Friday, November 23, 2012

Coming to Terms With Forgotten Reports of an Ecclesiastical Council Determining Orthodoxy During the Reign of Hadrian [Part Three]

So it is that in our previous installments we have been developing Stuart Hall's identification of Irenaeus with the 'Sabellian' pupil Praxeas.  In our first post we noted that his master Polycarp (the only place he is so-named, he is otherwise referenced as 'the elder' in Against Heresies) is identified as the living spokesman of the Church (= the apostles).  While very people have ever taken a critical eye to the surviving works of Irenaeus we have noted in previous posts that Against Heresies as it now stands was assembled by someone after his death from countless 'lectures.'  The 'seam' that joins each book to the next and which references points in a 'previous book' was not in fact written by Irenaeus but by an associate - possible Zephyrinus or even Callistus.

To this end, all that we can say for certain about the original argument in Book Three is that it was Polycarp - not the Roman Church - which epitomized the true message of the apostles for Irenaeus.  In other words, a single authority (μόναρχος) for the monarchian tradition in late second century Rome.  The fact that his rival Florinus is not explicitly mentioned in the treatise points to the fact that material was probably written early in the rule of Victor bishop of Rome.  At this present moment in Irenaeus's career the enemy(ies) were those who posited any sort of autonomy for the Son.  In this Florinus and Irenaeus agreed - whatever the Son was the Father was present with him. It is very reminiscent of the strange ideas of the Shekhina in rabbinic Judaism albeit with a wholly male hypostasis.

By this same token however we can extrapolate as to what defined 'heresy' for the Polycarp clan - viz. any tradition which said the Son acted independently of the Father in any respect.  Let's take up the subject of Creation for the moment.  The tradition of Polycarp (= Sabellianism) as evidenced from Agapius's summary of the beliefs of Florinus argued that the three gods were all together present as one during the making of the world and man.  The Marcionites would certainly have rejected this idea and would have countered that one god was creating while another was in heaven.

There were of course many variations in between these stark positions.  We can point to early 'Catholic' voices - no less than heretical ones - who based on the LXX reading of Psalm 44 said that the Word was 'emitted' from the Father (cf. Tertullian's " “heart has emitted [eructauit] excellent word [sermonem]").  It would take a century or more to hash out some kind of middle ground between the polar opposites of Polycarp and Marcion.  Nevertheless it is important to attempt to put forward our definition of what constituted 'heresy' at least initially in the Roman Church - viz. any tradition which dared to posit that the Son ever acted independently of the Father or (to get to the heart of the Arian dispute years later) any 'separateness' on the part of the Father from the Son.

It is important to have discovered our Syriac source material because it demonstrates that Polycarp was once denounced as a heretic.  This helps explain why Irenaeus transformed his master into a wholly orthodox figure bent on battling 'heresy' - now effectively defined in terms of 'those who excommunicated him at Ancyra.'  In other words, we have to imagine that those who argued for the independence of the various parts of the Trinity (for all early traditions were in one form or another 'Trinitarian' especially Marcionitism cf. Cyril of Jerusalem) could only see the absurdity of the proposition that the Father was crucified on the Cross.    No wonder then that Zuqnin Chronicle not only mentions the Trinity but also 'the Cross' in relation to this heresy.

In some sense then, even though we know very little of the theology of those who condemned Polycarp/Sabellius we can be assured that they (a) understood that the Son functioned independently of the Father in some way and (b) that the crucifixion was necessarily understood as having an effect on the Son without touching the Father.  Moreover we must also imagine that - by mere logical inference - these traditions must also have emphasized that (c) there was a time when the Son was not and (d) - most imporant of all - that after the ascension the Son was wholly absorbed into the Father.

Of course the question may be raised - how do we know (d) is true?  The answer is clearly found by the controversy over the ending of the Gospel of Mark.  While we will never know all that we need to about how it was that so many 'gospel of Marks' were created the fact that Irenaeus chooses to emphasize the ending where the Son goes up to heaven and sits beside his Father (Mark 16:19) is quite interesting.  Why should Irenaeus have taken up such a defense of an ending which appears at least to suppose that the Son and Father continued to have separate essences?  Why moreover is it only Mark which preserves this powerful statement about the continued separated essences of Father and Son?

We will take up that question when we continue to go through Book Three of Against Heresies and see how many times Irenaeus reinforces this understanding (i.e. AH 3.6.1, 10.5, 12.2, 12.5, 12.13, 14.3, 16.9).  It wasn't just to reinforce the channeling of 'Jewish scripture' - i.e. Psalm 110:1 "The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at my right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool."  As we shall see, the 'heretical theology' which Irenaeus opposed promoted two ideas - (a) the divine mission of Jesus was promoted the idea of union of 'many' into one (cf. Philosophumena 7.18) and more importantly perhaps (b) a deep association of 'defectiveness' with plurality and especially the plurality that came as a result of creation.

In other words, the question of whether there was a time 'where the Son was not' was an extremely important question for Irenaeus's enemies.  It wasn't a mere 'rhetorical device' as Athanasius would have us believe from the Arian controversies.  The point that is raised from the question is that multiplicity (and thus 'Creation' as such) was necessarily a bad thing, if - as the Christianity promoted - union with the Father was a good thing and even the best thing.

By acknowledging that there was indeed a time when there was only One it necessarily brings up the desirability of a return to that primal state.  In other words, it wasn't just that we as individuals were going to be united with the Father and the world of multiplicity would continue going on happily.  Clearly the question of 'a time when the Son was not' raises the ultimate end time where everything goes back to the way it was in the beginning - i.e. 'all Father,' 'all One.'  The ending of the Gospel of Mark which Irenaeus preferred (remember Irenaeus is arguing on behalf of one choice of endings) posits the two beings partaking in an artificially created 'oneness' (for it is mathematically impossible for 'two' to equal 'one' no less than 'three' - just ask the Islamic polemicists against the Trinity).

The obvious inference from all of this was that Irenaeus and the Sabellian tradition were a reaction against the implications of the original Christian system which acknowledged multiplicity at Creation (not the beginning but a point after the period of cosmic 'Oneness') and a return to the perfection of that Oneness 'in the end.'  By positing that two or three gods could be 'one' at every stage of world history described in the Pentateuch (i.e. all the events that Justin and various other contemporary Christians saw the Son acting independently of the Father - i.e. the Creation, the making of man, the destruction of Babel, the burning bush etc.) and more importantly that there never was a time when the Son was not (even though this is downright silly given the fact that the very titles 'Father' and 'Son' necessitate a period 'before the Son') what was effectively being denied was the now heretical belief that the Son and all things would be absorbed into the Oneness of the Father 'in the end.'

This is critical to understand the discussion we are about to have going line by line through what remains of Irenaeus's Against Heresies Book Three. Irenaeus represents the pissed off girlfriend who is fighting tooth and nail against a proposition which 'makes sense' (i.e. which has a rational purpose to it) merely because he doesn't like the implication of the story (i.e. that the Son i.e. the 'Jewish god' disappears and is absorbed into something greater than himself).  Why so?  Because we must imagine that Polcarp, Florinus and Irenaeus had some vested person association with Judaism and 'the god of the Jews' and such an argument seemed to depreciate its/his authority.

So it is that what we are about to witness with Irenaeus's attack against the heresies through the authority of Polycarp (unmentioned throughout) is ultimately an attempt to deny the inevitability of the conclusion that the Son was meant to be absorbed into the Father.  This is why the resurrection of the dead becomes such a focus for Irenaeus (vis a vis Tertullian).  The Catholic idea was that when we die we wake up in a separate body, indeed all of us in separate bodies, billions and billions of them).  Why so?  Because the 'heretics' again promoted a doctrine of absorption into the One.

One can assume that these people used Jesus response to the question about marriage - namely that people aren't married in heaven they are 'equal to the angels.'  In other words, as Tertullian notes "they are not to die, but are destined to pass into the angelic state by putting on the raiment of incorruption."  The underlying idea again is not merely a denial of 'physical flesh' but certainly also multiplicity.  It cannot be coincidence that the name Irenaeus picked for his master was 'Polycarp' (= many fruit).  It is a bald statement of theological purpose - or perhaps better a 'reaction' against the pre-existent theology - as much as it is anything else.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.