Tuesday, June 28, 2022

One of our greatest links with the ancient Church - S. Irenaeus of Lyons

Today - 28th June - is when our Church commemorates the great Bishop Irenaeus, who was born in Asia Minor somewhere in the period 105 AD to 130 AD. According to his own testimony he learned the Christian faith from Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John:

'I can tell the very place in which the blessed Polycarp used to sit when he preached his sermons, how he came in and went out, the manner of his life, what he looked like, the sermons he delivered to the people, and how he used to report his association with John and the others who had seen the Lord, how he would relate their words, and the things concerning the Lord he had heard from them, about His miracles, and teachings. Polycarp had received all this from eyewitnesses of the Word of life, and related all these things in accordance with the Scriptures. I listened eagerly to these things at the time, by God’s mercy which was bestowed on me, and I made notes of them not on paper, but in my heart, and constantly by the grace of God I mediate on them faithfully.' (Quoted by N. R. Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power: Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, pp. 97-98)

There was a good deal of trade between Asia Minor and Gaul, especially in Marseilles, and with the traders came the Christian faith. Missionaries were sent from Asia Minor to evangelise the people of Gaul. It was Polycarp who sent Bishop Pothinus to Gaul, who based himself at Lyons. After studying in Rome, the young Irenaeus joined Pothinus. He showed himself to be an exceptional priest, and was sent to Rome in 177 AD, in order to hand deliver a letter to Pope Eleutherius regarding the dangers of Montanism.

In that same year under the emperor Marcus Aurelius there was a violent persecution of the Church in Gaul, resulting in the martyrdom of Bishop Pothinus and a number of the clergy. Irenaeus was consecrated Bishop of Lyons in 178 AD. 

That particular persecution was mercifully brief, and so the next twenty years was a time of growth and peace. Irenaeus was a kind pastor, who grew the church spiritually and numerically. He became completely one with the people he served, even learning to speak to them in their own language rather than in Latin or Greek, and he encouraged the rest of the clergy to do likewise.

In 190 AD Irenaeus persuaded Pope Victor I to lift his excommunication of Churches in the East that followed the Jewish calendar in their dating of Easter instead of the practice of the Roman Church. In his letter to Victor, Irenaeus pointed out that the Eastern Churches were following their Apostolic tradition, and that this had not prevented Polycarp and many other Eastern bishops from staying in communion. Irenaeus was clearly successful, because by the time of Jerome in the 4th century many of the Eastern bishops were still following the ancient Jewish calendar, with schism having been avoided.

Irenaeus is thought of today primarily as a theologian, due largely to his Against the Heresies in which he outlined and criticised the different kinds of Gnosticism that were popular in his day. He used Scripture, especially the writings Paul, Peter, and John to refute Gnosticism and destroy its influence on the growing Church. He was also the first teacher to give the rationale for accepting or rejecting books into the canon of Scripture. He emphasized the unity of the Old and New Testaments, together with the divine and human natures of Our Lord.

Irenaeus was martyred at Lyons about the year 202.

Written around 185 AD, Against the Heresies is very valuable to scholars because in criticising Gnosticism on the basis of what Christians of his day believed, Irenaeus unintentionally gives us a snapshot of ordinary church teaching in the period between the apostolic age and the coming of the imperial church (i.e. 200 years before the "outer limits" of the New Testament canon were definitely fixed). We note the appeal to Scripture and to an incarnational understanding of the sacraments, the sacredness of matter in the Church’s celebration of the sacraments, the Eucharist as the Church's great Sacrifice, the apostolic succession, and the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Here are some significant passages from his work:

'We have learned the plan of our salvation from none other than those through whom the gospel came down to us. Indeed, they first preached the gospel, and afterwards, by the will of God, they handed it down to us in the Scriptures . . . Matthew also issued among the Hebrews a written Gospel in their own language, while Peter and Paul were evangelizing in Rome and laying the foundation of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord who reclined at His bosom also published a Gospel, while he was residing at Ephesus in Asia' (3.1.1)

'He took from among creation that which is bread, and gave thanks, saying, ‘This is my body.’ The cup likewise, which is from among the creation to which we belong, he confessed to be his blood. He taught the new sacrifice of the new covenant, of which Malachi, one of the twelve [minor] prophets, had signified beforehand: ‘You do not do my will, says the Lord Almighty, and I will not accept a sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is my name among the Gentiles, says the Lord Almighty’ (Malachi 1:10–11). By these words he makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God; but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to him, and indeed, a pure one, for his name is glorified among the Gentiles' (4:17:5).

'If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?' (4:32–33)

'But what consistency is there in those who hold that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup his blood, if they do not acknowledge that He is the Son of the Creator... How can they say that the flesh which has been nourished by the body of the Lord and by his blood gives way to corruption and does not partake of life? ...For as the bread from the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, consisting of two elements, earthly and heavenly... ' (4:18:4-5).

'If the body be not saved, then, in fact, neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood; and neither is the cup of the Eucharist the partaking of his blood, nor is the bread which we break the partaking of his body...He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which He causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life - flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord...receiving the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ…' (5:2:2-3).

'True knowledge is that which consists in the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place' (4:33:7–8)

'For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come; they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? Is it not possible to name the number of gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God' (2.32.4).

'In like manner we do also hear many brethren in the Church, who possess prophetic gifts, and who through the Spirit speak all kinds of languages, and bring to light for the general benefit the hidden things of men, and declare the mysteries of God' (5.6.1).

'The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man's life is the vision of God: if God's revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word's manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God' (4.20.7).


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