Irenaeus on the Trinity— Part Five

Irenaeus on the Trinity— Part Five May 26, 2015


Ben: Let’s talk ecclesiology for a moment. Irenaeus was by no means just a writer, he was a bishop in ‘Gaul’. What was his vision of the church and church structure, including his vision of church leadership. Is he an example of ‘early Catholicism’ or does he have some other vision of church structure? What about his vision of the women teachers and prophetesses in the second century? How does he view them?

Jackson: If by ‘early Catholicism’ you mean an emphasis on church hierarchy in leadership and a magisterium (in the primitive sense of regula fidei), then yes, Irenaeus is such an example. As you note, he himself is a bishop, he writes with the authority of a bishop, and he values this office held by other figures (I have already mentioned the deference he gives earlier elders, one of which was the famous bishop and martyr Polycarp). He also is the first writer to provide a list. of bishops in Rome stretching from the current bishop of Rome all the way back to Peter. This list is arguably the earliest example of an argument for apostolic succession.

Nevertheless, there is compelling evidence that Irenaeus does not mean to privilege Rome as the standard bearer for all theology. Although he provides a list of Roman bishops, it comes in the context not of an argument for Roman supremacy but rather an anti-Gnostic argument. Rome is one example of many churches who can trace their heritage back to the apostles (against the Gnostics whose teaching originated with their teachers). The Roman list may be provided simply because that is the one list he knew (he spent a good portion of his life in Rome).

Also, Irenaeus opposes what is perhaps the earliest example of a Roman bishop trying to assert his authority over a larger area than just the Church in Rome. I am referring to the early dispute over the date of Easter. ‘Pope’ Victor tried to decree that any church that did not celebrate Easter on the same date as the Roman Church would be excommunicated. Despite the fact that Irenaeus’ Gallican churches celebrated on this same date, he argued against Victor that other traditions, which celebrated Easter on a different date in accordance with the celebration of Jewish Passover, were equally derived from ancient practices and therefore equally valid.

Irenaeus has little to say directly about women in ministry and is likely a product of his time (by the end of the second century it would appear that the egalitarian spirit of earliest Christianity evident in the New Testament had waned and there was no longer a category for women in ministry). Nevertheless, Irenaeus is the first writer to envision a prominent place for Mary in the story of salvation and, through Mary, all women. According to his reading of scripture, Mary’s ‘yes’ to the angel Gabriel’s pronouncement that she will give birth to the Messiah reverses Eve’s disobedience in the same way that Christ’s deference to the Father’s will reverses Adam’s disobedience. The latter had always been a prominent part of theology, going back of course to Paul, but Irenaeus includes Mary in this scheme. It makes one wonder if Irenaeus actively worked against Patriarchal assumptions that were gaining footholds in the second century church; unfortunately, he just did not write about this.

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