Skip to comments.St. Irenaeus of Lyons: The First Great Theologian of the Church
Posted on 03/28/2007 5:51:16 PM PDT by ELS
On St. Irenaeus of Lyons
"The First Great Theologian of the Church"
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 28, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at the general audience today in St. Peter's Square. The reflection focused on St. Irenaeus of Lyons.
* * *
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
In the catechesis on the great figures of the Church during the first centuries, today we reach the figure of an eminent personality, Irenaeus of Lyons. His biographical information comes from his own testimony, sent down to us by Eusebius in the fifth book of the "Storia Ecclesiastica."
Irenaeus was most probably born in Smyrna (today Izmir, in Turkey) between the years 135 and 140. There, while still a youth, he attended the school of Bishop Polycarp, for his part, a disciple of the apostle John. We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but the move must have coincided with the first developments of the Christian community in Lyons: There, in 177, we find Irenaeus mentioned among the college of presbyters.
That year he was sent to Rome, bearer of a letter from the community of Lyons to Pope Eleutherius. The Roman mission took Irenaeus away from the persecution by Marcus Aurelius, in which at least 48 martyrs died, among them the bishop of Lyons himself, the 90-year-old Pothinus, who died of mistreatment in jail. Thus, on his return, Irenaeus was elected bishop of the city. The new pastor dedicated himself entirely to his episcopal ministry, which ended around 202-203, perhaps by martyrdom.
Irenaeus is above all a man of faith and a pastor. Like the Good Shepherd, he has prudence, a richness of doctrine, and missionary zeal. As a writer, he aims for a twofold objective: to defend true doctrine from the attacks of the heretics, and to clearly expound the truth of the faith. His two works still in existence correspond exactly to the fulfillment of these two objectives: the five books "Against Heresies," and the "Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching" (which could be called the oldest "catechism of Christian doctrine"). Without a doubt, Irenaeus is the champion in the fight against heresies.
The Church of the second century was threatened by so-called gnosticism, a doctrine which claimed that the faith taught by the Church was nothing more than symbolism for the simpleminded, those unable to grasp more difficult things. Instead, the initiated, the intellectuals -- they called themselves gnostics -- could understand what was behind the symbolism, and thus would form an elite, intellectual Christianity.
Obviously, this intellectual Christianity became more and more fragmented with different currents of thought, often strange and extravagant, yet attractive to many. A common element within these various currents was dualism, that is, a denial of faith in the only God, Father of all, creator and savior of humanity and of the world. To explain the evil in the world, they asserted the existence of a negative principle, next to the good God. This negative principle had created matter, material things.
Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of Creation, Irenaeus refuted dualism and the gnostic pessimism that devalued corporal realities. He decisively affirmed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the flesh, as well as of the spirit. But his work goes far beyond the refutation of heresies: In fact, one can say that he presents himself as the first great theologian of the Church, who established systematic theology. He himself speaks about the system of theology, that is, the internal coherence of the faith.
The question of the "rule of faith" and its transmission lies at the heart of his doctrine. For Irenaeus, the "rule of faith" coincides in practice with the Apostles' Creed, and gives us the key to interpret the Gospel, to interpret the creed in light of the Gospel. The apostolic symbol, a sort of synthesis of the Gospel, helps us understand what the Gospel means, how we must read the Gospel itself.
In fact, the Gospel preached by St. Irenaeus is the one he received from Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and the Gospel of Polycarp goes back to the apostle John, Polycarp having been John's disciple. Thus, the true teaching is not that invented by the intellectuals, rising above the simple faith of the Church. The true Gospel is preached by the bishops who have received it thanks to an uninterrupted chain from the apostles.
These men have taught nothing but the simple faith, which is also the true depth of the revelation of God. Thus, says Irenaeus, there is no secret doctrine behind the common creed of the Church. There is no superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly professed by the Church is the faith common to all. Only this faith is apostolic, coming from the apostles, that is, from Jesus and from God.
To adhere to this faith publicly taught by the apostles to their successors, Christians must observe what the bishops say. They must specifically consider the teaching of the Church of Rome, pre-eminent and ancient. This Church, because of its age, has the greatest apostolicity; in fact its origins come from the columns of the apostolic college, Peter and Paul. All the Churches must be in harmony with the Church of Rome, recognizing in it the measure of the true apostolic tradition and the only faith common to the Church.
With these arguments, very briefly summarized here, Irenaeus refutes the very foundation of the aims of the gnostics, of these intellectuals: First of all, they do not possess a truth that would be superior to the common faith, given that what they say is not of apostolic origin, but invented by them. Second, truth and salvation are not a privilege monopolized by a few, but something that everyone can reach through the preaching of the apostles' successors, and, above all, that of the Bishop of Rome.
By taking issue with the "secret" character of the gnostic tradition and by contesting its multiple intrinsic contradictions, Irenaeus concerns himself with illustrating the genuine concept of Apostolic Tradition, that we could summarize in three points.
a) The Apostolic Tradition is "public," not private or secret. For Irenaeus, there is no doubt that the content of the faith transmitted by the Church is that received from the apostles and from Jesus, the Son of God. There is no teaching aside from this. Therefore, for one who wishes to know the true doctrine, it is enough to know "the Tradition that comes from the Apostles and the faith announced to men": tradition and faith that "have reached us through the succession of bishops" ("Adv. Haer." 3,3,3-4). Thus, the succession of bishops, personal principle, Apostolic Tradition, and doctrinal principle all coincide.
b) The Apostolic Tradition is "one." While gnosticism is divided into many sects, the Church's Tradition is one in its fundamental contents, which -- as we have seen -- Irenaeus calls "regula fidei" or "veritatis." And given that it is one, it creates unity among peoples, different cultures and different communities. It has a common content like that of truth, despite different languages and cultures.
There is a beautiful expression that Irenaeus uses in the book "Against Heresies": "The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points (of doctrine) just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world."
We can already see at this time -- we are in the year 200 -- the universality of the Church, its catholicity and the unifying force of truth, which unites these so-very-different realities, from Germany, to Spain, to Italy, to Egypt, to Libya, in the common truth revealed to us by Christ.
c) Finally, the Apostolic Tradition is, as he says in Greek, the language in which he wrote his book, "pneumatic," that is, spiritual, led by the Holy Spirit. In Greek, spirit is "pneuma." It is not a transmission entrusted to the abilities of more or less educated men, but the Spirit of God who guarantees faithfulness in the transmission of the faith.
This is the "life" of the Church, that which makes the Church always young, that is, fruitful with many charisms. Church and Spirit are inseparable for Irenaeus. This faith, we read in the third book of "Against Heresies," "which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth, as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also. For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace" (3,24,1).
As we can see, Irenaeus does not stop at defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always internally vivified by the Holy Spirit, which makes it alive again, allows it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church.
According to his teaching, the Church's faith must be preached in such a way that it appears as it must appear, that is "public," "one," "pneumatic," "spiritual." From each of these characteristics, one can glean a fruitful discernment of the authentic transmission of the faith in the Church of today.
More generally, in the doctrine of Irenaeus, human dignity, body and soul, is firmly rooted in Divine Creation, in the image of Christ and in the permanent work of sanctification of the Spirit. This doctrine is like the "main road" to clarify to all people of good will, the object and the limits of dialogue on values, and to give an ever new impulse to the missionary activities of the Church, to the strength of truth which is the source of all the true values in the world.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[After the audience, Benedict XVI greeted visitors in various languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Continuing our catechesis on the Church Fathers, we turn now to Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a great theologian and bishop at the end of the second century. In his writings, Irenaeus clearly sets forth the contents of the apostolic faith and appeals to the Church's living tradition in order to defend that faith from false teachings. He thus emphasizes the regula fidei: the "rule of faith" contained in the Apostles' Creed and in the Gospel proclaimed by the Church's Bishops. The Gospel Irenaeus preached was the Gospel preached by his teacher Polycarp, who in turn received it from the Apostle John in an unbroken line of succession going back to Christ himself. Irenaeus also writes of the unique authority of the Church of Rome as founded on the Apostles. This zealous pastor illustrates for us three important characteristics of the Apostolic Tradition: it is "public", because it is available to all through the teaching of the Bishops; it is "one", because its content remains the same despite the variety of languages and cultures; and it is "pneumatic", because, through it, the Holy Spirit continues to enliven and renew the Church even today.
I am pleased to welcome the many English-speaking pilgrims present. In a special way, I offer cordial greetings to the priests from the Institute for Continuing Theological Education and to the students of the NATO Defense College. Upon all of you I invoke God's blessings of peace and joy.
© Copyright 2007 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana
Interview With Theologian David Warner
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, MARCH 28, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI's Wednesday-audience series on the Apostolic Fathers can give us hope for unity among Christians, says a Catholic theologian who was once an evangelical Protestant minister.
In this interview with ZENIT, David Warner discusses how reading Church Fathers led to his return to the Catholic Church and offers some reflections on the Pope's teachings.
Warner is now a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology in Steubenville, Ohio, and an adjunct professor for the University of Sacramento, California.
Q: How have the early Church Fathers been influential in your own life, first as a Protestant minister and later as a Catholic?
Warner: I left the Catholic Church during my high school years. A far-ranging search led me away from the Church and toward a Christianity of my own invention.
After three years of wandering, I re-embraced Trinitarian theology and had an evangelical conversion to the divinity and lordship of Jesus Christ. This was the beginning of what turned out to be a rediscovery of, and return to, what the Nicene Creed calls the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church."
Again and again during my 18-year sojourn through various streams of Protestantism, I kept coming back to study the early centuries of Christianity.
While teaching a survey course in Church history, I became convinced that I was incompletely joined to the one Church directly established by Christ and witnessed to by the Fathers.
Reading the Apostolic Fathers and the second-century apologists forced me to come to grips with the thoroughly "Catholic" elements of early Christianity.
There was no escaping the fact that already in the first generations, Christians believed, for example, in a sacramental theology, a hierarchy led by bishops who were appointed by the first apostles, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
As a Catholic, my Christian formation was corrected and enriched by studying for three university degrees in Catholic theology. My favorite studies related to patristics.
Whether I was researching biblical, systematic, moral, historical, or pastoral theology; Catholic education or ecumenism; a common point of integration was to discover what the earliest theologians and pastors taught and practiced.
My doctoral studies centered on the 19th-century English convert, Cardinal Newman, who, like so many recent evangelical ministers including myself, returned to the fullness of the ancient Church largely through the influence of the Fathers.
Q: Why would non-Catholic Christians be any more interested in the Fathers of the first couple of centuries than in later saints and doctors of the Church?
Warner: In the Apostolic Fathers and the earliest bishops and apologists, we have the earliest links in the chain that connects today's Christians with the Twelve.
Quoting a second-century bishop, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Benedict XVI reminded us that St. Clement, the third bishop of Rome in succession from St. Peter, had the first apostles' "preaching in his ears, and their tradition before his eyes."
Pope Clement had no qualms about asserting his extra-local apostolic authority, teaching and correcting the Church of Corinth, in distant Greece.
Other great bishops whom Benedict XVI explores, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Polycarp died as martyrs for the truth they knew they had received directly from the original apostles who had taught them.
I remember reasoning while still a Protestant minister, that if Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp and Irenaeus could not get it right after just one or two generations, then what hope did I have for believing that Jesus was who the New Testament claimed he was, or that he had founded a Church that would kick in the gates of hell, and be led by the Spirit of truth until his return?
In the end, I wearied of trying to be my own pope, and returned to the Church of the Fathers.
Q: How do you think non-Catholic Christians and others will view Benedict XVI's catechesis on the Fathers of the early Church?
Warner: It is unlikely that many of them will, in fact, come across these teachings directly. But for those who do, their reactions will be influenced by their preconceived ideas and present convictions.
Those who are of a more sociohistorical revisionist persuasion will tend to categorize Benedict's teachings as being nothing more than a repetition of "history as told by the victors" in the ancient battles for orthodoxy.
For them, a seemingly endless stream of "lost gospels" and "new discoveries" are at least complementary to, if not equal or superior to, sacred Scripture and the orthodox writings of the early bishops and saints.
It is a case study for what Cardinal Ratzinger warned of in his homily just before the papal conclave: "Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as certain."
We have become accustomed, for example, to being bombarded through the media every Christmas and Easter with wild theories regarding Jesus and the varieties of early Christian belief, appealing to so-called suppressed writings.
Typically, these were written by pseudonymous authors claiming to be one of the apostles or their companions. Many of these manuscripts promoted Gnostic teachings that were already being warned against by the New Testament authors in the first century.
They were rejected by the early bishops as being unfaithful to the teachings of Christ, as passed down through the apostles and their successors.
One encouraging sign is the growing interest among some Protestant scholars and pastors who are fascinated with the project of rediscovering and adapting the unique worldview, theology and spirituality of the Fathers.
Seeking to become more "Catholic" without necessarily becoming "Roman," many evangelical theologians and publishers are producing serious studies on the biblical theology of the Fathers.
This is a promising path of potential convergence that could serve Benedict XVI's own ecumenical commitments. I think these brothers and sisters in Christ might find food for thought and an expansion of their religious imagination by the Pope's patristic reflections.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on why Benedict XVI would choose to teach on these early Christian Fathers just now?
Warner: The present Wednesday-audience series on the Fathers began on March 7, 2007. It is a continuation of the Pope's catechesis on the mystery of the Church that began a year ago in March 2006, with weekly meditations on each of the Twelve Apostles.
By October, he was ready to draw our attention to St. Paul and his collaborators: apostolic men like Timothy and Titus -- early bishops, and lay leaders in the Church like the married couple, Aquila and Priscilla.
Benedict XVI is trying to follow Our Lord's command to Peter to "feed my sheep." The food he has chosen to provide us during this series is the tremendous heritage of holy men and women who lived and died as witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and his Church during the first centuries of the Christian era.
From their witness, we can better understand the mystery of the Church as the "presence of Christ among men."
For Catholics, salvation history is the drama of God's unfolding plan for his people. This story can be read in the pages of sacred Scripture and Church history. Benedict XVI's reflections are designed to cause us to reconsider the essential nature and mission of the Church in the context of salvation history.
Q: What common ground can Christians find in the Fathers, and how might this help ecumenical efforts?
Warner: The Fathers can inform and challenge Christians of every description. Protestants can rediscover their forgotten roots. This in turn often results in an increased appreciation for Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and other episcopal and liturgical traditions.
In other cases, openness to the Fathers becomes a steppingstone toward embracing what we believe to be the fullness of Christian faith and practice found within the Catholic Church.
Catholics can and should rediscover some of the patristic priorities that modern evangelicals are noted for, including: living in and for Christ; reverencing and studying the Bible as the unique, authoritative written word of God; and becoming better informed and enthusiastic witnesses to Jesus Christ, the one and only savior of the world.
We can reaffirm our Catholic tradition of promoting all of the gifts of the Spirit -- including the charismatic and hierarchical gifts -- toward the end of Christian maturity and unity. All of these distinctive traits are clearly taught and modeled in the Fathers.
We can relearn how to "breathe with both lungs," a phrase Pope John Paul II often used to refer to drawing from both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions of theology and spirituality.
Many of the earliest Fathers were in fact "Eastern"; they lived in the Near East or Northeast Africa, and wrote in Greek and other non-Latin tongues. Our Eastern Orthodox brothers have the highest regard for the same figures the Pope is holding up for our example and instruction.
Benedict XVI gives us hope for Christian unity by directing us to Ignatius of Antioch who was "truly a doctor of unity." He taught the unity of the Trinity, the unity of the Incarnate Logos, and the unity of the Church in the bonds of love.
Ignatius' prescription for authentic spirituality and ecumenism was "a progressive synthesis between configuration to Christ -- union with him, life in him -- and dedication to his Church -- union with the bishop, generous service to the community and the world."
The Second Vatican Council taught that authentic ecumenism begins with individual, interior repentance and renewal. This can lead to a broader institutional humility and renewal, and docility toward the lessons of history.
Through the Fathers' writings, all Christians may learn from these privileged witnesses to the sacred deposit of faith entrusted by Our Lord to the first apostles. The first- and second-century Fathers and apologists serve as windows into the mystery of the Church as "one, holy, catholic and apostolic."
And so it continues to this day!
Thanks be to God!
Please let me know if you want to be on or off this list.
good interview, thanks for posting. Pope Benedict's series of talks will make a great book someday.
Men are possessed of free will, and endowed with the faculty of making a choice. It is not true, therefore, that some are by nature good, and others bad.
Finally getting time to read the post. Thanks so much for the ping to the Holy Father's homilies.