Of the early Church Father’s that I have found I am in the most agreement with, based upon my limited knowledge of them, I have always been drawn to Irenaeus. His recapitulation theory of the atonement had a profound shaping on my understanding of the atonement during my seminary years and
However, I have found one place where I developed my thinking independently of any direct influence from Irenaeus,1 but have found my thinking reflect is in his preface to Adversus Haereses. Here is how he starts:
Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies, which, as the apostle says, “minister questions rather than godly edifying which is in faith,” and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive, [I have felt constrained, my dear friend, to compose the following treatise in order to expose and counteract their machinations.] These men falsify the oracles of
God,and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein. By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions respecting the Demiurge; and these simple ones are unable, even in such a matter, to distinguish falsehood from truth.2
Now, my hope is not to try to commend an attitude of suspicion and vigilance that is demonstrated in Irenaeus’s opening. Much as Barth’s harsh response to Brunner should not be
What, however, I find particularly relevant in Irenaeus’s preface is the role that language and plausibility has in misleading people.
Human thinking and language is a complex phenomenon. However, precisely because it is so complex, our conscious thinking is masked from the various effects our thinking and language can have on us; we can not possibly observe and systematically understand the entire experience of thinking and language. In fact, we are disposed not to because
As a consequence, it becomes easy to smuggle in new ideas within a community without conscious detection. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because there are many ideas that are of great benefit. Nor is the possibility of intellectual challenges from new ideas a problem. Sometimes we have beliefs that have serious blind spots. Rather, the problem comes in, however, when a smuggled idea comes in that legitimates itself as a part of the tradition but then simultaneously creates a contradiction within the traditions of the community; combine this with reputed expertise from the people presenting what is ultimately a contradictory and dissonant idea and you have a recipe for a form of cognitive trickery. However, this can happen with or without anyone’s intention, so it doesn’t mean the people are necessarily malicious or manipulative in intention; it could be that they themselves don’t truly understand the heart of the community but are really more outsiders that think themselves
I would suggest this is part of what is happening in Irenaeus’ day. He isn’t dealing with simply new ideas. Nor is he dealing with a critical challenge from the outside that motivates a different type of response. He is addressing a problem of teachers who
Now, some people upon hearing such a response might begin to feel their skin crawling, because they themselves have been recipients and victims of people who in their theological hyper-vigilance have attacked and slandered people for things they did not say, reading into ambiguous statements the worst possible consequences and outcomes. This is a very real problem, and why I would suggest we don’t need to simply adopt Irenaeus’ attitude in any sort of unthinking manner when it comes to protecting orthodoxy.
There are multiple ways one can try to protect against heresy, or any other category of unacceptable theology one uses, but they tend to be broken down by the combination of two different frameworks: epistemology and hermeneutics.
In a pure epistemic option, you set from the beginning a system of knowing and knowledge by which you comparing everyone’s reasoning and claims to. This system becomes absolute, in that you assess the basis of the claims based upon how much it conforms to the epistemic framework one works with. This leads to the subjugation of any interpretive work to the epistemic frameworks and cognitive patterns one has established as normative; one’s interpretation is reducible to litmus testing by which one focuses simply on conformity. We can label the pure epistemic option dogmatism, although I say this with the understanding that I am not wanting to direct this towards the historic Christian tradition but to the broader patterns that can be manifested in those who oppose the dogmatism of the historic Christian tradition, such as the way human experience is highlight as a necessary and essential criterion in some forms of progressive theology, or one’s theology becomes guilty of the “heresy” of being “harmful” or “dehumanizing.”4
There is another drawback from the pure epistemic option, however, that stems from the practice of litmus testing. What if one’s theology passes all the filters; then it becomes consider safe. You want to know one of the best ways to try to transmit new ideas into the Christian tradition without regards for its impact on the theology: make it sound Trinitarian by using Trinitarian sounding words and phrases. Then, the doctrine can more easily gain acceptance and credence, without consideration for what the true implications of the doctrine are. We see this in social Trinitarianism, where the emphasis is on understanding the persons of the Trinity as persons in our modern language. Theologians like Karl Barth detected concerns with such reasoning and tried to find a different way
The pure epistemic option does something to us: it makes us rather poor and unimaginative interpreters. It reduces interpretation to an act of pattern matching.
However, if we are people who belong to a specific tradition that we think has some truth-bearing properties, it is necessary to some degree that we establish some epistemic framework by which we work with, lest we abandon our traditions as simply a heritage of ideas for us to use and appropriate for whatever purpose whatsoever. What do we do then? We focus more on interpretation and hermeneutics than simply theological knowledge.
Again, allow me to state that I think theological epistemology IS important; my dissertation research is focused on it, albeit from a somewhat different angle than is commonly done in traditional epistemology. But for me, such knowledge presents resources that provide truth, although expressing how they provide truth is not always so simply done, but we never consider ourselves as having come to some system of knowledge that allows us to judge the rightness and wrongness of any and all things apart from the careful consideration and deliberation about the theological claims that are being made. The sins of dogmatism and epistemic certainty
The intellectual cure for this: a deep appreciation and understanding of how language and thinking function. Language and thinking are complex p processes, and because of this, it can be easy to smuggle in bad ideas, but also because of this, it can also be easy to see bad ideas being smuggled in due to the categorical stereotypes our dogmatism as formed in our own head. A deep understanding of language allows us to see the complex and diverse ways meaning emerges, without having to necessarily prejudge positively or negatively the various possibilities.
The challenge with this cure, however, is the initial uncertainty of it. It means we have to let go of the feeling of certainty and justification that our epistemic dogmatism
It is attention to the various hermeneutic possibilities in linguistic and discursive understandings combined with a basic epistemic commitment to the real possibility of moving towards truth, which we see in various forms of critical realism, that allow us to address the complexities and ambiguities that operate in our modern, theological crises created by a post-modernity that has not simply accepted the validity of the diversity in human experience, but insulated knowledge structures emerging from human experience from any and all challenges. So, we now live in an intellectual world that is buzzing with a vast diversity of ideas, conceptualizations, frameworks, etc. that is next to impossible to make meaningful sense apart from the employment of stereotyping if we operate from a position of epistemic dogmatism.
If you look at the patristics, it is commonly an understanding of how language operates that often moves theological development. For instance, reading Gregory Nyssa’s “On ‘Not Three Gods,’” one can see the role this understanding of language works has in defining the problems of calling the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gods. However, to be clear, his logic does have some defects as William Hasker mentions in Metaphysics & The Tri-Personal God. This probably in part stems from the formalist way that Gregory construes language as a formal system that has a right way of functioning, which is often the consequence of trying to fit language into a specific epistemic framework such as Bertrand Russell’s and many of the positivist’s formalist account of language and proper meaning. Nevertheless, we see here and other places in the patristics that language is a central role of making sense of the account of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Of course, the risk epistemic dogmatism can still exist in virtue of understanding language, one can get caught up into an inflexible metaphysical system that functions as an epistemic framework. William Charlton in Metaphysics and Grammar notes how the emergence of grammatical understanding in Socrates, Plato, Aristotle contributed to the emergence of Western metaphysics; we see a similar pattern in the early Trinitarian debates as the focus on language does lead to the emergence of a metaphysical system that then becomes taken as foundational for later Christian theology.
But to be clear, my critique here is not the place of metaphysics,
One solution is to the acceptance of linguistic diversity as descriptively true, even if it violates our own sense of normativity about language, and make judgments after considerations and deliberations. Yes, it becomes a lot messier and more ambiguous, but I would suggest this is a necessary response in light of the modern age, where the degrees of diversity of thought and language is incalculably complex due to the strong interconnections that have formed with various cultures and identity groups through common informational mediums of the internet. Epistemic dogmatism is not just simply unable to address such a worse of high complexity, but I would contend it fundamentally leads to higher rates of error and falsehood. While a tendency towards epistemic dogmatism was not harmful
But, it as the point of understanding language that we can address many of the theological challenges that we face in the modern world. And perhaps this is my extolling the virtues of my own choice to think about linguistics, particularly cognitive linguistics, in my personal time and the value I have found in analytic theology to help address various difficult and knotty theological contentions. But, I find in Irenaeus words the most suitable direction for how the Church can deal with the challenges to orthodoxy in our modern world.
- Although, no doubt there may be indirect and common influences
- The Church Fathers. The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection: 3 Series, 37 Volumes, 65 Authors, 1,000 Books, 18,000 Chapters, 16 Million Words (Kindle Locations 10549-10557). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- The Church Fathers. The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection: 3 Series, 37 Volumes, 65 Authors, 1,000 Books, 18,000 Chapters, 16 Million Words (Kindle Locations 10564-10565). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- To be clear, I think the Church should be concerned with both heresy and dehumanization, but the pure epistemic option will sacrifice one for the other, at least in the present socio-political atmosphere.
- To be forthright, there is a bit of equivocation in my language usage here, as I know epistemic and theological justification are usually understood differently. I am also aware that there is a difference between the emergence of psychological feelings and God’s act of creation. This is intended as a rhetorical demonstration of how such ambiguity can emerge in language, which we have to determine it’s goodness, usefulness, and validity.
- This is a strong claim than say other ways of speaking are ambiguous and thus shout merit caution.
- While the Church did obtain some normative political status, it was Constantine and not the Church that made political decisions.