Baptists, Eucharist, and History 13 – Irenaeus of Lyons on Unity

Posted: July 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Church History, Eucharist | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I’m now going to move forward a few more decades to a period around 170-180 AD as we focus on Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons. We know that when Irenaeus was young he knew Polycarp. Polycarp, as you may recall, was a disciple of John the Beloved. So there remains a close, direct connection between the one writing and the apostles. I mentioned the emphasis of Justin on the Trinity and gave one example. That same perspective permeates the writings we have of Irenaeus. I strongly recommend a recently recovered treasure by Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Not only will you find much on the Father, Son, and Spirit, you will also find an in depth exploration of the many ways Jesus was prophesied and prefigured in what we commonly call the Old Testament. For the purposes of this series, I will be focusing on the books of his most famous work, Against Heresies. But I do commend the above for your own personal reflection.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus is chiefly writing against various groups of gnostic heretics. In fact, his works are one of the sources from which we’ve gleaned much about them. They were many and diverse. Unlike a heresy like Arianism, there was no single teaching in ancient Christian gnosticism. But all the groups did share some common strands. Among those were an emphasis on secret knowledge, a dualism between the material as evil and the spirit as good, and typically many hierarchies or levels of celestial beings, often called Aeons.

I’m going to start our series today with what Irenaeus writes in Chapter X of Book I of Against Heresies, Unity of the Faith of the Church throughout the whole world. He is specifically making this point because the gnostic heresies are so varied and diverse by contrast. However, it does have particular bearing on this series as well. Recall Ignatius’ emphasis on “one eucharist”. Recognize that what Irenaeus will be writing is not merely his sole opinion. Rather, the faith is so coherent and unified that he can write the following words and expect them to be recognized as manifestly true.  Then compare what Irenaeus says to the modern Western landscape of extreme, individualistic Christian pluralism in which the various theologies and sects are even often named for the one who invented them. If you can find any commonality between the two visions of the Church, you have a more discerning mind than mine. Here are Irenaeus’ own words.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one, and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

As I have already observed, 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. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.