Friday, November 03, 2017

Review of Irenaeus of Lyon for Young Readers

I just received a new book in the mail yesterday and was asked to review it. I hope you find the review helpful.

Simonetta Carr, Irenaeus of Lyon (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017) is a nicely illustrated and well-written biography of an important early church father. In a little more than sixty pages, she does an excellent job of filling in the background of why he is important and how he obtained his source material (he was a student of Polycarp, who was a student of John the Elder).

Beginning with his birthplace in Smyrna (modern İzmir, Turkey), she gives background on what a typical male child’s education was like and why it seems that Irenaeus had that education (he shows a good knowledge of the Greek classics in his writings). She explains the importance of Polycarp, highlights Irenaeus’s time in Rome before he arrives at his final destination of Lyon in Gaul (France), where he became bishop.

If I still had children at home, I would definitely enjoy reading this book to them. What’s more, I’m sure they would enjoy it, which is quite an accomplishment for an author!

That being said, there are two places in the book where I take issue with her. The first is on the first page of the book. She seems to imply—no, she comes right out and says—that Paul was considered one of the Twelve. Unfortunately, that reflects the highly Pauline-centric view of too many in the Reformed world. There are many definitions of “apostle” in the New Testament, but Luke’s was the most restricted, as described in Acts 1, where the disciples choose a new twelfth member. Needless to say, it wasn’t Paul. Ok, maybe I’m nitpicking.

The second issue is in the final background information, where she states the common misinterpretation of Augustine’s comment about Ambrose reading silently. From that little statement has grown a common misconception that almost no one in the ancient world read silently. Wrong! That view was rightly put to rest back in the 1960s by Bernard Knox, but it has maintained a life of its own. It was considered in bad taste to read silently, largely because so many were illiterate, but it was not unheard of or unknown. I know, only a Classicist would get all bent out of shape over that. Color me guilty, but I’m tired of having to always correct that mistake—even in articles by New Testament scholars who should know better.

Irenaeus is an important source for the early church, especially in his refutation of gnosticism and witness to the rule of faith. But one other thing that I wish she had developed was his doctrine of theosis or divination, the process by which we become more godlike (without becoming God). In his Against Heresies 3:19, he has the amazing statement

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality.
This idea would later be summed up by Athanasius (3rd century) as, “God became man that man might become god.” Mind you, not gods independent of God, but only in the likeness of God because we are adopted into God through Christ. The Eastern Orthodox have a wonderful theology of theosis that those of us in the West could do well to adapt and adopt. Indeed, if you look, you can find it in Luther to an extent, moreso in Calvin, and to a much greater extent in Wesley, who had the advantage of being at Oxford during a time of the rediscovery of the Eastern Fathers, which then influenced his idea of Christian perfection. If you do a search on theosis on this blog you will find a good bit more information. : )

Well, it seems we’ve gone far afield from the book at this point, but to sum it up again, this book, despite the two minor errors (and they are minor despite the space I gave to them), is highly recommended. In fact, this book has encouraged me to take a look at the other biographies for young readers that she has written. They might make good gifts for the grandkids!

Disclaimer: This book was given to me by Reformation Heritage Books. Needless to say, that didn’t influence my review.

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