Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Doctrine of Irenaeus In His Own Words

In my previous post, I discussed Irenaeus as the quintessential early Church father. Continuing on that thought process, I wanted to briefly examine his doctrine. In his lengthy work, Against Heresies, he is entirely devoted to exposing the fallacies of the various Gnostic (in his words: falsely so called) sects. He spends a great deal of time explaining the details of their theology and in fact, much of what we know of their belief system we owe to him as many of their texts are no longer extant. Of his works only one other has survived though we know he wrote many more.

It even seems odd to us that such effort was spent defending Christian orthodoxy against what to us seems to be ridiculous theology. How could any person with even the slightest bit of learning call the God of the Old Testament an evil - lesser god than the True God who sent Jesus Christ? How could Christ have any credibility were it not for the divine origin of the Jewish Scriptures and in turn the Jewish religion? In reality, we see the same thing happening today with 'Christian feminists' who attribute the masculinity of God and the priesthood to cultural prejudice. In doing so they unwittingly blaspheme God and or at least reduce the Scriptures to the mere product of men. So one might ask 1000 years from now on seeing a 21st century refutation of 'Christian feminist' propaganda "how was anyone so unlearned as to consider the Word [Christ] false but Christianity true?" Judging by Irenaeus' exhaustive refutation of the various belief systems, we can safely assume that they had led no small number of the faithful astray in his day.

So Just What Did Irenaeus Believe?
Irenaeus is one of the defining patriarchs of orthodoxy. His articulation of Christian theology borrows heavily from St. Paul - making frequent use of the Pauline epistles with extensive quotes. Most of what he says would be welcome from the pulpits of any Christian community or Church. If the Catholic Church varies on any of his doctrines they are mere nuances. However, while agreeing with most of it, Protestants would have irreconcilable differences on a few things. And wouldn't you know it... I'm about to discuss those very doctrines now.

Three paragraphs you won't find in any evangelical book:

1. He uses apostolic succession to show that the doctrines they teach were received from the apostles and on that account they cannot be contradicted.

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.
2. And again we find yet more proof in the second century of the primacy of the Roman bishop. This is the earliest and clearest declaration (aside from the words of Christ) that is in extant writing.
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre- eminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.
It should be noted that his reasoning differs from the Catholic position as it would soon begin to be more clearly articulated as in that he doesn't consider the doctrine of papal primacy true solely on the grounds of the Petrine succession but also because Paul's resting place is in Rome. We must avoid the temptation to view his statement as claiming that Paul and Peter co-founded the Church in Rome. Being extremely well versed in the Pauline epistles, he would have been well aware that Paul never made it to Rome until the final few years of his life and the Christian community there had already been thriving under the leadership of St. Peter. There is evidence from Eusebius that Peter arrived in Rome as early as 42 AD but certainly didn't stay there until martyrdom. He was back in Jerusalem for the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and he apparently wasn't in Rome when Paul wrote the book of Romans. Returning to the present discussion, we should also note that Irenaeus' terminology here seems to be consistent with the most ancient traditions regarding Rome's supremacy. (See St. Clement of Rome's first century address to the Corinthians in which he refers to Peter & Paul as the "greatest and most righteous pillars [of the church]") Nevertheless, in spite of his incomplete reasoning on this subject, it is absolutely clear and indisputable that he views Rome as having supremacy over the entire Catholic Church (yes East and West).

3. I have already discussed Irenaeus on Mary in this post. But the quote Protestants would find most objectionable I think, is this:
so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race.
A couple years ago when I was struggling with the concepts of Mariology and my decision to convert to the Catholic Church, these words rocked my world. I would have guessed them on the lips of a medieval monk... but Irenaeus??? How could someone so close to the apostles get something so basic so... wrong??? But eventually I had to come to grips with a tough reality - it was admittedly more likely that I was wrong.

In closing, let me point you to a very cool resource. Irenaeus Against Heresies Free Mp3 Download. (Only the first four books are listed there but book five is also available, you just have to type it in manually).


Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for this intro to Irenaeus. I know too little of the Fathers - but what you have said is not unexpected. As a charismatic evangelical protestant, and tender-hearted at that, I imagine even my first and second century characters might have trouble with his catholicity. Blessings nonetheless.

Mrs Jackie Parkes MJ said...

That's a great post..thankyou & God bless..

Tim A. Troutman said...

Mrs. J - Thanks!