Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Irenaeus's Sabellian Creed

I am very interested in this 'Sabellian creed' that I happen to stumble on in Irenaeus Against Heresies 3.4.1:

To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man by Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed

It has long been noted that what we are witnessing here is a window into one of the earliest creeds.  But what is generally ignored is the underlying Sabellian point that Irenaeus is making. 

Let's take a look at this critical text in the surviving Latin (the original Greek is now lost):

in unum Deum credentes fabricatorem caeli et terrae, et omnium quae in eis sunt, per Christum Jesum Dei Filium. qui propter eminentissimam erga figmentum Suum dilectionem, eam quae esset ex Virgine generationem sustinuit, ipse per se hominem adunans Deo et passus sub Pontio Pilato, et resurgens, et in claritate receptus, in gloria venturus Salvator eorum qui salvantur, et Judex eorum qui judicantur, et mittens in ignem aeternum transfiguratores veritatis.

If we break the material down into its logical components we see that Irenaeus basically says Polycarp taught him to believe in 'one God' - the Father (although strangely explicit reference to this being has been removed) - 'the creator of heaven and earth ... by means of Christ Jesus his Son.'  The subject of the creed is still the Father 'who because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself (i.e. the Father) uniting man by Himself to God.'

The reader may wonder how it can be that it is the Father who unites man to God.  The answer will come clearer as we look at Irenaeus's understanding of Exodus 3:14 where it is the Father present in the burning bush.  For the moment at least we will only have to remember that according to tradition Marcionite usage - borrowed certainly from the understanding of Philo of Alexandria θεός (= Deo) is the power of mercy who unites with Jacob.  The original twosided nature of the lower powers of God are still very present in Irenaeus's creed as we see in what follows - "Salvator eorum qui salvantur, et Judex eorum qui judicantur. "  Nevertheless the real discovery in this creed is the implication of the Father suffering on the cross - "passus sub Pontio Pilato, et resurgens, et in claritate receptus."  We have at long last discovered the source of the 'Patripassian' heresy.

Of course in order for all of this to be true the conclusion - 'et contemptores Patris sui et adventus ejus' - must be understood to have been tacked on to the end of the creed as part of a systematic 'correction' of the Sabellian tendencies in Irenaeus's writings.  Nevertheless, Photius already tells us how heterorthodox Irenaeus's original writings were in their original form.  The idea that the word 'Father' should only appear now at the very end of the creed is ridiculous given its prominence in the 'Our Father' (i.e. right at the beginning).  A subsequent corrector merely removed the reference to 'the Father' at the beginning of the passage and only included it at the end as part of an effort to reassure that all that came before it was referencing the Son, and thus denying the obvious - viz. that Irenaeus was a Sabellian.

Indeed just think about it for a second.  The heretics are nowhere else accused of 'despising the Father.'  In fact what is almost always true - at least according to Irenaeus - that they claim that the Father is different from the Son.  From Irenaeus's point view of course, there is no difference between Father and Son, they are inseparable and thus the heretics can no longer claim that the Son was known but the Father unknown.  It is simply impossible to find a reasonable argument which suggests that the heretics 'despised the Father.'  If anything they are accused of paying excessive honor to Him.  Irenaeus's point is that he's no big deal, no big secret as the heretics claim.  The Father was already known in the Jewish scriptures.

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