Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why a Council of Bishops to Determine Heresy During the Reign of Hadrian Makes Sense [Part Two]

In our previous post in this series we noted that the traditional understanding of how the 'war against heresies' started in the Church simply doesn't make sense.  The great general of this war is of course Irenaeus, supposedly a bishop of Lyons, but clearly someone who spent a lot of time at Rome.  It is extremely difficult accept that Irenaeus's war against the Valentinians, the Marcosians and the like was pre-existent in the Church.  Irenaeus feels compelled at the beginning of Against the Valentinians to help explain what the Valentinians are to his readers.  This seems to preclude the idea that there was a pre-existent war against the sect.

For one would hardly have to explain what a Jew is to an anti-Semite or what a black person looks like to someone pre-disposed to hate people of African descent.  Usually in a war there is a clear sense of who the 'enemy' is.  In the case of Against Heresies, Irenaeus is in fact helping define what the enemies looks like, why his readers should hate them.  There is an established justification for the condemning 'heretics.'  Nevertheless it isn't mentioned often enough that the very term 'heresy' is a terminology usually used to describe philosophical sects.  To hate the heresies is at once to hate philosophy - unless you are of course Clement of Alexandria and think you possess the 'true philosophy' which by its nature cannot allow any 'sectarian' division.

Clement's writings clearly demonstrate that the influence of the syntagma were already felt in Alexandria by the turn of the third century.  He clearly has adopted the term 'heresy' in an exclusively negative sense which is contrary to the spirit of 1 Corinthians 11.19 where 'sectarianism' is viewed as something part of the divine plan or even Acts.  There must have been a clear danger to Clement and his Alexandrian tradition to have been labeled a 'heresy.'  So it is that he goes to such extraordinary lengths to adopt the language of the heresy fighters and in particular Irenaeus of Lyons.

The heresies now aren't just those who engage in mystical speculation but are those "opposed to all that ought to be premised in accordance with the profoundest contemplation of the knowledge, which, as we proceed to the renowned and venerable canon of tradition, from the creation of the world."   Not only does the Alexandrian Church now embody the 'venerable canon of tradition' for Clement, he speaks of the true gnostic like himself as always having 'our ears ready for the reception of the tradition of true knowledge; the soil being previously cleared of the thorns and of every weed by the husbandman, in order to the planting of the vine. For there is a contest, and the prelude to the contest; and them are some mysteries before other mysteries. Our book will not shrink from making use of what is best in philosophy and other preparatory instruction." (Strom 1.1)

The reason Clement had to defend the use of philosophy against the charge of 'heresy' is because in reality the terms were inexorably connected with one another. One need only look at what remains of the original 'syntagma against the heresies' to see that it was directed against those who philosophized.  The arrangement of the Philosophumena, no less than its very title, make it explicit.  Nevertheless it has to be wondered how it is that Justin Martyr - a philosopher no less - could have been held up as 'orthodox' by those who opposed 'philosophy' as such.  Something just doesn't quite add up here.  In short, there had to be something rather specific about employing 'philosophy' which raised suspicions of heresy.

Celsus provides at least part of the answer by making specific reference to those who mistakenly argue from Plato that there is a god above God. Yet Celsus also witnesses that the Christian 'heresy' paradigm was pre-existent to either Irenaeus or Clement. In one passage he speaks of 'truly godless heretics' among the Christians (καὶ αἱρέσεων μὲν ἀθέων) and then In the next place, since he reproaches us with the existence of heresies in Christianity (τῶν ἐν χριστιανισμῷ αἱρέσεων) as being a ground of accusation against it, saying that "when Christians had greatly increased in numbers, they were divided and split up into factions, each individual desiring to have his own party;" and further, that "being thus separated through their numbers, they confute one another, still having, so to speak, one name in common, if indeed they still retain it. And this is the only thing which they are yet ashamed to abandon, while other matters are determined in different ways by the various sects." (Against Celsus 3:12)

The point of course was that there was already a tendency as early as the time of Antoninus Pius - if not Hadrian - where factionalism was being viewed in an unfavorable light. Indeed it wasn't just a situation where members of the tradition were 'embarrassed' by the situation. Celsus himself seems to be demanding one voice, one opinion, one truth from the tradition. In a strange way then the emergence of Irenaeus as the historical fulfillment of this expectation isn't all that strange, especially when he is identified as holding monarchian views (= that the Son was the Father and the Father was the Son).

While it may be strange for our ears, the Eastern tradition originally held that a council was held during the time of Hadrian and condemned the very monarchianism which Irenaeus took to be orthodoxy. Why wouldn't 'streamlining' the godhead be a good thing - or better yet - why would the Imperial government prefer 'Sabellianism' to its dualistic counterpart? As there can be no good reason found for favoring 'ditheism' it will have to be accepted that the council under Hadrian was a spontaneous condemnation of a proponent of the very beliefs Irenaeus fifty years later took to be 'orthodox.'

It is tempting to fit Polycarp into the role of 'Sabellius' or even 'Noetus' - who after all is identified as coming from Smyrna. But that isn't the point yet. Even at its barest, there is a clear sense of Polycarp being the spokesman for Sabellianism in the Antonine period. If we go back to our last post we noted that something just doesn't make sense about the tradition interpretation of Irenaeus's story about Polycarp condemning Marcion in Rome.

There is a clear sense in Irenaeus's set up that Polycarp the man was of equal if not greater authority to the Roman episcopacy. Yet it is equally striking to see how 'at home' Valentinus, Marcion and the rest of the heretics were in the city before Polycarp's arrival. What we didn't mention in that post - and it is something which almost never gets mentioned - is that it is not difficult to see a Sabellian thread running through the material that follows.

Take for example the famous exchange which follows Marcion asking 'Do you recognize me?' Polycarp responds ' 'I do recognize you ... [I recognize you] as the first-born of Satan.' (AH 3.3.4)  Most people simply assume that this has no deep significance other than a report of an exchange between the two men. Yet clearly for the rest of us, we recognize that Irenaeus cares very little about keeping to the literal facts. Something deeper, more mystical is being referenced here.

If we take a second look it is clear that Marcion was recognized as something by most everyone else in Rome or asking the Romans to recognize something which Polycarp and Irenaeus refused to acknowledge. The response - 'firstborn [Son] of Satan' - provides the most important clue. Marcion was speaking about recognizing the separate existence of the Son. Polycarp was condemning such a view as heretical, no less than his pupil Irenaeus did generations later.

For those who think this is a stretch, we need only follow the argument through the pages that follow. Immediately after the reference to Polycarp 'teaching the truth of the Asian Churches in Rome' the Sabellian heartland, he goes back to theme of the importance of 'firm apostolic traditions.' He writes "since therefore we have such proofs (as Polycarp spoke of), it is not necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the Church; since the apostles, like a rich man in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life." (ibid 3.4.1)

Most commentators read this comment the wrong way - i.e. as if it exclusively pertains to the Roman episcopal line cited a few paragraphs earlier. The reality is however that it is has more to do with Polycarp who has just been identified as the one "who had received this one and sole truth from the apostles,--that, namely, which is handed down by the Church ... the Church in Ephesus, founded by Paul, and having John remaining among them permanently until the times of Trajan, is a true witness of the tradition of the apostles." Indeed the whole Church of Asia is now described as being headed by the 'disciples of Polycarp, the disciple of the apostles.' (ibid 3.3.4)

To this end when Irenaeus goes on to say that the Church "is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers" he is juxtaposing the churches of Polycarp with all who challenge his/the Church of Asia's authority. Moreover Irenaeus against asks "suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?"

While it is convenient to assume that Irenaeus is talking about the Church of Rome here the context of the statement with Polycarp immediately preceding the material and a specific reference to 'churches' - i.e. the Church of Asia - makes it clear what Irenaeus really means. The fact that there is a lengthy insertion of the Roman episcopal list from Hegesippus only distracts us from the original flow of the narrative. Irenaeus is juxtaposing the 'hidden mysteries' of the heretics with the parrhesia (= openness, frankness) of Polycarp.

Yet we should also see that the ditheism of the Rome necessarily implies the existence of a hidden Father. The Son after all is the Jewish Creator who was already known to the world. Irenaeus's system however assumes that God the Father:

because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through 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. (ibid 3.4.2)

We of course would expect something like the statement that God so loved the world that he sent his only son.'  While it has to be acknowledged that Irenaeus introduces this formula awkwardly - again undoubtedly the result of slight workings to correct what even Photius saw as signs of 'wrong belief' in Irenaeus writings - his basic premise is Sabellian.

Can it be proved that Irenaeus took this doctrine from Polycarp? It is certainly true that when he speaks of 'barbarians' converted to the Christian message he invokes the example of Polycarp and his teacher John:

If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established. (ibid 3.4.2)

Compare the manner in which Irenaeus describes Polycarp in other text:

And I can bear witness before God, that if that blessed and presbyter had heard any such thing, he would have cried out, and stopped his ears, exclaiming as he was wont to do: O good God, for what times have You reserved me, that I should endure these things? And he would have fled from the very spot where, sitting or standing, he had heard such words. This fact, too, can be made clear, from his Epistles which he dispatched, whether to the neighbouring Churches to confirm them, or to certain of the brethren, admonishing and exhorting them.

The point of course is that we can be absolutely certain that Irenaeus is voicing Polycarp's monarchian creed given the manner in which the text is sandwiched between two allusions to his master.  Moreover if we continue on to the very next line we see the original 'opponents' of Polycarp - Valentinus and Marcion - from a few paragraphs earlier are reintroduced for good effect.

Irenaeus writes that "prior to Valentinus, those who follow Valentinus had no existence; nor did those from Marcion exist before Marcion; nor, in short, had any of those malignant-minded people, whom I have above enumerated, any being previous to the initiators and inventors of their perversity." (ibid 3.4.3) Even more historical references to the historical period that each heresy came to Rome follow but the underlying point is the same - the heretics are being contrasted with the monarchian faith of Irenaeus's master Polycarp.  So Irenaeus continues:

Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God ... Neither did His disciples make mention of any other God, or term any other Lord, except Him, who was truly the God and Lord of all, as these most vain sophists affirm that the apostles did with hypocrisy frame their doctrine according to the capacity of their hearers, and gave answers after the opinions of their questioners,--fabling blind things for the blind, according to their blindness; for the dull according to their dulness; for those in error according to their error. And to those who imagined that the Demiurge alone was God, they preached him; but to those who are capable of comprehending the unnameable Father, they did declare the unspeakable mystery through parables and enigmas: so that the Lord and the apostles exercised the office of teacher not to further the cause of truth, but even in hypocrisy, and as each individual was able to receive it (ibid 3.5.1)

The thing that is never comprehended by scholars of course is the fact Irenaeus isn't really saying what we think he is saying.  The real target of Irenaeus are those who challenge monarchianism - the 'truth' that the Father was indistinguishable from the Son and vice versa.

All the discussion about the 'secret doctrines' of the heresies is really a distraction from his main point - it is heretical to argue that there are two gods.  As we continue through this section the reader will - I hope - see that Irenaeus and Polycarp do indeed form a chain back to Sabellius, undoubtedly because Polycarp himself was likely the original heretic of Christianity.

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