Saturday, February 7, 2009
Three recent events—separate though intertwined—have provided the stimulus for me to undertake an interaction with, and exploration into, Denis Minns monograph, Irenaeus. The first event was a thread, Denis Minns on Irenaeus, Tradition, and Development, posted by Iohannes, at Fides Quaerens Intellectum; the second, my reception and reading of the book; and the third is this POST by Kepha, at the aforementioned Fides Quaerens Intellectum. With this brief background in place, I shall now begin my examination. [Note: bold emphasis in the following selections from Minns’ Irenaeus is mine.]
On page ix, in the preface, Minns presents the basic “aims” of his book: “to be an introduction to the theology of Irenaeus, not an introduction to all the various problems associated with the study of his writings.” He then writes:
That Irenaeus was influenced by theologians other than those he acknowledges, and that he may from time to time have quoted or paraphrased them, seems scarcely worth disputing. We need to recall that Irenaeus was not attempting a systematic synthesis of theology…Original thinking in theology was precisely the source of the problem he sought to address, not by being original himself, but by demonstrating what was the original, universal, unchanging and uncontaminated teaching handed down from the Apostles. In fact, the tradition he drew on for ideas suiting his own immediate purpose was already richly variegated, and it is ironic that Irenaeus himself should unwittingly show us this. He evidently did not notice that the ideas and formulations which he borrowed from different sources were sometimes inconsistent with one another, or contradictory. He took the uniformity of the orthodox tradition for granted, and drew upon its various representatives, in piecemeal fashion, to establish his argument against his opponents…
His own theology cannot be divorced from this polemical context. One cannot fully understand what he means at any point unless one knows what it is he is arguing against at that point – what is the false teaching which his own teaching is meant to correct. (ix, x.)
Minns’ remarks concerning the polemical nature of Irenaeus’ theology cannot be over-stated; for all the positives of Irenaeus’ apologia, the fact remains that he distorts (sometimes by overstatement, and sometimes by understatement) the historical reality of his day.
Diversity of opinion on important theological issues has existed in the Christian Church from the very beginning. It has not always led to schismatic heresy, and, when it has, it is often difficult to decide whether the decisive break, or schism, has been made by the ‘school’ which no longer wished to have formal association with the larger parent body, or by the larger body which decided that association with the ‘school’ was no longer tolerable. To speak, as I have just done, of ‘the larger group’ already betrays a certain prejudice. It is a very old prejudice, which was already establishing itself at the time Irenaeus was writing. It is the prejudice of supposing that orthodoxy, or right belief, is identical with the majority of opinion.
We should remember, however, that it was only at the time of Irenaeus, and in consequence of the crisis of Marcion and the Gnostics, that the orthodox consensus, the majority view, or as it is often called, the Great Church, came into existence. (pp. 10, 11.)
A bit later Minns writes:
Even in Irenaeus, we occasionally find ideas which look to us as though they would be more comfortable in a Gnostic setting. No doubt, he thought the business of separating false teaching from the truth was a simple, clear-cut matter. Sometimes it was. To worship a God other than the one revealed in the Old Testament was plainly discontinuous with the religion of Jesus, his disciples, and their earliest followers. At other times, ‘the truth’ was only just coming to be recognized as such, and it was in the very act of recognizing it that the Great Church came into being. (p. 12.)
So, what have we learned so far? First, though Irenaeus in his confrontation with the Gnostics was compelled to stress a certain unity of faith among “orthodox” Christians, the fact of the matter was that at this time, there existed a considerable amount of diversity among Christian thinkers who were united ecclesiastically via the succession of the episcopate (this is not to say, of course, that there was NO theological unity, for as we will later see, there was a ‘rule of faith’ in place). Second, the innovations and complex theologies of the Gnostic teachers forced Irenaeus into a ‘reductionism’ mode of apologia—these Gnostics were adding to the true faith via their ‘developments’—the apostolic faith does not need additions, it just is, and merely needs to be handed down without accretion. Though the Gnostic speculative theologies were certainly corrupt developments of the true deposit of faith (the faith that was “once and for all delivered unto the saints”), one cannot not ignore the fact that the theology articulated by Irenaeus in his apologia contained many developments of the original deposit.
In our next installment (Lord willing), we will delve into what Minns terms, “the primitive stage of the development of Trinitarian theology”.
Grace and peace,