More Beauty Than Our Eyes Can Bear

Catherine Pickstock’s reflections on courage and Cyril O’Regan’s on tradition led me to think about how the best teachers embody both. These recent essays helped me realize again (belatedly) how these two former teachers of mine have personified courage and tradition for me. They did so, in part, largely by drawing on the two theologians who will be discussed here: Irenaeus of Lyon and Thomas Aquinas. I know my own reading of Irenaeus has been influenced by Cyril’s Balthasarian-inflected view of vision (just as Balthasar drew on Irenaeus). My own reading of Thomas Aquinas and the importance of argument in his teaching is deeply influenced by how Catherine reads him. Both Cyril and Catherine stress the importance of literature in theological reflection. Therefore, what follows is an installment in a conversation that has been going on for roughly 20 years.  

Near the middle of her achingly beautiful novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s main character, the Reverened John Ames writes the following to his son:

This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? (124)

John Ames sees himself preserving a tradition by passing down a history to his seven-year-old son who will read this letter after his father dies. He tries to remain true to a vision of Christian life that could include his abolitionist grandfather, his pacifist father, his atheist brother, and his Presbyterian best friend. Ames is interested in nothing less than passing on the tradition of Christian teaching, which is to say the history of Christian interpretation of scripture, and how that interpretation both forms and is formed by the Christian community. What follows will examine how two canonical figures, Irenaeus of Lyon and Thomas Aquinas, understand the form in which a tradition of Christian scriptural interpretation ought to be handed down.

Of course, Christians have been interested in genealogies and traditions since at least the eleventh chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, or the genealogy of Christ with which Matthew’s Gospel begins. Ames wants his son to learn what he himself had been taught and he wants his son to know that this teaching is not some academic exercise but a way of life. Ames personifies two aspects of tradition that are important for the history of Christian exegesis. One aspect focuses on a tradition as sustaining a vision, and I will examine one section of Irenaeus’s work that speaks to this. The other aspect focuses on the role that tradition plays in ordering a pedagogy. And here, I will examine one section of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. In focusing on one aspect in each author I do not mean to imply that each author lacks the other aspect.

In both Irenaeus and Thomas, tradition is a dynamic force in which later authors question earlier ones and earlier authors lay claims on their successors. In the history of Christianity, this understanding of tradition has taken many names. For some it is the rule of faith or the teaching of the Fathers, for others it is magisterial teaching or the teaching of the councils, for others still, it is sola scriptura. In each case though, understanding the traditions of Christianity has been understood as central to teaching Christianity.

Before I continue I want to acknowledge the one view of tradition that I do not share. And I do not share it precisely because I do not see it in Irenaeus or Thomas, let alone Robinson. That is, because I see tradition as a dynamic force in the history of Christianity, I do not see it as monolithic. Although I do not think we should talk of “Christianities” in the plural, I do think we should talk of “traditions within Christianity.” And if these traditions have power, as I believe they do, they have power because they open up questions and keep them open. In this way, my view of tradition borrows from Alasdair MacIntyre and Harold Bloom, who recognize the struggle inherent in tradition. Unfortunately, many have interpreted Irenaeus and Thomas as having just the monolithic view of tradition that I oppose.


Two of Irenaeus’s texts remain extant: the Adversus Haereses, a five-volume work, and the Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching, a short catechical work of only 100 paragraphs. There is one section in the Adversus Haereses that is particularly important concerning tradition. Allow me to give the context of the Adversus Haereses briefly. In 177, Roman imperial authorities massacred the Christian community in what is now Lyon, France. After the persecution, Irenaeus wrote the Adversus Haereses, whose proper title is the “detection and overthrow of falsely called knowledge” in order to defend what he understood as the apostolic tradition of interpretation of scripture against those interpretations of scripture proposed by the exegete and teacher Valentinus and his disciples.

Irenaeus divided the Adversus Haereses into five major sections, which I have argued mirror the five sections of a forensic speech in the Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition. In the first book, Irenaeus lays out the doctrine of the various Valentinian teachers. In the second book, he refutes them on their own terms. In the third book, he puts forward his own understanding of the apostolic tradition of interpretation. In the fourth book, he shows how this understanding makes sense of the old and the new covenants and shows how they come from one and the same God. And in the fifth book, Irenaeus offers his peroration, contrasting once again the two rival exegeses and urging his readers to follow the tradition of the apostles.

One of the more famous lines in the Irenaean corpus is homo vivens gloria Dei—the living human being is the glory of God. The next line is not nearly quoted so often. There Irenaeus says that the life of the human being is the vision of God. That is, Irenaeus tries to sustain the vision of the economy of salvation for his readers, a vision that his own teacher Polycarp saw, the Apostles handed down, and Christ himself revealed. For Irenaeus, the tradition of Christian teaching known as the rule of faith enables the readers of scripture to partake in the vision Christ offers. Irenaeus’s remarks on tradition in book three of the Adversus Haereses are important for the argument here, and I want to note two features that I find distinctive about Irenaeus’s view. First, Irenaeus understands tradition in an intensely personal way. Second, Irenaeus uses striking visual imagery in his discussion of tradition. Both features represent important insights for the teaching of Christianity.

After laying out his genealogies of Valentinian teachers in books one and two, Irenaeus begins book three by promising to bring evidence from the scriptures. Before he does this, though, he starts with a discussion of Apostles and bishops. The Apostles, he says make “manifest in all the world” the tradition which “is the whole Church for all who wish to see it” (III.3.1). Let me underscore that: Irenaeus believes the tradition can be seen. The Apostles consecrated bishops and there is a direct line, Ireaneus argues, from the Apostles to the bishops of his own day. And along with the bishops they consecrated, they “truly wish to be perfect and irreproachable in all things and leave to their successors, handing over the place of their teaching” (III.3.1).

This is directly related to the rule of faith, for Irenaeus cannot bring evidence from the scriptures unless he has already established the tradition of teaching that enables him to read the scriptures aright. The faith that is handed down is “life giving” and is “conserved and handed down in truth” until Irenaeus’s own day (III.3.3). Although Irenaeus does not say the succession of bishops offers the visionary experience he finds in the scriptures, it is clear from his account that without the bishops and the tradition and liturgy they embody, there would not be a steady rule of faith by which to interpret the scriptures and see the visions they offer.

Irenaeus sees tradition as being embodied. One cannot speak of tradition without speaking of the specific teachers who taught it. Because of this, the succession of the Apostles in the person of the bishop of Rome play a normative role for Irenaeus. Irenaeus notes that in the work he is composing it would be difficult “to number the successions of all the churches” (III.3.2) that preserve the tradition of teaching handed down by the Apostles. By saying this, Irenaeus suggests that if he had the time and space he would offer such a number, including the churches, perhaps, of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. In other words, one cannot get a picture of papal monarchy from Irenaeus. No doubt the fact that Valentinus taught in Rome but the church in Rome did not take up his teaching plays a role in why Irenaeus has chosen it. But “the churches founded and constituted by the two most glorious Apostles Peter and Paul” are “known by all to be the greatest and most ancient” (III.3.2).

The importance of Rome as a city, therefore, has nothing to do with its status as an imperial seat and obviously has no direct connection to the person or work of Christ. Instead, it is a result of the work of Peter and Paul there (and, given Irenaeus’s interest, we can assume the importance of their martyrdom). “It is necessary,” Irenaeus writes, “that every Church come together to this Church on account of its principal power.” It has this power because it is the Church “in which the apostolic tradition is conserved” (III.3.2). This tradition is conserved in the life and actions of the members of the Church. These members knew each other personally and offered the liturgy together. Peter and Paul “handed over the work of the liturgy of the bishop to Linus” (III.3.3). Linus had a personal connection to Paul, and Irenaeus notes that he is “the same Linus that Paul remembers in his letters to Timothy.” Anacletus was bishop after Linus, and Clement succeeded Anacletus. Irenaeus notes that Clement “saw the blessed Apostles themselves and conversed with them.” Clement “had the preaching of the Apostles fresh in his memory and the tradition before his eyes.”

The tradition can be before his eyes because the tradition is embodied in the Apostles, in what they teach and how they live. The tradition of the Apostles is handed down personally and liturgically. When a dispute arose in Corinth during Clement’s episcopacy, “the Church in Rome wrote a strong letter to the Corinthians telling them to come together in peace and to repair the faith and to announce that they accepted the tradition from the Apostles” (III.3.3). Rome is important, in other words, because its leaders have guarded the tradition well. Irenaeus is only interested in the person of a bishop insofar as the bishop continues by his teaching to sustain the vision that Christ revealed. Yet what is important here, and what informs my own teaching, is the reminder Irenaeus offers that we learn because of what our teachers have taught us. To shift to the visual metaphor, we can see not because we have seen everything our saw but because our teachers have taught us new ways of looking, ways of looking that remain true to the texts and ideas we encountered with them.

The rule of faith itself is a part of that “living voice” of the tradition that comes from the Apostles. “It is shown plainly and will be shown more plainly that neither the prophets nor the Apostles nor the Lord Christ confessed another Lord and God” (III.9.1). The rule of faith, we could say, allows the believer to see clearly. This teaching has been “handed down by the disciples” and therefore “it is necessary for us to follow, if we are their disciples, the testimony they have” (III.9.1). Just as we can all name those teachers who have helped us to see clearly, Ireaneus names his teacher Polycarp.

As the leader of a community that suffered persecutions, Irenaeus did not need the witnesses of Stephen or Peter or Paul to explain martyrdom to him. Irenaeus had Polycarp. In the Adversus Haereses, Irenaeus does not discuss these martyrs, but he does discuss his teacher Polycarp. Peter, Paul, and Stephen either link the teaching of Christ to the Old Testament or they preach Christ to the Gentiles. Polycarp links Irenaeus personally to the Apostles, and thus acts as a proof of Irenaeus’s own authority. Polycarp, Irenaeus tells us, “was a student of the apostles and conversed with those who saw the Lord.” And it was the Apostles who made him bishop in Smyrna. Irenaeus notes that he “saw him in our young age.” Irenaeus connects himself to Polycarp because he saw him. Polycarp lived to an old age and “he left life in the most glorious martyrdom.” Just as in the person of Stephen, Irenaeus links martyrdom and teaching, he says that Polycarp “always taught the things that were taught by the Apostles, which the Church handed down, which alone is true.”

As Polycarp was a witness to the truth through his martyrdom, “all the Churches in Asia and those who succeeded Polycarp witnessed.” These successors “were more faithful and trustworthy witnesses to the truth than Valentinus and Marcion and all the rest who have bad opinions.” Not only does Irenaeus favorably compare Polycarp to Valentinus and Marcion, he also mentions that Polycarp “went to Rome,” which obviously underscores the importance of the Roman Church. In fact, Polycarp once met Marcion, as Irenaeus relates it, and when he did, he called Marcion “the first born of Satan.” “For those who wish to know the character of Polycarp’s faith,” Irenaeus refers them to Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians. In that they will also learn “the proclamation of the truth” and the “power of his salvation” (III.3.4). Polycarp links Irenaeus to the Apostles, but more specifically, thanks to his location in Ephesus, he links Irenaeus to John and Paul. “The Church in Ephesus was founded by Paul,” Irenaeus tells his readers, and “John remained with them until the time of Trajan.” Because of this, Polycarp is “a true witness to the tradition of the Apostles” (III.3.4).

Thomas Aquinas

Through Polycarp, Irenaeus has a personal connection to the tradition of interpretation he evokes. Although Thomas Aquinas sees the bishops as the successors of the Apostles, more than 1100 years separate him from Irenaeus and his apostolic fathers. And whereas Irenaeus wrote in the wake of mass persecutions and in a place where Christians was at times under threat, Thomas knew of no such persecutions. Most importantly, however, Irenaeus’s opponents presented live options for Christian interpretation of the scriptures. Even accounting for the teaching of Cathars in southern France, Thomas did not see himself beset by false teaching the way Irenaeus did. For Irenaeus, misreadings of Scripture were rampant and arguments were needed to defeat them. Thomas certainly encountered misreading and misunderstandings of scripture in his own day, but Thomas understands argument to be a useful category for instruction.

Both authors write out of a pastoral concern. Irenaeus writes an apologia for his community, reminding them after persecutions that the body was central to God’s plan of salvation because Christ had a human body. Thomas’s goal in the Summa Theologiae is to offer his brother Dominicans a text for their priestly studies. He does this by dividing the work into three sections, and he places the discussion of the life of the Christian pilgrim in the middle part of three major parts in the text. In fact, his discussion of human friendship is right in the middle of the middle part. The first major part is a discussion of God in himself. The third major section deals with the Incarnation, the Church, and the Sacraments. Many have remarked that the structure of the whole work follows a neo-Platonic schema of the creature’s (and creation’s) exitus from God and reditus back to God.

Just as Ireaneus’s understanding of tradition informs each page of his Adversus Haereses and this understanding of tradition is informed by his attempt to preserve the vision offered in Scripture for his readers, each page of the Summa Theologiae orders authorities for the sake of the student being trained in Christian wisdom. And in one article of the Summa Theologiae, Thomas offers his justification for how he uses authorities the way he does. In question one, article eight, Thomas asks “Whether sacred doctrine is a matter of argument.” This article is one of ten that make up the first question that deals as a whole with the nature of sacred doctrine.

These articles ask whether anything besides philosophy is needed for sacred doctrine, whether sacred doctrine is a science, and if so whether it is one or practical or nobler than other sciences. Thomas also asks whether it is the same as wisdom, whether God is the object of the science, and whether it is a matter of argument. Thomas finishes the question by asking whether the Holy Scriptures should use metaphors and whether in Holy Scripture a word can have many senses. I want to focus on article eight precisely because here is where we find Thomas’s understanding of tradition.

One of the many things I appreciate about Thomas’s writing is that he takes the views of his opponents seriously. The basic structure of each article in each question of the Summa follows medieval precedent. First Thomas airs objections to a question, and these objections are often earlier Christian voices, passages from scripture, or writings of “Gentiles.” Thomas then offers a “sed contra,” which is a commonplace, often again in the form of a quotation. He then offers his own response, (and this is the corpus of the article) and he then replies to those objections. Thus argumentation is built into Thomas’s practice of theology.

The best way for students to learn, Thomas implies, is to hear different sides of an argument, and realize that the objections are not straw men but important voices of those who have come before. In article eight, he puts forth two objections to the view that sacred doctrine is an argument. First, following a line from Ambrose, one should put arguments aside when faith is sought. Second, Thomas notes that if sacred doctrine is a matter of argument, then it can be so in one of two ways: either from authority or from reason. Here is one of the things I find important here. If the argument is from authority, Thomas writes, “it seems unbefitting its dignity” because “the proof from authority is the weakest form of proof.” If, however, the proof is from reason, the objection goes, “it is unbefitting its end” because, Thomas quotes Gregory the Great saying “faith has no merit in those things of which human reason brings its own experience” (Hom. 26). That is, if the authority comes from reason, it comes from human beings and not from God, and therefore it is not faith.

We then move to the “sed contra,” where Thomas offers a commonplace. Interestingly, Thomas’s initial reply to these objections comes from Paul’s letter to Titus, which reads, “The Scripture says that a bishop should “embrace that faithful word which is according to doctrine, that he may be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to convince the gainsayers” (Titus 1:9). As I said, Thomas did not know Irenaeus, but as Irenaeus does, Thomas believes the community of Christians, in the person of the bishop, plays a role in interpreting the scriptures. Notice here that I say plays a role. I think for both Irenaeus and Thomas the bishop is only important insofar as he sees himself as part of a tradition and part of the argument that is sacred doctrine.

In offering his own answer about whether sacred doctrine is an argument, Thomas notes, sacred teaching “does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith, but from them it goes on to prove something else.” Sacred teaching must begin with articles of faith. It does not argue for the articles of faith. If sacred doctrine is a matter of argument then, Thomas writes, it “can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation.” Therefore Christians can argue with heretics over the Scripture. And if a Christian denies one article of faith, then Thomas says, “we can argue from another.” Sacred teaching, then, is an argument between Christians.

Thomas’s words are about non-Christians are also important. He writes, “If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning.” Instead, the Christian can only answer objections against the faith. In other words, a Christian cannot prove Christianity through argument but a Christian can show a non=Christian that Christians do not speak nonsense when they speak about God. Needless to say, Thomas believes Christians have an upper hand when it comes to arguing with non-Christians. The Christian faith, he says, “rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations.” That is, arguments against the faith cannot be proven, but Thomas writes, there “are difficulties that can be answered.”

The corpus of the article establishes that sacred teaching is an argument, and once it has established that, the next issue to arise is: who are the conversation partners for the argument.  This is especially the case because Thomas agrees with the objections that authority from human reason is the weakest form of proof. The authority that comes from divine revelation, however, is the strongest form of proof. If the authority from human reason is weak and the authority from divine revelation is strong, it might appear that reason should play no role in sacred teaching. Thomas thinks human reason does have a role. Although sacred teaching does not make use of human reason to prove the faith (if it did, Thomas notes, the merit of faith would not exist), human reason “can make clear other things that are put forward” in Christian doctrine.

I think this is exactly the role of teaching the history of Christianity: to make clear what Christians have believed for about two millennia and to show the logic in that thinking. Because, according to Thomas, “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it,” reason has a role in ministering to faith as the natural bent of the human will ministers to charity.  

When sacred teaching makes use of human reason, it makes use of human authorities. Thomas classifies two such types of authorities: “philosophers” (that is, Greeks, Jews, and Muslim) and “doctors of the Church.” Sacred doctrine can make use of the authority of philosophers as “extrinsic and probable” “in those questions in which they were able to know the truth by natural reason.” That is to say, non-Christians have a role to play in Christian teaching and it is not too much to suggest that for Thomas these non-Christians can come to have a place in the tradition of Christian pedagogy, albeit a place constantly open to revision.

Yet, even the authority of the doctors of the Church is “probable” and therefore constantly open to revision. The Christian faith “rests upon the revelation made to the apostles and prophets who wrote the canonical books, and not on the revelations (if any such there are) made to other doctors.” Thomas makes a clear distinction here between the content of revelation, as it is found in the scriptures, and the interpretation of that content. I myself wonder if the distinction Thomas draws here is too fine. For example, while one can distinguish between a revelation made to Paul and recorded in one of his letters and a revelation made to Augustine, certainly in the history of Christian theology creedal statements have been understood to be definitive interpretations of scripture, even if these creedal statements merely provide a grammar for further discussion of the mystery of salvation history.

Perhaps Thomas means to speak of a hierarchy. I think this might be the case because he quotes from a letter Augustine wrote to Jerome, where Augustine says, “Only those books of Scripture which are called canonical have I learned to hold in such honor as to believe their authors have not erred in any way in writing them.” Augustine then says that he does not read other authors so as to “deem everything in their works to be true” just because they have written it, no matter what “their holiness and learning” is.


As you can tell, I am struck by Rev. John Ames’s holiness and learning in Gilead, so let me close by bringing him back into the conversation. In one of the more moving passages in the book, he writes,

Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. And therefore, this courage allows us, as the old men said, to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing. But that is the pulpit speaking. What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all an ember now, and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again (246).

Ames’s words here strike a deep chord within me. Catherine and Cyril and all of my teachers have helped me recognize that there is indeed more beauty than our eyes can bear. Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned is that these traditions of Christianity are precious things that have been put into our hands and not to honor them is to do them great harm.

But in order to honor these traditions, we need courage. We too often forget that. Teaching is not about information, it is about transformation. Whether we focus on Irenaeus’s visions or Thomas’s arguments, they shared the same goal: to help their readers be ever more transformed in the Spirit by the cruciform love of God. To be in the best position to offer that help, one needs to be transformed. And to show that they are so transformed they must be courageous. Our best teachers are teachers insofar as they are martyrs, witnesses to the truth. As witnesses to the truth, they are useful and generous, which is another way of saying the same thing.

Featured Image: Wall painting - Virgin Mary with Child from Faras, Sudan, 8-9th c; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Scott Moringiello

Scott Moringiello is Associate Professor of Catholic Studies at DePaul University. He is the author of The Rhetoric of Faith: Irenaeus and the Structure of the Adversus Haereses.

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