Lawson begins by tracing some of the popular ways that Irenaeus has been interpreted by more modern scholars, specifically as understood by Ludwig Duncker and Paul Beuzert.  Lawson’s argument that Irenaeus is not a systematic theologian is accurate, contra Duncker.  Irenaeus should be considered more a biblical theologian.  “The systematization is something that has to be brought to him” (12). 

The purpose of Lawson’s book is best understood as a response to Beuzert’s reading of Irenaeus.  He highlights seven areas of contention: 1) Beuzert limits the scope of the Two Hands of God to the creation of humanity 2) Irenaeus’ concept of Trinity is not necessarily an Economic Trinity 3) Beuzert believes that Irenaeus’ lack of “substitutionary or satisfactory” atonement theory makes him “un-Pauline” 4) Beuzert’s rendering of “saving faith in Irenaeus is far from just” 5) Paul’s influence on Irenaeus is “unduly minimized” 6) It is anachronistic to categorize Irenaeus as Western.  His interest in the authority of the Church is “dogmatic orthodoxy, not in centralized organizational discipline” 7) Irenaeus was more concerned about outlining the parameters of faith, not being intolerant.  I think Lawson is largely right to push back on Beuzert’s anachronistic reading of Irenaeus.  Denis Minns and others have expressed similar sentiments in their writings on Irenaeus.

Irenaeus, without a doubt, considers the Scriptures to be inspired and authoritative for the life of disciples.  However, as Lawson points out, this does not then mean that Irenaeus has a clearly defined understanding of “how” it is inspired.  Ironically, Lawson then says that Irenaeus would likely be a “Literal Inspiration” proponent.  Based on his initial argument, this does not make sense.  One could make an argument that Irenaeus’ understanding of inspiration is based on the gift of the Holy Spirit, rather than a “Literal Inspiration” due to Irenaeus’ theology of baptism.  After all, Irenaeus points out that the Rule of Faith is inherited in that moment of regeneration!   As per Irenaeus: Life, Scripture, Legacy, Irenaeus believes that what is needed for correct interpretation is received in the moment of baptism when the Spirit descends upon that person.  In other words, simply having the right words is not enough (the Gnostics have a number of the same Scriptures that they misuse!). 

Furthermore, the emphasis of Scripture is not yet on the canonicity of the words as it is about the apostolicity of the words.  There is still a degree of the oral tradition, which Irenaeus is just barely getting in on through Polycarp, being taught and handed down.  Irenaeus then points to those that do not have those written Scriptures yet live obediently through the traditions that have been handed down!  As such, I find Lawson’s conjecture highly speculative and unfounded.

Lawson also assumes that a literary work becomes Scripture “on account of their authorship” (33).  I think this is rather naïve.  It’s not on account of authorship as much as it is on account of the community that receives the work as authoritative and connected to the tradition of the apostles.  After all, several works have no author named.  If “authorship” was so vital, it would make sense that an author would have been named to begin with or that the author’s name would not have slipped from memory!  Granted, apostolic authority was important for the early Church community, but that does not explain the Old Testament autographs that lack a named author.  At the very least, it is imperative to realize that it is not merely the authorship that provides authority but the community that recognizes and attests to the validity of the text and its authority for the community!  That’s not to say that authorship is unimportant but it is not the only criteria.

In trying to uncover Irenaeus’ source of authority, Lawson suggests several things that I find difficult.  First, he suggests that Irenaeus believes “charismatic prophecy” to be a source of authority.  I wish this had been further defined.  If Lawson means that it is a “gift of truth-telling” then it seems much more legitimate than a “spiritualized ecstasy of future-telling.”  It seems that prophecy should be understood more as forth-telling than fore-telling. 

Secondly, Lawson says that “Reason” is not a seat of authority and then proceeds to define Reason as “postulated ideals and inherent probabilities… abstract think[ing].”  I think this is a very shallow understanding of Reason’s position in Irenaeus’ work.  It is a seat of authority, as long as it is testified to by the Church and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Reason is not merely “abstract” thinking.  In fact, I would suggest that true Reason is practical and must be tested in the crucible of life.  Or, maybe as Irenaeus might say – incarnated.

Lawson also contests an Economic Trinitarian reading of Irenaeus.  In fact, he suggests that Irenaeus is not subordinationist or modalist in his conception of Trinity.  Rather, Irenaeus understands that where one Person of the Trinity acts, there acts all three Persons of the Trinity simultaneously.  Thus, the “Two Hands of God” are not ways of talking about God in hierarchal, positional, or functional catagories.  Instead, the Father, Spirit, and Son are all working in conjunction with one another to create, sustain, and bless.  Separate the activity of the Persons of the Trinity is to fall into tritheism.   

Lawson also has an unwarranted view of science and history.  It is a modernist conception that takes on the air of humanism.  He states that Irenaeus’ use of the Old Testament is lacking because he does not know or does not have the history available to him.  However, it seems haughty to think that after two thousand years separating us from that time we might know and understand more completely than Irenaeus.  Furthermore, it suggests that humanity and human knowledge is constantly progressing.  Information may be more available but that does not then mean that wisdom has increased.  Granted, Irenaeus does use Scripture out of context at moments.  However, that does not mean that he is unaware of history.

Lawson points out that Irenaeus talks frequently about “divinization.”  Lawson states that this is not objectionable “provided that it be borne in mind that they describe only a single aspect of salvation, i.e. the intellectual.”  However, this does not seem to be Irenaeus’ conviction.  Instead, it is to be understood as holistic.  However, I don’t think Irenaeus would conclude that we are somehow dissolved and that we cease to be human.  Rather, our humanity becomes full and complete in this union with God.   

Christus Victor holds great potential for discussing God’s atoning work.  “Going over the same ground” frames Christ’s life and ministry in promising light, especially in regards to penal substitution.  Although Lawson does not argue this directly, Irenaeus’ concept of the Trinity working together simultaneously in everything prevents us from reading a strictly penal substitution theory of atonement (for it suggests that the Father and the Son may even be at odds with one another)!  Moreover, as Lawson suggests, it may be better to think of these atonement theories as metaphors that describe the significance of what Christ has done, not detailed exegesis of how it was accomplished.

Overall, this was a good book that challenged some of the popular academic assumptions of that day.  This is helpful given that many of these assumptions are still alive today.  Lawson provides great insight into the significance of Irenaeus’ Biblical theology and his significance for the Church.  However, Lawson makes several assumptions that reflect modernism more than they reflect Irenaeus.  Irenaeus is awkwardly crammed into modernist categories that are far too anachronistic to apply.  This is the real weakness of this book.  With careful reading these can often be weeded out and measured for their overall worth.        

  1. dylon85 says:

    Lawson, why you gotta be like that?

    • levicjones says:

      Haha. Lawson was writing earlier in the 20th century when Modernism was still in full force with historical criticism and the like. He is simply a product of his time.

  2. […] The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus by John Lawson […]

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