Today we’ll look at a small excerpt I’ve chosen from Book IV, Chapter XVIII of Against Heresies. If you have not read the full work, some of the things he says may not make much sense. Remember, the primary purpose of this writing was to refute specific heresies and heretical groups — thus the title. As a result, Irenaeus is often referring to the heretics, their beliefs, and their practices. I’ve chosen for today a few quotes that I think are helpful for our topic in this series.
But how can they be consistent with themselves, [when they say] that the bread over which thanks have been given is the body of their Lord, and the cup His blood, if they do not call Himself the Son of the Creator of the world, that is, His Word, through whom the wood fructifies, and the fountains gush forth, and the earth gives “first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.”
The ones who are not being consistent with themselves here are the heretics. The interesting thing is the assumption that if they attend any Christian worship, they will have to confess that the bread is the body of Jesus and the cup his blood. In other words, Christians and the heretics among them alike know that is precisely the confession made in Christian worship. Irenaeus is using that to accuse the heretics of inconsistency. Then he expands this theme with the following.
Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.
Remember, the gnostics thought the flesh (and all things material) was evil and only the spiritual would ultimately persist. Irenaeus refutes that argument by saying that our bodies are nourished by the body and blood of our Lord and thus partake of life. Our bodies, rather than remaining corruptible, receive the hope of resurrection to eternity. Does that sound like the operation of a mere symbol to you? Because it doesn’t to me. Again, though, this is utterly consistent not just with the Holy Scriptures (especially in John 6), but with everything else we have so far examined.
Definitely food for thought.