Friday, 24 May 2019
Awet Andemicael: Freedom, Transformation, and the Powers That Be: Irenaeus on Politics
Irenaeus’ most concentrated and cited discussion of politics appears in Adversus Haereses 5.24.1-3. His apparently positive view of the Roman Empire, motivated by his biblical defense of the divine origin of secular political authority (Rom 13:1-7), elicits scholarly justifications in light of the historical reality of Roman imperial persecution of Irenaeus’ own Gallic Christian community. In this paper, I argue that we must read Irenaeus’ exegesis of Rom 13 not only in the context of his obvious theological project of defending the unity and sovereignty of God, but also of his robust assertions of human freedom. Irenaeus reconciles the two theological commitments by distinguishing between divine authority establishing political offices and human responsibility for executing political offices. Moreover, while he recognizes the reality of tyrannical leaders, Irenaeus holds the populace primarily responsible for the state of a society, and envisions positive socio-political change primarily as a result of Christ transforming individuals and, through them, influencing the broader ethos of a society. Such profound transformation is beyond the reach of civil authority, since the state functions essentially as a policing force, curbing bad behavior, and a facilitator, promoting civic prosperity through infrastructure and security services. In fact, while Irenaeus is theologically obligated to defend the divinely-ordained legitimacy of governmental authority in the face of problematic alternative theories, his theological use of political metaphors and terminology points to a political ecclesiology that subtly critiques the limitations of human empire in general and the Roman Empire in particular.