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Essentials: Irenaeus of Lyon

Essentials: Irenaeus of Lyon
Against Heresies

By Duane W.H. Arnold Ph.D.
December 11, 2017

Even the title is frightening - Against Heresies. Today, we either don’t like talking about something being heretical or, conversely, we love using the term “heresy” about anything that differs from our particular theological, denominational or confessional opinion. There seems to be little middle ground. Maybe this goes back to the original meaning of the “heresy” which comes from the Greek word meaning to choose or to make a choice. In the early Church the term was used for those who had “chosen” not to follow the teaching of the Church as it was revealed in Scripture and handed down in the apostolic tradition and to those who had chosen to physically separate themselves from the fellowship of the Christian community. Moreover, the term seems to be specifically reserved, at least in the first five centuries, for those who had chosen, in one way or another, to deny the full reality of the Incarnation - that is, that Christ was fully God and fully human.

It is in Irenaeus of Lyon that we first see all these elements brought together in an attempt to refute those who had chosen another way.

Irenaeus was born just after the turn of the second century (c. 115) in Smyrna (Asia Minor). From his own account, we know that he came under the tutelage of the local bishop, Polycarp, who had been a disciple of the Apostle John (Adv. haer. III, 3,4) It was from Polycarp that Irenaeus imbibed the Johannine tradition. It appears that in due time he made his way to Rome and, by 177, to Lyons in Gaul (present day France) where he was a presbyter in that community which was experiencing severe persecution. He is known to have carried a letter to church in Rome from those awaiting martyrdom in Lyons. It is thought that the letter urged toleration toward the Montanist sect, which while being thought heterodox, was apparently not considered heretical - and this from people facing martyrdom for their faith. Upon his return, Irenaeus became the bishop of the Christian community in Lyons, eventually passing from the scene in the late second century.

It was during his time in Lyons that Irenaeus wrote Against Heresies. Now, this work is slightly longer than the other texts we have encountered, but not by a great deal. It is divided up thematically into five books containing a total of 36 chapters, each chapter being only a few paragraphs in length. It can be easily read in the course of one or two evenings.

The heresy with which Irenaeus is concerned in this treatise is Gnosticism. Christian Gnosticism in the early centuries is a field of study unto itself and it is beyond the scope of this small article to provide a comprehensive overview. There are numerous monographs, some popular, some scholarly, that are available. A good introduction to the field is Elaine Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospels (1979) which provides a popular approach to the movement and the related Nag Hammadi manuscripts. Essentially, Gnosticism promoted a “spiritual” approach to the life of Christ and many of the sayings found in the Gospels and the Pauline epistles. Arising out of an amalgam of Platonic thought, non-rabbinic Jewish sects and early Christian splinter groups, Gnostics believed that the material world was the creation of a lesser god and therefore to be rejected, ignored or thought inconsequential (depending on the group in question). This was also the case with humanity, except that each person had trapped within them a “divine spark” which only “secret knowledge” (gnosis) could liberate, thereby making a person truly “spiritual”. For Christian Gnostics, this meant that the Scriptures were filled with secret meanings that only the enlightened would discover. Owing to their view of the physical creation as the creation of a lesser emanation or god, Gnostics in some sects were ascetics (rejecting the creation) while others were libertines (counting the creation of no importance). The Docetists of Ignatius’ time who rejected the physical nature of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, may well have been an early gnostic sect. This denial of the physical, the embrace of secret knowledge and the rejection of the created order has remained with us in many Christian circles through the centuries down to the present day, in lesser or greater degrees.

In his five little books, Irenaeus speaks directly to the Gnostics of his day, but also speaks to us through the centuries, to many of the issues of our own day. In Book 1, he refutes the Gnostic position by the use of reason; in Book 2, he gives a brief history of Gnosticism and the traits by which it may be recognized; in Book 3, he refutes Gnosticism by appealing to the handing down of the teaching of the Apostles through the tradition of the Church; in Book 4, he cites the saying of Jesus himself in the Gospels in an open, rather than secret, manner; in Book 5 he provides a view of things to come and his own eschatological views.

Now, Irenaeus is important for many reasons. Firstly, he openly embraces the use of both faith and reason. While faith (rather than secret knowledge) was the only way to attain true salvation, reason could be used to appropriate and to understand what has been communicated to us through faith, such as the Gospels and the traditions handed down to the Church from the apostles. No secret tradition or knowledge could supersede the revelation given to the Church and handed down in its open, public and common tradition. This understanding would later influence Augustine - one believes in order to understand - yet reason and faith remain different dimensions of a single reality. Secondly, he openly embraces, and extensively quotes from the emerging canon of Scripture. Indeed, he quotes from every book of the New Testament apart from Philemon, II Peter, III John, and Jude. Moreover, he indicates knowing of at least one false Gospel - the Gospel of Truth - which he considers heretical. Finally, Irenaeus “sets the bar” for what would be seen as heretical in the centuries to come - the rejection of the physical nature of the Incarnation and, thus, the faith of the Church.

In the centuries to come, this would inform the issues which the Church would address. Essentially it is about the manner in which God, in Christ, is present in the world and the Church. Now, most of us will hold to the Ecumenical Creeds. We will accept the outcome of the Arian controversy and confess that Christ is of one substance with the Father. We will accept the outcome of the Monophysite controversy, settled at Chalcedon, that there are two natures in the person of Christ, human and divine.
We will accept the conclusion of the later Monothelite controversy, that indeed Christ possessed a human and divine will. We will even accept (at least most of us) the earlier conclusion of the Council of Ephesus that Mary may be called, Theotokos, (the “God-bearer”) not merely to honor her, but to emphasize the reality of the Incarnation. The overarching theme of Irenaeus is that Christ is not only fully present in the Incarnation, he is fully present in the Eucharist (Adv. haer. V, 2). Yet, not only is he present in the Eucharist, he is present in the apostolic tradition and teaching of the Church (Adv. haer. III, 3)

That is, he is present in the Church itself as a real and physical manifestation of Christ’s presence among us. I have come to believe that to deny Christ’s presence in the Church is, in some sense, to deny his Incarnation or, perhaps as bad, like the Gnostics, to spiritualize what “Church” and/or Christ’s presence really means.

When we relegate “Church” to an amorphous spiritual entity that we say we belong to, but that we never engage in on a real, physical basis, I believe we are verging on heresy. In my reading of the Fathers of the Church, if one were to say that, “I’m a Christian, but I am not a part of a body of believers”, they would most likely consider you to be in grave error, or perhaps a Gnostic, but almost certainly verging on heresy, if, in fact, not a heretic already. We are very good at quoting the promise that Christ will be with us “always, even to the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20), but look at the context... Christ is talking to “them”... the Church. Almost every promise of Christ’s presence is related to the Church. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). The Book of Acts is about the Church. The Pauline epistles are to churches - real, physical, communities of believers in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus and the rest. Even in the Book of Revelation it is, “John to the seven churches that are in Asia...” (Rev. 1:4). It is inescapable.

Now, the obvious question will arise, “Are you saying I can’t be a Christian without being part of a church?”

Ultimately, only God can answer that question. What I will say, is that one does not find it in Scripture, the Church Fathers, the Nicene Creed (“We believe...”) or the tradition of the Church. The Apostles Creed, used at baptism, of course says, “I believe”, but that is used as a profession of individual faith as one enters, yes, the Church. Indeed, without “spiritualizing” either the nature of conversion, the meaning of baptism, the presence of Christ, or the concept of what “Church” means, it is very difficult to make sense of a Christian apart from a body of believers.

For those of us who live in the post-apostolic age, who are not “eyewitnesses of his glory”, the Church is the place of the Incarnation. It is the place of Christ’s continuing physical presence among us - the physical act of baptism, the physical act of chrismation, the physical presence of fellow Christians, the physical movement through the Church year, the physical act of hearing the Gospel proclaimed, the physical nature of the Eucharist. This was the case in the early Church, the medieval Church and the Reformation Church. Today, however, we have, as a society and as Christians, embraced the modern, secular, post-Enlightenment idea of “the individual” and personal choice and fulfillment as being the highest good. In many cases, we have overlaid that secular idea on to Christian faith and life. In so doing, we have abandoned the historic faith in favor of a self-affirming personalism.

Many have been hurt at one time or another by churches and church leaders. Sometimes this has been intentional, and at other times it has been unintentional. It is important, however, to realize that there are numerous churches that are providing light and life to those who attend and participate. Yes, we have all witnessed conduct by churches and church leaders that is wholly unacceptable by any standard. I will admit, there are times, in my darker moments, when the American ecclesiastical scene appears to be a vast wasteland of politics (right and left), intolerance and tribalism. Indeed, one has to believe that many church leaders, and some congregants, will face an accounting for what has been done, as well as that which has been left undone. Yet, the Church is there and it remains the means by which Christ comes to us in time and space. To make the “choice” to deny it, or spiritualize it, may well be our very own personal modern heresy.

Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
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