Irenaeus on the Trinity— Part Six

Irenaeus on the Trinity— Part Six May 27, 2015


Ben: When I took second and third century church history with Bruce Metzger at Princeton, several things stood out to me as reflecting a change from first century Christians and their writings: 1) the beginning of a rising tide of anti-Judaism, including in sects like Gnostics, but also in the mainstream church (perhaps because the church was largely Gentile at this point); 2) the decline in general of eschatological fervor in the church and related to this; 3) the beginnings of a return to an OT vision of the church which involved priests, temples, sacrifices. In other words an Old Testament hermeneutic when it came to worship and ministry was eclipsing the NT one which knows only the heavenly high priesthood of Christ or the priesthood of all believers, but not a class of priests. I would say that one or more of these factors are what led to the shutting down of women in ministry in the second century unless, like Thecla, they were ascetics and renounced their sexual identity. You see this of course affecting and directing the rise of the monastic movement. How do insights from Irenaeus from the second century help us to clarify or confirm or even reject some of these theses and analysis?

Jackson: I think Irenaeus confirms many of these insights, although not as clearly as is often assumed. Regarding the Jewish question, Irenaeus is not against the Jews to the degree of Marcion or his contemporary Melito. We must remember the positive and important place Irenaeus gives Israel in the history of salvation, which in itself is significant. But it remains the case that he shows little interest in Jewish-Christian relations and can also say some negative things regarding their unbelief. As for the decline of eschatological fervor, this certainly is evident in Irenaeus. He is much more concerned with regulating church life in the present, a development that we can trace to some of the later works of the New Testament and then earlier writers like Polycarp and Ignatius. Irenaeus does possess quite a rich eschatological vision which includes a restored creation and a millennial kingdom. But it is not something that he urges his people to be ready for immediately in the way Paul arguably does in his early letters.

Your last point is the one that is most frequently overstated. As I have noted, Irenaeus’ lists of bishops do not seem to be as definitive an argument for Roman supremacy as is often assumed. In any case, his own challenge to Victor would suggest that is not what he meant. Moreover, he adamantly rejects the Gnostic hierarchy which places humans in three static categories based on how spiritual (i.e. how close to God) they are.

His ironic argument uses the illiterate folks of his church to show that they know the salvific story better than the so-called Gnostic elites. Also, Irenaeus puts a premium on right belief as evidence of continuity with the apostles (much more, I might add, than his emphasis on continuity with a certain leader). All of these elements are more in line with a priesthood of all believers model. But as I have noted, Irenaeus himself is a bishop and he is working from within this structure as opposed to rejecting it. As a result, some of his more egalitarian tendencies would become more muted as the centuries went on. It’s interesting that Irenaeus today is much more known for his lists of Roman bishops and his anti-Gnostic writings, than his preference to elevate women and stick up for the uneducated of his flock, although these elements are equally if not more evident in his writings.

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