Thoughts on Evil 4 The Contribution of St Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130 – 202 A.D.)
I remember discovering the thought of this early Father of the Church in the writings of the 20th century Anglican philosopher and theologian John Hick in his marvellous book which I read in 1978 called Evil and the God of Love (first published 1966 and revised in the middle of the 70s), the book which re-established the Irenaean as distinguished from the Augustinian response to the problem of evil. This also was a new insight for me as I had never come across this early philosopher/theologian, nor had I been acquainted with his thought. Hick is a marvelously clear and lucid writer and any of his books which I read subsequently always held my interest as did any of his broadcasts.
The above book introduced me to new words to add to my personal lexicon of theological and philosophical expressions. From him I learned the term “theodicy” which means an explanation of why God would allow there to be evil and suffering in the world. And so I was introduced to what may be termed the Irenaean theodicy. St Augustine as we have seen assigns the blame for evil in the world totally to mankind’s sinning – this is illustrated essentially for traditional Christians in the story of the Fall in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Sin entered the world through Adam’s sin and continues in the sinning of all his descendants. Add to this then the later development of Original Sin and the story gets more complicated. St Augustine’s thinking is very dark and negative as regards the essential nature of the human person. We former theological students were frightened by his words that human beings made up a “massa damnata” – “a damned mass” who needed the liberation of the Christ. These arguments again is beyond the scope of these musings as I wish to engage with the Irenaean rather than the Augustinian theodicy. However, they do help to offset what is the wonderfully positive thinking of St Irenaeus of Lugdanum or Lyons.
I found Irenaeus’s thought to be wonderfully refreshing giving the predilection for darkness and damnation in traditional Catholic and Protestant theologies. For St Irenaeus, God began the world and has been overseeing it ever since creation and absolutely everything that has happened since then is part of his plan for humanity. This loving Creator created a world or universe which would grow and mature, rather than one which was fully perfect from the outset. Hence the essence of the Irenaean theodicy is the process of maturation or the idea of on-going perfectability. In Irenaeus’s mind humankind was created immature, and God intended his creatures to take a fairly long time to grow eventually into the divine likeness. In this scenario the Fall does not take on the ultimate calamitous nature that Augustine would have us believe. Rather than a full-blown rebellion what we have is a rather adolescent rebellion, as it were, against parental control. Everything that has happened since has, therefore, been planned by God to help humanity overcome this initial mishap and achieve spiritual maturity. The world has been intentionally designed by God as a difficult place, where human beings are forced to make moral decisions, as only in this way can they mature as moral agents. Hence the high point of salvation history, or on-going creation if you will, would be the advent of the Saviour, Jesus Christ. Jesus would have been sent anyway even if human beings did not sin, but seeing as they had meant that Jesus Christ’s role was changed somewhat from pinnacle of Creation to Saviour of mankind. Christ is the New Adam who redeems or recreates all that the old Adam had destroyed.
The upshot of the Irenaean theodicy is that God is not "off the hook" for human evil, but must find a way to use it as an instrument for good, within a process that ultimately will redeem all humanity. Thus, in drawing out the ramifications of the Irenaean theodicy, Hick is led to a form of universalism - holding that in Christian faith and hope all humanity will ultimately be saved (1978, p. 345).
In other words moral evil then is somewhat akin to growing pains along the way to maturation. The evil deeds which humankind perpetrates lead to greater maturation, if not on a personal level, then, certainly on a communal or societal level. Personally, I have long believed in the fact our understanding of different truths develop as humankind comes of age, e.g., after centuries of the vilest ill-treatment of slaves we grew eventually to believe that keeping other human beings as slaves to be really, truly and essentially wrong. Likewise we would not have had the International Declaration of Human Rights (1948) were it not for the horrific crimes of the Nazis or the present understanding of the Rights of Children and the heinous nature of child abuse in all its forms were it not for the discovery of such crimes in the first place. All of this growth in our understanding of evil would have a good basis in an understanding of the Irenaean theodicy. If we follow Hick and Irenaeus to its logical conclusion, then ultimate perfectibility or ultimate maturation can only be in a Heaven or in a Paradise beyond this world. And so we get the traditional Christian notion of Heaven as a reward for good deeds and Hell as punishment for evil deeds. Hence Hick has a motto which runs "no theodicy without eschatology." In other words, a theology of the final things (eschatology) must supplement and fill out any possible thedicy (theory of the justification of evil)
The above is a picture of Autumn leaves on the footpath outside my house here in Dublin. This photo was taken in November 2006.
To be continued