Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Way to Irenaeus

I've been spending the long weekend in part rereading the prolegomena to Lonergan's The Triune God: Doctrines. This work has an interesting publication history. Published as part of a two-volume Latin work while Lonergan was teaching at the Gregorian in Rome, an English translation of just this initial section was published back in the 1970s as The Way to Nicea. More recently (2009, to be exact), as the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto worked at publishing Lonergan's Collected Works, a new translation was published (with the Latin on the opposite page, as in a book from the Loeb Library) as the first part of The Triune God: Doctrines. Although at first the intention was to retain the earlier translation, it was decided that a new translation was necessary, so as to integrate it more fully into the larger, two-volume work. But I digress.

The prolegomena is a work that rewards rereading. This has probably been about my fifth time reading the work, in both the earlier and the more recent published versions. It is essentially a dialectical account of the development of trinitarian doctrine in the ante-Nicene period. This time around, I took note of an argument that I had no doubt noted before, but which on this reading seemed to me to be of particular import. I refer to Lonergan's suggestion that alongside the development of dogma during this period, the early Christians were developing the very idea of dogma. That is, the Christians of the first century did not have a clearly-defined concept that we might call "dogma." We see this in the fact that Christians of this period typically are trying to articulate their thought through narratives, rather than through philosophical or theological discourse. We perhaps see the first movement towards dogmatic presentations of Christian thought in Paul's writing, but still here we find that whenever he comes to the heart of his thought he seems almost invariably to fall back on narration. He retells the story of Israel, with Jesus now as in some way its culmination. Within the gospel tradition, and a bit after Paul, we see John's Gospel engaging in what we might think to be an early experiment in dogma, but still retaining the basic narrative form. Perhaps around the same time or a bit later, we see in the Gospel of Thomas a significant formal shift beyond narrative and towards dialogue, which might profitably be seen as a notable step towards the intentional objectification of knowledge that dogma demands.

Lonergan does not dwell at length on the above New Testament material, nor does he touch upon the Gospel of Thomas (probably because a complete text of Thomas had only recently been discovered when Lonergan was working on these studies). But he does suggest that with the gnostic thinkers of the first half of the second century we begin to see a significant breakthrough towards dogma. A concerted number of Christian writings begin to appear that might reasonably be described as "theological treatises." They in many ways retain much of the narrative form, but this increasingly is subordinated to explicit theological reflection. Lonergan suggests that much of what is most characteristic of these works--the speculation upon aeons and the like--represents the perhaps inevitable marks of thought seeking new ways to articulate itself. The shift from this work towards persons such as Justin, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus is that these later investigators could see the limitations of earlier investigations, and correct accordingly. Thus controls were placed upon speculation. Justin's emphasis upon Jesus as Reason incarnate perhaps makes great sense in this context.

As my primary interests are in the first and to a lesser extent second centuries, I'll leave off the narration here. What I find compelling is that it seeks to identify within the movement from the earliest Christian writings through to Nicea a coherent narrative that can account for both the formal and substantive shifts occurring in Christian thought at this time. History thus becomes something more than a chronicle of vaguely related events, and rather a process, or rather a set of densely interrelated processes.

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