Uniting Body and Soul, Truth and Righteousness, with Ireneaus

apostolic preachingI recently had the pleasure of revisiting St. Ireneaus’ brilliant little work The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching for a course. It’s this magnificent little summary by Ireneaus of, well, the apostolic preaching through the Scriptures. It’s an account of redemptive-history, the work of God in salvation through Christ and the Spirit, to redeem his cosmos. Sort of like a less-polemical, little brother to his massive work Against Heresies. It’s really one of the classics of the patristic period and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In any case, I was struck by a passage in the introduction, where Ireneaus is commending the importance of having a unified approach towards truth and life. He roots it in the nature humanity as a compound of body and soul. Humans are necessarily composed of both; we are not just souls with bodies nor bodies with souls, but soul-and-body-wholes. As such, sin and impurity can come by way of both routes. We can defile ourselves in spirit as well as in the flesh.

This leads him to this brilliant little bit:

For godliness is obscured and dulled by the soiling and the staining of the flesh, and is broken and polluted and no more entire, if falsehood enter into the soul: but it will keep itself in its beauty and its measure, when truth is constant in the soul and purity in the flesh. For what profit is it to know the truth in words, and to pollute the flesh and perform the works of evil? Or what profit can purity of the flesh bring, if truth be not in the soul? For these rejoice with one another, and are united and allied to bring man face to face with God.

Irenaeus highlights two dangers we face in our walk with God. We can err in pursuing truth at the expense of righteous living or in pursuing righteous living at the expense of truth. The two cannot be separated.

The first seems particularly threatening to me as I begin my program at Trinity, diving headfirst into academic texts, lectures, and the bowels of the library. It’s easy to become impressed with a knowledge of the ins and outs of the history of theology, or be tickled by the latest, new idea about God, and become confused into thinking that’s actually a growth in holiness. But the reality is that you can add more books to your shelves and not an ounce more of moral character or depth in your actual communion with God.

And this is part of how you get that seemingly inexplicable moral failure that haunts so many pastors down the road. Some build up academic theological knowledge or practical ministry know-how in seminary while bracketing it off from a growth in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, gathering with the people of God, submitting yourself to the ministry of the preached Word, and so forth. That leads to a top-heavy, shiny theological structure without the foundational character that can support it. This is why Barth warned that prayer is the main attitude with which to undertake the study of theology.

The flipside of this is the sort of pursuit of righteousness that tends to downplay questions of doctrine and truth in favor of “just living like Jesus”, or “doing good.” Of course we want to live like Jesus and do good, but there is a way of pursuing it that cuts it free from their deepest logic and motive power—the reality of the gospel. Paul talks about this when he condemns those who have the “form of godliness while denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).

Of course, this easily falls into soul-sucking moralism. One form devolves into a Pharisaic self-righteousness because this righteousness is cut off from the gospel of grace. Or maybe it turns into a hopelessness that eventually robs us of our moral energy because “doing good” has been cut off from the hope we have in Christ that all things will be put to rights. The extreme at the end of this road is not the failed pastor, but the social worker who retains Jesus as—at most—a cipher for their own best moral aspirations.

Here’s the irony: Both approaches turn Jesus into something less than a Lord. In the first, he’s treated as an object to be studied. In the second, he’s a model to be followed. But neither treats him as a person to known, or loved, or obeyed.

This is why only when the two are united—the pursuit of truth as well as the pursuit of holiness—are we led to the face of God. Only as we acknowledge Jesus’ Lordship over soul and body, truth and practice, do we encounter him as whole persons, given over in worship.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 thoughts on “Uniting Body and Soul, Truth and Righteousness, with Ireneaus

  1. Derek, wonderful and very insightful extrapolations from the Irenaeus text. I believe this may account for why the church fathers, Irenaeus among them, attacked not only the teachings of the heretics, but also their morals. They did so, not to score extra points by attacking their character; rather, they did so because they believed there was an inextricable connection between doctrine and life. Bad theology also means bad ethics. Your comments help me to see this more clearly.

    By the way, when I started my blog a couple of years ago, I named it The Recapitulator, dedicated first of all to Christ, the Recapitulator, and then, secondarily to my ancient church hero, Irenaeus, who emphasized the recapitulative aspect of Christ’s redemptive work. If you want to look at it sometime, here is my introductory post on the blog.

    http://www.therecapitulator.com/introduction/

    Blessings,
    Jerry

  2. Your quote here “But the reality is that you can add more books to your shelves and not an ounce more of moral character or depth in your actual communion with God.” is one I hold as a personal litmus test.

    I have just begun my studies in theological education and am still wading in the shallow end of the Early Church Fathers and at times I find myself dangerously close to the edge of reading for the sake of knowledge or adding books to my library for the sake of pomp. This is a great reminder of why I study, who I do it for and what it’s meant to do in me.

    Not long ago as I began studying in a more intentional way I found myself coming back to the idea of ‘both’. God seems to be less polarizing, less one sided and dichotomized than we think he is. I say this all believing that there is still a single truth to be found in him, I just think that truth usually is far more well rounded than we like it to be.

    Thanks for the encouragement in this post, and for the book recommendation.

    • Robert, if you have not yet come across the little book by B. B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students, it contains a great perspective on this issue. Here is a little excerpt (it is accessible lots of places online):

      “Nothing could be more fatal, however, than to set these two things over against one another. Recruiting officers do not dispute whether it is better for soldiers to have a right leg or a left leg: soldiers should have both legs. Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books. “What!” is the appropriate response, “than ten hours over your books, on your knees?” Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God? If learning and devotion are as antagonistic as that, then the intellectual life is in itself accursed, and there can be no question of a religious life for a student, even of theology. The mere fact that he is a student inhibits religion for him. That I am asked to speak to you on the religious life of the student of theology proceeds on the recognition of the absurdity of such antitheses. You are students of theology; and, just because you are students of theology, it is understood that you are religious men—especially religious men, to whom the cultivation of your religious life is a matter of the profoundest concern—of such concern that you will wish above all things to be warned of the dangers that may assail your religious life, and be pointed to the means by which you may strengthen and enlarge it. In your case there can be no “either—or” here—either a student or a man of God. You must be both.”

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