The next in this year's installment on the Church Fathers by Daniel Harrell
A professor in Bible Belt Georgia teaches a course called Introduction to World Religions and writes that while it helps her predominantly Christian students better understand the world (for instance, the difference between Sunni and Shi’a), the course always backfires when it comes to Christianity itself. Students may be able to name the books of the Bible in order, but rarely do they have any idea how these books were assembled. They know they belong to Victory Baptist Church, but they do not know what makes them Protestants or that the Christian tree has two other major branches more ancient than their own. Very few have heard of the Nicene Creed. Most are surprised to learn that baptism is supposed to be a one-time thing. They never imagined that the first Christians didn’t have pocket New Testaments. And they’ve never considered what occurred during the centuries between Jesus’ resurrection and their own professions of faith. They way they figure it, they’ve simply picked up where the disciples left off.
Martin Luther is to blame for part of this (if you know who Martin Luther is). The 16th century reformer (and technically the first Protestant) is famous for his insistence on sola scriptura, a cornerstone tenet of the Reformation. Sola scriptura affirms the Bible alone as sufficient for faith and plainly intelligible to anyone who wants to read it. But, as author Jayson Byassee asks, if Scripture is so plainly clear, why did the Reformer John Calvin have to write his voluminous Institutes of the Christian Religion along with a library of commentaries to tell us what the Bible means? And why have subsequent generations of Protestants, each insisting they were following the Bible, shattered like so many pieces of smashed glass into a bewildering variety of denominations and interpretations? As that religion professor showed, being able to read the Bible is no guarantee you understand it. Severing Scripture from its community of interpretive history may have rightly straightened lines of authority, but did it do so at the cost of fully comprehending what that authority teaches?
A growing number of serious Christian readers of the Bible have become persuaded that we can’t hope to fully comprehend what Jesus or Paul meant by what they said without seeing how they were read and understood by the likes of Basil, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth or even CS Lewis. This is because all Christian readers of Scripture necessarily stand on the interpretive shoulders of past believers and thinkers. Tradition is the memory of the church. And as Augustine argued, we are who we are only through our memories. Did you know that church tradition is actually older than the Bible you hold in your hand? The writings of the first fathers, such as Irenaeus of Lyons, precede the coalescing of the 66 books of the Bible into a single authorized canon. This is not to say that Irenaeus predates the Biblical authors, but his teaching contributed to the church’s affirming the books it did, while rejecting those books, a la The Da Vinci Code, deemed heretical. We have the Bible we have in part due to the inspired discernment of the early church fathers.
Eleven years ago I embarked on an annual sermon series during July concerning the Church Fathers, those personalities who over the early centuries of church history fashioned our faith and codified what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. As there have been numerous noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers) it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time. However, since many of the patristic heroes cluster around the letter A—Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas for instance—I’m only this year getting to Letter I (I should be on K). Last Sunday we took a look at the early second century martyrdom of Ignatius of Antioch. In two weeks (I have morning duty next Sunday) I will introduce you either to Ignatius of Loyola, (the founder of the Jesuits), Innocent III (the founder of the imperial papacy), or Isidore of Pelusium, an early desert father whom I mentioned was requested by longtime member Chris Lee. Only Chris told me this week that he meant Isidore of Seville, the seventh century scholar and patron saint of the internet, which I hard to believe given that bandwidth was so narrow back then. At any rate, I need your help in deciding which father to cover on the last Sunday of July. If you have a preference, please vote at right. I’ll preach the winner.
This Sunday’s “I” Father is Irenaeus of Lyons, an indubitable defender of early Christian faith. As the early church was sorting out its theology and practice post-New Testament, it had to confront the dual pressures of reverting back to Judaism and accommodating to Hellenism. In addition, there were also a host of heretical temptations such as Gnosticism, which viewed the created world as an evil from which people need rescue through secret knowledge. The church had to thrash out its responses to these threats with no precedent to guide its thinking. Into this fray emerged Irenaeus whose monumental writing contested false doctrine and steered the church toward its right practice. Irenaeus did this not by coming up with creative theological innovations, but rather by grounding theology in an understanding of that Scriptural teaching which tradition had heretofore preserved. His highest aim was to state clearly what the church believed and taught, and to guard that teaching from corruption. In his various statements of faith appear all the essentials of the later Nicene Creed.
We know little of Irenaeus’ life. He was born in Asia Minor around 130 AD and later migrated to southern France to help with missionary work. A ferocious persecution broke out in Lyons, killing the bishop of the fledging church there. Undeterred, the infant community called Irenaeus to be its new leader. Persecution only made the church stronger. Like his Lord, Irenaeus viewed affliction as the path toward sure resurrection. He asked, “What, did the Lord wish that his apostles should undergo buffeting and that they should endure affliction? That’s what the word says. Why? Because strength is made perfect in weakness, rendering one a better person who by means of infirmity becomes acquainted with the power of God. For how can a person learn that he is an infirm being, and mortal by nature, and that God is immortal and powerful, unless he learns it by experiencing it? There is nothing evil in learning one’s weaknesses by suffering; rather, it has the beneficial effect of preventing a person from forming an undue opinion of his own nature.”
Irenaeus’ view on earthly faith was always with an eye toward heaven. It is from Scripture’s promise of a certain future that faith finds its hope and strength to endure the present. In the book of Revelation, from which I am preaching during my turns in the morning, chapter 4 grants a glimpse of the celestial command center, the heavenly headquarters occupied by Almighty God. The blinding light of God’s glory reflects off precious gemstones, as well as off the emerald rainbow which encircles the throne. Flashes of lightening and peals of thunder, reminiscent of Mt. Sinai, foreshadow ferocious wrath to be unleashed against evil. However the rainbow, reminiscent of of God’s promise to Noah, also foreshadows ferocious grace. God’s justice is always tempered by mercy. Nevertheless, those enemies who in the end persist in scorning God’s mercy will not be spared. The calm sea of glass, spread before the throne testifies to evil’s imminent demise. Throughout Scripture, a churning sea symbolizes the reservoir of satanic chaos. But here in chapter 4, the sea is calmed and evil defeated. Redeemed from its curses, creation is freed to fulfill its purpose.
What is its purpose? John paints a picture of worship. Four living creatures representing all animate life on earth surround God’s throne and sing, Holy, Holy, Holy. With their wings they evoke the seraphim of Isaiah who sang the same song. Their coverings of eyes shows that God forever watches over them. Rightly joining in their chorus are twenty-four elders who embody the redeemed people of God. Their robes and crowns are their rewards for persevering faithfulness, the thrones are their own seats saved in heaven. However these elders readily bow and relinquish their crowns “whenever the creatures give glory, honor and thanks to the one who sits on the throne and who lives forever and ever.” Casting down their crowns they acknowledge the worthiness of God. Why? Because, verse 11, “You created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
It is interesting that in a book focused on the final outcomes of God’s redeeming work in Christ, God’s creatures give praise not for their salvation, but for their creation. This is interesting because we tend to think of creation as prior to redemption, subject to the fall—marred and messed up by people. Redemption is God’s response to human sin. Yet that chronology begs the question as to how God’s creation, made as good, could ever go so bad. It’s as if God’s work was not quite up to snuff. How did a couple crafted in God’s image at creation get tempted so easily? It’s the same question we can ask of those whom by faith are “new creations” in Christ. How is it that we who possess the very Spirit of God nevertheless choose to behave in ways so contrary to that Spirit? We answer that God is not done with us yet. That we’ve yet to become who we will be in Christ.
Irenaeus asked, “Could God not have made humanity perfect from the beginning? One must know that all things are possible for God, who is always the same and uncreated. But created beings, who have their beginning of being in the course of time, are necessarily inferior to the one who created them. Things which have recently come into being cannot be eternal; and not being eternal, they fall short of perfection for that very reason. And being newly created they are therefore childish and immature, and not yet fully prepared for an adult way of life. And so, just as the mother is able to offer food to an infant, but the infant is not yet able to receive food unsuited to its age, in the same way God, for his part, could have offered perfection to humanity at the beginning, but humanity, being created, was not capable of receiving it.”
Because human beings exist as creatures created, we exist as children, Irenaeus argued, which explains why the first humans were so easily deceived. The image of God was their destiny more than their starting point. Irenaeus taught that God provided his word and spirit as tutors toward this destiny, along with angels too. But if you’re depending on angels to teach you well, what happens when one of your teachers envies the lofty heights for which you’re destined and decides to sabotage the lesson? Irenaeus said you get a snake in the garden—an angel gone bad who deceived Adam and Eve and sidetracked their development.
It’s sort of like what’s happened to our 9-month-old Violet this week. You read in the prayer list that she broke her leg. It was mostly an accident—but not entirely. No matter how many toys and pieces of Tupperware we surround her with, Violet inevitably wants what she can’t have, demonstrating quite vividly her own human nature. One of her taboos is the TV remote which sat atop an ottoman on Monday. She uses the ottoman to pull up, but seeing the remote, she overreached to obtain the object of her desire. Letting loose of a hand, she lost her balance and fell back onto her leg and fractured it. Now, as a result of the fall, she’s in a cast for three weeks, her development sidetracked by having to haul around a pound of plaster. Granted, leaving the remote where it would tempt her was my doing, making me Satan in this analogy. But she did make a reach for it. She is partly to blame. But c’mon, she’s a baby, she couldn’t help it. Cut her some slack, you’re her dad! Which was precisely Irenaeus’ point. As childlike, Adam and Eve, while at fault, receive ample amounts of grace from their heavenly Father. God explicitly cursed Satan for duping Adam and Eve, but Adam and Eve he only punished leaving room for their ultimate healing redemption.
Of course, God knew this was going to happen. Which is why Revelation 13:8 describes Jesus as the “Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” Redemption has always been in the works. In Christ, humanity gets a do-over. Irenaeus writes, Christ’s “obedience on the tree of the cross reversed the disobedience at the tree in Eden; the good news of the truth announced by an angel to Mary undid the evil lie that seduced Eve. As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in turn was given the good news by the word of an angel and bore God in obedience to his word. … Christ gathered all things into one, by gathering them into himself. He declared war against our enemy, crushed and trampled on the head of the one who at the beginning had taken us captive in Adam.”
Jesus saves not only by his atoning death, but by his obedient life too. He paves the way for our created destiny. “The Son of God has always existed with the Father,” Irenaeus wrote, “but when he was incarnate and became a human being, he recapitulated (did over) in himself the long history of the human race, obtaining salvation for us, so that we might regain in Jesus Christ what we had lost in Adam; that is, being in the image and likeness of God… Our bodies, which have been nourished by the Eucharist will be buried in the earth and will decay, but they will rise again at the appointed time, for the word of God will raise them up to the glory of God the Father. Then the Father will clothe our mortal nature in immortality and freely endow our corruptible nature with incorruptibility, for God’s power is shown most perfectly in weakness.”
True for the creature, true for creation. In the end the world which came from God will return to him again. We get redeemed and so does the earth. The dust of creation to which all living things return when they die is the same dust out of which resurrection and new creation emerges. In Romans, Paul writes how “the creation waits in eager expectation;” our new birth signals its new birth. “The creation itself,” Paul writes, “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” “God is rich in all things and all things are his,” Irenaeus wrote, “it is right, therefore, for this created order to be restored to its pristine state, and to serve the just without restraint.” Instead of the eventual decimation of a universe spun out of control; instead of an earth fried up or freeze-dried a billion years hence; Scripture envisions its glorious restoration by God’s creative and redemptive hand. As for us, the ineffable light of God’s glory breaks back into our present beckoning on toward becoming the people in Christ we already are. And in that day when we are who we are; we will join with the ancient-future chorus of Revelation that finally fulfills its purpose in the unending praise of God.