- Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity by John Behr
Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity
Christian Theology in Context
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013
Pp. 236. £63.00.
This marvelous volume is the yield of years of sustained research into second-century Christian theology. In his new study, Behr sets out to trace what many long deemed untraceable—the historical genesis and unfolding of Irenaeus’s thought as a discrete theological system. However, Behr’s project is not merely descriptive but also corrective as he argues that, although Irenaeus unquestionably had a significant role in shaping Christian identity in the second century and subsequent definitions of orthodoxy, it would be an error to imagine him as a doctrinaire ideologue, issuing demands “that ‘heretical’ books be burnt or that false teachers be excommunicated” (3). Ecclesiastical power such as required for these actions in fact did not exist during Irenaeus’s lifetime but grew out of the consensus that he helped to forge. The portrait of Irenaeus that emerges from Behr’s research is that of a resolute believer in the unique truthfulness of the apostolic witness and yet “an advocate of toleration and diversity in contrast to those who lacked this irenic quality” (16).
The volume is divided into three spacious chapters. Chapter One is a superbly crafted analysis of the “cultural situatedness” of Irenaeus’s writings. After an expeditious description of earliest Christianity in Gaul, Behr explores the Shepherd of Hermas and the extant literature by or concerning Cerdo, Marcion, Valentinus, Justin Martyr, and the Carpocratians in the attempt to assess the exactness and rigidity of the theological standards of Roman Christianity in the second century. While Roman Christianity in the second century was certainly not as defined in terms of dogmatic or institutional commitments as it would be in the fourth century, a clear consciousness of the unity of the church is evidenced even by the date of Marcion’s departure from Rome. Behr surveys Irenaeus’s exchanges with Florinus, Eleutherus, Victor, and Polycarp, and concludes: “By the time of his death, Irenaeus had done more than anyone else to expose those who had departed from the Church for what they were and to refute their teachings, to expound the Christian faith with a comprehensiveness, coherence, and a remarkable degree of hermeneutical awareness, and to promote peace and toleration within the Church” (70). [End Page 481]
Chapter Two is a structural and theological analysis of Adversus Haereses. Perhaps the most valuable part of this section is Behr’s dissection of the argument of each book of Irenaeus’s opus and the outline that Behr assembles for each book. Behr also discusses Irenaeus’s understanding of the rule of faith as a set of first principles for the demonstration of Christian doctrine: “The ‘tradition’ appealed to by Irenaeus is not just some customary teaching or practice, but that which the apostles ‘handed down’ as the matrix and the means for encountering the Christ they proclaimed, a particular approach and practice, pivoted upon the Passion of Christ, understood through the Scriptures, and enacted in the Eucharist” (115). For Behr, this is the heart of Irenaeus’s theology: Christ recapitulates all things in himself, and therefore Christian faith is not merely a set of propositions to be confessed but a divine word to be embraced in the sacraments.
Chapter Three focuses on the theological themes of books three through five of Adversus Haereses. Behr commences with an exposition of Irenaeus’s hermeneutics and affirms: “Irenaeus’s account of how Scripture is to be read assumes that the divinely inspired content of Scripture is not known until the books are opened by the Cross of Christ, and so their ‘inspiration’ cannot be separated from the act of opening nor, for that matter, from the inspired reading: the ‘inspired’ writing of Scripture cannot be separated from the ‘inspired’ reading, and both, together, turn upon the act of opening the Scriptures by the one of whom they speak, or, in reverse, the one who speaks in them” (129–30). Continuing to demonstrate how recapitulation serves as the overarching theme of Irenaeus’s theology, Behr next addresses the economy of God...