Friday, June 25, 2021
After a worship service a few weeks ago, I deliberately lingered in the pews to socialize for a while. An attorney friend approached me, as he occasionally does. He always makes for an interesting conversation partner. Sometimes, though, we disagree about this or that.
A few weeks ago, we found ourselves discussing a brief passage in a very old and often forgotten text. Almost immediately, we disagreed about its relevance. I said (and still say) that, yes, the passage matters and carries significant authority. He said (and still says) that, no, it does not matter much and carries no particular authority.
You might wonder if by “old and obscure text” I actually mean the Bible. That sneaky approach could have served as a means of surprising you, my listeners. However, I am not attempting to be sneaky here. By “old and obscure text,” the Bible is not what I mean. Instead, my attorney friend and I were discussing a passage from a nearly nineteen hundred year-old doctrinal treatise entitled Against Heresies (aka Adversus Hæreses).
Against Heresies was written by a Græco-Franco guy named Irenæus. Græco-Franco should give you an easy (if somewhat inaccurate) handle on how to categorize Irenæus. He was kind of Greek and kind of French — Greek, because an older variant of Greek was his native tongue; and French, because Lyons, France is where Irenæus eventually settled and served. Except, the coordinates were in Roman Gaul back then, as France was yet to be.
Anyway, why would anyone get into an argument after church about something Old Irenæus wrote nearly nineteen hundred years ago? Well, because Old Irenæus was just one generation — a single lifetime — removed from John the Narrator of the Book of Revelation.
Okay. So what? Why is that important?
Well, because by virtue of his proximity, Irenæus probably would have known how John the Narrator of the Book of Revelation understood the Book of Revelation. Right?
I think so. And I said so. I told my attorney friend that. He said, “Sorry, but I don’t think it matters that much. As a trained attorney, I can tell you that your argument would not hold up in court. Irenæus himself was not a direct witness of John. Irenæus’ second-hand account of what John said is merely hearsay. In court, an opposing lawyer would respond to your line of reasoning and shout, ‘Objection! Hearsay!’ And the judge would lower the gavel and say, ‘Sustained.’”
Okay, ouch. So I guess I would lose if I were a lawyer in a court case dedicated to this question. But does Irenæus’ secondhand testimony actually carry no weight? I mean, if someone were to use the same exacting standard of personal proximity and apply it to the Bible, entire books of the New Testament would completely lose their historical value. The Gospel of Luke was not written by an eyewitness to Jesus, but by a careful writer who had access to eyewitnesses of Jesus. The same thing is true of the Gospel of Mark. Do we reject the reliability of the Gospels of Luke and Mark because they were not written by direct eyewitnesses?
In fact and to the contrary, by virtue of their immediate proximity to eyewitnesses and by virtue of their careful re-telling, Mark and Luke are considered highly reliable historical accounts. That is because they were motivated to re-tell the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds accurately. They strove to be accurate in their hearsay historical accounts. And like Mark and Luke, maybe Old Irenæus was also very careful to be accurate in his hearsay historical account.
Basically, I am arguing that the hearsay of some is far more reliable than the hearsay of others. At some point, hearsay becomes an expert historical account. Such is the case when adequate diligence is applied in researching the relevant material.
And I will make a further, even more important point: Secondhand hearsay does indeed have value when it can be cross-referenced with other corroborating evidence. The secondhand accounts of Mark and Luke can be cross-referenced with the firsthand accounts Matthew and John, as well as with other historical witnesses and evidence. The same can also be said of Old Irenæus. What Irenæus says about John the Narrator can be cross-referenced with other corroborating witnesses from the same era, such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and the Didaché.
And guess what? All four more or less line up, in terms of chronological events. Their respective accounts regarding John the Narrator and of the chronology of the Book of Revelation can be aligned. Irenæus and his near contemporaries broadly agree.
But later Christian writers did not agree with Irenænus and his contemporaries regarding the chronology of Revelation. Irenæus had taught with the Second Advent of Christ there would be a Rapture of the Church (that is, a resurrection and immediate ascension) and thereafter a Millennial Reign of Christ. However, later Christian writers like Eusebius and Augustine regarded Irenæus and his contemporaries as theological simpletons who were not sophisticated enough to interpret the Book of Revelation correctly. They rejected the Rapture and significantly adjusted the chronology and substance of the Millennial Reign of Christ.
Therefore, with regard to the Rapture of the Church and the Millennial Reign of Christ, every knowledgable interpreter of Revelation has had to decide whether to align with the chronology that Irenæus and his theological contemporaries assumed, or align with the revised chronology that Eusebius and Augustine taught later. In general, the early Christian Church believed it to be one way (that is, took a pre-millennial position), whereas the latter Christian Church believed it to be something other. This is a well documented and easily demonstrable matter of fact.
In my estimation, generational proximity matters immensely here. Irenæus was only a lifetime removed from John the Narrator. I think Irenæus was far more likely to have heard how John the Narrator himself interpreted the Book of Revelation, and how he understood its chronology of events.