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Archive for September, 2012

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus explains the beliefs of the Gnostic heresy and teaches the Eastern churches how to show its falsehood and defend the divine truth. In this endeavor, he argues that the tradition of the original apostles has been passed down through the church leaders and kept in its true and pure form. To discern false teaching and identify heresy, one only needs to compare it to this tradition. He also implies that all Christians have a hermeneutic operating while they interpret Scripture, whether they admit it or not. In this essay, I will express my disagreement with his first argument, that the passed-down tradition is authoritative, but I will express my agreement with the second argument, that all Christians use a hermeneutic.

Irenaeus affirms the power that Christ gave to His apostles. His Holy Spirit not only enlightened them with perfect knowledge of the holy things of God but it also instilled in them the authority to speak on God’s behalf and write His words in Scripture. Their leadership in Christian churches was also authoritative, as they were taught by the Lord Jesus Himself, so they used proper church order and worship. These things they taught to their successors, the bishops of the church, who went on to lead God’s people after the apostles had died off. These traditions were passed down through the leaders of the church as time went on. The church, says Irenaeus, in all of its manifestations on the earth, “preserves [this preaching and this faith]. She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had but one soul” [pp. 331]. The church in Rome, especially, is considered supremely dependable, as it was “founded and organized…by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul,” so dependable that “it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church” [pp. 415]. Therefore, argues Irenaeus, when we come to some controversy in the church, such as the Gnostic teaching, we need only compare it to this tradition. After all, he asks, “how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary in that case, to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down” [pp. 417]?

In all of his argument, he implies that all Christians have a creed, a hermeneutic, that they use to interpret Scripture. I agree. Every believer holds to basic doctrines and usually some understanding of Scriptural authority. They approach Scripture with this understanding and interpret it according to that hermeneutic. The question is whether or not their hermeneutic is good.

I do not agree that Scripture ought to be interpreted according to the apostolic tradition, not because I doubt that the apostles’ teaching was authoritative, but because I doubt human faithfulness in passing it down. Yes, we can trust the apostles themselves, but who is to keep their successors from changing, adding to, or subtracting from what they taught? All authentic Christians have knowledge of the truth enough to give God glory and to be saved, but they can stray from the truth in secondary doctrines.1 Furthermore, inauthentic Christians in the church could stray from the truth even in primary doctrines. We can be kept in the truth only by comparing ourselves and our beliefs to the writings of the original apostles. This is, I believe, the reason God gave us the written Scriptures, so that sound doctrine and the truth of God would not be subjected to human error and unfaithfulness passed down through the ages. Irenaeus’ argument that we would need a second authority if the Scriptures had not been written is irrelevant because we have the written Scriptures.

However, I do not blame Irenaeus for using the logic that he does. He lived, after all, in the third generation, likely only separated from John the Apostle by Polycarp. I give him credit in his argument, because the tradition passed down in his time was still probably in its original form, true to Scripture. I wonder if even he would be so convinced if the apostolic tradition if he saw the church in Rome centuries later. It is another example of man’s entrapment in his own time. Nevertheless, Irenaeus’ writing remains a great witness to the early church and a great apologetic to the Gnostic heresy.

Notes

1. The Belgic Confession, Article 2, in Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions, (Grand Rapids: Faith Alive)

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In his introduction to St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” C. S. Lewis makes the claim that societies of a certain time period are limited to the perspective of their own day. He maintains that reading authors from earlier centuries helps a reader to see beyond his or her cultural and time-sensitive limitations. I claim that Christians participating in the modern debate about human origins and the biological theory of evolution could benefit from Lewis’ advice. Christian scholars and laypeople alike would find new insights on the discussion if they were to read earlier Christian writings on God’s creation.

Lewis wrote to a British audience of the 20th century, persuading them of the value of reading Athanasius’ work. He assumes his audience would rather read a modern, secondhand source than an old, firsthand one, and so explains the value of firsthand knowledge. It is better to listen to what older Christians actually said, in the context in which they said it, than to what modern Christians claim they said. Therefore, reading Athanasius’ actual words, albeit translated, is to read pure, unfiltered ideas, from the mind of one who lived in a different time.

All societies see things from a standpoint in time that is unique from both the past and the future, Lewis says. In many ways, that perspective might be useful to see truth in certain details of the world. However, there are other details about which those societies might be ignorant, based on the same perspective. By turning to authors who wrote outside of their time and setting, readers expose themselves to ideas free from the same restrictions. Often, older authors will help them to see areas where they are ignorant. Lewis gives an example of this for his own audience, using the work in question. Athanasius, he says, has a helpful understanding of miracles that is extremely relevant for his day. Many objected to the idea of the miraculous, as miracles purposelessly went against the laws of nature. He tells his audience that Athanasius’ approach to miracles is the “final answer” to those objections [pp. 9]. They would be able to better defend their faith to themselves and to others by reading his approach.

He also shows that Athanasius himself is an example to follow when it comes to combating the wrong doctrines and evil tendencies of one’s era. Arius was leading even Christian leaders away from the doctrine of the Trinity, and in “On the Incarnation,” Athanasius stood firm to defend it, refusing to “move with the times” [pp. 9].

Lewis’ counsel is timeless. It is just as relevant to 21st-century United States as it was to 20th-century England.  One particular topic of our day which I think would benefit from this advice is that of human origins. Christians argue about the interpretation of Genesis and other Scriptures, about the acts of God’s creation and sustainment of the universe, about the evidence for macroevolution, even about the validity of scientific investigation itself. One can read literature by young-earth creationists, which asserts that modern science has many things wrong and is untrustworthy. They say that accepting evolution undermines orthodox theology.1 Others say just the contrary: that scientists do honest work, that Christians ought to embrace the theory of evolution, and that it does not compromise biblical truth.2 Both groups argue with each other in the present day, from the same temporal perspective.

To help shed more neutral light on the discussion, one could turn to theologians who wrote on Genesis and God’s creation before 1859, when Charles Darwin wrote his book, On the Origin of Species. These voices would speak from times and places that were not caught up in the modern, culture war. Considering their historical approaches would help Christians to see what they themselves may be missing in the contemporary debate. They could find new perspectives to apply, and they would be better able to recognize truth and falsehood in their dialogue partners. Indeed, C. S. Lewis’ words hold true for all people of every time and context. To take up the writings and wisdom of older Christians would prove fruitful for many on a variety of issues, and no less for those in the discussion of human origins.

Notes

1. “Evangelical Theologians Compromising with Evolution,” Answers in Genesis, Accessed September 5, 2012, http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/terry-mortenson/2010/11/29/evangelical-theologians-compromising-with-evolution/

2. “Are Science and Christianity at War?,” BioLogos, Last modifed June 27, 2012, Accessed September 5, 2012, http://biologos.org/questions/science-and-religion

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