Today the Church remembers Irenaeus of Lyons (or of Lugdunum if you prefer the older name), and one of my favourite of the early Christian writers. I first came across his work when it was quoted by John Barton in People of the Book?, in a way which unsettled my assumptions about what the Bible was and how we should read it. That seems apt since, when I eventually came to read Irenaeus himself (in English translations), it unsettled my ideas about what ancient Christians thought and who they were.
As with any older writer – and particularly the Church Fathers – it’s fascinating to go back and compare what they actually to what they’ve been remembered for and how they’re been used. A lot of the time the Patristic authors are referred to as the lynchpins of particular doctrines: the identity of Christ, for example, or the doctrine of the Trinity. This can sometimes give the impression that they are footnotes to the Bible, establishing the correct reading of the Scriptures and filling in theological definitions which were accidentally left out of the original texts, or a necessary intermediate step between the world of the Biblical authors and our position as Christians.
We don’t have to actually believe those things in order to treat the Fathers this way; it’s more an effect of how their works is quoted and used. Many popular books of theology will mention one of them in passing as the first person to “point out” or “formulate” a doctrine, treating them essentially as a set of legal precedents. In the vision of Christian history which looks at us, and then looks back to find out when our doctrines were “discovered”, the Fathers tends to fulfil this function.
But when I read Irenaeus, it turned out that the ideas I expected to find looked rather odd. Particular principles which I associated with him could mean something quite different to him than to me. For example, his stress on the secure descent of the bishops’ authority from the Apostles tends to be associated with a view of the episcopate which is concerned with exclusivity and power. Irenaeus stressed the importance of episcopal succession therefore Irenaeus believed in the authority of bishops over other people and other forms of church organisation. He looks as if he’s on a particular “side” of modern debates in the Church.
In context, however Irenaeus spends so much time on the succession of the bishops and their authority in order to refute the idea – which he attributes to his opponents the Gnostics – that there are a secret set of teachings within Christianity which are (and should be) only taught to educated and elite members of the Church. He is marshalling arguments against a version of Christianity which looks like a mystery religion, where people are initiated through various grades and taught secret knowledge, becoming more powerful and more truly Christian as they rise through the grades. Against this Irenaeus produces the succession of the bishops, to show that there is a secure line of orthodox teaching in the Church, which has always been openly preached and is available to everyone, and there is no secret tradition passed down from Jesus to the Gnostic leaders. For him, (if I’m reading him correctly at this point) the continuity of the bishops is part of proving that Christianity has no secrets, doesn’t reserve its wisdom for the elites or the educated, and sees every Christian as equally authentic in their identity.
That’s a very different “meaning” to the idea of apostolic succession than I had expected. It doesn’t prove that Irenaeus was “actually” a progressive, or a liberal Catholic, or would have agreed with any particular group in modern Christianity. But to many Christians today, a powerful emphasis on the importance of the succession of bishops, and the centrality of the episcopate, doesn’t feel as if it automatically goes with a stress on the availability of Christian knowledge and wisdom to everyone within an anti-elite religion. At the very least, those emphases might be felt to be in tension with each other. For Irenaeus, however, the one could be used to prove the other, and they formed part of a coherent view of the faith.
Reading the Fathers – and I haven’t read nearly enough of them yet – reminds me that the early Church didn’t exist to settle doctrines for us, they built a Christian life and expounded their vision of it. This life included their thoughts and intellectual systems as well as their prayers, politics, administration, missions, art and organisation. I think referring to them only as a set of legal precedents or verbal formulations cuts us off from what they were actually trying to do, and what they would have understood the point of their writings to be. I’ve found that immersing myself in their writings, if only for short bursts, is much more enriching and satisfying than memorising which of them established which doctrine.
Part of that immersion involving finding the deep weirdness of their approach to the world at times. As my wife says, it’s the asides that really trip you up, not the overall arguments. You’ll be following a line of argument on a particular topic, sure that you know the doctrine it leads to (and how that doctrine was later contested/ restored/ re-evaluated in the Reformation/ Enlightenment/ Vatican II) and they’ll say “…because of course, hedgehogs grow up into statues…” or “as said by Dave – Dave, he’s a demon, you know – and therefore…” Or at least something equally baffling.
That can be genuinely off-putting and confusing, but it throws off my sense that these peole are trying conscientiously to become modern, if rather old-fashioned Christians (bless them). They don’t exist to settle ideas which we understand rather better than they could, and we don’t exist to codify and obey what they established in terms of modern life. Their very weirdness implies that we’re more like them than that our task and responsibility is more like theirs. We cannot use them just as boundary markers for allowed beliefs without thinning the possibilities of their faith and of ours. (It’s at moments like this when the idea of the communion of saints might reappear, as an image of Christians thinking with each other, as well as praying for each other.)
This can be off-putting, as we suddenly see the ideas of the Patristic authors as far less settled than we had imagined, and even that the central doctrines we had seen them as secure sources for might have looked different to them. The ground – not to mention the tidy footnotes – might feel as if it were shifting beneath us. But it can also give a tremendous sense of possibility and space in Christian history and our own intellectual lives. The world is weirder than we might have thought, and so is the Christian tradition. The spiritual and intellectual dramas of history have not been tidied away by accurate extraction of the right answer from the documents of the early Church.
On reading them, the Fathers don’t just seem more “modern” than I expected (as well as more ancient and obscure) they confound the very category of “modern” which I patronisingly measure them against. In one book Irenaeus explains with glee (whilst denouncing another opponent) that you can’t appreciate the theology of Paul if you don’t have a grounding in the rhetorical culture of his time, and the personal stylistic quirks of the saint himself – he then storms on to prove (to his own great satisfaction) that the text on the page isn’t capable of telling you what it means itself, since it can be totally altered in meaning by the way it is performed, and gives a demonstration of how a passage of Paul becomes literally blasphemous if the performer breathes in the wrong pause between words.
In another book, Origen sets out to consider the principles of Christian belief, heads one passage “On Christ”, and then proceeds to use female pronouns in some passages about the second person of the Trinity, emphasizing the shared identity of Sophia and Christ and using phrases like “…we understand her to be the Word of God…”. These two examples go beyond what many of us might expect to find in modern, and even slightly “radical”, Christian writing. That’s rather the point. The Fathers are not old-fashioned. They are not like rather more conservative 1950s vicars, or rather more repressive and correct Victorians. They do not (as I slightly expected) read like people who believe all the Christian doctrines, even the ones that science has made sound a bit silly. They are in another world of strange, which defies my attempt to measure them by where they stand when put on a scale from me to some imagined parson of the early twentieth century.
Since they refuse to be judged on that scale, they can open up some of their world to us, and even make us rethink the deep meaning of the doctrines we thought they’d formulated safely (if simply). Reading the Fathers can be – in my rather limited experience so far – a profound exhilarating and sometimes very funny experience. And since I’ve mentioned footnotes so much, they can tempt me into writing rather foolish ones…