Faith of Our Fathers: Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching (pt. 5)

Irenaeus, church fathers, trinitarian theology

Irenaeus’s Trinitarian theology offers a framework for biblical interpretation

5. Logos and Reality

After establishing his Trinitarian theological framework, Irenaeus offers what one may call a narrative catechism, walking the reader through all major biblical events from Genesis and the creation of human beings to Christ’s coming as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. To no one’s surprise, Irenaeus reads the scriptures Christologically from the incarnation backwards in order to show that Jesus was the Messiah, the everlasting King promised to David (63). Irenaeus is a highly attentive reader of the text, and attributes theological significance to minute details often overlooked by modern eyes. Certainly one reason for Irenaeus’s attentiveness is that he inhabits a different world from ours, a world in which divine realities could still shine through texts. To some degree, of course, this has to do with cosmology, although this term is probably too scientific for describing the more general sense of the ancient world–that our immediately perceived world participates in a higher order of reality. Irenaeus, for example, believes that our human world is “encompassed by seven heavens, in which dwell powers an archangels rendering service to God, not as to One in need, but so that they might not be idle or useless” (45).

While we can no longer return to ancient cosmology, however, it is completely beside the point to wonder whether Irenaeus would have abandoned such a belief had he been able to fly to the moon and fail to find the seven heavens in space. In all likelihood, Irenaeus would have said, “ah, but I am referring to a spiritual dimension, which is no less real for being called spiritual.”  In such a world, language and texts have a sacramental quality that our modern consciousness concede with great difficulty. Frances Young, a well-known scholar of the ancient world, explains that ancient literary theory “assumed a relationship between Word and World, Logos and Reality” (Young 2007, 144). Put more strongly, language was a “sacramental vehicle of truth, permitting the expression of eternal Being in temporal narrative which is luminous.” The incarnation underwrote this sacramental understanding of texts, for “the Word became flesh; the word evokes the presence” (Ibid., 145).

It is hard for us to wrap our modern minds around this ancient mode of thinking, but its sacramental ontology made ancient literary theory both more humble and more confident than our own. For one, human finitude and the incomprehensibility of God never let the ancient mind imagine that any language could actually contain God or even contain historical ‘facts.’ Ancient biblical readers understood that God had accommodated himself to human language, but precisely because of that, metaphors were not merely tools used to explain away offensive or unbelievable realities. Such a view is already modern, and distinguishes too sharply between scientific facts and theological fancy. Rather, metaphors and pictures presented real truth about God and his relation to us, and could be understood without having to hunt after elusive authorial intent or wonder about whether snakes could really talk. Instead, ancient hermeneutics was “essentially about reader reception and response” (Ibid., 36). Ancient readers sought the “mind of the text,” a coherence in textual narrative and teaching for moral education about God’s character and his dealings with humanity. Not unlike a sacrament, the text participated in, and made present the divine Word, whose presence radiated through the text. Hans Urs von Balthasar once referred to the coherence of the biblical text, through its different genres and books as the “Gestalt” of the living Word, Christ himself, who inspired it. Analyzing the text along literary and historical critical lines without this overall Logos in mind will end up by atomizing the text, leaving the reader merely with incoherent pieces. For the Fathers, by contrast,  the Bible as was to fuel the Christian imagination and nourish the life of faith. It was not meant to explain either history or science, even though patristic theologians believed deeply in the historicity of the incarnation. Such a division did not yet exist in their minds–that one could access pure historical facts and then interpret them later so as to endow them with a certain meaning or value. We conclude with the following assessment of ancient biblical interpretation by Frances Young:

The purpose of biblical exegesis, implicitly and explicitly, was to form the practice and belief of Christian people, individually and collectively. In so far as there was contention about belief or practice, the Bible was at the heart of the debate. But the most important contribution was that it provided a literature which shaped Christian discourse and fed the Christian imagination. (Ibid., 299)

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