Standing with Ireneaus and Clement….


In an on-going discussion with Heal the Land, here is his most recent post to me:

am declaring a unilateral ceasefire/disarmament/surrender on my part on our past disagreements because my coursework has uncovered things that concern me far more deeply, namely the early and systemic fusion between Christianity and Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotlean philosophy. Their motivation seems to have been primarily to show the pagans that the Christians were as smart as they were? Basically, you have this stance that the wisdom of the Greeks actually came from God. Clement went as far as claiming that God gave the Law to the Jews and philosophy to the Greeks, a clear refutation of what Paul said in Romans 1. While Paul did say that he learned and benefitted from philosophy in verse 14 (and incidentally from the barbarians as well), he then rejected the knowledge of the Greeks – and all other forms of purported knowledge apart from Christ – as corrupt, perverse, and evil in 17-32, in  22 “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” and 25 “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.”

Now did Clement with his “God gave philosophy to the Greeks” and Augustine with his “Jesus Christ can be described using metaphysics” not have access to Romans 1 (very unlikely) or totally reject them (very likely)? And that speaks nothing of the “natural law” Aristotleanism of Thomas Aquinas that so vexed Martin Luther. I know understand your cryptic reference to Roman Catholicism in “what is there in common between Jerusalem and Rome” to be a clever play on the words of Irenaeus. Leaving apart the Catholic question for now and returning to Irenaeus’ original words … I have to ask you, do you believe that Irenaeus was right, or was he wrong?

Of course, my opinion is self – evident. So I will ask you another question: how practicable is it and what would be the effects of returning to the Christianity of Irenaeus, which appears to represent the eastern wing of the church and its earliest doctrines? Would it mean, perhaps, giving up systematic theology for one?

Second, I am extremely concerned about these “traditions” that were trafficked by the early church. I was of the opinion that most of them were post – Constantine created to prop up Catholicism, but it appears that they began to pop up as early as the second century. Let us be honest about what they were: LIES to support certain doctrines and to aid certain churches and groups in the struggle for power and prominence in the early church. So … what are we to make of the fact that as early as the second century a significant portion of the early Gentile church had become a bunch of power hungry liars desperate for validation by the Roman pagans? And, er, to what extent are these questions being asked at Wheaton and in your other stops on the theological road?

Here is my response:
Ireneaus and Clement continue to be heroes of the faith. I look forward to meeting them and discussing what we had right and wrong when I arrive in heaven.

I have another question for you. Have you read Elaine Pagels, because it is very interesting that many people like yourself make similar arguments. You argue that there was this power struggle, and the evil Roman Catholic Church fought dirty to establish the Christianity that we have now. Pagels argues this because she could not stomach the thought of a non-Christian friend going to hell. So she began reading the Gnostics and now she is very well off financially and professionally for arguing that the wrong side won in the debates of the first 5 centuries. In her parlance all orthodox Christians are evil, mean-spirited, women-hating, gay-bashing malcontents who would love nothing better than to send the entire world hell personally. That being said you probably hates your kind of Christian more than mine, but it would be a toss-up.

You can look at the 2000 years of history of the Church and see the fights, the hyperbole, the “right,” and the “wrong.” You can focus on what everyone got wrong and posit yourself as the one person in the history of the Church who has it right. Or you can talk of going back to the Christianity of the early church, and how we are going to reclaim the faith for God (every 30 years a new group springs up who claims to do this).

Or you can take another position. You can argue that through the grace of God, the illumination of the Spirit, and the power of Christ, that the Church has preserved an orthodox faith down through the millenia. You can argue that various doctrines have been right or been wrong, but you can also argue that there have been core values that the Church has affirmed over and over again. You can argue for what St Vincent of Lerins did that we must preserve that which has been believed everywhere, by everyone, at every time. Among these doctrines I would include: creatio ex nihilo,  Special creation of man in God’s image, The Trinity, the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture, Total Depravity, the Virgin Birth, Christ as the 100% man, the Salvation of Christ as seen as 1) a victory of the forces of the adversary 2) an atoning sacrifice for the sins of man and 3) an example of the life to be lived by all Christians, the Gift of the Holy Spirit for work in sanctification, illumination, and power in ministry, the eminent return of Christ, and the coming judgment for humanity. These are values that have been seen throughout the orthodox Church from as near the beginning as we can get. We may work out some of these areas differently, we may believe other doctrines. But if you cannot agree to these doctrines, I would argue that you might want to consider whether or not you are actually a Christian.  I believe that God is sovereign and works in power in His Church to see His work done (often times in spite of us rather than because of us). One last point on these lines I prefer to use the Wesleyan admonition on orthodoxy: unity in what’s essential (the doctrines I listed), charity in non-essentials, and love in all things. That means I am one with any brother or sister in Christ that can agree with me on the essentials of the church (I would posit my list or perhaps the Apostles Creed as the preeminent statement of these). It also means that we move out from these essentials we treat each other with charity. That is I give others the benefit of doubt when it exists (i.e. when Rob Bell uses a poor word choice to describe the Trinity in hopes of making another statement, and then states elsewhere that He affirms the Trinity I take him at his word… as long as the mistake is not consistently repeated). In all matters (in or out of the church) I respond (hopefully) out of love.

On to Clement’s famous declaration that Greek philosophy stands as a revelation of God to the Greeks. Here it is important to truly understand just what the author is saying. In the passage in question (in Clement’s defense of the faith against Gnosticism), Clement is arguing for a point, i.e. the absolute stupidity of Gnostic thought. Like Ireneaus he is fed up with the nonsensical teaching of this band of false teachers. Ireneaus simply argues (well I might add) that Gnosticism is not good Christianity. He has a reason for doing this in that He stands as Bishop in a region filled with this thought (in the form of Valentinian Gnosticism), and has has more than one parishoner led astray by the foolish beliefs of these people. He is a pastor fighting like hell for the sanity and safety of his flock. Ireneaus then argues that the true believer is one who stands on the rule of faith. He is among the first that state that the New Testament canon (as we would come to know it) stands as the authoritative rule of faith for all Christians. This is the faith passed down to him from Jesus to the Apostles to him.

Clement is going beyond this fact, he is arguing that Gnosticism does not even make for good philosophy as the typical Greek might understand it. He is doing so because he is a scholar in the dominant philosophical center of his time, Alexandria. There he is surrounded by the amassed knowledge of the entire known world. He is talking to people drowning in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. So he is going to prove that Christianity represents the top of pinnicle of human knowledge. Furthermore he is arguing that the knowledge (gnosis) and faith (pistis) of Christianity is a higher and fuller revelation of God than what the Greeks previously had. This was an offensive idea to many Greeks (understandably so). So Clement begins (like any good debater) by discussing the ways in which he is similar to, and influenced by the writings of Plato and Aristotle. In doing this he argues that the philosophy of the Greeks served as a “pre-evangelion” to the Greeks. In the same way that the Law was designed to show the Jews to God, and prepare them to recognize the Messiah when He comes, the philosophy of the Greeks is to serve to point people to God (Plato and most of the philosophers believed in One God), and prepare them for the day that the teachings of Christ would be revealed to them. In this way he is preforming much the same task as Paul on Mars Hill. He is pointing to a reference point in their experience and revealing how that point ultimately points to the supreme revelation of Christ.

I buy into (and many orthodox believers would as well) that God is a good God that works throughout the world. I would argue that God in his prevenient grace works to prepare all of us for the revelation of Himself to us in fullness. In that sense you have the early church fathers arguing that all truth is God’s truth. If there is truth to be found in the world that truth is God’s work in preparing people’s hearts and minds for the ultimate revelation of God in Christ. The belief of the Church has long been that God created an ordered and reasonable world in which He can be seen and to some measure understood. In fact I believe that is what Paul teaches in Romans 1. He states that no man has any cause to complain to God that they did not know He existed. The very heavens and earth scream that there is a God and that He exists. The problem is that by the corruption of sin that came with the Fall, man’s nature is corrupted to the point that it is impossible for him or her to find God. They are inexorably attracted, bound, and defeated by sin, evil, and the devil. That is the second part of Romans 1.

Romans 1 and like passages on the imago dei have long had Christians discussing these passages. All have agreed that in some way shape and form there are natural or common graces; yet the understanding of how these graces act has varied. Thomas Acquinas, Jacob Arminus, and others have argued that the faculties of man to understand God and come to Him based solely on these graces raises to a salvific level. Most of us in the Protestant world (particularly in evangelicalism) argue that while these graces may serve to point us toward God, they are not without special revelation (i.e. Christ and the Scriptures) salvific. Salvation can only be found in the specific revelation of Jesus Christ (as mediated by the Scriptures).

To your last question (which was the first), I would ask how then could you go back? I would argue that the last 1800 years of the Church has included much that is good, and holy. We have faced any number of challenges to the faith (challenges to the trinity, canon, divinity and humanity of Christ, understandings of salvation and the scripture, etc), and I would argue along with many that in facing these challenges the Church has not only overcome, but often come out stronger with a better understanding of just who we are, and what we are to do. Which begs another question, why would you want to go back to Ireneaus’ time? And should we even try? A Jewish philosopher Abraham John Heschel once stated that he was OK with his lot in life, because God did not expect him to be Moses, he expected him to be Abraham John Heschel. I believe that God has sovereignly placed each of us in time, to be who He needs us to be in this time, and in this place. Where that meant to Ireneaus had to struggle pastorally with the problems of Valentian Gnostics, and Clement had to deal with the scholarship of Plato and Aristotle, it means that I am to struggle with the theological issues of post-modernity, and this post-Christian nation. My place is to answer to my best the questions of this day, and to seek to point others to the supreme revelation of Christ. I could stand alone in my corner of the church and brood that no one is getting it right, or I could step out into the world see ehere God is moving, and see how He is preparing people for Himself, and attempt to stand in the gap for them pointing them onto the saving knowledge of Christ. In doing this I attempt to stand with that great cloud of witnesses that have come before me. I know that they are cheering me on, and one day maybe I will get to stand with them in heaven and compare notes. Oh, and spend my eternity worshipping our great and awesome Savior. I hope to see you there.

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  1. Here is HealtheLand’s Response:

    Matthew:

    “You can focus on what everyone got wrong and posit yourself as the one person in the history of the Church who has it right.”

    Of course, my citing Ireneaus as my role model would tend to preclude that I am doing such a thing, correct? And I should also add the fact that my position, the one espoused by Ireneaus and not Pagels, seems to be the same of John Calvin and Martin Luther. Calvin specifically stated that there is no knowledge of God or Jesus Christ apart from the Bible, and that any knowledge that is not of Jesus Christ is superfluous. And no, Calvin and Luther were not self – righteous lone wolves, and they most certainly did not start one of these flavor of the month religious cults that pops up every 30 years. Now in contrast to Ireneaus, Calvin, Luther, etc. you have the Anabaptist claim that saving knowledge can be found outside the Bible. (The conflicting views between Calvin and the Anabaptists on the approach that Christians should take in political affairs are fascinating as well, but outside of the scope of this discussion.) Now I will refrain from stating who is wrong or right in either theology or politics, but I will say that the Anabaptist position is closer to views of Pagels than the doctrinal tradition that I now find myself fascinated with.

    Of all people, a person that was rescued by God from the Word of Faith/prosperity neo – Montanist madness such as myself is not going to be one that is going around thinking that to me alone has been revealed the key of knowledge and righteousness that God is going to use to build His true church, or any heretical delusions like that. Rather, no doctrine that I adhere to will be something that has not been espoused in the past, and no doctrine that I will condemn will not be something that has not been condemned in the past. Such is a logical approach, because why would God give a revelation to me that is not recorded in the Bible, and why would God give an interpretation of that same Bible to me alone that He has not already given to someone else?

    So I am not seeking to invent new doctrine. I am merely seeking a way to discern pure doctrine from doctrine mingled with less than edifying influences, and more importantly how to apply that doctrine in the real world. That was my point in mentioning the pastoral model of Ireneaus as opposed to that of the speculative philosopher. (Yes, I know that Clement was a bishop and am aware that my comparison was far from perfect.)

    And at no point did I condemn Clement to the lake of fire. I merely stated that I found his approach not to my liking. There is, of course, a great difference. And for these various churches to make in a vigorous and repeated fashion false claims of having been founded by an apostle were incontrovertibly wrong and unjustifiable in any context. A sin unto death? I say certainly not. But explicitly sinful and clear evidence of the existence of real problems that should not be ignored or explained away when considering the problems of the early church as compared to the same problems that we have to deal with today? Most definitely.

    So now that I have hopefully done a better job of explaining myself, I will restate to you my line of inquiry: how practicable in our modern world is the Christian thought and tradition as represented by Irenaeus – which in no way should be considered the only true Christian thought or tradition or the only one which can lead to salvation and good works that is productive for a Christian to adhere to and follow as God leads him – and to what extent is this being investigated at Wheaton?

    Your brother in Christ Jesus
    Job King

  2. If you are asking whether there are people out there doing what is often referred to as Biblical or Practical Theology, the answer is yes. Both Christian institutions of which I have been associated with (Wheaton College and Beeson Divinity School at Samford University) have many great minds that are seeking to understand scripture better and better, and apply those ideas within the practical world. Even the University of Tennessee where I received by BS in Journalism had people doing this kind of work. It is important work and not to be understand as anything less than of first-rate importance.

    However what I was addressing in my post to you, and what I see as the major fallacy with any of these “back to the Bible” groups is simply that it is an impossibility to get “pure and unadulterated ” Bible teaching from the study of the Bible. Any of my profs at these institutions would admit as such. First of all there is the matter of translation, my OT profs used to comment (rightly) that all translation is in effect interpretation…. this comes as a surprise to the KJV only folk, but the Bible was not written in English. Further complicating the act of translation is the dis-similarities of the languages (Hebrew is a very image oriented language and reads very different from our Western, literal mindset and languages we use). Second, while many of us espouse that we should believe and practice the “plain and main” of scripture, we also have to admit that sometimes the plain is not so very plain; and what I consider main is not very main. To be honest I would not love the scriptures as much as I do if they were to be very plain and unadorned with complexity. The greatness and, I think, the defining reason for divine authorship of Scripture is revealed by its lack of easy answers, and its inability to “let me off the hook” on the big questions in life. [For example, Biblically how is evil created / from where does it originate? If you really consider the question Biblically you must admit that there is a great deal of mystery to this concept…. as there is to many of our concepts…. God is one / God is Three…. Jesus was 100% man / 100% God…. so forth and so on).

    If I wanted an easy religion that attempted to make everything make sense and was rational I would not chose Christianity. As much as the modern Church has attempted and argued otherwise, the Bible “seems” to be a contrary and frustratingly obtuse collection of historical events, and vastly different explications of those events.

    Many have argued that we are left with the following choices: one can throw up their hands and walk away; one can attempt to make sense of it all, or one can humbly admit mystery where it occurs, and argue for true doctrine where it occurs. I would argue that a true believer does all three (at times in one’s life). Sometimes we just have to give up trying to make it make sense, and walk away from whatever pet beliefs we might want to hold in the face of scrutiny. Sometimes we need to “press in” and attempt to really and truly understand what the passage means. Sometimes we just need to say “I don’t understand it all, but I choose to believe….”

    That is what I was arguing. The church needs both those who seek to understand and those who seek to explain. And this leads to another point that I would like to bring up. Simply put a major fallacy within the American Evangelical Church (and the Fundalmentalist Camp as well) is that even when they admit that “Biblical” theology and other types of theology are needed, they place a greater emphasis and implicitly condemn all other types as lesser theologies. “Yes, Yes I know that Clement has merit, but are you doing what Ireneaus did?” You ask. “Yes, Yes I know that history is important, but are you studying the scriptures?” “Are you preaching the Word or just your experience?” The critics ask. Within the question it is an implicit assumption that doing the first is not as important as doing the later. That is why I compared those people to Gnostics, they set up a false dichotomy between “spiritual” theology (i.e. studying the Bible), and “physical” theology (i.e. studying how the Bible has been read, understood, and taught). In reality I would argue that both feed each other as they should, and neither should be discounted.

    Now you might ask me (rightly) well then are you arguing for no absolutes, and are you saying that the Bible does not present capitol T truths, are you saying that experience should be given the same authority as scripture? I would answer “no” on all counts. The Bible is the final source and authority on life; my or your or anyone’s interpretation of it, is not.

    Last, let me address the heresy issue. In his book on umpiring baseball, one ump famously declared that trying to define a “balk” is absolutely impossible. If one were to follow the rules precisely, then one could find a balk on almost every pitch. I think that heresy has become the “balk” of modern Christianity. To use some people’s definition of heresy, one would have to say that you could find heresy in anyone. This is good for many web bloggers such as yourself. This idea keeps you in business, because well you look for it and you find it on everyone you scan.

    I chose to use a more limited definition of heresy. A heretical doctrine is one that if believed would severely jeopardize the efficacy of one’s salvation. For example believing that women can hold / not hold positions of ministry does not call into question one’s salvation. Christ’s work is still sufficient to save whom He chooses regardless of which view you take. However believing that Jesus Christ was a divine mind attached to a human body (Apollinarius) does extensive damage to the idea of salvation. Was Christ an appropriate sacrifice for us if He was not like us in some way? This doubt does great damage to the Church’s understanding of Christ and the sufficiency of His saving work for us. {an excursus here… I am referring to my salvation proper…… this is important, not my understanding of salvation. Teaching the Christus Victor idea may challenge my Western thinking of salvation as a legal accounting, but it in no way jeopardizes my actual salvation. I am still saved either way, the question is actually saved from what.]

    In this manner I choose to be very very cautious when imputing heresy to a doctrine as taught. I choose when appropriate to call heretical doctrines heretical; yet in 90% of the discussions in which I have, I much prefer to discuss “differences of opinions or persuasions” with all the grace and dignity I can muster. I believe we discussed that idea much earlier as one of us called into question the salvation of the other, so I will leave it as is.

    I hope this lengthy and redundant dribble is helpful to our on-going discussion.

    Peace,
    Matt

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