Irenaeus and Kierkegaard on Christian Knowledge

Keynote panel
Jonathan Lear, Tanya Luhrmann, Elaine Pagels, and Jeffry Kripal

I presented a paper at a conference entitled The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psycholgy at the University of Chicago in March of 2015. I meant to post my thoughts on that conference immediately after its conclusion, but a number of other commitments kept me from being able to do that. The conference, sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, was extraordinarily stimulating. The keynote speakers were Jeffry Kripal, J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Studies, Rice University, Jonathan Lear, John U. Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, Watkins University Professor in the Department of Anthropology (and Psychology, by courtesy), Stanford University, and Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, Princeton University.

I was excited to be on the same program with Jonathan Lear and Elaine Pagels. I am a huge admirer of both scholars. Lear is an extraordinarily talented scholar who has done some wonderful work on Kierkegaard as well as on classical philosophy and psychoanalysis and although Pagels has not, to my knowledge, written on Kierkegaard, her books on the history of Christianity in general, and Gnosticism in particular have been very helpful to me.

It was Pagels’ presentation, “’Making a Difference’: How Promoting Exploration of Human Experience Became Heresy,” that prompted this post. Much of that presentation was directed against Irenaeus and his attacks on the Gnostics. Pagels argued that Irenaeus was dismissive of human experience and antagonistic to the idea, so central to Gnosticism, that human beings could achieve knowledge of the divine. In fact, she attributed this antagonism, as the title of her presentation suggests, not merely to Irenaeus, but to orthodox Christianity more generally.

Irenaeus
Slide of Irenaeus from Pagels’ presentation

As I said, I am a huge admirer of Pagels, but that account of Irenaeus, and the Christian tradition more generally struck me as simply false and I said as much during the question period. Knowledge of the divine is clearly possible according to Kierkegaard, as I argue in my book Ways Of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Baylor, 2010). God, observes Kierkegaard in Philosophical Crumbs, did not take on human form “to ridicule human beings. His intention cannot thus be to go through the world in such a way that not a single person ever came to know [vide] it. He does indeed want something of himself to be understood [forstaae]” (Crumbs, 126).

The claim that knowledge of God is possible through an encounter with Christ may seem heretical to those who view Christianity as a religion based on faith. This passage from Crumbs is strikingly similar, however, to Irenaeus’ claim in The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies (Ignatius Press, 1990) that “the Lord did not say that the Father and the Son could not be known at all [μη γινωσκεσθαι] for in that case his coming would have been pointless” (Against the Heresies, p. 45).

Irenaeus is specifically concerned in Against the Heresies to reject the claim of the Gnostic Valentinus that the message of the incarnation was God’s inaccessibility to human knowledge. “What the Lord really taught,” asserts Irenaeus, “is this: no one can know God unless God teaches him; in other words, without God, God cannot be known [ανευ Θεου μη γινωσκεσθαι τον Θεον]. What is more,” continues Irenaeus, “it is the Father’s will that God be known [αυτο δε το γινωσκεσθαι αυτον θλημα ειναι του Πατρος]” (Against the Heresies, 45).

Man’s imperfection, or sin, is for Irenaeus, the obstacle to his attaining specifically Christian knowledge. Thus Irenaeus observes that “the Word of the Father [i.e., Christ] and the Spirit of God [i.e., faith in Christ], united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation [i.e., man], made man living and perfect capable of knowing the perfect Father” (Against the Heresies, p. 57). But sinful man is no longer perfect and hence is incapable of knowing God without the intermediacy of Christ. Thus Irenaeus asserts that “no one can know God unless God teaches him.”

Can “the truth be taught?” asks Kierkegaard in Crumbs (88). His answer, of course, is yes–if God himself teaches it. In other words, Kierkegaard’s claim in Crumbs that union with God is necessary in order for specifically Christian knowledge to be possible echoes exactly Irenaeus’ claim in Against the Heresies that “no one can know God unless God teaches him.”

I presented a paper concerning the similarity of Kierkegaard’s view on the possibility of religious knowledge with those of both Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2011 and was figuratively besieged by admiring Patristics scholars throughout the rest of the conference.

I’m not in a position, of course, to comment upon Pagels’ more general claim that Irenaeus, and the later Christian tradition, was dismissive of human experience. She is certainly correct to the extent that Christianity assumes human experience, characterized as it is by sin, is profoundly problematic as a means for coming to understand the truth. The picture of Irenaeus’ objection to Gnosticism that one gets from Against the Heresies relates, however, to the Gnostics’ condemnation of physical reality, as well as to their elitism, or their view that only a tiny select group of human beings, the πνευματικοι, could know God.

I was very fortunate to share drinks with both Pagels and Luhrmann just before the conference dinner and Pagels assured me then that there were other works by Irenaeus that would support her view that he was dismissive of human experience. She neglected to mention what works those were. But it is not inconceivable that other writings by Irenaeus might display a certain ambivalence about what one could call the “authority” of human experience, since the Christian tradition more generally is ambivalent about this “authority.” Human experience certainly has a kind of authority, however, for Irenaeus. It just isn’t the same kind of authority it has for the Gnostics.

It is clear, however, both that Irenaeus believed human beings could achieve knowledge of the divine and that this view is an important part of the Christian tradition.

 

Kierkegaard and the Ante-Nicene Fathers on the Knowledge that Comes from Faith

I actually started this blog at the suggestion of Baylor University Press. Baylor published my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (2010) and they suggested that a blog might help to promote the book. I fear I haven’t written much here, however, on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, so I figured now was perhaps the time to say something about it. I don’t want simply to rehash what I’ve already said in the book, so I thought that instead, I’d give you a preview of the talk I’m scheduled to give at the American Academy of Religion conference in San Francisco next weekend. I’m going to speak, as the title of this post indicates, on Kierkegaard and the Ante-Nicene fathers on Christian epistemology.

I’m a philosopher by training, not a theologian, so I knew very little about the Ante-Nicene fathers before I picked up Hans Urs  von Balthasar’s English translation of Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies. I picked it up, actually, just for a little light reading. I’d become interested in early church history as a result of reading Bart Ehrman’s excellent Misquoting Jesus. Erhman’s written so many popular books on the early Christian church that you might be tempted to think he’s not really a serious scholar. Let me disabuse you of that notion. I had to make a trip over to the Advanced Judaic Studies Library recently in connection with the preparation of my upcoming talk and the librarian there, Joseph Gulka, put me on to Ehrman’s excellent The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.

I got quite a few excellent books on the Ante-Nicene Fathers from Penn’s library, and let me tell you, the similarities between Kierkegaard’s views on the nature of Christian knowledge and the views of figures such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria is really striking. I’m surprised I hadn’t read about these similarities earlier. I fear too many Kierkegaard scholars are either philosophers who know nothing at all about theology, or theologians whose backgrounds are exclusively in later periods. I won’t go into all the similarities here but will point out only one I intend to emphasize in my talk.

I explain in Ways of Knowing that Kierkegaard believes it’s possible to know the truth, or to recognize Christ as the truth. God, he observes, did not take on human form “to ridicule human beings. His intention cannot thus be to go through the world in such a way that not a single person ever came to know [vide] it. He does indeed want something of himself to be understood [forstaae].”[1]

The claim that knowledge of God is possible through an encounter with Christ may seem heretical to those who view Christianity as a religion based on faith. This passage from Crumbs is strikingly similar, however, to Irenaeus’ claim in Against the Heresies that “the Lord did not say that the Father and the Son could not be known at all [μη γινωσκεσθαι], for in that case his coming would have been pointless” (45) (Forgive the absence of diacritical marks. I’m not a classicist, so I haven’t yet figured out how to do them on the computer).

Irenaeus is specifically concerned here to reject the claim of the gnostic Valentinus that the message of the incarnation was God’s inaccessibility to human knowledge. “What the Lord really taught,” asserts Irenaeus, “is this: no one can know God unless God teaches him; in other words, without God, God cannot be known [ανευ Θεου μη γινωσκεσθαι τον Θεον]. What is more,” continues Irenaeus, “it is the Father’s will that God be known [αυτο δε το γινωσκεσθαι αυτον θλημα ειναι του Πατρος]” (45).

Interesting, eh? It should be interesting, anyway, to anyone who has read my book. But enough on my book. I’d like to take this opportunity to promote someone else’s book. I found a particularly interesting book as I was doing the research for this paper. It’s called Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism (Oxford, 2006). I was so entranced with it that I went right to abebooks.com to see if I could get a copy. Unfortunately, the cheapest copy was $75. I then did a google search in the hope that I might find one for less than $75 and discovered that Amazon had a Kindle edition for $8.80! I LOVE Kindle! If you’re interested in Kierkegaard’s epistemology, then I recommend you check it out!


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, tran. M.G. Piety (Oxford, 2009), p. 126.