Earliest Theology 1

Last night I was sitting in front of our college with my colleague and friend, Brad Nassif, nibbling away on our dinners and we struck up a conversation about Irenaeus’ great book,Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Brad said something I want to explore more carefully and to do this I’d like to begin a series on this little treatise of Irenaeus’.

Brad’s comment: I tell my students that the crucial century was not the 4th, but the 2nd. That is, the ball rolled toward Nicea not because of the events of the 4th Century but because of the ball that was set in motion in the 2d. And that means Irenaeus.
Now a second reason why I want to look at Demonstration: systematic theologies bore me, not so much because of their content but because of their prose and their genre. Detail followed by detail in such a manner that I’m put to sleep. Shouldn’t a description of our faith, I say to myself, be more lively, more story-fied, more narrative, more in tune with the Bible. So this is why we need to look at Irenaeus: his is the first real theology of the earliest churches.
The text is available in various formats, but I love the brief introduction and notes by John Behr, an expert on the fathers. The text comes from somewhere between 150 and 200 AD and Irenaeus tells Marcianus, his addressee, that he is giving a “summary memorandum” of the faith so he can “understand all the members of the body of truth.” In a set of lines that remind of Didache’s opening, he says that one way leads to the kingdom of heaven, “uniting man to God,” and the other to “death, separating man from God.”
Eternity, in other words, is at stake.
Humans are body and soul, the former for physical devotion and the latter for spiritual. The body and the soul work together; they cannot be “dualized.”
His plea, now in paragraph 3, is that “we must keep the rule (kanon) of faith unswervingly, and perform the commandments of God.” Faith is the truth as well as adherence to the truth.

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  • saint

    I share your antipathy towards systematic theologies for the same reason.
    And good choice on Irenaeus’ Apostolic Preaching. I keep an electronic copy on my PC – I keep coming back to it for various reasons.

  • I can’t remember the last time I cracked open a systematic theology book like you describe here. They are normally tedious. Good for me to learn from Irenaeus.

  • Georges Boujakly

    Systematic theologies exhaust me. But some of my friends are energized by it. I don’t get it but they are!
    Thanks Scot for exploring some of Irenaeus.

  • Dr. Platypus » Blog Archive » Theology with Irenaeus

    […] Scot McKnight is beginning a series on Irenaeus’ Apostolic Preaching. I’m grabbing my copy so I can follow along. D. P. posted this entry on Tuesday, September 18th, 2007 at 7:59 am. Posted in the category Theology You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. […]

  • i’m so glad to hear systematics bore others as well! for me the problem is that – as someone once put it (?) – they represent an endless parade of “contextless propositions.” there’s just no practical messiness, which, i find so important for appreciating the inherent tension in a genuine life of faith. give me the messy, ambiguous, paradoxical, narrative setting so i can find myself in the story!

  • Irenaeus’s Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching is available on line, for free, at CCEL:

  • Scot,
    One of the reasons that *The Da Vinci Code* (an alternative Jesus story) stormed the planet is that it was a compelling story. Imagine the same content in a systematic theology format!! Ugh! We’ve bored the evangelical church to tears with our fine theological distinctions. People do not live systematically, unless they’re neurotic; they live in story.

  • T

    “His plea, now in paragraph 3, is that ‘we must keep the rule (kanon) of faith unswervingly, and perform the commandments of God.’ Faith is the truth as well as adherence to the truth.”
    I like him already. I think one of the most disturbing and helpful things to hit me in the last few years was Dallas Willard’s restatement of James and Jesus on this topic of what ‘faith’ is, biblically speaking. The gospel call is to ‘trust Jesus’ (not just his blood), and you can’t honestly say you trust someone and simultaneously reject their advice and example. Our lives show who we really trust and follow.

  • Scott Watson

    Scot, thanks for this thread!Yesterday, one of the clients in the psychiatric/substance abuse residential non-profit I work for showed me a testimonial he wrote concerning his journey to enter into a healing relationship with Jesus,from whom he was estranged,as a result of the anger he felt towards God for abandoning him when his psychiatric condition manifested itself. He is a devout Roman Catholic and he is going share this in church so that it can help others.
    He has struggled to fight against the “dualities” which many Christians inherently accept as a matter of course.For him it’s matter of his basic humanity as an integrated person–mind,body and soul–which is a stake. I’ve been giving him materials to read from the Eastern Christian monastic tradition which he’s found very helpful in articulating his journey and where he wants to go. Irenaeus,among others, set the trajectory in this line of theology/praxis, which is a matter of life and death, as my friend has discovered and wrestled with mightily.

  • John Frye said: “We’ve bored the evangelical church to tears with our fine theological distinctions. People do not live systematically, unless they’re neurotic; they live in story.”
    Are they bored because theology is boring or because their brains are lazy? I think it’s a bit more of the latter.
    And while people do live stories, stories have to be interpreted to teach, and the interpretation will be done systematically.
    To put it another way, think about the crazy things you’d learn from Judges if you didn’t have the didactic material to use in examining it.

  • At the end of section 31 Irenaeus wrote, “And therefore our Lord took that same original formation as (His) entry into flesh, so that He might draw near and contend on behalf of the fathers, and conquer by Adam that which by Adam had stricken us down.”
    Sounds like recapituatlion to me 🙂

  • RJS

    Great, I am looking forward to this series and will read along eagerly. Irenaeus makes for a fascinating read – at least in his “Against Heresies”. “Apostolic Preaching” I have not read yet.

  • As to dualism of body and soul, you can’t count the volumes written on transubstantiation but find me theological reflection on work and economic production that is more than a side comment to more important matters of the soul. We were created material beings to live in a material world and bring creation to its fullness. That is the core mission given to humanity prior to the fall and it hasn’t been revoked. Where are the classes in the theological academy that seriously wrestle with work and economy? They are rare because of a dualism that values soul over the body and values those that work with spiritual matters over those who work with material matters.

  • ChrisB (#10),
    The people I know who are bored silly with the irrelevance of systematic theology have very athletic brains and are creative, energetic people. I’m not too sure God is all that enamored with systematics either in view of the way the Bible has come to us 🙂

  • Daryl

    Thanks Scot for doing a series on Irenaeus. He was a hero of mine in seminary (a friend even made Irenaeus his son’s middle name). I am finding that it is hard to make the patristics part of my reading schedule as a full-time pastor though. So I’m looking forward to following along with you.

  • Thanks Scot. I’m looking forward to the series. Hopefully Iraneus can shed some light on 2c ecclesial evolution.
    BTW, I’m about 1/2 way through “House Church & Mission” (on your recommend). It’s providing excellent balance to Viola’s tendency towards generalization and historical spin.
    What’s most frustrating to me is that (per HC&M) we simply don’t have an ample body of definitive data on 1c-2c church practices..

  • Scot,
    I look forward to this series. I don’t spend too much time with the early church “fathers.” I kind of view them like I view ancient Israel. They wrote some really good stuff… but some really bad stuff too. Of course I don’t totally write off anyone, which is why I am interested in this series.
    Personally I like Biblical Theologies as much as Systematic Theologies. I am kind of an analytical guy though, so it doesn’t bore me as much as it does some. I do not think it is necessarily laziness that causes the boredom (as one commenter suggested), rather I think it is mostly due to likes and dislikes. Some of the more “entertaining” novels tend to bore me… I don’t think that has to do with laziness.
    Anyways, I am definitely looking forward to this series. Keep up the good work.
    God’s Glory,
    The Pursuit Online Store

  • Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching « Dunelm Road

    […] 18 September 2007 Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching Posted by Ben under Irenaeus , Patristics   I’m working on my chapter onIrenaeus’ soteriology, and have been reading his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching the past few days, so I thought I’d catalog a few notes. It also turns out that Scot McKnight is also starting up a series on this writing. […]

  • Tom Hein

    Why does it always have to be one or the other? How about an appreciation of both Systematic and Narrative Theology?

  • Scot,
    I am curious how you would rate the “systematics” of Oden and Bloesch. I like both of them very much.

  • Rob Witham / Theology As A Sleep Aid

    […] Scot McKnight […]

  • blackhaw

    I hate systematics also. I do not think theology should be systematized. At least not in the way that many systematic theologies do.
    I just got finished reading irenaeus’ On apostolic Preaching. Part 1 is very helpful. i find how he interprets the Bible through a grid of the Trinitarian God relating to man and saving him to be helpful. An economic Trinitarian soteriology undergirds all of part 1. I do not see many contemporary scholars (especially systematicians) using that as a grid for their interpretation of the Biblical text.
    BTw Behr’s translation is by far the best. Do not fool around with the others.
    BH- CARL