Saturday, February 7, 2009

Irenaeus, by Denis Minns: selections and reflections – Part 1

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,



Anonymous said...

I have to demur from Minns' interpretation of St. Irenaeus' approach to distinguishing orthodoxy from heresy:

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.

Was Irenaeus merely appealing to majority rule when he explained why Marcion and Valentinus were, in his opinion, wrong?

Everyone claiming an apostasy believes Minns' theory. But I don't see it. To my way of reading St. Irenaeus, he would have rejected the Gnostics had all the world gone after them. He gives us a much clearer test for discerning Apostolic truth when he suggests "recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the postles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present [or any] question." Against Heresies 3:4:1

I suppose Minns and the Mormons can say that Irenaeus was subjectively wrong when he claimed to be "in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times." Against Heresies 3:3:1

They can argue that he had his facts wrong when he excused himself from giving the demonstration by saying "Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches..." AH 3:3:2

But he clearly held to a principle which would condemn any notion of majority rule. Irenaeus condemned Marcion and Valentinus because he was convinced that there was no lineage in their teaching back to the Apostles. It was discontinuous. Taking the apostolic Scriptures, anyone is able to concoct brilliant new inventions and they did. But they could not or did not answer his call for them to show that their teaching preceeded themselves.

For Irenaeus, it wasn't majority or minority that determined whose teaching was true, but apostolic authority, Tradition. That is why for him, the Gnostics could be dismissed, not because they hadn't won enough converts, but because they had no pedigree: "For prior to Valentinus, those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those from Marcion exist before Marcion; nor, in short, had any of those malignant-minded people, whom I have above enumerated, any being previous to the initiators and inventors of their perversity...But all these (the Marcosians) broke out into their apostasy much later, even during the intermediate period of the Church." Against Heresies 3:4:3

Apparently Minns is a Dominican. It is popular in some Catholic circles to renounce the so-called "triumphalism" of past eras in the Church. But what Minns presents in the quote from David is wholesale surrender to what the opponents of the articles of the Council of Nicea have been saying all along. The Mormons tells us that the winners write the history which corresponds to saying that the winners are liars and not to be trusted. It is suicidal to Catholic claims to suggest that the early Church arrived at doctrinal truth by means of majority rule. Thankully, Irenaeus himself is a great antidote to such "defeatism". My reading of him makes this Catholic feel down right triumphant in fact. Heh!


Anonymous said...

the primitive stage of the development of Trinitarian theology

Yeah, right, ... `bout that ...

Tap said...

Whole heartedly agree with Rory, couldn't have said it any better

David Waltz said...

Before I move on to my next installment (hope to put it up tomorrow, Lord willing), I just thought I should make it clear that I do not endorse all of what Minns proposes. I am delving into this book because it is currently being used for polemical purposes by some Protestant apologists. Minns is certainly a “progressive” theologian (dare I say liberal?), but what our Prot apologists fail to realize is that this is ‘a sword cuts both ways’. They want to piecemeal liberal scholarship; it is my goal to get them to acknowledge that such methodology is seriously flawed.

Thanks for your patience…

Grace and peace,


Mike L said...

Thanks for doing this, David. I've been reading Minns' book myself, along with the most recent and critical English translation of the most pertinent passages from Irenaeus. I'll have a post at my own blog on all this shortly.

Meanwhile, I don't think Minns does justice to himself by suggesting that Irenaeus identified truth with majority opinion. Minns' actual view is that the "catholic" Church's claim to possess the authentically apostolic tradition was historically verifiable while that of the Gnostics was not. To that extent, Rory is correct. That the churches founded by the Apostles, or founded by those founded by the Apostles, held the same doctrine throughout the world was essential to Irenaeus' argument. Pointing out that adherents of their tradition were far more numerous than the Gnostics was only icing on the polemical cake.


David Waltz said...

Hello Dr. Liccione,

So good to see you weigh in on this. Just moments ago, I posted my second installment, and will be looking forward to any further comments you may have (as well as your own thread when you get around to posting it at your blog).

BTW, is the, “the most recent and critical English translation”, you mentioned Robert M. Grant’s contribution, or another?

Grace and peace,