Saturday, August 10, 2013

Jesus as Roman Demi-God [Part Thirteen]


Robert Grant calls Irenaeus 'the most important Christian controversialist and theologian between the apostles and the third-century genius Origen.’ Yet we should take it that this is the understatement of the year. The difference between Irenaeus and Origen - or any other Church Father for that matter – is that you can distinguish Origen from the Bible and the earliest Christian witnesses. The same does not hold true for Irenaeus. Indeed we should argue instead that Irenaeus is in fact more important than coming to terms with Mark, Matthew or Luke or any of the other alleged ‘sources’ for the New Testament. Irenaeus is in reality as close to ‘the source’ for why things are the way they are in the Catholic canon because he was so adept at forgery and literary misrepresentation.

Irenaeus’s opinions have been projected into the earliest witnesses because it was Irenaeus who established their witness. There was clearly a large body of pre-existent literary material. But Irenaeus reshaped them according to the basic pattern witnessed in the parallel development of rabbinic Judaism – i.e. a ‘harmony’ established across many traditions and interpretations. In fact when we really think about it there is an underlying monarchian logic to the acceptance of four gospels as one or four different halakhic interpretations to a single passage – i.e. ‘one rule,’ ‘one origin’ behind all or many ‘things.’

Indeed this is a basic problem with academia. Most of us look back at school as a system which rewarded those who excelled at memorizing or successfully regurgitated a set of principles or ideas they didn’t really understand that well. The question that came to most of our minds is – do these people actually understand what they are recycling? Have they taken the time to actually ‘get inside’ the material they are citing verbatim or merely parroting the perceived ‘proper interpretation’ of the material?

For it is impossible to argue that that Irenaeus’s monarchian principles would allow him to develop a ‘counter cultural’ understanding of the cosmocrator. Such a world view fundamentally misunderstands the Roman Catholic weltanshauung. Those who, like Brent, identify Irenaeus as a monarchianist they don’t seem to think through the implications of what they are saying. For the Catholic understanding of the world is, as many observers have noted, still fundamentally monarchian. If one principle rules the world, it would be impossible to accept whole-heartedly the idea that this God could abandon or not be governing the actual government of the world.

To be certain a monarchianist is capable of acknowledging one or two ‘bad apples’ to have existed in the governance of the world. But it is fundamentally impossible for such an individual to accept the notion of God abandoning world governance as such. To simply regurgitate statements such as “if Irenaeus had monarchianist tendencies, they certainly stemmed from his desire to show the unity of God against the system put forward by the Gnostics” is utterly unproductive because it doesn’t get to the bottom of what it is to be monarchian.

The monarchianist sees God in everything. There is no place that the divine authority does not touch in some way save for the activity of the Devil. Yet even here the Devil is above all else ‘a liar’ in that he overstates his power. For in fact according to Irenaeus evil has no real power other than to misrepresent itself and draw away the misfortunate from the true knowledge of the real monarchia. The Gnostics may have identified the world ruler as the Devil and held that Christianity is meant to operate ‘in secret’ within – but outside of the knowledge - of the cosmocrator, but again, to Irenaeus this is all merely another seduction on the same Devil.

The monarchian worldview allows for only one idea. The world is under the authority of one ruler. The Father is the Son is the visible manifestation of that divine rule in the world. It is impossible to imagine that Irenaeus could have accepted the idea that ‘world government’ was evil. It is only as a result of scholarship which doesn’t think through the implications of what it means to be ‘monarchian’ which can pretend that someone like Irenaeus could have envisioned a ‘counter cultural’ Church.

Irenaeus’s world view only makes sense once he was brought into the Imperial government. It is then that believing in ‘God governing all’ makes sense in the very same way the heretical idea that Jesus came as a stranger presupposes absolute alienation from the ruling principles of the world. Of course when scholars attempt to piece together the Irenaeus’s worldview they can only go so far before they realize that Irenaeus’s monarchianism is utterly at odds with the original spirit of Christianity. In other words, monarchianism necessarily presupposes an accommodation with Caesar. There simply can be no other way.

That is why there should be no surprise that Irenaeus demonstrates himself over and over again to be a ‘monarchist’ no less than a monarchianist. His worldview, after all, is such that ‘one principle’ governs the world and so we witness him embrace the legitimacy of the Imperial courts, the need for strong Imperial governance, paying tribute to the ruling powers – in short, all the things that Celsus complains about Christianity in Book Eight of Origen’s response has already shaped Irenaeus’s new understanding of orthodoxy. Why so? It is because as Irenaeus openly admits – he and his ‘brethren’ are already ‘part of the establishment. ‘

The reader needn’t simply take my word for it. David Rankin; principal and director in church history, Trinity Theological College, Brisbane, Australia has taken the time to write a thorough history of the connection between the Church Fathers and the society they lived in. His From Clement to Origen: The Social and Historical Context of the Church Fathers reads in many ways like a sociology of the early writers in the Church. Rankin notes that there is a blurred distinction between God and the ruler of the world – i.e. Caesar – which is very important to understand writers like Irenaeus.

Rankin draws our attention to the second book of Against Hersies to note how Irenaeus, consistently refers back to the idea that the Supreme God is invisible and yet his supreme power is widely known and acknowledged. Irenaeus asks whether those who live under the empire of the Romans, although they have never seen the emperor, and are far separated from him both by land and sea, shall not nevertheless know very well, as they experience his rule, who it is that possesses the principal power in the state. It is the same way with God, says Irenaeus and the complete identification of Caesar with the Father – exactly in the role as cosmocrator – is yet another indication the lens this Roman Church Father viewed the world.

Rankin goes on to juxtapose against Irenaeus’s monarchianist world view the Gnostics just mentioned. According to their understanding the invisibility of the Supreme God means that he was unknown to the creator god and the angels. The implication of this belief is clearly that Caesar – the ruler of the world – is ignorant of the true Jesus. Irenaeus however wants to make clear that there is no mystery about Jesus beyond his Virgin Birth. Caesar no less than the most ignorant barbarian can be brought into acquaintance with true knowledge about Christ which not surprisingly again is according to monarchian principles.

'All creatures, through implanted reason, know that there is one God, Lord of all, even if they do not know him, as they only can through the Son' (2.6.1 ). In other words, the visible face of God makes manifest the incomprehensible one. His creatures know at least of his existence (2.6.2) because God arranged the world that way. At one point in Book Three Irenaus makes reference to Matthew 22,21 and the coin with Caesar's image. Irenaeus’s point is that God and Caesar are inextricably linked as cosmocrator of the universe. At another point in Book Four he makes reference to John 19,15 - 'we have no king but Caesar' – but here it is to illustrate that the visible world ruler must be understood to manifest the hidden God of all.

In Book Five Irenaeus makes the point that it is God, and not the devil, who has appointed the kingdoms of this world. Quoting Romans 13,1, he declares that Paul spoke these words of actual human authorities. He includes also a reference to Jesus supporting the payment of tribute to the emperor at Matthew 17,27 as evidence of this. He asserts that God imposed human rule as a restraint to evil; that he instituted the fear of men because humankind did not sufficiently fear God. Such rulers are 'ministers of God' and magistrates who use their authority for just and legitimate ends act righteously, while those who act for injustice, impiety, illegality and tyranny are condemned before God.

Irenaeus repeats his view, and this is in fact the focus of his comments and not imperial authority per se, that earthly rule is appointed by God for the benefit of the nations, and not by the devil for his own. Laws are established for the restraint of an excess of wickedness, and kings are appointed, some for correction and preserving justice and some for fear, punishment and rebuke. Irenaeus acknowledges the legitimate authority of the emperor but it is always a derived authority and the supreme power of God must first be acknowledged before it.

To this end, we have to recognize the undeniable monarchianism at the heart of Irenaeus’s understanding of the functioning of the Son as a ‘mode’ of the Father. As the Church Father puts it:

neither the Lord nor the Holy Spirit, nor apostles would have ever expressed with accurate theology that he was not God unless he was not truly God, nor would they have used the term 'Lord' for someone on grounds of his own personal nature unless he was the God and Father of all that exercised sovereignty (kurieuonta) and his Son who received the sovereignty from the Father of all creation . . Since therefore the Father is truly Lord (kuriou), and the Son is truly Lord (kuriou), the Holy Spirit naturally indicated them by the title of 'Lord.

Brent draws our attention to note “how this unity is conceived in terms of a political analogy. Father and Son have created all that there is as a well ordered and good creation, and not chaotic and evil as was the creation that was the outcome of the battle of the aeons over Sophia's expulsion” in the gnostic typology.

Yet more specifically this understanding necessarily implied an order of rank which rested upon the shoulders of the Emperor. In Irenaeus’s schema, “the Son is united in purpose with the Father. His sovereignty and therefore divine title (kurios), shared with the Father is by delegation.” This understanding almost perfectly mimics the Imperial cult of father-son shared rule as attested by Commodus’s joint rule with his father Marcus Aurelius and indeed Septimius and his sons. Indeed Irenaeus further states that “through the Son who is in the Father and who has in himself the Father he who is God is manifested with the Father witnessing to the Son and the Son proclaiming the Father.” [ibid, Adv. Haer., Ill, 6,2,48] In plainest terms then Brent emphasizes that we should understand for Irenaeus the Son (Filius) was the visible Father (visibile patris).

In the plainest terms then we should see that there is a clear method to Irenaeus’s efforts. He is systematically trying to develop the Jesus cult in a way that leaves the door open to assimilating Christianity with the Imperial cosmocrator cult. In a very similar manner to what we just saw in the writings of this Church Father we see Hercules venerated by the poet Nonnus as the visible representative of the Father god - “Star-robed Hercules, king of fire, world ruler, called Belus on the Euphrates, in Libya Ammon, Apis on the Nile, in Arabia Cronus, Zeus in Assyria.” Brent’s underlying point here is that the Imperial cosmocrator figure put the enthroned Emperor front and center as living representative of the invisible godhead.

Email with comments or questions.

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