Thursday, February 12, 2009

Irenaeus, by Denis Minns: selections and reflections – Part 2


In this second installment, we shall be examining Minns’ reflections on Irenaeus’ theology concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. In chapter 4, “Knowing the one God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, Minns states:

Although there are the beginnings of a metaphysical theology of the Trinity in his writings, he presents us, for the most part, with a highly developed economic theology of the Trinity. (Page 38)

As we shall soon learn, Minns’ construction and assessment of Irenaeus’ ‘Trinitarian’ theology contains some conclusions that are highly suspect. I am reasonably convinced that he has misread Irenaeus on some keys points. I do not want to give the impression that Minns is ‘alone’ here, so I feel compelled to offer another comparative viewpoint, before providing further selections from Minns. In his comprehensive work, The Three-Personed God – The Trinity As A Mystery of Salvation, Willam J. Hill writes:

Irenaeus (+ c. 202), whose theology, remarkable for its vast synthetic vision, differs markedly from that of the earlier Apologists, represents in his own way this Economic Trinitarianism…The Word and Spirit are simply the two hands of God in this work. God, whose absolute oneness Irenaeus takes for granted, relates to the world in the form of Word and Wisdom—the latter his name for the Spirit. On this basis, God’s oneness includes an underlying threeness but solely in the sense that he lives eternally with his Thought and his Wisdom. The distinctness of the Three is suppressed and emerges only in terms of roles within the economy. Needless to say, there is not the slightest suggestion in this of three co-equal “persons.” (Page 33.)

Minns’ reading of Irenaeus shares some common aspects with Hill’s, concerning the oneness of God prior to the emergence of the economic “Trinity” (for creative purposes). Minns penned:

Although Irenaeus tells us that we should not ask what God was doing before the creation of the world (AH II.28.3), I think a case could be made from his arguments in Book II to the effect that he would, at the very least, not be disturbed by the notion that the Trinity did not exist as distinct persons before the creation of Adam. (Page 52.)

Let’s now attempt to determine why Minns (and perhaps Hill as well) proposed such a view (a view that is essentially modalistic, and which I believe may stem from Karl Barth’s reading of Irenaues – see Barth’s, Church Dogmatics, Eng. trans., Bromiley, IV.1.196, 197.)

Foundational to Minns’ analysis of Irenaeus’ doctrine of God entails the following:

Because of his absolute transcendence, God in himself cannot be comprehended or known by human beings…

God will be seen only because he chooses to make himself visible, and this is something God will do gradually, keeping pace with the creature’s process of development towards God. Since the power of seeing in question here is not a mystic, inward vision, but ordinary human eyesight, if God is to be visible at all it will be as an object available to human eyesight. In fact, God has chosen to become visible to us as a human being, Jesus of Nazareth.

When Irenaeus read in St. John’s Gospel that Christ said to Phillip “he who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9); cf. John 12:45: ‘ he who sees me sees him who sent me’; and John 8:19: ‘ if you knew me you would know my Father also’) he understood this in a perfectly literal sense. The Son is, he says, what is visible of the Father, and the Father is what remains invisible of the Son (AH IV.6.6)
. (Pages 38, 39.)

Though Minns acknowledges that, Some scholars have argued that, for Irenaeus, the Son is, from all eternity, ‘visible’ in a way that the Father is not (p. 39); he rejects this position, and instead offers a rather complex explanation to support his take that, “The notion that Jesus is God made visible is Irenaeus’ preferred say of accounting for the distinction between the Father and the Son” (p. 43). To assist his cause, Minns then gives a summary of thought concerning the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, beginning with the following:

The attempts of theologians in the early Church to reconcile belief in the oneness of God with belief in a divine Trinity have for long been classified in two broad schools of thought. Theologians of one school are called Subordinationists, those of the other Monarchians or Modalists…The orthodox theology of the Trinity developed after the Council of Nicaea in 325 rests largely upon a cobbling together of the central tenants of each school. It is as though the later Church was obliged to say that both were right. (Pages 43, 44.)

Minns then lists and comments on a few of the representatives of the “two broad schools of thought” (pages 44-46), and in a footnote (#12) states:

Prominent Modalists of the second and third centuries were Praxeas, Noetus, Sabellius, and Dionysius of Rome. Among the Subordinationists were Tertullian, Hippolytus, Novation, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Origen. (Page 54)

A bit later he writes:

These two schools of thought about the Trinity were beginning to develop in the Great Church when Irenaeus was writing. Can he be said to belong to either of them? This question is surprisingly difficult to answer, for Irenaeus expressed himself in terms which resonate with both of these major theological traditions. (Pages 46, 47.)

What is Minns final conclusion? Though he admits that, “Irenaeus’ use of traditional language about the Son being born of the Father before the creation of the world might seem to offer strong support for the view that he did acknowledge a real, eternal distinction between the Father and the Son” (p. 50), he later concludes:

It would be consistent with this for Irenaeus to have held that a real Trinity of distinct ‘persons’ did not exist before the beginning of the divine economy for the creation and salvation of mankind…Thus, although he understands there to be a real Trinity of distinct ‘persons’, at least from the time of the incarnation, and although he describes the operation of this Trinity in subordinationist terms, he would not allow that the Son is in any sense a lesser god than the Father, for the essential divinity of Christ is fundamental to his understanding of the work of Christ. (Pages 52, 53.)

In summation, it seems to me that Minns, in his attempt to avoid and deflect the all too obvious subordinationism found in Irenaeus’ thought (see THIS THREAD), creates a complex hybrid synthesis of an Irenaues who is both a modalist and an economic subordinationist.


Grace and peace,

David

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure you're well aware of the fact that you have now become the butt of Kepha's mockery at FQI.

David Waltz said...

>> I'm not sure you're well aware of the fact that you have now become the butt of Kepha's mockery at FQI.>>

Me: I am (but thanks for the heads-up), and I am not surprised in the least. I did not respond for two reasons: first, I want let him finish his ranting in the thread on “Incipient Development” that he has promised; and second, his knowledge of the pre-Nicene and Nicene period seems so limited that it is almost impossible to carry on a meaningful discussion on what they taught; this creates a gaping hole in his criticism. Kepha does not understand that a liberal can accurately present what the early Church Fathers espoused, and then go on to use such models in an illegitimate manner. (BTW, this is not ‘rocket-science…)


Grace and peace,

David

Anonymous said...

David,

God has indeed bestowed upon you such patience and grace; unfortunately, I can't speak for myself.

If it were I in your shoes, there would be some major stomping, to say the least.

At any rate, I hope you'll continue with your series of posts on this as well as related matters.

I enjoy the fact that not only do you come from (somewhat) a mainly Catholic perspective but are balanced enough to include some well-respected Protestant scholars as well.

Keep it up, brutha!

tap said...

David, been pondering you posts on Irenaeus and development of doctrine as it relates especially to Subordinationism.

Let me know if this makes sense;
My opinion is that of what is some of the language used in his Books are viewed from a "presentist" sense. What i mean is, there was a lack of definition of terms so that terms that are now seen as precise, were very imprecise at the time of his writing, and his fashion of writing would be considered trinitarian in his time, even though it looks like subordinationism now.

A good example i like to use a St. John Chrysostom, whom no one can accuse of subordinationism; In one of his Homilies St. John's Gospel(john 14:29) he says:

"If any one say that the Father is greater, inasmuch as He is the cause of the Son, we will not contradict this. But this doth not by any means make the Son to be of a different Essence. CCEL Link(Part 4 2nd prgf)

If the fathers later on post nicene had a problem with Irenaeus's writings, don't you think the would view it with as much suspicion as the did Origens?


By the way i enjoy your blog, i hope you will be posting more often

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Anonymous said...

"My opinion is that of what is some of the language used in his Books are viewed from a "presentist" sense. What i mean is, there was a lack of definition of terms so that terms that are now seen as precise, were very imprecise at the time of his writing, and his fashion of writing would be considered trinitarian in his time, even though it looks like subordinationism now"

That's like putting the cart before the horse.

The very fact that they did not possess such precision in terms evinces an unclear and yet undeveloped sense of the doctrine of the Trinity.

tap said...

The very fact that they did not possess such precision in terms evinces an unclear and yet undeveloped sense of the doctrine of the Trinity

Not trying to be disagreeable, but i would say that terms came to be precisely defined because of the need to cut off the growing arian/subordination heresy, (just like every other council for different heresies) not because the development of this doctrine had reached a crescendo.

, but would not this lack of development of the sense of doctrine have given Origen some sort of excuse by Post-Nicene fathers? From your point of view they extended this benefit to Irenaeus but not to Origen?

I'm coming at this from someone who have a native language, where one and the same word can represent begotten, adopted, created, made. Depending on the context of the sentence.

Lucian said...

I cannot for the life of me even begin to fathom how You've managed to turn poor little Iraeneus into a Sabellianist. Oh, well ...

David Waltz said...

My oh my, take one day off from the internet…

Tap:>> Let me know if this makes sense;
My opinion is that of what is some of the language used in his Books are viewed from a "presentist" sense. What i mean is, there was a lack of definition of terms so that terms that are now seen as precise, were very imprecise at the time of his writing, and his fashion of writing would be considered trinitarian in his time, even though it looks like subordinationism now.>>

Me: Terminology was certainly “imprecise”, and remained so well into the 5th century (and in a certain sense, argument over terminology continues into our own day; debate over the term “person” comes to mind).

My own personal take on the pre-Nicene Fathers (including Irenaeus) is that they started with the concept of God the Father as the sole fount/source of divinity; this, coupled with their efforts to deal with modalism and the Gnostics, led to subordinationism in their respective theologies.

As for St. John Chrysostom (and the Eastern tradition as a whole), the continued emphasis on the monarchy of the Father has led more than a few ‘Latin’ Trinitarian theologians (Barth, Rahner, and many Reformed scholars) to the conclusion that all traces of subordinationism have not been eliminated.

Tap:>> If the fathers later on post nicene had a problem with Irenaeus's writings, don't you think the would view it with as much suspicion as the did Origens?>>

Me: Origen fell on ‘hard-times’ with later CFs primarily for reasons NOT linked to his doctrine of God.

Lucian:>> I cannot for the life of me even begin to fathom how You've managed to turn poor little Iraeneus into a Sabellianist. Oh, well ...>>

Me: Need to read the opening post a little more carefully, it is Minns (a scholar recommended to us by Iohannes) who attempted, “to turn poor little Iraeneus into a Sabellianist”, not me—I reject Minns’ attempt.


Grace and peace,

David

Lucian said...

I reject Minns’ attempt.

Then what's the point?

tap said...

David, could you posit are situation whereby none or some of the Apostles knew about the Trinity? because this seems to me to be the logical conclusion of your theory.

If they knew of the Trinity, and they didn't pass along that would've have been a dereliction of duty, no?

I think the imprecision in terms its what's coloring of view of the writings of the early church fathers. We are looking back on their writing from a 20/20 standpoint, whereas even though they taught and posited the trinity, the imprecision of the language at the time is betraying them in our modern eyes.

Anonymous said...

tap:
David, could you posit are situation whereby none or some of the Apostles knew about the Trinity? because this seems to me to be the logical conclusion of your theory.

Rory:
The Apostles revealed truths that lead. The Apostolic deposit implies the Immaculate Conception, Papal Infallibility, and the Nicene Creed. Vatican I says that theology makes "progress" in the church. If the Apostles explicitly knew everything that has been decided by the authority of the Catholic Church, they never revealed it explicitly. I really doubt St. Peter understood his own charism as well as his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

tap:
If they knew of the Trinity, and they didn't pass along that would've have been a dereliction of duty, no?

Rory:
God is not derelict either. The apostolic Scriptures seem like a haphazard way to attempt to reveal explicit doctrines. In God's providence a few apostles wrote letters that contained precious information which give clues regarding the doctrinal controversies which have beset the Church from the beginning. I revere the Apostles because they were the weak but happy instruments God chose as martyrs (witnesses unto death)to reveal His Word to makind. But it is naive in my opinion to think that each apostle separately or all the apostles together had at their disposal the answers to every doctrinal controversy. God obviously did not inspire them to give us a catechism. He wanted them to give us the information whereby the Church would build a catechism.

tap:
I think the imprecision in terms its what's coloring of view of the writings of the early church fathers. We are looking back on their writing from a 20/20 standpoint, whereas even though they taught and posited the trinity, the imprecision of the language at the time is betraying them in our modern eyes.

Rory:
I don't think any member of the Apostolic Church, including St. Irenaeus, was responsible for having the Nicene Creed nailed perfectly until after the Holy Ghost spoke at the Council of Nicea. Imprecision of language is certainly a way that heretics can make a pre-Nicene father say what they want. It is also a way that a post-Nicene Catholic can make a pre-Nicene father say what they want. I suggest that neither side should do that. I am saying that we who defend the Ecumenical Councils don't have to defend the theological nuances of a great martyr to the point where he has every "i" dotted and "t" crossed regarding doctrinal controversies that were not settled by the authority of the Holy Ghost directing the Church in their lifetimes. Therefore, to me, it doesn't reduce my reverence and admiration for Irenaeus if he was a modalist or subordinationist.

Rory

David Waltz said...

Hi Lucian,

Forgive my delay in answering your following question:

>>Then what's the point?>>

Me: To point out to those who invoke Minns on other issues that his understanding of Irenaeus’ thought is problematic. To present Minns as an authority on such issues of doctrinal development, but then ignore so much of the rest of his work is not a sound methodology in my book.


Grace and peace,

David

David Waltz said...

Hello Tap and Rory,

I suspect you both have discerned a certain absence on my part during the extended Valentine/President’s Day weekend—the beachbum has had little time for the internet until today.

I think Rory has done and excellent job in answering Tap’s questions/concerns. I shall add just a few comments. First, God’s supernatural revelation (deposit of faith) to mankind though infallible, is not given to us as a systematic theology; issues of time, culture, etc. must be kept in mind. Second, for reasons only known to God Himself, God seems to have slowly clarified this deep and rich deposit of faith (usually as a response to heresy). Third, though I believe that our understanding of the doctrine of God (i.e. Trinity) is much ‘clearer’ today (thanks to the work and grace of the Holy Spirit), unresolved issues still remain. To sum up, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I am confident that our Lord has (is now, and will) protected His body on Earth through the providential care of the Holy Spirit, and this without violating the freedom of man’s will.


Grace and peace,

David

Anonymous said...

"I am confident that our Lord has (is now, and will) protected His body on Earth through the providential care of the Holy Spirit"

That's just it --

Need I remind you that God has done so using as his vehicle the Church as founded by His Divine Son and Our Lord & Saviour.

To make it seem that every other Christian carries in him/herself such Authority as to pronounce accordingly what Scripture declares and what Doctrines One must subscribe to is sheer foolishness and a sure recipe for Heresy!

David Waltz said...

>>Need I remind you that God has done so using as his vehicle the Church as founded by His Divine Son and Our Lord & Saviour.

To make it seem that every other Christian carries in him/herself such Authority as to pronounce accordingly what Scripture declares and what Doctrines One must subscribe to is sheer foolishness and a sure recipe for Heresy!>>

Me thinks that you have misunderstood MY actual position on these issues. For clarification, please read my comments in the combox of THIS THEAD.

Grace and peace,

David

Anonymous said...

This is for tap.

I arrive at the same conclusions as the people in my very traditional parish. But I don't get there in quite the same way. I hope I haven't scandalized you by suggesting that the Apostles had limited understanding of the truths they revealed.

In my opinion, the Church has not definitively explained the realtionship between Apostolic Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and how theology progresses in the Church. I think various schools of thought are permitted between faithful Catholics in perfect communion with one another.

I am frankly uncomfortable with the Pope Benedict XVI's expression, "living tradition", which obviously develops. I believe it is susceptible to abuse. On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the Traditionalist who says that only that which has always been believed and taught may be considered as part of the Apostolic deposit. To me, this is clearly naive historically, and if adhered to strictly stifles the continuing work of the Holy Ghost in the Church. Thankfully, above our Holy Father, St. Benedict, is the Head of the Church who will not have His holy doctrines abused by liberals or stifled by tradionalists. Christ will send the Holy Ghost to lead His Church into all truth until the end of time.

That is my position in brief. I hope it is amenable to your own, even if you cannot fully concur. God bless you as our Lord continues to bless and exalt Holy Mother Church.

Rory

Anonymous said...

My others typos can be overlooked I am sure. But not this one:

It should be Pope Benedict!!!

Not St!!!

Maybe later. May God make it so. God bless our holy father, and make him a saint!

Steve said...

Hi David,

Been lurking here and FQI a bit since the whole development issue started. I was wondering if you had read the following work by Thomas Norris, and if it would be worth my time and effort. I am relatively new to the subject and just started reading the Fall 1995 edition of Communio where Norris contributes on Newman's conversion and his development theory. So far it's been well worth the 7 bucks.

http://books.google.com/books?id=IM0UAAAAIAAJ&pg=PR3&source=gbs_selected_pages&cad=0_1#PPR3,M1

David Waltz said...

Hi Steve,

I have not read (nor do I own) Norris’ book. Thanks to the “limited preview” I have been skimming over the book, and its looks like a solid contribution; but, I really need to read the entire book before I can make a solid assessment.

Two books that I have recently on obtained, have quickly been put on my personal list of favorites when it comes to Newman studies

Unfolding Revelation and Newman the Theologian

Both books can currently be obtained for under $30.00:

HERE and HERE

BTW, if you are so inclined, I would be interested in a possible “selections and reflections” series on Norris’ contributions from you. Let me know what you think about this.


Grace and peace,

David

Steve said...

BTW, if you are so inclined, I would be interested in a possible “selections and reflections” series on Norris’ contributions from you. Let me know what you think about this.

Thanks for the offer, but realistically I haven't the time. All I have read from Norris is from his contribution to the Fall '95 edition of Communio which I just barely started. I googled his name out of curiosity, and found the book that I asked you about. If anything, I'll probably try to track down the works that Norris, et al refer to in Communio.

Thanks for the book recommendations, too.