Name and Place for Tuesday, November 4 (’14)
In our electric-charged politically correct culture, the greatest sin often seems to be impoliteness or, perhaps more accurately, judgment. The only valid judgment is judgmentalism against judgers.
Enter Irenaeus, stage left, the 2nd century Christian apologist. Irenaeus stands as a pillar of historical truth against the onslaught of progressively bold academics who claim the Christian Bible is a creation of Constantine—a highly selective, non-Divine document with little universal support in the Early Church. Such scholars claim Irenaeus knew there were many competing “Gospels” and he wrote to convince the majority of his minority (but today, universal) opinion. Irenaeus’ is accused by such authors of being conspiratorial, deceptive, and the representative of a minority position at the time he wrote. They attempt to show this using archeology quite selectively, and by showing his character as seriously flawed. It’s especially uncouth (from today’s standards) to talk the way Irenaeus did about some of his opponents.
From C. E. Hill’s excellent book Who Chose the Gospels? Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy, Hill writes to challenge these accusations:
The expectation that participants in theological disputes should maintain a consistent posture of detached objectivity and only use language which cannot be construed as offensive to anyone is, however, probably a modern one. Our sincere craving is for a civil mode of discourse, more especially in matters which tend to excite the emotions. But we’ll also have to admit that such an ideal is strictly adhered to infrequently, even in our own day. One need think back no further than the latest national political campaign for reminders of this. Not only are distortions and personal attacks still too common even in our ‘enlightened’ age in political and religious disputes; I would go so far as to suggest that even normally dispassionate scholars sometimes find it hard to avoid doing to Irenaeus what they accuse him of doing to his opponents.
And to understand Irenaeus’ rhetoric a little better, something more should probably be said about the social and religious context in which he wrote. No matter what one might think of polemical language, Irenaeus’ detractors will find it difficult to take refuge in the thought that his theological targets modeled the kind of balanced and fair-minded treatment we would all be proud of. We happen to know that before publishing the first book of Against Heresies Irenaeus had come across something called the Gospel of Judas (AH I.31.I). Most scholars think this is the same book, or at least an early version of it, that was released to the world amid shouts of acclaim just prior to Easter 2006.
According to this gnostic book, catholic Chrsitians like Irenaeus are ignorant of Jesus (34.15-17); they are ruled by the stars and cannot be saved (37.2-8); they are fornicators (54.25) and murderers of their children (54.26). They are ‘those who sleep with men…people of pollution and lawlessness and error’ (40, lines 10-14). Whatever else one might say about the people behind this book, they can hardly be held up as models of religious toleration and the acceptance of ‘alternative lifestyles’.
The blistering accusations of the Gospel of Judas provide some interesting background for Irenaeus’ literary work. For they eerily resemble slanders which had recently placed some of Irenaeus’ fellow Christians on trial and had led to their brutal execution as forms of public entertainment. An account written soon after the atrocities which took place in the year 177, only a few years before Irenaeus would begin writing Against Heresies, reports that the Christians of Lyons and nearby Vienne were:
“…faslely accused…of Thyestean feasts and Oedipoedean intercourse, and things which it is not right for us either to speak of or to think of or even to believe that such things could ever happen among men. When this rumour spread all men turned like beasts against us, so that even if any had formerly been lenient for friendship’s sake they then became furious and raged against us, and there was fulfilled that which was spoken by our Lord that ‘the time will come when whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 16.2) (EH 5.1.14-15).
A ‘Thyestean feast,’ from Greek mythology, refers to a meal in which Thyestes was tricked by his brother Atreus into eating the flesh of his own sons. Oedipodean intercourse refers to incest. And these were the slanderous charges that the writer thought he could mention! In such a context, in which he and his fellow Christians had been accused by the local populace and by the Gospel of Judas of such monstrous acts as the killing of their own children and the practicing of incest, most of Irenaeus’ polemical rhetoric may seem rather pale and unimaginative” (53-55).
Phew! It certainly helps to know the context in which Irenaeus wrote. And just because we think it’s hilarious, we include the below link (that you simply must try…go ahead…give in) and see how Martin Luther, the great Reformer of the 16th century, dealt with similar detractors: