“One Right Reading?”

It was one year ago today, August 23, which is also the feast day in the Greek Orthodox Church for Saint Irenaeus, that I started this blog.  I named the blog “The Recapitulator.”  In the introductory article I explained why, after the primary dedicatee, Jesus Christ, the one who truly is the Recapitulator, the blog was dedicated secondarily to Irenaeus, who may rightly be considered the “father of biblical theology.”  For any readers of this blog who have not yet read that introductory article, I encourage you to do so.

In that post, I listed six reasons for dedicating the blog secondarily to Irenaeus.  I reproduce one of those reasons here:

Fifth, he advocated that all interpretation of Scripture should be in accord with the regula fidei, the “rule of faith,” or what is sometimes referred to as the “canon of faith,” the “analogy of faith,” or the “rule of truth.”  There is much discussion as to exactly what Irenaeus meant by this, and I’ll have more to say about it in another post.  But for now, it will be sufficient to note that, by this, Irenaeus meant, at the very least, that the interpretation of Scripture must be carried out in the context of, respect for, and in accordance with, the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).  This “faith” was not one that the Apostles took it upon themselves to create, but was, in fact, the very “doctrine of Christ” himself.

With regard to  this regula fidei or “rule of faith,” as I said in the paragraph just quoted, there has been much discussion as to what it is exactly.  Without going into all the various suggestions, I will simply say here that I think it basically designates a kind of summative understanding of what constitutes Christian faith.  It is, in essence, “tradition” handed down by Christ and the Apostles to successive generations of Christians as to how to understand the Christian faith.  It is not, as some have suggested, simply the biblical canon or the New Testament.  Rather it is tradition as to how the biblical canon and especially the New Testament is to be read and understood.  It is, in essence, an early form of what came to full flower in the creeds of the Christian church.

A number of years ago, as I was becoming seriously interested in the writings of Irenaeus, and browsed online some of the books I could consult to become better informed on his life and teachings, one of the titles I came across was One Right Reading?: A Guide to Irenaeus, by Mary Ann Donovan.  For some reason, perhaps because I was browsing too quickly, I misread the book title as “One Night Reading” (quite ironic, when you think about it).  So, thinking that it must be a quite superficial treatment that could be read casually in just “one night,” and considering it for that reason to be priced too high, I bypassed the book.  Thankfully, later, browsing again, I realized my mistake and ordered a copy of the book.  The book’s title actually captures Irenaeus’s thought very well.  Here are a few important quotes from Donovan’s book (all emphases are Donovan’s):

The Rule of Faith governs right exegesis, and the Scriptures (the object of exegesis) explain the Rule of Faith.  Logically this is a circular argument, but in practice the relationship Irenaeus understands between the Rule of Faith and the Scriptures is not so much circular as it is dialogical.  (page 11)

The faith belongs to the universal church; having been proclaimed by the prophets it was received by the church from the apostles and their disciples.  The church that accepted the faith guards, preaches, and teaches it, transmitting it as if possessing a single mouth.”  (page 12)

. . . Irenaeus sees as functions of the learned person within the Church the study of the Scriptures and theology and the work of liturgy, all performed under the Rule of Faith.”  (page 44)

Since, in his opinion, the Scriptures belong to the Christian community in such a way that any valid interpretation must be consistent with the faith of the community, an authoritative interpretation of the faith for him includes authoritative interpretation of the Scriptures.  In this sense there is but one right reading.  (page 61)

There is, according to Irenaeus, a “right reading” of the Scriptures that is the kind of interpretation Christ taught the disciples after his resurrection.  This interpretation is handed on by the presbyters who are the successors of the apostles.  (page 125)

The Rule of Faith supplies his interpretive principle.  In turn the Scriptures supply the explanation for the Rule of Faith, the content of which is understood as a “narrative creed” telling the theological story of Jesus Christ. (page 171)

Now, it is important to point out that Irenaeus is not by any means trying to say that there cannot be disagreements over finer points of exegesis, or on matters that are on the periphery, outside the core of Christian doctrine.  Rather, Irenaeus’s concern has to do with interpretation which goes directly against and contradicts the authoritative understanding of the Scriptures, as contained in the “rule of faith.”  With regard to these central teachings, Irenaeus regards dissidence as heresy.

Directly against the grain of Irenaeus’s understanding here, as well as that of the authors of the New Testament, are both modern and postmodern emphases on a plurality of interpretations and on what is referred to as an “irreducible diversity” in our understanding of the teachings found in the canon of Scripture.  Christ, the apostles, Irenaeus, and the orthodox church fathers would have been strenuously opposed to what I referred to in the introductory article for this blog as “the practice of certain readers of the Bible to treat the word of God as their own private playground, with the freedom to interpret or move things around as they saw fit.”  And Irenaeus would certainly have been opposed to any interpretation that would have been practically a complete subversion of the text being interpreted.  J. Gresham Machen refers to this practice (though, in this quotation, he does it in connection with the Apostles’ Creed):

“What do you think happened,” I am asked, “after Jesus was laid in that tomb near Jerusalem about nineteen hundred years ago?” To that question also I have a very definite answer. “I will tell you what I think happened,” I say. “He was laid in the tomb and then, the third day he rose again from the dead.” At this point the surprise of my modern friend reaches its height. The idea of a professor in a theological seminary actually believing that the body of a dead man actually emerged from the grave! “Everyone,” he tells me, “has abandoned that answer to the question long ago.” “But,” I say, “my friend, this is very serious; that answer stands in the Apostles’ Creed as well as at the center of the New Testament; do you not accept the Apostles’ Creed?” “Oh, yes,” says my modern friend, “of course I accept the Apostles’ Creed; do we not say it every Sunday in Church?—or if we do not say it, we sing it—of course I accept the Apostles’ Creed. But then, do you not see, every generation has the right to interpret the Creed in its own way.” And so now of course we accept the proposition that “the third day He arose again from the dead,” but we interpret that to mean, “The third day He did not rise again from the dead.”  (Cited in Ned B. Stonehouse’s biography of Machen).

Jesus Christ, the gospel narrators, the apostles, the authors of the New Testament, and the early church fathers all speak here, as Irenaeus says, with “one mouth.”  Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day.  And by that, what they mean is, Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day.

Interestingly, just in the last couple of days, a couple of different blogs have raised the question as to “whether or not we should assess Rudolf Bultmann’s legacy as generally positive or generally negative.”  Of course, Bultmann is well known for his program of demythologization, and his rejection of the historicity of the miracle accounts in the gospels, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the New Testament teaching on the atonement.  On the blog that initially asked the question, which also has an online poll for visitors to register their vote, the bloggers have asked the question in a fairly neutral fashion, though one of them does remark in the comment section that they would “hold Bultmann in the highest regard.”  On the other blog, the blogger, referring to the question raised by the first blog, says that the answer to this question “must be positive,” though he concedes that one might disagree with Bultmann, “may not want to concede as much ground as he did to modernism,” “may not follow him on the resurrection,” and might “find most of Bultmann’s conclusions to be bankrupt.”


may not want to concede as much ground as he did to modernism

may not follow him on the resurrection

might find most of Bultmann’s conclusions to be bankrupt

Maybe it is presumptuous of me to do so, but I am going to go out on a limb and say that, given the opportunity to register a vote on the poll, Jesus, Paul, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mary Magdalene, two or three other Marys (including the mother of Jesus), Peter, Thomas, Stephen, Philip, James, Apollos, the author of Hebrews, Jude, Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, and Irenaeus would all indicate “generally negative,” and then ask if there might be, by any chance, an “almost completely negative” option.  And, for whatever it might be worth, I would cast my vote with theirs.

Jerry Shepherd
Feast Day of St. Irenaeus
August 23, 2014