IRENAEUS AND THE SCHOOL OF JOHN
We have, in our history of previous ages, spoken of an earnest desire to produce an harmonious universe, as the ultimate result of all things – a universe free from every form of sin and suffering. We have also remarked that this final result may be conceived of as secured in two ways: One is the annihilation of all unholy beings after enduring a punishment of such duration and severity as are demanded by infinite benevolence and justice, from a regard to the welfare of the universe. The other is a final restoration of all to holiness, through the influence of remedial punishment. It also appeared that, of the six early theological schools, the influence of four was in favor of the doctrine of universal restoration, of one in favor of the doctrine of eternal punishment and suffering. It appeared, also, that, although the majority of the schools were in favor of universal restoration, yet the doctrine of annihilation was earliest developed, and that very great claims are made for it in the earliest ages of the Church by the modern advocates of that doctrine. Of these claims we have admitted that some are well founded, while we reject others.
The strongest and most influential authority for this doctrine is clearly Irenaeus, of the school of John. But from his prominence as a saint, and the great defender of Christianity against the Gnostics, as well as from his relations to Polycarp, and through him to the apostle John, there has been a very great reluctance in the ranks of the orthodox, in modern times, to concede that he was a defender of the doctrine of the annihilation of the wicked. It is important, therefore, to state his case very clearly.
When it has been alleged that Irenaeus defended this doctrine, the common mode of refuting the allegation has been to quote from him in various forms his statement of the sentence of the Saviour at the last judgment, by which the wicked are consigned to aionian punishment, and to regard it as proof conclusive of his belief in eternal suffering, and, on the strength of these passages, to explain away the passages in which he seems to teach annihilation. This is the course pursued by Massuetus, in his standard edition of Irenaeus. At the same time he overlooks other parts of the system of Irenaeus which ought to exert a decisive influence on the question, and which render it certain that he did not understand aionian punishment to mean eternal punishment, but rather the punishment of the world to come, as affirmed by Prof. Tayler Lewis.
System of Irenaeus.
In order, then, to present his system in all its parts, it is necessary to consider, first, his views as to the final reorganization of all things. Then the way will be prepared to present his views of the annihilation of the wicked, and to confirm them by his account of the proceedings of the last judgment, in conferring immortality on the righteous, and not on the wicked.
Reorganization of the Universe.
His views on the final reorganization of all things are given in the fourth of the passages of his writings discovered by Pfaff at Turin, in 1715, and first published by him. Dr. Schaff refers to it in vol. i., p. 490, of his history, and sates that it relates to “the object of the incarnation, which is stated to be the purging away of sin, and the final annihilation of all evil.” He also says that “the genuineness of these passages has been called in question by some Roman divines, but without sufficient reason.”
This statement of Irenaeus would not decide of itself whether all evil was to be annihilated by the restoration of all sinners to holiness, or by their annihilation. We therefore give an exact translation of the passage itself, from the edition of A. Stieren, Leipsic, 1853, vol. i., p. 888:
“Christ, having been proclaimed the Son of God before the ages, appeared in the fullness of time, that by his blood he might purify us who were under sin, and present us holy to the Father, if we surrender ourselves obediently to the teaching of the Spirit, and at the end of the times he is about to come, to do away with all evil, and to restore all things to harmony, so that there shall be an end of all pollutions.”
It will be seen that this passage is perfectly decisive against his belief of the eternal existence of sinful and polluted beings in the universe of God; for, according to him, Christ is to produce universal harmony, and to bring all sin and pollution to a perpetual end. But still this passage, by itself, is not decisive of the mode in which these results are to be attained, though, if there were nothing more, it would slightly countenance the idea of universal restoration by the annihilation of sin; for it does not expressly speak of the annihilation of sinners, but of sin and pollution.
But we are not left to doubt or conjecture as to the real views of Irenaeus. Nothing can be more explicit and unequivocal than his utterances in other places, especially in one in which he speaks expressly as to the annihilation of the wicked. The passage occurs in his work, “Contra Haereses,” ii., 34, 2, 3, 4. He begins by denying the necessary annihilation of the spirit after death, by referring to the case of the rich man and Lazurus. This, he says, teaches that at death souls do not cease to exist, or pass into other bodies, but so live as to be recognized. To those who assert that souls, not being self-existent, but coming into being, must die with the body, he replies that, though God only is by nature immortal, yet by the will of God they can continue to exist as long as he pleases. The material system is not self-existent, but was called into being by the will of god, and yet it exists for ages by his will; so also can it be with the souls and spirits of men. From this he passes to consider the question, What, in fact, is the will of God as to the future existence of men?
On this point we will give an exact translation of his words. Referring to Psalm xxi. 4, he says: “Thus it is said concerning the salvation of man, ‘He asked life of thee, and thou gavest it him, even length of days forever and ever,’ indicating that the Father of all gives to those who are saved length of days forever and ever. For our life comes not from ourselves nor from our nature. We have life, but it is given to us by the grace of God. And therefore he who cherishes the gift of life, and is thankful to him who bestowed it, shall also receive length of days forever and ever. But he who casts it away, and is ungrateful to his Creator for his creation, and does not acknowledge him who conferred the gift, deprives himself of eternal existence.” In this passage Irenaeus is plainly speaking of the continuance of natural life forever, as denoted by eternal existence, and not of spiritual life in holiness.
This view of the case he sustains by referring to a principle stated in another portion of Scripture:
“Therefore, the Lord says to those who were ungrateful to him, ‘If ye have not been faithful in that which is little, who will give you that which is much?’ signifying that those who have been ungrateful to the giver for temporal life, which is little, shall justly be deprived by him of eternal existence.”
This view of the case he proceeds to sustain by refuting the Platonic doctrine of the necessary immortality of the soul. This, also, we shall quote; for, though what we have quoted is explicit beyond all evasion, yet efforts are made to render the position of Irenaeus on this question doubtful, and therefore we will give line upon line till doubt is impossible. He thus proceeds to refute the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul:
“As the animal body is not the spirit, but partakes of the spirit so long as God wills, so the spirit is not life, but partakes of the life given by God. Hence, as the inspired Word says concerning the first man, he became a living soul, teaching us that he became a living soul by participating of life, so also the spirit is to be conceived of as something separate from the life of which it partakes. So long, then, as God gives life and continued existence, it follows that minds, though called into being from non-existence, will hereafter exist so long as God wills them to have existence and being. The will of God must be supreme in all things, and everything must give way to it and obey it. This completes what I have to say as to the creation and continued existence of the mind.
Attempt of Massuetus.
We can now judge of the attempt of Massuetus to neutralize the positive testimony of passages so explicit. He says that Irenaeus, in these passages, is speaking of spiritual life or the life of holiness, and not of the eternal existence of the soul. Truly, this is a desperate evasion. It lies upon the very face of the passage, that he is speaking of eternal existence as the reward of holiness and gratitude, and the loss of eternal existence as the punishment for ingratitude and disobedience. He begins by showing that the soul does not cease to exist at death, since life is the gift of god, and can be continued as long as he pleases. And to exclude the evasion that by life he means holiness, he calls it temporal life, and contrasts it with eternal existence, and not with holiness. In conclusion, he says that, in the whole discussion, he has spoken of the creation and continued existence of the mind, thus denying that he has been speaking of spiritual life. Yet the loss of existence which he teaches does not take place at once. He distinctly sets forth great and fearful punishments to be endured by the wicked in the future state, before they cease to exist.
This general view is illustrated and confirmed by the closing part of his creed, in which he states that at the final judgment God will bestow upon the righteous the gift of immortality. His words are these: “Wicked spiritists and angels that have transgressed and become apostate, and the impious and unjust, and lawless and blasphemous among men, Christ will send into the aionian fire. But upon the just he will mercifully bestow life, and confer on them the gift of immortality and heavenly glory.” This plainly implies that all on whom this gift is not bestowed – that is, all the wicked – will finally cease to exist.
These passages remove all doubt as to the manner in which, in the opinion of Irenaeus, all evil and pollution were to be removed from the universe, and all things restored to the harmony of love. It is plain, also, that he understood the sentence of Christ at the last judgment in accordance with these views.
Relations to John.
The question now naturally arises: If so prominent a man as Irenaeus, in such relations to Polycarp, the disciple of John, held these views, are we authorized to trace them up to the apostle himself? If we could find them in Polycarp, and also a declaration that he received them from John, the case would be a very strong one. But this we cannot do.
Epistle of Polycarp.
There is, it is true, an authenticated epistle of Polycarp in existence. But in that we can find nothing decisive as to any view of retribution. In the second chapter of his Epistle to the Philippians v. 11 (Wake), he says: “If we please the Lord in this present world, we shall also be made partakers of that which is to come, according as he has promised us that he will raise us from the dead; and that if we walk worthy of him we shall also reign together with him if we believe.” Again, in chapter ii. 8, he says, “he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also raise us up in like manner, if we do his will and walk according to his commandments.”
In these passages, especially the last, a holy life seems to be made the condition of a resurrection from the dead. And in no part of the epistle is the resurrection of the wicked spoken of. Again, in i. 7, it is said that “to Christ all things are made subject that are in heaven, and that are in earth, whom every living creature shall worship.” All this, at first, might seem to imply either that all the wicked were to be converted or annihilated, and that so none of them would be raised. But the conclusion would be premature, for he proceeds to say, “He shall come to be the judge of the quick and the dead, and his blood God shall require of them that believe not in him.” So, then, there will be wicked ones to be judged, although nothing is said of their resurrection. The fact is, that the epistle is almost entirely confined to the Church, and all allusions to the wicked are incidental. The only doctrine taught is that the righteous shall be raised and rewarded, and the wicked judged. But nothing is said of the nature or the duration of the punishment of the wicked. The connecting link therefore fails, and the authority of John cannot be invoked to sustain the teachings of Irenaeus. They must stand or fall according to their agreement with the Word of God.
Eminence of Irenaeus.
Irenaeus was not the only one who held these views, but we have not time at present to consider the case of others with any sufficient care and accuracy. The case of Irenaeus assures us that a man may be, as Irenaeus was, to use the words of Dr. Schaff, “the leading representative of the Asiatic Johannean school, in the second half of the second century, the champion of Catholic orthodoxy against Gnostic heresy, the mediator between the Eastern and Western Churches, the enemy of all error and schism, and, on the whole, the most orthodox of the ante-Nicene fathers,” and yet hold the doctrine of the final annihilation of the wicked and the reorganization of the universe, and the end of all evil thereby. That such a man, standing in such relations, should hold this doctrine, does not prove it to be true; but it does teach us that there was something that strongly recommended the doctrine to him, and this was, that it was one way, and to him the most reasonable and Scriptural, of reaching a united universe, in which there should be neither sin or misery. After his day, this result was predominantly sought in another way. But as to the result there has been a craving for it by many of the noblest minds in every age.
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