In this sense, we become fully human and fully alive.  This is the glory of God, according to Irenaeus.  Or, as Irenaeus puts it, “For while God is always the same, man when found in God will always advance towards God” (43).

Another helpful concept that Osborn dealt with was the distinction between likeness and image.  Image is something that everyone retains, while likeness is something that must be restored.  The image deals with the flesh.  Likeness refers more to the part of restoration that is accomplished by the Spirit. 

Overall, I thought Osborn’s book offered some valuable insight.  He wrestled with issues that other authors we have read did not attempt to address.  In this sense, he was very helpful.  However, Osborn also had moments where he was very poor in defining what he meant by terms.  For instance, Osborn talks about Irenaeus as a biblicist.  Due to the nature of that kind of language, it is difficult to assess what he means by this term.  Does he mean Irenaeus’ is dependent upon the Scriptures in his theology or does he intend to say that Irenaeus is a fundamentalist in interpretation of the scripture… or something else?  As such, Osborn is sometimes difficult to pin down what exactly he is trying to push.


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