Sunday, May 19, 2013

Methodius, Irenaeus and the Fall of Marcionitism

I am increasingly convinced that the writings of Methodius date back somehow to Irenaeus.  The idea has come to me rather gradually but it obviously starts with the common use of Maximus, Methodius and Adamantius of a core text which is connection with Marcionitism.  I don't know exactly what this original text was exactly. It is identified with Maximus as On Matter (περὶ τῆς ὕλης) and On Free Will when connected with Methodius.  This lost work was also somehow transformed into a key part of the Dialogue of Adamantius, otherwise known as De Recta in Deum Fide. 

It is the strangest thing but I had to attend a baptism today and heard the Catholic priest spell out what is now the core Catholic doctrines in his homily (although dressed up in a discussion of last years Lincoln movie).  I started to think about the extended sections I had been reading from Methodius's work which have to do with the Devil.  It occurred to me Methodius might well be the positive content from Irenaeus.  We should remember his major surviving works Against Heresies and Proof of Apostolic Preaching represent the negative aspects of his teaching.  Surely Irenaeus wasn't just some grumpy old man who attacked heresies all day.  There must have been some 'positive content' to his teaching.

That understanding of Irenaeus is now lost.  But it is hard not to see Methodius filling that hole for us.  There is - or was - only one English speaking authority on Methodius, Lloyd George Patterson and he makes plain that Methodius never stops borrowing from Irenaeus.  The original German translator Bonwetsch demonstrated the same thing.  The problem of course is that 'Methodius' never references the name 'Irenaeus' when he is citing or echoing Irenaeus.  He does mention other Church Fathers - Athenagoras for instance, all of which makes the situation more interesting.

The biggest stumbling block to the theory is the fact that Jerome identifies Methodius as the author of Against Porphyry, a pagan critic of Christianity from the second half of the second century. Nevertheless it is worth noting that "Patterson detects influences of Irenaeus,. Theophilus of Antioch, and Origen on Methodius's view, as well as Aristotelian elements, but says that Methodius did not know Plotinus and Porphyry. In fact, Patterson agrees with V. Buchheit that, despite Jerome's reports that wrote extensively against Porphyry, the extant fragments Contra Porphyrium are not his."

Without the obstacle of Contra Porphyry the many clues that Methodius is much earlier than the turn of the fourth century (= late second century/beginning of the third century) is much easier to argue.  It should be noted again that Eusebius identifies 'Maximus' as living at this very time and Eusebius never acknowledges the existence of a 'Methodius' in his Church History.  Another review of Patterson's book on Methodius notes that:

Patterson effectively challenges the heresy-hunter Epiphanius's appropriation, a century later, of Methodius as an antagonist to Origen. He argues that Epiphanius probably invented Methodius's designation as a bishop and martyr, which he is the first person to attest, in order to enhance his prestige as an opponent of Origen. Martyrdom, if poorly attested, is not improbable, given that he did not survive the Great Persecution. The picture Patterson presents is of an independent thinker whose relationship to Origen is more complex than we might assume from Epiphanius. To begin with, he places Methodius in a broader theological context than simple reaction to Origen. While depending heavily on Origen, Methodius made creative use of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria as well. (Clement has also, if to a lesser extent than Methodius, been obscured by Origen's shadow; an incidental reference and footnote suggest that Irenaeus's influence on Clement needs further study.) Patterson goes so far as to claim that, "The chief theological themes of the Symposium are the result of a working together of elements of Irenaeus grand view of the economy of salvation and Clement's preoccupation with the freeing of souls from the passions in anticipation of the final perfection of both souls and bodies

If Patterson is willing to say that Epiphanius 'made up' most of the Methodius identity - and there is so little we know about Methodius - the question arises whether he was an actual person to begin with. 

To be certain we have the surviving writings.  But again, we go back to the fact that Methodius's On Free Will certainly goes back to a text known as 'On Matter' by a person named 'Maximus' who lived in the age of Irenaeus (Commodus to Septimius Severus).  So weak was the existence of this historical personage 'Methodius' that the material was ultimately appropriated by Origenists and developed into the Dialogue of Adamantius.  And let us put forward another consideration for why these writings may have ultimately been divorced from the historical Irenaeus. 

As long as Irenaeus is remembered only as a 'heresy hunter' his own beliefs don't get in the way of his message.  In other words, when politicians go on a crusade their own personal background can be used against them, to weaken the force of their indictment of others (i.e. to demonstrate inconsistency, hypocrisy etc.).  Hall has demonstrated from Tertullian's Against Praxeas that Irenaeus had strong Sabellian tendencies.  Here is another example of Irenaeus's 'positive' beliefs (i.e. those which go beyond merely attacking others) being hidden behind a false name.  Methodius similarly has been described as a strong modalist or monarchian. 

I think that as long as we separate Irenaeus's 'negative' writings from his 'positive' ones - i.e. what he actually believed in - there is also the unconscious identification of his doctrines with 'those of the disciples.'  In other words, when Irenaeus, Praxeas, Maximus and Methodius are put back together as a giant historical 'humpty dumpty' we begin to see that this doctrine of the Fall - which is so absolutely central to the Orthodoxy which emerges in the third century, was simply invented out of the imagination of one particular individual at the end of the second century. 

It is probably time to cite Musurillo on the subject.  He writes that:

As Bonwetsch especially shows, Methodius is in basic agreement with Irenaeus in his doctrine of the fall of man and the Atonement; on Adam; on the providential purpose of the penalty of death after the fall (cf. n. 33 above). On the typology of Adam's birth (from virgin earth) see J. P. Smith's version of Irenaeus' Proof of the Apostolic Preaching §32 (ACW 16.68) ; and on Moses' tabernacle as a pattern of heaven and a type of the Church, ibid. §§26 and 29 (64 f, 67). For the literature on Irenaeus, see Quasten 1.287 ff. It is clear that the Christian community in which Methodius received his formation was deeply under the influence of Irenaeus, and, ultimately, of Pauline theology; but this solid pattern is curiously blended with Alexandrianism and with Methodius's personal mysticism.

Indeed this is exactly what I was thinking when I was sitting in that little church in Bellevue the other day.  We take for granted this 'Judaized' notion of the fall of Adam owing to his disobedience prompted by the Devil, but can this be the original doctrine of Christianity?  Did Christians really believe in Free Will?

The Marcionites certainly did not. As Moll notes the Marcionite myth understands that the Old Testament God created man as a compulsive transgressor, gave him the Law which he was too feeble to obey, and now judges him for his transgressions.  In other words, they did not accept this very Jewish sounding notion of Adam being responsible for his own disobedience or - to turn it around - our own 'choice' of being saved by Jesus.  Jesus's actions in the world led to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, which in turn led to the end of Judaism.  This is one of the strongest arguments for the antiquity of Marcionitism; it simply assumes that its own origins came about as a result of the end of Judaism - i.e. it, itself simply filled a void from the divinely appointed 'end' or 'defeat' of Judaism.

The idea that man 'fell away' from absolute unity with God has no place in Marcionitism.  These Methodian ideas came about at a much later period - almost certainly as a reaction to heresy in the late second century.  In other words, Irenaeus/Methodius saw the emergence of Marcionitism and viewed it as a repetition of the Fall from Paradise.  Instead of arguing that God himself had destroyed Judaism in order to lay the path for the 'perfect religion' (I am borrowing an Islamic term), Irenaeus/Methodius saw that humanity had an obligation to hold on to the true religion, which to a large extent incorporated the original theology of Judaism.

Like the Jews, Irenaeus/Methodius argued that disobedience or turning one's back against God is key.  This is what the Marcionites had accomplished.  There is almost no recognition that only a few generations earlier history had defeated Second Temple Judaism.  Instead Irenaeus, almost as a reaction against Marcionitism and indeed Alexandrian Judaism's belief in two powers in heaven posits a radical understanding of absolute unity in heaven.  The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - indeed the two aspects of God, Mercy and Justice, utterly indistinguishable from the ultimate God. 

This is such a radical notion it eventually sweeps away everything in its path.  Yet it is rarely asked how this was accomplished in history.  The answer has to be that there must have been a large body of 'semi-Christians' - in other words, Jews who accepted Jesus or were soon to accept him - who felt uncomfortable or unwilling to accommodate themselves to parallel 'reformation efforts' within Judaism (i.e. the Mishnah).  It is hard to see how Alexandrian Christianity managed to accommodate itself to Irenaeus/Methodius.  This new doctrine, like the reforms of Judah haNasi must have had Imperial backing.

If we just consider for a moment what the government of the day would have thought of Marcionitism and this new religion for a moment.  With respect to Marcion's doctrines, there is a clear invoking of a 'truer authority' above that of the ruler of the world.  The purpose of humanity is to liberate itself from this one Lord and be 'redeemed' by another - hardly something which a paranoid ruler governing an Empire waiting to fall apart could have loved.  On the other hand, Irenaeus/Methodius emphasized 'unity' with the existing regime - i.e. the God who had been Lord from the beginning.  The narrative of Adam's Fall has always been usurped by governments.  I heard the Catholic priest make reference to it with respect to his own government.  It happened throughout history.

The message here is clear.  God does not see humanity as slaves bound to a Lord, unconsciously chained to a set of dogmas owing to the results of changing political fortunes.  Regardless of what happens in the world, He expects humanity to resist the same temptation as Adam succumbed to and cleave to his authority.  This message has such a clear political dimension that one wonders whether 'Irenaeus' and 'Methodius' are both false names for the actual historical founder of the Catholic religion - i.e. 'Maximus' that is, the pagan philosopher Maximus of Tyre?  Did Maximus simply reform Christianity from without, devising a doctrine which was favorable to the Imperial regime based upon his knowledge of Plato and Judaism?

Perhaps I am overstretching here with my speculation.  Nevertheless there is one line in Adamantius which I have struggled with for some time.  The Dialogue clearly derives in part from Maximus.  This has been demonstrated time and again.  It has to be recognized that the 'moderator' in the debate Eutropius is a pagan, thus emphasizing that in this early tradition at least pagans were seen as 'adjudicators' in some sense of the fitness of Christian doctrine (an idea which is echoed over and over in Irenaeus and later writers i.e. 'think of what the pagans will think of us').  Yet there is another line from Adamantius which is so strange that it has never been explained - until now possibly.

When Adamantius accuses the Marcionites of being followers of Marcion rather than Christ, the Marcionite accuses him and his followers of being a 'Sokratianoi' - i.e. Platonists.  This insult only makes sense if 'Adamantius' himself (or the original figure in the debate) was a Platonist rather than a Christian.  Just a thought ...

Email with comments or questions.

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