Reformed Theology Meets Irenaeus

Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith articulates some classic Irenaean and Eastern themes within a Reformed, covenantal framework. The synthesis is invigorating:

The notions of covenant and eschatology are intertwined in biblical theology. Both are oriented toward promise and fulfillment. This promise-fulfillment pattern does not begin after the fall but with creation itself. Human identity was not finished at creation but was to be perfected by fulfilling the trial of the original covenant, winning the right to eat from the tree of everlasting life and blessedness. Hence, human beings are intrinsically future oriented. Though perverted by sin, this eschatological hope—a sense of a destiny to be fulfilled in history—animates human activity and ambition. Thus, even the commission given to Adam to lead creation in triumphant procession into God’s Sabbath rest (following God’s own pattern of creating and enthronement) is a historical movement from promise to fulfillment rather than an ascent of mind.

This eschatological perspective, in continuity with Irenaeus and the Capppadocians, also extends the logic of Reformed (covenant) theology. As Geerhardus Vos reminds us, the particular covenantal and eschatological orientation found in Scripture is thoroughly concerned with the ethical and personal sphere, not with abstract metaphysics and ontology. “The universe, as created, was only a beginning, the meaning of which was not perpetuation, but attainment” (emphasis added). Eschatology is prior to soteriology. Creation began with a greater destiny lying before it. Creation was the stage—the “beautiful theater”—for God’s drama, not an end in itself. Life in the garden was not intended to simply go on in perpetuity but was merely the point of departure for the great march of creation behind God’s vice-regent into the everlasting life of God’s own Sabbath-rest….

[A paragraph about immortality as the reward promised upon completion of the trial]

Thus, the emphasis of the Christian East on the attainment of immortality and that of Western theology on legal redemption can be integrated. Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve lived between the two trees: between everlasting confirmation in blessing and everlasting confirmation in death. Eden was a trial. As human beings are by nature covenantal, they are also constitutionally prospective—even utopian, despite the distorted ways in which fallen humanity seeks to win its glorification apart from and even against God. They not only have the law written on their conscience but carry within themselves a sense of some great task of spreading God’s kingdom and glory to the ends of the earth. It is both of these senses, that of God’s command and that of the promise of glory, that become twisted by human rebellion, but we can discern even in that rebellion the remnants of the original commission. (386-7)

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Published in: on April 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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Irony in Irenaeus

Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is one of the treasures of the early Church, but there are some things in it which will strike the modern reader as a bit odd or even ironic. One of Irenaeus’ major lines of argumentation is that the heretics slink around in obscurity, playing word games with parables or employing bizarre numerology to prove their Aeons and Pleroma and such, or simply wresting Scripture out of context. Irenaeus, however, takes his stand upon the plain and well-known Apostolic Tradition, derived from the clear meaning of Scripture. In fact, according  to Irenaeus, it is obvious that the four Gospels are authoritative and in line with the rest of the teaching of Scripture. He proceeds to defend them thus:

“For it is impossible that the Gospels should be in number either more or fewer than these. For since there are four regions of the world wherein we are, and four principal winds, and the Church is as seed sown in the whole earth, and the Gospel is the Church’s pillar and ground, and the breath of life: it is natural that it should have four pillars, from all quarters breathing incorruption, and kindling men into life. Whereby it is evident, that the Artificer of all things, the Word, Who sitteth upon the Cherubims, and keepeth all together, when He was made manifest unto men, gave us His Gospel in four forms, kept together by one SPIRIT. As David, imploring His Presence, saith, Thou that sittest upon the Cherubims, shew Thyself. For indeed the Cherubim had four faces, and their faces are images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it saith, was like a Lion, denoting His real efficiency, His guiding power, His royalty: and the second like a Calf, signifying His station as a Sacrificer and Priest: and the third having the face of a man, most evidently depicting His Presence as Man: and the fourth like an eagle in flight, declaring the gift of the Spirit flying down upon the Church.

Now then the Gospels are in unison with these, upon which Christ sitteth. For first, that according to John relates His princely and efficacious, and glorious birth from the Father…. On this account this Gospel is also full of all confidence; for that is his Character.

But the Gospel of Luke, as being of a priestly stamp, began from Zacharias the priest burning incense unto God. For now the fatted Calf was a preparing, about to be sacrificed for the finding of the younger Son.

Matthew, for his part proclaims His Birth as a Man, saying, The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…as it is written in the Prophet Esaias: implying the winged image of the Gospel. And for this cause he hath also made his narrative concise and rapid: for this is the stamp of Prophecy….

Such, then, as were the dealings of the Son of God, such also is the form of the Living Creatures; and such as is the form of the Living creatures, such also is the stamp of the Gospel. For the living creatures are of four forms, of four forms also is the Gospel, and the dealing of the Lord. And therefore four general covenants were given unto mankind: the first, of Noe’s deluge, on occasion of the Bow: and the second, Abraham’s, with the sign of Circumcision: and the third, the giving of the Law under Moses: and the fourth that of the Gospels, by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now such being the case, they are all vain and ignorant, and daring withal, who set at nought the true notion of the Gospel, and privily bring in either more or fewer individual Gospels, than have been mentioned.”

If only Gleason Archer had thought of that argument, how much shorter would have been his NTI! It’s interesting to see how long some of this sticks around. I remember in high school hearing about how the Gospels corresponded to certain animals and perhaps even the four faces of the cherubim. The details were a little different, though.

Well, I don’t want to throw stones at Irenaeus. He did Christianity a great service by refuting the heretics. It’s worth considering, though, whether our beliefs are the clear teaching of Scripture, or whether we think something is the clear teaching of Scripture because that’s what we believe. Also, our methods may not always be so far removed from those we seek to refute.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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