Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Seventeen]


The hidden implication of Irenaeus's interpretation of history is that the Church was an evolving institution.  Of course, on the surface we hear repeated claims of an organization in 'complete agreement' from the beginning, of individual members 'all communing directly' with the one Father in some sort of 'mind meld' straight out of a cheesy science fiction movie.  It's all complete nonsense and it's difficult to believe that this two dimensional understanding of history could have been taken seriously by anyone were it not for perceived support for this position by the Roman state. 

In other words, it must have been fear that drove people to take seriously these absolutely stupid claims of complete monarchia in the Church, claims that could well have been introduced with the opening lines 'one upon a time ...' if were not for Irenaeus's insistence that 'things really happened this way.' 

Yet a critical observer of history needn't search for a buried confession of Irenaeus somewhere admitting he made it all up.  For a careful study of his writings reveals a consistent emphasis on the present day - i.e. the age in which Irenaeus was living - which betrays the fictitious nature of the Church Father's claims.  No one who is studying an event in the past makes reference to it 'continuing to reveal itself today.'  This is the way Irenaeus always seems to speak.  There was the revelation at the time of Jesus and then 'its fulfillment today' - the latter always seeming to overshadow the significance of the former if you dig deeply enough. 

Indeed we see immediately after our last citation from Against Heresies Irenaeus immediately go on, by way of explanation, to speak of the manner in which truth only manifested itself gradually in the world.  He says “the servants (i.e. the prophets and apostles) would then have been proved false, and not sent by the Lord, if Christ on His advent, by being found exactly such as He was previously announced, had not fulfilled their words” adding moreover that “by His advent He Himself fulfilled all things, and does still fulfill in the Church until the end [emphasis mine], by Law predicted the new covenant (novum testamentum).” 

We should naturally mistrust any partisan analysis of history where truth understood to 'keep manifesting itself' for generations.  But in Irenaeus's case this phenomenon is 'essential' to understand the real significance of Jesus's legacy.  What this tells us is that Irenaeus is not so much interested in preserving history as he is reshaping the present.  A careful examination of his writings reveals that he is almost never talking about the events of the gospel in the way we naturally think about them.  Irenaeus is almost always talking about two events side by side, two epochs in history - Jesus's and his own - as if they were some how connected by some sort of unbreakable thread. 

The gospel may seem to describe an event that happened in the past but the Holy Spirit established 'signs' and 'types' in the narrative which continue to be fulfilled in the present age.  This is how Irenaeus wants us to think about the gospel.  Everything comes down to the divine bond between Jesus's age and his own. 

The clearest example of this situation is Jesus's allusion to the two advent theology shared by the near contemporary Muratorian Fragment.  "And so, although different beginnings might be taught in the separate books of the Gospels, nevertheless it makes no difference to the faith of believers, since all things in all [of them] are declared by the one sovereign Spirit — concering His nativity, concerning His passion, concerning His resurrection, concerning His walk with His disciples,  and concerning His double advent: the first in humility when He was despised, which has been; the second in royal power, glorious, which is to be."  

Did Irenaeus really believe that the second advent of the royal messiah was yet 'to be'?   It is hard to believe this given the situation for Catholics during the reign of Commodus.  After all Eusebius writes of that age - "in the reign of Commodus, our condition became more favorable, and through the grace of God the churches throughout the entire world enjoyed peace, and the word of salvation was leading every soul, from every race of man to the devout worship of the God of the universe. So that now at Rome many who were highly distinguished for wealth and family turned with all their household and relatives unto their salvation."

Indeed as we have already mentioned previously, Irenaeus is often misunderstood to oppose 'gnosticism' as such.  This is a terribly naïve opinion which represents a fundamental misrepresentation of the original argument at the heart of the book commonly identified as 'Against Heresies' but actually properly called The Detection and Refuation of False Knowledge.  To this end it is important to note that Irenaeus does not attack ‘knowledge’ as such but only the ‘false knowledge’ outlined in his treatises.   Irenaeus does not condemn ‘gnostics’ as such but only “the false gnostics (falsarii gnostici)” who say this or that is the hidden knowledge behind the gospel.

In the section we have been examining in some detail for instance, Irenaeus juxtaposes against the chaotic mythopoesis of the heretics his understanding of the truth which he calls "true knowledge (agnitio vera) which is defined as "the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient fixed beliefs (status) of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor curtailment; and reading without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy; and the pre- eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which excels all the other gifts."

We can of course take issue with Irenaeus's claim that all forgery happened outside of his watch.  Nevertheless the important point we shouldn't lose sight of is that Irenaeus isn't denying that 'mysteries' and 'secret knowledge' exist in the scriptures.  He is not arguing for a literal interpretation of holy writings.  Irenaeus is only denying the specific claims of his opponents while undoubtedly shielding from public view the great truths he revealed to his friends and associates in the Imperial court.

Any attempt at knowing Irenaeus’s ‘secret knowleddge’ is fraught with obvious difficulties.  While Irenaeus sought to 'expose' the secret beliefs of his enemies we no longer possess any efforts to do the same with his system.  Nevertheless the obvious place to start of our efforts to reconstruct this understanding is to go back to his understanding of the two advent system of revelation as the 'newness' associated with Christ which was ultimately unknown to the Jews, unknown to the prophets and which he apparently shared with his predecessors like Justin Martyr with words like “it was foretold Christ would suffer … and after His first appearance, in which it had been announced He would suffer, would come in glory, and be Judge finally of all, and eternal King and Priest.”

It is difficult not to see that Irenaeus would have been expecting a specifically Gentile king.  After all this was now a 'Gentile Israel,' if the expectation of a royal messiah were allowed to stand, how else could this understanding be reconciled?  Indeed he explicitly references over and over again the Gentile character of the kingdom of God.  As such we should see that Irenaeus understood that ‘glorified royal messiah’ was only now being fulfilled during the rule of Commodus.  The two advent appearance being the 'new thing' that Jews had not properly comprehended. 

Irenaeus writes at one point specifically references this doctrine saying that the Jews "do not recognise the advent of Christ, which He accomplished for the salvation of men, nor are willing to understand that all the prophets announced His two advents."  Yet more significant than this, Irenaeus acknowledges that in the time between the two advents, the 'new' covenant and we must imagine originally - the 'new' prophesy - would manifest themselves with ever greater certainty, until of course Irenaeus recognized Commodus as the second advent of Christ.

We can see signs of this slowly unfolding reality in every aspect of Irenaeus's writings.  Between the two advents the 'new covenant' would slowly reveal itself.  The Marcionites and Jews were wrong for thinking that the Jewish prophesies were fulfilled at the beginning of the Second Commonwealth period for “the temple constructed of stones was indeed then rebuilt (for as yet that law was observed which had been made upon tables of stone), yet no new covenant was given, but they used the Mosaic law until the coming of the Lord; but from the Lord's advent, the new covenant which brings back peace, and the law which gives life, has gone forth over the whole earth.”

Similarly Irenaeus says again against the Marcionites that the prophets predicted both Jesus's advent and 'the royal advent' which undoubtedly pointed to the establishment of Commodus in his own day:

But whence could the prophets have had power to predict the royal advent (regis adventum), and to preach beforehand that liberty which was bestowed by Him, and previously to announce (praenuntiare) all things which were done by Christ, His words, His works, and His sufferings, and to predict the new covenant, if they had received prophetical inspiration from another God, they being ignorant, as ye allege, of the ineffable Father, of His kingdom, and His dispensations, which the Son of God fulfilled when He came upon earth in these last times?

Indeed if we look carefully we see confirmed a reverse historical chronology stretching back from Irenaeus's own day - lastly the 'royal advent' which establishes 'liberty' for Christian believers, which was preceded by 'all the things Jesus accomplished' and both were predicted by the Jewish prophets.  The only thing that they couldn't understand, no less than their descendants the Jews was the 'newness' of the divine two advent system which would ultimately reveal the will of God. 

Email stephan.h.huller@gmail.com with comments or questions.

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