Balthazar’s ‘Clerical Styles': Irenaeus – Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P.

July 25, 2012

St. Irenaeus: Greek Father of the Church, and early ornament of the primatial see of the Gauls, at Lyons. Balthazar thought Irenaeus’ principal contribution to theological aesthetics was his ‘historical aesthetic’, his account of saving history as a wonderfully ordered whole.

Balthazar begins with ‘clerical styles’, and first of all with St. Irenaeus: Greek Father of the Church, and early ornament of the primatial see of the Gauls, at Lyons. As we shall see, Irenaeus’ principal contribution to theological aesthetics is, for Balthazar, his ‘historical aesthetic’, his account of saving history as a wonderfully ordered whole.

But there is more to say than this. While admitting that Irenaeus’ thinking may have been stimulated on various particular points by the challenge of gnosis, Balthazar considers that Maritain could well have taken him as his first ‘anti-modern’ — the first Christian thinker who consciously opted to present the faith not in terms of its congruence with contemporary religious and intellectual aspiration, or even with ‘perennial modernity’, but inasmuch as its ‘internal obviousness’ is irrefutable, irresistible. [J. Maritain, Anti-moderne (Paris 1922).] Irenaean thought circles freely in the space defined by the mysteries, exhibiting the beauty of their harmonious reciprocity as it does so.

Balthazar notes the predominance of visual metaphors in Irenaeus’ writings: revelation and its human appropriation is ostensio, manifestatio, visio. What Christ appeared to be, that he was [F. Sagnard, O.P. (ed.), Contre les heresies III (Paris 1952)]: the manifestation of the Father through the Word takes place in the self-showing of the incarnate One in his life, death and resurrection, as pointed to by the Scriptures. In seeing these saving mysteries we begin upon the eschatological vision of God. Here ‘seeing’ is nothing pejoratively theoretical, but is ‘identical with life-giving, nourishing, purifying and bliss-giving communication …’ in the Holy Spirit.[Glory of the Lord II, p. 47]

Moreover, such seeing is through our own eyes, though healed and transfigured: it is the ‘Father’s ancient creation’, as Irenaeus puts it, which through Son and Spirit gains access to the Father’s Glory. Here, in his affirmation of the fundamental goodness of the world, Irenaeus’ critique of the Gnostics agrees (though Balthazar does not say this) with that of such Neo-Platonists as Plotinus.

The beauty of Irenaean salvation lies in its wonderfully integrated quality. As the fulfiller — the ‘recapitulator’ — of what humanity was meant to be at its origin, and of all the chief determining aspects of its subsequent experience, the Word made flesh has the power to ‘give every emergent thing scope for perfection’;[Glory of the Lord II, p. 52] precisely by drawing it actively to himself, assimilating it to his own fullness.’

The ground of the advance of the inchoate is thus found in the fulfilling return of the definitive, by whose integrating power everything is decided.” .[Glory of the Lord II, p. 53]  And yet this is no mere miraculous incursion of divine power, essentially unconnected to the pre-existing pattern of the human creation. For the created pattern already knew in Adam an integrating focus — which is why the interrelation of the two heads of humanity, Adam and Christ, is so important to Irenaeus, and why he considers it a theological necessity that the first Adam should, thanks to the second, be redeemed.

But if the recapitulation concept lies at the heart of Irenaeus’ theological aesthetics, that heart itself possesses a center. The ‘still center‘ as Balthazar terms it, of all Irenaean thought is the notion of the humanity which, borne as it is by God, is capable of sustaining the weight of the divine — a concept, incidentally, which will be crucial to the second volume of his theological logic, his ‘Christo-logic’. Owing not only to the Creator’s gift to man of his image and likeness but also to the supernatural gift of the Spirit, it is possible to think of ‘man bearing and receiving and containing the Son of God’.”

From this midpoint of the incarnation — the God-enabled God-bearing which resumes and brings to perfection the origin, structure and history of humanity — Irenaeus’ camera-work pans out in three directions. On Balthazar’s analysis, three themes display the ‘organizing power and the blazing heat of the recapitulative movement [Glory of the Lord II, p. 58.]: the triune God, hidden and revealed; the Creator’s relation to the human creature; and the salvific; dispensation which binds together Israel, the gospel and the Church. Let us glance at each in turn.

Consider first the Holy Trinity. For Irenaeus, Father, Son and Spirit’ are joined in an eternal open trialogue: unlike the divine powers of Gnosticism, constantly seeking or finding, and hence enmeshed in ignorance, the Trinitarian persons conduct their exchange in the everlasting light and freedom. Without prejudice to his unknowability which is a function of his transcendence, the Father makes himself known — not in his greatness, which is immeasurable, but in his love — through the office of the Word by which we learn, if we are responsive, more and more how great God is and that it is he who through himself establishes and chooses everything and makes it beautiful and contains it’ [W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses (Cambridge 1857), II, pp. 212-213.] To be’ sure, the Word for Irenaeus does not exercise this office without the collaboration of the Father’s other ‘hand’, the Spirit.

Consider next the relation between Creator and creature. This same triune Lord is the creature’s absolute Source in whom inheres what Irenaeus terms: ‘the substance of creatures and the pattern of his artefacts and the beauty of the individual life-form’. [W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses (Cambridge 1857), II, p.213.] The humanity he has made to his and likeness he calls to communion with himself, as his perfect artwork, remade through the visible Image, Jesus Christ, in which the invisible Archetype is seen on earth. Since the ‘true man is soul in body and grace in both’, [Glory of the Lord, II, p.64] the eschatologically whole man is not the..!. disembodied post-mortem soul but the risen flesh, where the Holy Spirit` is victorious over man’s mortal wounds: sin and death.

The Creator’s work is only properly seen at its mid-point, the God-man, in his crucified and risen glory. That God can do all things is clear, writes Balthazar by way of interpretation of Irenaeus, but that ‘man together with God can also do all things had to be proved’ [Glory of the Lord, II, ibid] As, in Balthazar’s favorite metaphor, the ‘fruit’ both of the world and of the hither, Christ united the Spirit with man, in his affinity with both leading them back — and here the language is once more that of Irenaeus himself --in ‘mutual love and harmony’ [F. Sagnard, O.P. (ed.), Contre les heresies III] Anticipating his own theology of the atonement, both in Herrlichkeit, and in his extended meditation on the Easter triduum, Mysterium Paschale, Balthazar summarizes Irenaeus’ message of agony and glory:

The same person must be glorified and abased, must penetrate heights and depths, in order to make up by his humiliation for Adam’s arrogance, must live through all the ages of man in order to heal all. Salvation lies in the human life and fate of Jesus, and this includes his real death; really dying, however, means going down to the realm of the dead, to Hades, and not just leaving the cross to return to the Father. And if everything in the fate of Jesus is the revelation of his Father, so too is his Passion. It is the real suffering and dying man who, by what he completely and utterly is, glorifies the Father, and this man who suffers and is humiliated even to death is much more magnificant than all the bloodless patterns of the Gnostics…. Through the suffering flesh of Christ the Father’s light reaches us; that is the essence of the mysterion.
[Hans urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, pp. 68-69, 70]

And consider too the salvific dispensation that binds together Israel, the Gospel and the Church. In the first place, the order of salvation in the Old Testament is a praeadaptio, praeformatio, praemeditatio (in this context a preliminary training) for the coming of Christ. The child Adam is to learn wisdom through injury; his Fall, though not inevitable, had a kind of necessity about it. Had all goodness been man’s inalienable possession from the outset he would not have valued the society of God as a prize worth great effort: ‘Sight would not be so desirable to us if we had not learned how awful it is not to see.. .’.[W. W. Harvey (ed.), Sancti Irenaei, episcopi Lugdunensis, Libros quinque adversus haereses]

The mutual accustoming of God and man — an idea already important to Balthazar in the first volume of Herrlichkeit — explains to perfection why the Redeemer came so ‘late’, after multiple generations of Israel’s educative spiritual experience. And in any case, since for Irenaeus Son and Spirit are the manifestness of the Father, all the Old Testament theophanies (as Balthazar puts it) are the Son, just as all inspiration is the Spirit. Thus in the words of the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, the Son ‘was with our humanity from eternity, announcing beforehand the things that were to happen later and instructing men in the things of God’ [L. M. Froidevaux (ed.), Irenee de Lyons, Demonstration de la Predication apostolique]

Any attempt to prise apart the two covenants, especially, in the horrendous example offered by Marcion, to ascribe them to different deities, means to ‘undo all God’s art’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p82] Originating in Abraham’s free obedience, the ancient covenant helped men and women to find, through law, the way to love, and by the prophets, avoiding legalism, to seek the essence of the God-man relationship in the inwardness of hearts.

Irenaeus had to face, accordingly, the question of what, in such a context of ripe development, could constitute the ‘novelty value’ of the gospel. Though everything in the New Covenant might have been announced beforehand in the form of teaching, now, with the Gospel, it becomes a person – and therefore is fulfillment. Balthazar writes:

In addition to the correspondence and the intensification there is Christ’s divine quality and his efforts to transpose everything and symbolic into living existence and so to recapitulate it by it concrete form in such a way that its reality is enhanced.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p85-86]

The moment of the incarnation is the moment of unsurpassable:

With this creative event in view the Father gave this ‘hot character of the fullness of time. In this fullness not only the Old Covenant but also all human and physical nature is fulfilled, because now the Word is present within the flesh.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p86]

And so, lastly, the Church steps into view, with her ‘timeless newness’ which Balthazar connects with Irenaeus’ statement that, the incarnation is a ripening into fullness it is also a return to a now un-threatened childhood, since the Word became a child like us. Balthazar captures Irenaeus’ ecclesiology quite brilliantly in a few lines:

In Irenaeus the Church…stands historically at the end of the early Christian era, the splendor of which still surrounds it, and at the beginning of the Catholic form of the world, the features of which it has already assumed. It is the esoteric mystery of the world Christ and yet the most public and anti-sectarian body known to history. It is fully the pneumatic and charismatic Church as in Tertullian; but Irenaeus avoids the dangers and disasters which befell Tertullian, because at the same time in his view the Church remains resolutely in the spirit of the apostolic kerygma and paradosis. [vocab: paradosis: a handing down or over of a tradition or divine revelation]
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p86]

Nor could this be for Irenaeus a privileged originating moment whose plenary freshness may not always be with us. The Spirit perpetually rejuvenates the Church, giving her ‘eternally young beauty.’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p88] By the continual refreshment which comes from abiding in the person of the fulfiller the Church’s existence lies wide open to eternal life.

Balthazar emphasizes then the way in which the Christian aesthetic of Irenaeus excels its Gnostic rival by its capacity to display the ‘temporal art’ of God, his beautifully proportioned ordering of time. For Irenaeus, the beauty of the cosmos, of cosmic order, can never be sundered from the artistic intention of its Creator, which is disclosed only in the recapitulation in time, in the temporal order. God creates by his ‘artistic Logos’, for everything was created in accord with the divine Word who alone has the measure of the Father’s mind.

Creative power, wisdom and goodness were disclosed from the beginning, but it takes that expression of the ‘symphony of being and history’ which is Holy Scripture, interpreted by the rule of faith, for us to hear the chords and cadences aright [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p73] The supreme artwork of God is the human being – and here Balthazar locates the origin of that vital Irenaean concept, the mutual ‘glorification’ of God and man. ‘Man, who preserves God’s art in himself and obediently opens himself to its disposing, glorifies the artist and the artist glorifies himself in his work.’ [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p74] The natural world, as found in the first moment of Adam’s creation, is a promise of the supernatural order to come, yet each stage in the unfolding of God’s, plan must follow at its proper time, the aptum tempus – Irenaeus’ version of the New Testament’s kairos, or appointed hour.

The ‘times’ and their ‘fulfillment’ are ‘appointed’ according to the Father’s ‘pleasure’ so that ‘his art might not be in vain’, but this pleasure is always translated into the order of time by the Son and Spirit: ‘and so, through this disposition and by such rhythms and with such guides, man, who has been produced and shaped, is led towards the image and likeness of the ungenerate God. In all this the Father approves and prescribes, the Son executes and forms, the Spirit nourishes and increases, while man gently advances and moves towards perfection, in order, that is, to approach the Uncreated.
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.77]

Although Balthazar criticizes Irenaeus for an excessively homogenizing view of the relation between the two Testaments (which in reality should be treated as highly dramatic, dialectical – Theodramatik will bring this out in full measure), he regards his weak sense of historical context, almost inevitable in his period, as a venial offence:

The elimination of this defect by modern historical exegesis is the removal of a defect which is accidental in Irenaeus; it is the true continuation and liberation of his basic purpose across the centuries
[Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.91]

Balthazar is also minded to look mercifully on Irenaeus’ millenarianism [vocab: millenarianism the belief by a religious, social, or political group or movement in a coming major transformation of society, after which all things will be changed, based on a one-thousand-year cycle]. Though his insertion of a transfigured earth into an apocalyptic space between general resurrection and general judgment was unfortunate (and the result of too literal a tendency to see the Church as re-entry on the inheritance — the land — promised to Abraham, recapitulation with a vengeance!), much may be forgiven the ‘anti-spiritualizing tendency’ in his eschatology’. [Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Glory in the Lord, II, p.93] Balthazar will return to the theme of the resurrection of the flesh, highly significant as this is for a theological aesthetics, in his account of Bonaventure, the last of his ‘clerical’ stylists in Herrlichkeit. It is, as he points out here, important for the dialogue with Judaism he attempted in his study of Buber — and for the debate with modern cosmology, as well as with the cosmic religiosity of a Teilhard de Chardin.

Irenaeus occurs first in the ‘symphony of sources’ of Herrlichkeit, not simply because of the accident that he is the first in historical time of Balthazar’s Christian witnesses. The appearance of the concept of salvation history, centered on Christ, as the ‘art of God’ in Irenaeus’ thought, and the general structure and temper of Irenaean theology Balthazar captures it in these pages brings these two ‘fathers of the Church’(Bonaventure and Irenaeus) together across the gap of centuries.

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  1. Yes. But in the icon is shown S. Gregory Palamas, an Orthodox author from the 14th. century.

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