Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Irenaeus The Ancient Bridge Between East & West

Irenaeus in my mind is the quintessential early Church father. Through his predecessor St. Polycarp, he is but one degree separated from the apostles. Since he was born in Asia minor and later migrated to Lyons in Gaul, he is a bridge between the East and West. And since his doctrine was thoroughly orthodox, he is a champion of the faith.

Irenaeus had already spent time in Rome before coming to Lyons. It’s possible that he even accompanied Polycarp on his journey to Rome to settle disputes between the East & West at around 155 AD. He would have heard Polycarp’s famous response to Marcion “Yes I do recognize the firstborn of Satan”. While this is speculation, we do know that Irenaeus spent some time in Rome.

Following the intense persecution under Marcus Aurelius which claimed not merely a few martyrs, Irenaeus succeeded St. Pothinus as bishop of Lyons. His move from East to West itself exemplifies a truth about the early Church we need to understand and far too often don’t. We have an unjustified tendency in patristics to read the great schism back into the early Church fathers. This anachronism is most often actualized a little later – labeling Tertullian as the icon of the west and Origen of the East (and all subsequent fathers must fall neatly into one of those two categories of interpretation). Even then it is unwarranted – how much less now in the earliest stage of the Church! So while it may be true (and it is) that certain tensions and disagreements between the East and West did begin as early as the second century, Irenaeus stands in the midst of an otherwise foggy period in history declaring by his very life and actions that there was a time when the entire Christian Church was one. On this issue it would also be helpful for us to recall that the very term “Catholic Church” was first found in writing from an Eastern Church father. In other words – the whole Church called itself Catholic until the great Schism.

Another unhelpful tendency we have is to associate the Eastern & Western theological issues too closely with the political issues of the Roman empire. Of course, any student of antiquity knows that our 21st century concept of separation of Church & State hardly extends back to the world in which the early Christian Church grew up in. Still, the fathers of the Church were not so theologically shallow as to associate the Papacy with the seat of Rome merely because it was the capital of the empire (and we know so because of their extensive writings on the subject). When the empire split, let us not forget that the Church remained in tact for quite some time.

So then, the early tensions of East & West must not be ignored but neither should too much be made out of them. We cannot read the schism into the early Church – only the subtle roots thereof.

Sometime ago, I discussed the letter of Polycrates to Pope Victor and Irenaeus' involvement in the Easter dispute. This is a very unique situation where the East has received a different tradition than the West (the West celebrated Easter on Sunday whereas the East celebrated it on whichever day it fell on). To support their cause, they quote such heroes of the faith as St. John, St. Philip, St. Polycarp & St. Melito as ones who lived and died in the East and who handed them this tradition which they were strongly opposed to change.

Interestingly, Irenaeus sided with the west (though he was from the East and presumably received the same tradition as they did from his childhood). But when Pope Victor decided to excommunicate the Eastern Churches which did not comply with the decision of the councils of bishops he had convened, Irenaeus (among other bishops) strongly urged him not to do so. This shows us not only the early consensus of papal supremacy but of Irenaeus' personal belief in the doctrine. We did have some discussion on that subject in the aforementioned post and its subsequent one - the power of the early popes. Yet, perhaps in this case words will speak louder than actions. Next we will examine the doctrines of Irenaeus in his own words.

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