Friday, January 17, 2014

Irenaeus and the Parables (Part 2 of 2)

Irenaeus discusses a number of parables in Book 4 of Against Heresies (I am using the text found at CCEL; my list below is slightly different from the one identified by Denis Minns, "The Parable of the Two Sons"):

1.   Wicked Husbandmen (Matt. 21:33-45; AH 4.36.1-4)
2.   Great Supper (Matt. 22:1-14; AH 4.36.5-6)
3.   Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32; AH 4.36.7)
4.   Workers in the Vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16; AH 4.36.7).
5.   Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14; AH 4.36.8).
6.   Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-32; AH 4.36.8)
7.   Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9; AH 4.36.8).
8.   Sheep and Goats (Matt. 25:31-46; AH 4.40.2)
9.   Wheat and Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; AH 4.40.2)

The first three parables signify that “the prophets were sent from one and the same Father” (4.36.5), an argument that strikes directly at Marcion’s claim that the God of the Hebrew Bible was different from the Christian God. The parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, for example, demonstrates the unity of the God of the “Mosaic dispensation” and the God of Jesus, because it is the same “householder” (Jesus’ Father) who sends both his servants (i.e., the prophets) and his son (i.e., Jesus). God now rejects those who rejected the Son of God—those of the “former dispensation to whom the vineyard was formerly entrusted”—and has given the vineyard to the Gentiles—the Church—who were formerly outside the vineyard.

Irenaeus’s discussion of the Workers in the Vineyard provides an excellent example of his parable interpretation: The householder is God and the workers called at different times of the day demonstrate the continuity between the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian God:

the same God is declared as having called some in the beginning, when the world was first created; but others afterwards, and others during the intermediate period [i.e., the time between Moses and Jesus; cf. AH 4.25.1], others after a long lapse of time, and others again in the end of time; so that there are many workmen in their generations, but only one householder who calls them together. For there is but one vineyard, since there is also but one righteousness, and one dispensator, for there is one Spirit of God who arranges all things; and in like manner is there one hire, for they all received a penny each man, having [stamped upon it] the royal image and superscription, the knowledge of the Son of God, which is immortality. And therefore He began by giving the hire to those [who were engaged] last, because in the last times, when the Lord was revealed He presented Himself to all [as their reward].

Irenaeus’ use of allegory is rather restrained in comparison to other early interpreters, such as the Gnostics against whom he writes, and this example does not take interpreters much farther down an allegorical path than does the author of Matthew’s Gospel. Reventlow suggests that it was in fact Irenaeus’s “anti-gnostic attitude” that led him to downplay the allegorical “spiritual” meaning (i.e., not separating a “bodily” meaning and a “spiritual” meaning) more than later interpreters.

In this section of Against Heresies, Irenaeus continually focuses on the role of the fathers in the parables, whom he interprets as symbolizing God, because he wants to stress that the God of the old dispensation is the same as the God of the new dispensation. In addition, since Irenaeus argues that interpretations of the parables must in harmony with the other part of Scriptures, whatever is unclear or ambiguous in the parables can be elucidated by other passages that are clear and unambiguous. Therefore, in his parable interpretations, Irenaeus often “prooftexts”—citing other Scripture passages without regard for the context because of a perceived relationship in words or ideas to the first passage.

An example of such prooftexting can be found in Irenaeus’s interpretation of the “parable” of the Fig Tree: The tree’s barrenness signifies that Israel, from the time of the prophets, was barren of “the fruit of righteousness” and that the tree therefore should be cut down. Irenaeus then explains by citing Matthew 23:37-38, where Jesus prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem because, even though he desired to gather them “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” they had killed the prophets and were rejecting him.

The parable of the Good Samaritan also demonstrates the continuity of God: the same “Spirit of God” (the Comforter/Paraclete) given to Gideon, Isaiah, and others in the Hebrew Bible has now been conferred upon the church (Against Heresies 3.17.3). Here Irenaeus also laid the foundation for later allegorical interpretations of the parable. He implies that the Samaritan represents Jesus who had compassion upon and tended to the wounds of the injured man, who symbolizes the human race. Jesus also pays “two royal denaria” to the innkeeper, who represents the Holy Spirit and who is our advocate against the “accuser” (i.e., the devil).

Irenaeus was a pioneer in many ways. He emphasized not only harmony of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian scriptures, but he was one of the first writers who treated Christian writings as authoritative scripture on the same level as the Hebrew Bible.

I like how Robert Grant states it. Irenaeus, he says,

gathered up and combined the traditions of his predecessors from Asia Minor, Syria, and Rome and used them to refute the Gnostics who were subverting the Gospel. He built up a body of Christian theology that resembled a French Gothic cathedral, strongly supported by columns of biblical faith and tradition, illuminated by vast expanses of exegetical and logical argument, and upheld by flying buttresses of rhetorical and philosophical considerations from the outside. In his own person he united the major traditions of Christendom from Asia Minor, Syria, Rome, and Gaul (1997: 1).

In addition to the general works about the early church I mentioned in previous posts, here are a couple works specific to Irenaeus that I found particularly helpful.

Mary Ann Donovan, One Right Reading?: A Guide to Irenaeus. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997.

Robert Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons. London: Routledge, 1997.

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