Irenaeus and the Problem of (Greater) New Testament Wrath

kotskoIn his stimulating work The Politics of Redemption (88), Adam Kotsko calls attention to a fascinating, if a bit counter-intuitive, passage on the judgment of God in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. We encounter it in a series of chapters written against the Marcionites and their criticism of the violence and judgment of the Old Testament God. Ireneaus will have none of it. He argues in several chapters that God authored both testaments and displays the same character in both testaments, including the righteousness leading to wrath and judgment.

Here Kotsko calls attention to the way Irenaeus “revers[es] the normal stereotypes of the Old and New Testament.” Ireneaus goes further than many and argues that–if anything–the problem of wrath is worse after Christ:

Inasmuch, then, as in both Testaments there is the same righteousness of God [displayed] when God takes vengeance, in the one case indeed typically, temporarily, and more moderately; but in the other, really, enduringly, and more rigidly: for the fire is eternal, and the wrath of God which shall be revealed from heaven from the face of our Lord (as David also says, “But the face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth”), entails a heavier punishment on those who incur it — the elders pointed out that those men are devoid of sense, who, [arguing] from what happened to those who formerly did not obey God, do endeavour to bring in another Father, setting over against [these punishments] what great things the Lord had done at His coming to save those who received Him, taking compassion upon them; while they keep silence with regard to His judgment; and all those things which shall come upon such as have heard His words, but done them not, and that it were better for them if they had not been born, (Matthew 26:24) and that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the judgment than for that city which did not receive the word of His disciples. (Matthew 10:15)

(Against Heresies, IV.1)

Even those of us who are not Marcionites, or try to avoid pitting an angry, Old Testament God against a loving New Testament God, tend to see a softening in the portrait from Old to New. But Irenaeus thinks that, if anything, the judgment we see in the Old Testament is lighter, being partial, limited, and therefore mitigated. Instead, in the New Testament Jesus himself threatens that the judgment of God waiting for those who reject him is worse than it was for those in Sodom and Gomorrah.

The problem of New Testament wrath, then, is at least two-fold. First, now that more revelation is available in Christ, there is less excuse for the hard-hearted wickedness of the disobedient. To disobey and shun righteousness now, to not believe the Word of God now, is to “despise his advent,” which merits a greater punishment. The logic here is similar to (though not exactly) that of the author of Hebrews who says:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Heb. 6:4-6)

Or again, he quotes Paul in speaking of the Heretics who reject God’s word:

For the apostle does also say in the Second [Epistle] to the Corinthians: “For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them which are saved, and in them which perish: to the one indeed the savour of death unto death, but to the other the savour of life unto life.” (2:15-16) To whom, then, is there the savour of death unto death, unless to those who believe not neither are subject to the Word of God? And who are they that did even then give themselves over to death?

Second, not only is the responsibility level higher, the stakes are higher. Ireneaus looks to Jesus and says, “For to whomsoever the Lord shall say, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, in the everlasting fire,’ (Matt. 25:41), these shall be damned forever,” just as those who heed his word are saved forever. Again, the Old Testament judgments were often temporal and limited, but Christ speaks of the absolute finality of eternal wrath and judgment.

Given my continuing interest with the problem of continuity between the testaments, judgment, and wrath, I want to point out a few things.

First, Ireneaus’ logic here is entirely driven by Scripture and Christ. I note this against Kotsko who seeks to find an explanation for Ireneaus’s non-universalist views, given his understanding of God as a non-violent, “saving being.” Kotsko suggests that Ireneaus is understandably frustrated at the perversity of his opponent teachers who are “culpably stupid,” “unpersuadable,” and seem “impervious to reason,” because “if people cannot accept the gospel, there is simply no hope for them.” Irenaeus, therefore, inconsistently ends up demonizing his opponents, mired in wicked unreason and deceiving others just as the Devil does, leaving God a perpetrator of the greatest exclusion and violence imaginable.

Now, that some of this is part of Ireneaus’s logic seems clear. But contra Kotsko, this is not a logic fueled by mere frustration. It is rather one he derives explicitly from both Old and New Testaments, but most clearly from the words of Christ himself and the unique, epoch-transitioning work of the Incarnation of the Son. Only the assumption that Ireneaus was retroactively applying texts to fit a logic derived independently of them (an assumption belied by Irenaeus’s programmatic attention to the authority of Scripture), could lead one to miss this point. Ireneaus, therefore, seems to define the peace and salvific nature of God according to the historical works of God revealed in Scripture.

Second, it is worth noting that, much as with Cyril of Alexandria, Ireneaus takes a cue from Christ’s words and assumes that God is the active agent of judgment in both the Old Testament as well as in eternity. And this is born out in the several chapters surrounding this one.

Third, it is common to some advocates of revisionist approaches to the Old Testament that you can more commonly find Church Fathers accepting OT passages of active, divine judgment and wrath at face value, post-Constantine, largely because the Church became accommodated to the ways of Empire and power. I simply want to note that Ireneaus of Lyons (along with Tertullian and arguably Lactantius) places a very large question-mark on that thesis.

Irenaeus was not a comfortable 5th Century bishop. No, he was a 2nd Century bishop who wrote this work around 180 AD. He died around 202 AD. This is long before (100 years or so), before the rise of Constantine or the birth of the Imperial Church. He was alive for the persecution of the Church under Marcus Aurelius. He succeeded the prior bishop at Lyon because he was martyred for the faith. Ireneaus was manifestly not someone who had been rendered comfortable with the notion of divine, active judgment because of his desensitization to the violent, coercive ways of Empire.

Instead, it seems better to recognize that Ireneaus read the Bible the way he did, and posed the problem the way he did, precisely because as a biblical theologian (arguably the first), he was radically attentive to the unity of God’s works and ways in the economy of salvation. Much as we ought to be.

Soli Deo Gloria