I’m sorry it’s taken a little bit to post a post-Irenaeus post…
When a person has heard a bit about Irenaeus and sits down to read Against the Heresies, there is an expectation that he or she will read a lot about what Gnostics believe, encounter the idea of Apostolic Succession, read a few early ‘credal’ statements, and engage with his doctrine of Recapitulation. These are certainly all things that happen in Irenaeus, and you can read about Irenaeus and the Development of the Creeds in a post by Possidius from the last round of Read the Fathers in 2013 as well as my quick note on Recapitulation from this round.
What struck me this time, however, was the transcendence of God.
Irenaeus is not original, new, or unusual in believing in a transcendent God. Indeed, he expects that his “Gnostic” opponents also believe in a transcendent God. Belief in some sort of divine being beyond our known experience was common to ancient Mediterranean religions by the time of Irenaeus, whether Christian, Jewish, or many of the varieties of religious experience and expression we might call “pagan”.
Nevertheless, Irenaeus continually pushes for the God of the Bible, of both the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian New Testament (itself an inchoate collection at this time), as being absolutely transcendent. For some people, radical transcendence poses a problem — if God is utterly incomprehensible as to his essence (I fear I may intruding post-Nicene language, but I cannot discuss these ideas otherwise, and I’m reading a book about Basil of Caesarea just now), how are we supposed to know Him?
And do the Christian Scriptures not say that we can?
When I read his descriptions of the groups we call “Gnostic”, it seems that their solution to this “problem” is a series of gradations of being. However, if the distinction between Creator and Creation remains absolute, then no number of intermediaries will be able to bridge the gap. Moreover, if intermediaries can bridge the gap between human creation and the divinity, then the divinity is no longer truly transcendent.
In fact, it seems to me that their beliefs as described by Irenaeus continually fall into this second trap. In seeking to bridge that gap, something else is always leading to another thing, with the result that any of the various beings in the various hierarchies that might be posited to be the God ends up being limited in some way.
Even the Neo-Platonists ran into essentially the same problem, whether through gradations of being in a similar mode, or through Plato’s Timaeus, where the stuff of creation is co-eternal with the divinity who creates.
Such a divinity is not absolute, in Irenaeus’ worldview
How, then, can the gulf between creatures and their Creator ever be bridged? The answer is for the divinity to come down in his own person — well, almost. To say that would be to fully close the gap between Irenaeus and post-Nicene orthodoxy. He comes as close as he can — his very own Word becomes a human person in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and humans. Here is how Irenaeus puts it:
But God being all Mind, and all Logos, both speaks exactly what He thinks, and thinks exactly what He speaks. For His thought is Logos, and Logos is Mind, and Mind comprehending all things is the Father Himself. He, therefore, who speaks of the mind of God, and ascribes to it a special origin of its own, declares Him a compound Being, as if God were one thing, and the original Mind another. So, again, with respect to Logos, when one attributes to him the third place of production from the Father; on which supposition he is ignorant of His greatness; and thus Logos has been far separated from God. As for the prophet, he declares respecting Him, “Who shall describe His generation?” –Against the Heresies 2.28.5
This insistence of the God of the Bible being the true Creator of everything and of His Word becoming truly incarnate as Saviour produces some statements that are worth meditating on regardless of their relationship to the so-called “Gnostics.” Here are two:
Now, that the preaching of the apostles, the authoritative teaching of the Lord, the announcements of the prophets, the dictated utterances of the apostles, and the ministration of the law — all of which praise one and the same Being, the God and Father of all, and not many diverse beings, nor one deriving his substance from different gods or powers, but [declare] that all things [were formed] by one and the same Father (who nevertheless adapts [His works] to the natures and tendencies of the materials dealt with), things visible and invisible, and, in short, all things that have been made [were created] neither by angels, nor by any other power, but by God alone, the Father — are all in harmony with our statements, has, I think, been sufficiently proved, while by these weighty arguments it has been shown that there is but one God, the Maker of all things. –Against the Heresies 2.35.4
But He Himself in Himself, after a fashion which we can neither describe nor conceive, predestinating all things, formed them as He pleased, bestowing harmony on all things, and assigning them their own place, and the beginning of their creation. In this way He conferred on spiritual things a spiritual and invisible nature, on super-celestial things a celestial, on angels an angelical, on animals an animal, on beings that swim a nature suited to the water, and on those that live on the land one fitted for the land—on all, in short, a nature suitable to the character of the life assigned them—while He formed all things that were made by His Word that never wearies. -Against the Heresies 2.2.4
Allow me to break my rule about being dispassionate on Read the Fathers for a moment. There are some of us who believe that a failure to preach or believe in a transcendent God is part of the sickness now besetting the church in the West. Perhaps Irenaeus and the Fathers can be part of our cure.