Philosophy of Religion

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Irenaeus’ Theodicy

Irenaeus (c.130-200) Bishop of Lyons. Major work ‘Adversus omnes Haereses’ detailed attack on Gnosticism. Hailed as the first great Catholic theologian. Through his writings he helped to establish the Canon of Scripture.

Irenaean theodicy is ‘soul making’. His theodicy is more concerned with the development of humanity.

Irenaeus distinguished between the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ of God. Adam had the form of God but not the content of God. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they were immature and needed to develop, i.e. they were to grow into the likeness (content) of God. They were the raw material for a further stage of God’s creative work.

The fall of humanity is seen as a failure within this second phase of becoming more like God in content.

Suffering is a necessary part of God’s created universe – it is through suffering that human souls are made noble. The world is a ‘vale of soul making’.

One of the ways in which this ‘test’ is carried out is through faith. God’s purpose cannot easily be discerned, but believers continue to believe despite the evidence. This faith becomes a virtue. John Hick calls this lack of understanding an ‘epistemic distance’.

To summarise Irenaeus' Theodicy:

  • Humans were created in the image and likeness of God.
  • We are in an immature moral state, though we have the potential for moral perfection.
  • Throughout our lives we change from being human animals to ‘children of God’.
  • This is a choice made after struggle and experience, as we choose God rather than our baser instinct.
  • There are no angels or external forces at work here.
  • God brings in suffering for the benefit of humanity.
  • From it we learn positive values, and about the world around us.

Suffering and evil are:

  • Useful as a means of knowledge. Hunger leads to pain, and causes a desire to feed. Knowledge of pain prompts humans to seek to help others in pain.
  • Character building. Evil offers the opportunity to grow morally. If we were programmed to ‘do the right thing’ there would be no moral value to our actions. ‘We would never learn the art of goodness in a world designed as a complete paradise’ Swinburne.
  • A predictable environment. The world runs to a series of natural laws. These laws are independent of our needs, and operate regardless of anything. Natural evil is when these laws come into conflict with our own perceived needs.
There is no moral dimension to this. However, we can be sure of things in a predictable world!

Heaven and hell are important within Irenaeus’s Theodicy as part of the process of deification, the lifting up of humanity to the divine. This process enables humans to achieve perfection.

Irenaeus never developed his theodicy fully but his ideas were later taken up by Friedrich Schleirmacher (1768-1834) and more resently by John Hick.

Problems with Irenaeus’ Theodicy

Irenaeus argued that everyone goes to heaven. This would appear unjust, in that evil goes unpunished. Morality becomes pointless. This is not orthodox Christianity. It denies the fall, and Jesus’ role is reduced to that of moral example.

Why should ‘soul making’ involve suffering? The ‘suffering is good for you’ argument seems unjust, especially in the suffering of innocents. Hume was critical: ‘Could not our world be a little more hospitable and still teach us what we need to know? Could we not learn through pleasure as well as pain?’ Swinburne argues that our suffering is limited, by our own capacity to feel pain, and by our lifespan.

Can suffering ever be justified on the grounds of motive? Suffering does not sit easily with the concept of a loving God. It seems difficult to justify something like the Holocaust with the concept of ‘soul making’.

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