Friday, June 29, 2007

Reading Scripture with Irenaeus

On the feast of Saint Irenaeus, the great second century student of holy Polycarp, I think I will share here a small passage from Father Stephen Wiest, of blessed memory. In the fourth chapter of his dissertation (a typological study of Acts 6-7), he holds forth on the interpretation of the Stephen section of Acts on the part of the early Fathers. Here is what he writes regarding Irenaeus:

"Irenaeus is the first among the Greek fathers to exploit typological correspondences between Stephen and Christ. He employs what I shall call the 'typology of humanity'-figural likeness of the narrative circumstances of Christ and Stephen-for his polemics against the Gnostics of the second century. In Adversus haereses (ca. AD 180-190), Irenaeus attacks the Gnostic disjunction between the God of the OT and the God of the NT.

"For his fight Irenaeus drafts Stephen, 'who of all men, was the first to follow the footsteps of the Lord, being the first that was slain for confessing Christ, speaking boldly among the people and teaching them' concerning 'the God of glory' who appeared to Abraham. All of Stephen's words 'announce the same God, who was with Joseph and with the patriarchs, and who spake with Moses.' For Irenaeus, 'the whole range of the doctrine of the apostles proclaimed one and the same God, who removed Abraham, who made to him the promise of inheritance...that He was the Maker of all things, that He was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He was the God of glory.' That Stephen was so much like Christ makes it likely that Stephen taught what Christ and all the prophets taught-a 'like unto' argument that remains on the level of the mimetic and deputational views of Stephen.

"Irenaeus transcends, however, the typology of humanity to achieve what I shall call the 'typology of divinity.' Stephen turns out to be far more than 'like' Christ in his circumstances. Stephen's perfection of doctrine-held fast until the perfection of Stephen himself by death-attests the integral union of Stephen with 'perfection incarnate' in Christ. This becomes clear in another passage of Adversus haereses. In this section, Irenaeus ties the God of the OT to the God of the NT and binds the church doctrine of his own day to the doctrine of the apostles with an intricate rhetorical knot tucked around Stephen:

'Both the apostles and their disciples thus taught as the Church preaches, and thus teaching were perfected, wherefore also they were called away to that which is perfect-Stephen, teaching these truths, when he was yet on earth, saw the glory of God, and Jesus on his right hand, and exclaimed, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." These words he said, and was stoned; and thus did he fulfil the perfect doctrine, copying in every respect the Leader of martyrdom, and praying for those who were slaying him, in these words: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge." Thus were they perfected who knew one and the same God, who from beginning to end was present with mankind in the various dispensations...Those, therefore, who delivered up their souls to death for Christ's Gospel-how could they have spoken to men in accordance with old-established opinion? If this had been the course adopted by them, they should not have suffered; but inasmuch as they did preach things contrary to those persons who did not assent to the truth, for that reason they suffered.'

"Irenaeus advances his logic by means of word-play. Stephen, preeminent among Christ's disciples, confessed the 'perfect' doctrine and was 'perfected' by his suffering and death for it. Through his martyrdom Stephen both saw and was called away to that which is 'perfect', Christ. The conformity of martyred Stephen to Christ, 'the Leader of martyrdom', the vision of Christ granted Stephen, Stephen's Christ-like final petition for the forgiveness of his enemies and the welcome provided dying Stephen by Christ prove the perfection of perfected Stephen's doctrine about the Perfect One. Stephen's doctrine is identical to that confessed and suffered for by many subsequent Christians made perfect by martyrdom. For Irenaeus, Stephen transcends simple imitation of Christ to partake of Christ's own divine perfection."

Thus far Stephen Wiest, whose whole dissertation is simply outstanding. One day I hope it wil be published. Christians of the 21st century honor Irenaeus by actually reading and meditating upon what he would teach us in his writings, such as his Adversus haereses. In his battle against the enemies of Christ in his own time, he showed us how to read scripture, as a whole, a christological whole. And just as he 'drafted' St. Stephen in this battle, Stephen Wiest drafted Irenaeus, and can help us do the same.

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