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Irenaeus as a contemporary theologian

I come to this conference as a theologian rather than a Patristics scholar, although I am

convinced that at some level a theologian must also be a student of the Church Fathers
and Mothers, even if that is not their area of specialisation.
When I learnt that the conference theme was to be Patristic Exegesis and
Hermeneutics, this immediately raised for me the question of how theologians approach
and appropriate the work of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church.
This paper will describe patristic hermeneutics and contemporary hermeneutics as
parallel approaches. I will argue that there is a basic consistency between how Irenaeus
understands the unity and plurality of Christian faith and the contemporary Catholic
theological hermeneutics of tradition.
One might ask whether this a function of the relative amorphousness and indeterminacy
of second century Christianity or does the similarity between the two periods of the
church lie in the fact that we also find ourselves needing to re-imagine and rearticulate
the Christian kerygma in the response to the experience of a burgeoning pluralism?
Either way, the work of Irenaeus provides plenty of opportunities and resources for
contemporary theology. But lest I be guilty of Irenaeus contention against the Gnostics
of adapting the good words of revelation to [my] own wicked inventions
I will look at
Irenaeus and his own hermeneutics as a guide for the contemporary theologian.
The contemporary attraction of Irenaeus theology
The work of Irenaeus has a great attraction for many people today. One of the challenges
of contemporary theology is to find a means of expressing the Christian faith in terms
that are at home with the view of an evolving universe as presented by the sciences, and
that make sense of pluralism and dynamism of human societies shaped by history,
language and culture. This is often a problem when dealing with a tradition that has been
shaped by a more static view of the universe and social order.
On this score, the writings of Irenaeus seem to hold much promise. The picture that
Irenaeus paints of salvation history is one in which creation, incarnation, and redemption
are intrinsically related as part of a single movement of Gods grace. He presents what
appears to be a holistic picture of the Christian tradition in which nothing is left out of the
Christian story of salvation. In the soteriology of Irenaeus, the incarnation of the Word
flows from creation through the Word and inaugurates the process whereby creation itself
is exalted and enabled to share in the fullness of the divine life itself.
All things were made through the Word of God; who also at the end of the times, for the
recapitulation of all things, was made human among humans, visible and tangible, in
order to abolish death and show forth life and bring about the communion of God and

Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 1.3.6.
Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Teaching, 6.
There are two aspects to this recapitulation of which Irenaeus speaks. The first aspect
involves the restoration of what was lost. Though sin results in a dispersal, the work of
redemption is to restore the order, unity and intent of creation.
But the work of
recapitulation goes beyond the idea of simple restitution towards the idea that redemption
is none other than the fulfilment of creation itself. Irenaeus argues against the idea of the
restitution of a lost perfection as this idea was foundational to the heretical Gnostic
thought systems that Irenaeus was attempting to refute. For the Gnostics, the whole of the
material world itself was the result of the fall from grace, the loss of perfection. Instead,
Irenaeus offers us a view of creation and salvation history that fits surprisingly well with
the contemporary understanding of an evolutionary universe. Against the Gnostics
Irenaeus would claim that we are not saved from the world, but within and with the
Accordingly, the fall is not quite the catastrophe that it is in those theories of salvation
that depend upon a more static model of the created order. Adams sin was due to
immaturity rather than malice. Drawing on Pauls statement in 1 Corinthians 3.2, I have
fed you with milk and not solid food, for you were not able to take it, Irenaeus argues
that just as a mother may give solid food to an infant, she refrains from doing so since the
child is not yet able to receive it. Similarly, God could also have endowed man with
perfection from the beginning, but man was as yet unable to receive it, being as yet an
Further, Irenaeus explains:
God had power at the beginning to grant perfection to man; but as the latter was
only recently created, he could not possibly have received it, or even if he had
received it, could he have contained it, or containing it, could he have retained it.
The growth and development of humanity, nourished by the Spirit and fulfilled in the Son
is a growth towards the perfection of God.
Humanity came to be created and fashioned in Gods image likeness, the Father
being well pleased and giving the command, the Son acting and creating, the
Spirit nourishing and giving increase, and humanity making gradual progress and
so advancing towards perfection, coming closer, that is to say, to the Uncreated
One. . . Now it was necessary that humanity should in the first instance be
created; and having been created, should receive growth; and having received
growth, should be strengthened; and having been strengthened, should abound;
and having abounded, should recover [from the disease of sin]; and having
recovered, should be glorified; and being glorified, should see his Lord. For God
confers incorruption, and incorruption brings us close to God.
The development of doctrine
The preceding passage seems to clearly suggest that humanity grows in understanding
and stature, a view that is clearly consistent with the contemporary scientific story but

David N. Power, Irenaeus of Lyons on Baptism and Eucharist. Selected texts with Introduction,
Translation and Annotation (Nottingham: Grove Books, 1991) 9.
Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 4. 38. 1.
Against the Heresies, 4, 38, 2
Against the Heresies, 4, 38, 3.
could also include some nascent idea of the development of doctrine that is compatible
with contemporary historical consciousness. Mary Ann Donovan warns that the very
possibility of development is excluded a priori from the second-century horizon of
consciousness. Instead, to deal with the transmission of the Rule of Faith Irenaeus
invokes the vocabulary of tradition.
In his polemic with the Gnostics, Irenaeus is quite understandably wary of novelty and so
he appeals to tradition. However, Irenaeus treats tradition as the dynamic process of
handing on the rule of faith. It is this rule of faith that is the one still point, the pole
star, in an evolving theological universe. The idea of the rule of faith plays a central role
for Irenaeus as the measure of orthodoxy.
The rule of faith finds expression in the credal statements that arise out of the baptismal
liturgy. Like the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and other creeds, Irenaeus summarises the
content of faith under the three headings of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it is
worth noting that in Against the Heresies, if not in the Proof of the Apostolic Teaching,
and in contrast to the Nicene Creed, it is under the heading of the Holy Spirit that the
events of salvation history are enumerated. It is the Holy Spirit that proclaims the life,
death and resurrection of J esus
[The Church 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 J esus, 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 J esus, our Lord, and
His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all
things in one.

The Christian revelation, therefore, is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. This would
suggest that any development of understanding is also the work of the Holy Spirit. It is
the same Spirit that is nourishing and giving increase to humanity making gradual
progress and so advancing towards perfection, coming closer . . . to the Uncreated One.

This would seem to me to suggest that doctrine does develop under the guidance of the
Holy Spirit. In another passage, Irenaeus enumerates what he considers to be the limits of
legitimate interpretation.
It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and lesser degrees of
intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith]
itself, and should conceive of some other God besides Him who is the Framer,
Maker, and Preserver of this universe, (as if He were not sufficient for them), or
of another Christ, or another Only-begotten. But the fact referred to simply
implies this, that one may [more accurately than another] bring out the meaning of

Mary Ann Donovan, One Right Reading? A Guide to Irenaeus,( Collegeville, Mn.: The Liturgical Press,
1997) 12.
Against the Heresies 1.10.1
Against the Heresies, 4. 38. 3.
those things which have been spoken in parables, and accommodate them to the
general scheme of the faith
So Irenaeus would not countenance interpretation or development if it involved adding
something new but saw fidelity to the Christian tradition to lie in continuity. This is
nonetheless a creative fidelity in which meaning and implications of the Gospel need to
be worked out in the present.
The principles of continuity and harmony
The principles of continuity and harmony are key hermeneutic principles in the thought
of Irenaeus. This is also evident in Irenaeus ecclesiastical diplomacy in dealing with
disputes between churches. As his intervention in the dispute between Rome and the
churches of Asia Minor over the date of Easter showed,
Irenaeus held that one
apostolic church cannot be judged by the tradition of another as all apostolic churches
hold the same tradition, even though practices may vary amongst them. If a dispute then
were to occur between two churches, that is, between two places, then appeal could be
made to continuity in time, to ancient practice.
Similarly, if there were a dispute arising from discontinuity in time, between ancient and
contemporary practice, the harmony of practice across the churches of the world in the
present would testify to its authenticity. The problem with Gnostic teaching, Irenaeus
argued, was its novelty and total lack of continuity. They contradict the order and
continuity of the scriptures.
In other words, they lack harmony and continuity.
The principle of continuity therefore worked in two directions. It was both a diachronic
(across time) and diatopic (across place) principle.
This corresponds closely with what many contemporary Catholic theologians call a
hermeneutic of mutually critical correlation. This method is in fact nothing other than a
hermeneutically self-conscious clarification and correction of traditional theology.
The theological method of mutually critical correlation establishes theological reflection
within the contingencies and the constraints upon the human for which no single term can
lay an exclusive claim. To understand a message in its context is to understand a
relationship. Theological reflection is a correlation of relationships rather than of terms,
the correlation itself also being another relationship. The gospel truth arises out of the
ongoing conversation. The unity and the identity of the meaning of the gospel lies in the
relationship between all terms, their continuity and harmony. What is normative is the

Against the Heresies 1.10.3. Grant, interestingly, in his translation gives this paragraph the title: What
theological method can and cannot do. Robert M. Grant Irenaeus of Lyons (London 1997) 71
Euseb. Hist. eccl. 5.24, E
Against the Heresies. 3.4.1; SC 211 46.
Against the Heresies. 1.8.1; SC 264 112, Eng. trans. Grant, 65.
Robert Grant and David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, Second Edition.
(London: SCM Press, 1984) 170. Similarly, Hans Kng talks of a fundamental hermeneutical agreement
which is shared not only by most Catholic exegetes but also a number of younger systematicians more
adequately trained in exegesis. Toward a New Consensus in Catholic (and Ecumenical) Theology, in
Consensus in Theology? A Dialogue with Hans Kng and Edward Schillebeeckx, ed. Leonard Swidler.
(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980) 4.
unity of the whole, which cannot be identified with any single term. This is made clear by
Schillebeeckx in the following diagram:
The given articulation or relationship
J esus message the New Testament message
------------------ = -----------------------------------
the socio-historical the socio-historical context
context of J esus of the NT

is reproduced, for example, in the relationship:

patristic understanding of faith medieval understanding of faith
------------------------------------- = ---------------------------------------
the socio-historical context then the socio-historical context then

and this relationship, given and reproduced, must ultimately be reproduced once
more in the following relationship or articulation:

the present understanding of faith in the year [2004]
our socio-historical and existential context in the year [2004]

This corresponds with what Ben Meyer calls development by transposition which he
describes as supposing that every act of meaning is embedded in a context and that the
maintenance of meaning from one context to another . . . affirms, as the starting point of
early Christian development, not a low christology, low ecclesiology, etc., but an
experience of salvation.
The rule of faith
This experience of salvation found its primary expression in the worship and sacraments
of the Church. Even the scriptures themselves are derived from it. As Louis-Marie
Chauvet argues, the Christian meal is the place par excellence where the evangelical
composition of history was crystallised. The gospel read in the Eucharistic celebration
was born out of the celebration itself.
The New Testament is the written precipitate

Edward Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God. (New York: Crossroad, 1991) 42.
Ben F. Meyer, The Early Christians. Their World Mission and Self-Discovery. (Wilmington: Michael
Glazier, 1986) 190.
Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Interpretation of Christian Existence.
(Collegeville, Mn.: The Liturgical Press, 1995) 197.
The New Testament in the Churchs book for two reasons: First, it arose from the communities themselves.
Each of the evangelists wrote for their own respective communities with the concerns and perspectives of
those communities in mind. Second, the gospels were received by those communities and it was the
community who recognised those texts as inspired. The appropriation of the scriptural text by the
community is constitutive, not merely of the community, but of the canonicity of scripture itself. One of the
decisive factors for the recognition of a book of scripture seems to have been whether the book was used in
the churchs liturgy. In other words, could the text be prayed?
of that faith
that comes to be through its liturgical proclamation, as J ustin witnesses.

The rule of faith is the communitys faith in J esus Christ expressed liturgically in the
It is to the liturgical expression of faith that Irenaeus turns for support of his own
teaching: Our teaching is in accord with the Eucharist and the Eucharist, in its turn,
confirms our teaching.
It is, Irenaeus tells us, by means of baptism that the rule of faith
is received.

First of all the rule of faith bids us bear in mind that we have received baptism for
the remission of sins, in the name of God the Father, and in the name of J esus
Christ, the Son of God, who was incarnate and died and rose again, and in the
Holy Spirit of God; and that this baptism is the seal of eternal life and is rebirth
unto God.

One of the implications of this identification of the content of the rule of faith with its
liturgical expression is that the rule of faith cannot be identified with any particular
theory or theology that reflects upon or gives rational expression to the liturgical action.
Languages and the historical and cultural expression of it may vary, but the function of
the rule of faith is to unify the Church. Even illiterate barbarians may possess salvation,
written without paper or ink by the Spirit in their hearts [and] diligently observe the
ancient tradition.
Neither does it depend upon the intelligence or sophistication of the
individual Christian.

This state of affairs is not simply the result of the indeterminate and nascent doctrines of
the church in the second century but a recognition that the source of theology is the
liturgy as the primary expression of the faith of the church.
Fidelity to the tradition consists in continuing to give witness to the primary experience
of Christian faith. But the unity of the Christian faith itself lies not in its cultural and
historical expressions, but in that primary experience of salvation that gives rise to them.
In this, I believe that Irenaeus would feel at home with the approach taken by most
contemporary Catholic theologians.

Lee Martin McDonald finds that: The question of whether a book should be regarded as scripture and
placed within the canon seems to have been determined ultimately by early Church use. The Formation of
the Christian Biblical Canon. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988)160.
Donovan, One Right Reading? 14.
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and
the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read 1 Apology 67.
Against the Heresies, 4.18.5.
Rule of the truth which is received by means of baptism Against the Heresies 1.9.4.
Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Teaching, 3.
Against the Heresies,. 3.4.2: SC 211 48, Eng. trans. Grant, 127.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence,
teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he
who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the
same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor
does one who can say but little diminish it Against the Heresies, 1.10.2