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

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

Turning the King Into a Fox (Or, Irenaeus on the Silliness of Heresy)


I love foxes, but still, not as good as Jesus.

Among other things I’ve been reading Irenaeus’ classic Against Heresies and loving it. His goal in the work is to describe and debunk the heretical teaching of the Valentinian gnostics who were perverting Christian teaching into their bizarre, absurd system. The most frustrating part was the way these gnostic teachers, in their attempt to fool the faithful, were twisting scriptures in order to support their teaching:

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. –Against Heresies, 1.7.1

Explaining the way the gnostic use of the Bible was unbiblical, he came up with a brilliant analogy for their method of scriptural interpretation:

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma. -ibid, 1.7.1

Basically it’s like they’ve taken the Mona Lisa, cut it up, and re-pasted it together in the shape of a toilet and called it Leonardo’s masterpiece–or rather an improvement on it. Now, the fact that this can happen with the scriptures, that people can take them, quote them, and use them to justify all sorts of doctrines is troubling to some. Many, in seeing the way scripture is used in the mouths of false teachers and heretics, might despair of them, or doubt their beauty and efficacy. Not Irenaeus. He says that for the faithful, this shouldn’t invalidate the scriptures or make them any less true and precious:

In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics. -ibid, 1.9.1

The key is taking the precious stones and restoring them to their “proper position”; contextual reading of the scriptures according to basic principles of exegesis matters. Verses need to be taken within chapters, chapters within book, books within the canon, and, yes, for those of us at the end of the 20th century, canon within the broader churchly tradition of interpretation. (Not that the tradition stands over the scriptures, but at the very least it doesn’t hurt to listen to what wise biblical teachers of other generations past have found in them.) When we do these things, instead of the fox, the beautiful picture of King Jesus emerges once more, ready for the adoration and worship God intended to lead us into through his Spirit-inspired scriptures.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ireneaus Summarizes the Faith

saint_Irenaeus_Early_Church_FatherHistorical myopia is a perennial danger to Church, especially in the area of theology. Every generation has its own particular, culturally-conditioned ways of talking about the Gospel, even when it works from the same biblical texts and recites the same creeds. In our own sin and shortsightedness, we have themes we love to highlight and those topics we’d rather not bring up in polite company. This is why every once in a while it’s good to stop, expand our vision, and listen to Christians of other generations expound or summarize the faith, especially the giants, those respected teachers known for speaking well for the Church as a whole.

On that note, here’s St. Irenaeus, the first great church theologian of the post-Apostolic period, laying out the Church’s faith in contrast to the convoluted Valentinian Gnostic system:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. -St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 1.10.1

Soli Deo Gloria

Irenaeus: “God Doesn’t Need Your Obedience–You Do”

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (2nd century C.E. – c. 202) was a stud for many reasons. First off, he was a theological beast. His multi-volume defense of the faith against the Gnostic teachers, Against Heresieswas probably the first real biblical theology in the post-Apostolic period and has deeply influenced Christianity, both East and West, ever since.  Aside from his theological beastliness, he stands out when it comes to faithfulness in ministry, taking up his bishopric right after the last bishop got martyred.

Sometimes I wonder what motivated the faithful obedience of men like Irenaeus–bravely taking up a pastoring job when, basically, the blood of the last guy who took the job was still fresh on the ground. What gave him passion? What gave him courage? What gave him the drive to follow Christ with such radical obedience and faith? It seems like that’s such a harsh demand, something too great for God to ask of anyone. If it were me, I might be tempted to ask, “Why do you need me there anyways? Why are you depending on me? What’s so important to you about my obedience?”

It turns out that Irenaeus probably would’ve rejected the question as confused.He knew something that a lot of us contemporary American Christians don’t: God doesn’t need your obedience–you do. I’ll let him explain:

In the beginning, therefore, did God form Adam, not as if He stood in need of man, but that He might have [some one] upon whom to confer His benefits. For not alone antecedently to Adam, but also before all creation, the Word glorified His Father, remaining in Him; and was Himself glorified by the Father, as He did Himself declare, “Father, glorify Thou Me with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.”(John 17:5) Nor did He stand in need of our service when He ordered us to follow Him; but He thus bestowed salvation upon ourselves.

For to follow the Saviour is to be a partaker of salvation, and to follow light is to receive light. But those who are in light do not themselves illumine the light, but are illumined and revealed by it: they do certainly contribute nothing to it, but, receiving the benefit, they are illumined by the light. Thus, also, service [rendered] to God does indeed profit God nothing, nor has God need of human obedience; but He grants to those who follow and serve Him life and incorruption and eternal glory, bestowing benefit upon those who serve [Him], because they do serve Him, and on His followers, because they do follow Him; but does not receive any benefit from them: for He is rich, perfect, and in need of nothing. But for this reason does God demand service from men, in order that, since He is good and merciful, He may benefit those who continue in His service. For, as much as God is in want of nothing, so much does man stand in need of fellowship with God. For this is the glory of man, to continue and remain permanently in God’s service. -Against Heresies, IV.14.1

He says, God doesn’t need anything. I mean, seriously, think about it–he’s GOD. He’s had everything he needed from all of eternity within his own Triune perfection. He didn’t make Adam in order to serve him because he needed anything, but rather, he made Adam to serve him so that he could reward him with good. He says, “follow me” because following him leads to the life he already has in abundance. He continues on:

Wherefore also did the Lord say to His disciples, “Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you;” (John 15:16) indicating that they did not glorify Him when they followed Him; but that, in following the Son of God, they were glorified by Him. And again, “I will, that where I am, there they also may be, that they may behold My glory;” (John 17:24). not vainly boasting because of this, but desiring that His disciples should share in His glory: of whom Isaiah also says, “I will bring thy seed from the east, and will gather thee from the west; and I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring My sons from far, and My daughters from the ends of the earth; all, as many as have been called in My name: for in My glory I have prepared, and formed, and made him.” (Isa. 43:5). Inasmuch as then, “wheresoever the carcase is, there shall also the eagles be gathered together,” (Matt. 24:28) we do participate in the glory of the Lord, who has both formed us, and prepared us for this, that, when we are with Him, we may partake of His glory. -ibid.

God wants us to obey him because through obedience, we are conformed more and more to the image of his glorious Son. Jesus is inviting us to glorify God so that we might participate in his own glory. The point is, God doesn’t need our obedience due to some lack in himself (even though he righteously demands it and we owe it to him), but part of why he desires it is so that we might gain from it. He’s like a dad telling you to practice some sport, or some instrument, not because he’s going to personally gain from it so much, but because he knows you will. The glory, the beauty, the greatness that will follow that obedience, that discipline, no matter how difficult, is worth it and it is the aim of our God in his commands to us.

Once again, Ireneaus knew what so many of us don’t: We need our obedience far more than God does.

Soli Deo Gloria