Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Question of Orthodoxy and St. Irenaeus

Reading N°53 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Pagan philosophy, with its frontal attack upon Christianity, was one of the great dangers of the Church at the close of the second century. The Gnostic sects, employing the outward expressions and the formulas of the Christian spirit, tended to dissolve it; they were a peril no less serious. A new apologist, St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, saw the peril and averted it.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons
The priest, who in AD 177 was chosen to succeed the glorious martyr St. Pothinus in the see of Lyons, was born at Smyrna or in the neighborhood of that city about AD 130. The relations which he had in his youth with Polycarp, the illustrious bishop of Smyrna, and with the venerable Papias, his extensive literary culture, and his lofty virtue soon made him conspicuous among the clergy of Lyons. While Pothinus was bishop, the clergy of Lyons sent Irenaeus to Rome to Pope Eleutherius as their representative to treat of important matters, commending him as "zealous for the covenant of Christ."[1] We know almost nothing of his episcopal ministry or his death. In one passage, St. Jerome gives him the title of "martyr." His death must have taken place during the persecution of Septimius Severus in AD 202. But his strife against false Gnosticism, the chief object of his zeal, would suffice to make him illustrious and venerable among all the bishops of old Gaul; his treatise Against Heresies is an imperishable monument. In this book, the entire heretical movement of the second century lives again before our eyes.

Gnosticism, in passing from the schools of Basilides, Carpocrates, and Valentinus to those of their first disciples, greatly degenerated. Or rather, these latter logically deduced the fatal consequences inherent in the primitive teaching. The fancies of a whimsical metaphysics brought forth the eccentricities of a capricious morality. Secundus, looking for the origin of evil, did not stop with Achamoth; he went back to the very womb of the Pleroma. Marcus introduced into his system the speculations of the Cabbala. The Ophites, in a complicated doctrine that absorbed all the others in the third century, explained the whole system of the world by the conflict between a mysterious serpent (Ophis) and the Creator (Jaldabaoth), so as to bring man nearer to the good and inaccessible God. The Cainites, exalting strength, even in evil, peopled their Olympus with all the scoundrels who had dishonored mankind, from Cain to Judas. Some Gnostics, it is true, tried to stem the movement that was carrying the new sect toward every revolt and depravity. But no great results came of the efforts made in this direction, whether by Ptolemy, a philosopher of clean and exact mind, or by Theodotus and Alexander, whose souls were really enamored of moral purification and asceticism.

The early Fathers, and St. Irenaeus first of all, compare with the masters of Gnosticism a certain man who had started out from an altogether opposite point of view, but then espoused their theories and even claimed to work out a clearer and more exact system from them. This man was Marcion.

Marcion was born at Sinope on the Black Sea. After making a fortune at sea, he came to Rome about AD 140 and presented the Roman Church with a large sum of money, two hundred sesterces. Marcion's first idea was to react against that mixture of Christianity and gross Judaism which the founders of Gnosticism professed.
But since the soundness of his judgment did not equal the warmth of his convictions, his zeal carried him beyond the bounds of moderation and truth. Like Luther, whom he strikingly resembles, he ended by attacking-dogma, on the pretext of wishing to correct an abuse.[2]
The antithesis which St. Paul points out between the Faith and the Law, between the Old Testament and the New, Marcion considers a radical antagonism. In a book which he published under the title of Antitheses, he says that from this opposition it follows that the God of the Gospel, the Father of mercies, must be the enemy of the God of the Jews, author of the creation and of the Law. Thus, by an altogether different route, Marcion arrives at the dualism of the Gnostics. He says that certainly the purpose of Redemption is to rescue man from the evil work of creation; but the good God who became incarnate, unwilling to owe anything to the Creator, possessed only an appearance of humanity. By this second notion Marcion, after cursing the Creator and the Law, finally evaporates the Gospel history into an absolute Docetism.[3]

These are the doctrines which the Bishop of Lyons unmasks and refutes. We will not attempt to follow this "very exact inquirer into all doctrines," as Tertullian calls him,[4] in his inquiries and arguments. In the words of one of his most discerning interpreters, we will give a brief summary of his great treatise. With pliant but close reasoning, Irenaeus shows that the Gnostics are driven to one or other of two final explanations: dualism or pantheism.
He pursued them into these two last entrenchments. You cut God off from the world, he said, or you confuse God with the world; in either case you destroy the true notion of God. If you put creation outside of God, whatever name you give to eternal matter - Void, Chaos, Darkness - is unimportant; you limit the divine Being. This is tantamount to denying Him. There is no use in your saying that the world may have been formed by angels. Either they acted against the will of the supreme God, or according to His command. On the first hypothesis, you accuse God of powerlessness; on the second, in spite of yourselves you are brought to the Christian doctrine, which considers the angels as instruments of the divine will. If, on the contrary, you place creation in God, in such a way that it is reduced to a mere development of His substance, you enter upon a path even more inextricable. In this case, whatever imperfections and defilements there are in creatures become transferred to God Himself, whose substance becomes theirs. You say that the world is the fruit of ignorance and sin, the result of a failing or a fall of the Pleroma, a progressive degeneration of the Being, or, to use your favorite metaphor, a stain on the tunic of God. But do you not see, in this confusion of the Infinite with the finite, it is the divine nature itself that declines, that degenerates, that is stained with vice or imperfection? Could the notion of God be more seriously altered?[5]
But the holy Bishop is not satisfied with refuting the error. Desirous of giving his readers the rule of faith by which every particular opinion must be judged, he then sets forth the whole Catholic doctrine in a great synthesis. In so doing, St. Irenaeus is not merely an apologist, he is also a theologian: in fact, he may rightly be called the father of Catholic theology.

The rule of faith laid down by St. Irenaeus is clear and sound. Religious truth is found in the tradition of the Church: this is the sum and substance of his doctrine. The genuineness of the faith of the present is proved by the fact that those who now teach it received it from the Apostles. Its absolute infallibility is guaranteed by the indefectible assistance of the Holy Ghost. We quote some of the holy Bishop's own words.
The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the Apostles and their disciples this faith.[6] [...] This is the unchangeable rule we receive at baptism.[7] [...] The only true and lifegiving faith, the Church has received from the Apostles and imparted to her sons. For the Lord of all gave to His Apostles the power of the Gospel, through whom also we have known the truth, that is, the doctrine of the Son of God; to whom also did the Lord declare: "He that heareth you, heareth Me."[8] The Church is the Church of God.[9] Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God.[10]
And the center of that Church is at Rome, "the very great, the very ancient and universally known Church, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, [...] Rome, whose pastors are connected with the chief of the Apostles by an uninterrupted series of legitimate pontiffs; for it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church on account of its preeminent authority."[11]

After thus establishing the rule of faith of the Catholic Church, St. Irenaeus, in an ample synthesis, gives the essential content of that faith. The great Bishop's whole theology is inspired by these words of St. John:
This is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent.[12]
Assuredly, it is well to insist upon the infinite distance separating us from God; but in exalting His supreme Essence, we must be careful that we do not make of Him the supreme Impotence and the supreme Indifference. By what right may we deny to the infinite Being the power of producing, outside of Himself, a world which, while not being He, depends upon Him in its operations and ill its substance? We must rather hold to this dogma of creation, which, mysterious though it is, contains the only reasonable solution, because, distinguishing what must be neither separated nor confused, it escapes the two shoals of dualism and pantheism.

But not only did the infinite Being have the power of producing real creatures, He had the power of making Himself known to them, the power of redeeming them from their faults and their wretchedness, the power of raising them even to Himself by a sort of deification. The mediator of all these divine mysteries is Christ. Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God incarnate, truly God and truly man, is the Revealer of God, the Redeemer of man fallen in Adam, and the Deificator of him who abandons himself to His grace. These three ideas sum up the Christology of St. Irenaeus. That revelation, redemption, and deification produce their full effects only after this life, in the kingdom of glory, but in this life, the Eucharist, where God and man meet and unite in an outpouring of unspeakable love, is the divine seal of the work of revelation, redemption, and deification.

Our exposition of St. Irenaeus' teaching would be incomplete if we failed to mention the large place he gives to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the economy of grace. St. Justin had already mentioned her effective and voluntary participation in the work of the Redemption. St. Irenaeus stresses the part taken by her. As St. Paul contrasted the work of the first Adam with that of the second Adam, Jesus Christ, so the Bishop of Lyons contrasts the first Eve, who brought about the fall, with the second Eve, Mary, who saved mankind. He says:
The knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. One resisted God's command, the other submitted thereto. Eve heeded the devil's words, Mary gave ear to the voice of the angel. As the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin.[13]
We cannot overemphasize the importance of the part taken by St. Irenaeus in the history of the Church. This first of Catholic theologians is the last pupil of the immediate disciples of the Apostles. He who made the first systematic synthesis of our faith had still in his ears the last echoes of the Apostolic teaching. His work is a golden ring joining the spirit of the Gospel to the teaching of the Fathers.


[1] Eusebius, H. E., V, iv, 2.
[2] Freppel, Saint Irénée, p. 287.
[3] Ibid., p. 185.
[4] Tertullian, Adversus Valentinianos, 5.
[5] Freppel, op. cit., p. 357. The exactness of Freppel's summary may be verified by reading the Adversus haereses, Book 2, Chapter 30.
[6] Haereses, I, x, 1.
[7] Ibidem, I, ix, 4.
[8] Ibidem, III, pref.
[9] Ibidem, I, vi, 3; xiii, 5.
[10] Ibidem, III, i, 1.
[11] Ibidem, III, iii, 2.
[12] John 17:3.
[13] Adversus haereses, III, xxii, 4; V, xix.


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