Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Who Was Irenaeus Writing For or Writing To?

Irenaeus's massive tome, Adversus Haereses, survives only in Latin.  It is the oldest surviving heresiological work.  While we use terms like 'heretic' and 'heresy' to mean something like 'dissenting voices' Irenaeus's purpose was in fact quite different from this.  His point was to argue that 'the sects' (= heresies) were properly identified as belonging to his Church, albeit under the influence of various 'inventive personalities' who - through their cunning - distanced themselves from the true Church.
"These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe."  
While Irenaeus's tome now appears as something of a 'bird watching guide' - i.e. a listing of various 'types' of sectarians, there are clear signs that the work itself developed into its present form.  A work principally directed against the Valentinians (and now preserved by Tertullian in Latin as Adversus Valentinianos) is at the core of Book One of Irenaeus's tome.  But on top of this lost work the list of 'all the other heresies' was added at a later date and perhaps from earlier sources.

Of course the exact history of how this present work - Adversus Haereses - was formed is clouded by the general tendency of the Church Fathers to plagiarize one another at will.  There are at least a half dozen variations of Adversus Haereses ascribed to different authors - some older, most later - than Irenaeus.  The depth of dishonesty among the first Church Fathers should convince us to hold off on saying for instance that Justin really did write a lost 'syntagma' or pamphlet against the heresies which forms the basis to much of the additional material in Adversus Haereses.  This too might have been a forgery written in the name of Justin as indeed additions to Justin's existing works have been identified by even conservative scholars made around the time of Irenaeus.

In short there was a flood of forged and reforged 'compilations' or lists of heresies that seem to have been channeled through Irenaeus.  They exists and do not exist any longer in the names of virtually everyone associated with Irenaeus so we can't get a clear picture of where and when Irenaeus's influence begins and ends.  It seems as if there was an orthodox 'factory' of heresiological literature associated with this one Church Father at the end of the second century.  Why was this obsession with listing heresies so prevalent in the period?  The short answer seems to be that it was part of the orthodox myth making exercises epitomized by fake histories like the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of Paul.

In other words, at the same time that for instance the orthodox Church was making up a story of its origins from the first apostles, it was also actively promulgating the argument 'the sects' were really reprobate members of their community.  Even though the heresies themselves clearly pitched the idea that they too had a chain of transmission from Jesus through 'alternative distribution channels' - i.e. hearers of Paul who were ignored or condemned by their rivals works like Adversus Haereses succeeded in effectively ignoring these 'alternative histories.'  Why so?  Because the point of Irenaeus's efforts was to say, the heretics stole our books, the heretics came to our churches - we were already established when these men appeared, mostly in the middle of the second century.

The curious thing about these fake histories is that they are always willing to argue for some sort of association between the 'true Church' and the heresies.  Marcion it is claimed, once belonged to the community, Valentinus and others 'came to Rome' to join the community at some date.  If the counterclaims were at all respected of course the 'story of the Church' would be told from a completely different perspective.  The story would have been of 'rival' communities.  But this was not the path that Irenaeus took and the answer for this quite clear when you look at the sources themselves.  Irenaeus was ultimately making the case that the orthodox had the right to the property of the heretics.  Irenaeus was making the case that the orthodox bishops should be the overseers of Christians generally and the only people that such a message could be appealed to would be members of the Imperial court ultimately.

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