Irenaeus: An Introduction (review)
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Denis Minns. Irenaeus: An Introduction. London: T&T Clark, 2010. Pp. 192. Paper, $31.11. ISBN 978-0567033666.

Denis Minns presents two major reasons for addressing the work of Irenaeus, despite the fact that the second-century apologist had little direct influence on theological developments in the third century and beyond. The first concerns the breadth of his writing, which seeks to confound heretics with arguments drawn “from the widest possible base. . . . In consequence of this strategy he has left us a remarkably comprehensive picture of what was believed by Christians who thought themselves orthodox in the late second century.” Minns’s second reason lends his introduction clarity of purpose, for Irenaeus “offers to those more used to a catholicism overshadowed by the figure of St. Augustine a remarkably fresh and different outlook” (152). What makes this particular introduction stand out is the light touch with which its author handles so many historical moments—those leading up to and including Irenaeus, those of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan controversies by which Irenaeus’s thought has inevitably been judged, that of Erasmus in republishing Adversus Haereses after a thousand years, and so on—always with an eye to theology’s present interest and need.

For example, in an exposition of evil and the freedom of will, where the difference between Irenaeus and Augustine seems sharpest, Minns dismantles Irenaeus’s assumption that for humans to have a beginning is to begin in infancy. When Irenaeus writes, “God . . . could have granted perfection to humankind in the beginning, but humankind, being in its infancy, would not have been able to sustain it,” Minns does not mince [End Page 322] words: “The logic of this is false. It is as though a Michelangelo were to say, ‘I can sculpt out of melting butter, but the butter is not able to sustain my art.”’ And yet Minns spots “one of his most powerful theological insights” here, which is that humans are, for Irenaeus, “necessarily imperfect in the beginning” (88). A resolution surfaces after thinking through what Irenaeus might have argued, had he been more careful, and what he did mean in his adaptation of the philosophical categories Being and Becoming. It amounts to a quite different and seemingly more optimistic plan of salvation than the better-known ones of Augustine or Athanasius. God alone is; human creatures are set on an infinite progress toward perfection by which their natural state of Becoming approaches the asymptote of Being, for all eternity. For Minns, “The grounding of this positive evaluation of free will and the consequent sinfulness in the distinction between Being and Becoming might, in the end, sustain the free-will defence of the claim that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good” (91). John Hick makes no appearance in the text of this book, nor in its superb bibliography, though Evil and the God of Love (London: Macmillan, 1966) would make a good companion to it on a reading list about theodicy.

If Minns raises questions for specialists, his book still succeeds as a basic introduction to Irenaeus. After a brief opening chapter, “Heresies” (chapter 2) works both to inform a reader little acquainted with Marcion, Gnostics, or Valentians, and to alert more knowledgeable readers to how such problematic terms will be used. A sound case is made for staying close to what Irenaeus understands his adversaries to believe without spending too much time at Nag Hammadi. The argument from there is tightly structured. Heresies set the background for Irenaeus’s confession of “The One God” (chapter 3), who is simple and identified with the God of old. Chapter 4 gives a lucid and sympathetic account Irenaeus’s trinitarianism. That he is almost exclusively concerned with the economic over the immanent Trinity, to use later language, would cause some anxiety, but as Minns contends, “Within its own terms of reference, Irenaeus’ theology of the Trinity was perfectly orthodox” (66). Chapter 5 handles the economy of salvation, culminating, as we have seen, in a sketch of an Irenaean answer to the problem of evil. Chapter 6 frames the important term “recapitulation” in a broader discussion of the way Irenaeus sees Adam as...