National Catholic Register


Weekly Catechesis 04.08.2007

St. Irenaeus of Lyon
Apostolic Tradition Gives Life to the Church Today

BY John Lilly

April 8-14, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/3/07 at 10:00 AM


Pope Benedict XVI met with 20,000 people in St. Peter’s Square during his general audience on March 28. He dedicated his catechesis to St. Irenaeus of Lyon, the Church’s “first great theologian.”

“As we continue our teachings on some of the prominent people of the early Church, we come today to that most eminent personality, St. Irenaeus of Lyon. The biographical information that we have on him comes from his own testimony, which was handed down to us by Eusebius in the fifth book of his Ecclesiastical History. Irenaeus was probably born in Smyrna (today the city of Izmir in Turkey) around the year 135-140, where, as a young man, he was a student at the school of the bishop Polycarp, who was in turn a disciple of the apostle John.

“We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but his move must have coincided with the initial development of the Christian community in Lyon where, in the year 177, we find Irenaeus listed in the college of presbyters. In that same year, he was sent to Rome, bearing a letter from the community of Lyon for Pope Eleutherius.

“On account of this mission to Rome, Irenaeus escaped Marcus Aurelius’ persecution, which claimed the lives of at least 48 martyrs, including the 90-year old bishop of Lyon, Pothinus, who died as a result of mistreatment in prison. Upon his return, Ireneaus was elected bishop of the city.

“The new shepherd devoted himself entirely to his ministry as bishop, which ended around the year 202-203, probably with his martyrdom.”

A Good Shepherd

“Above all, Irenaeus was a man of faith and a shepherd. From the Good Shepherd, he learned to demonstrate prudence, a rich doctrine and a missionary zeal. As a writer, his objective was twofold: to defend true doctrine from attacks by heretics and to explain clearly the truths of the faith.

“The two works by him that remain — the five books of Against Heresies and his Proof of the Apostolic Teaching (which might also be called the oldest “Catechism of Christian Doctrine”) — perfectly fulfill these goals.

“Without a doubt, Irenaeus is the champion of the struggle against heresy. The second-century Church faced threats from the so-called gnosis, a doctrine that considered the faith taught by the Church as a form of symbolism for simple people who are incapable of grasping difficult things while people who were intellectuals and had been initiated in an understanding of what lay behind these symbols — they were called Gnostics — would be able to create a form of Christianity that was elitist and intellectual.

“Evidently, even as this intellectual form of Christianity was progressively splitting into various streams of strange and exotic thinking, many people found it attractive. A common element within these various streams was dualism, which rejected faith in the one God who was father of all, the Creator and Savior of mankind and of the world. In order to explain the existence of evil in the world, they held that there was a negative force alongside the good God. This negative force is what produced material things or matter.”

Defender of the Faith

“Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of creation, Irenaeus refuted the dualism and the pessimism of Gnosticism, which disparaged corporal realities. In a very clear way, he defended the divine origin of matter — of the body, of the flesh — as well as that of the spirit.

“But his work goes far beyond refuting heresies. Indeed, we might say that he was the Church’s first great theologian, who established systematic theology. He himself spoke about the system of theology, that is, the overall internal coherence of the faith.

“At the heart of his doctrine are the “rule of faith” and its transmission. For Irenaeus, the “rule of faith” coincides in practice with the Apostles’ Creed and gives us the key for interpreting the Gospel and for interpreting the Creed in light of the Gospel. This apostolic symbol, which is a kind of synthesis of the Gospel, helps us understand what the Gospel means and how we must read the Gospel.

“The Gospel that St. Irenaeus preached is the Gospel that he received from Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, and the Gospel of Polycarp dates back to the apostle John, of whom Polycarp was a disciple. Thus, authentic teaching is not some teaching invented by intellectuals rising above the simple faith of the Church. The true Gospel is the Gospel passed down by the bishops, who received it from the apostles in an uninterrupted chain. These men have taught nothing more than this simple faith, which is also the true depth of God’s revelation.

“Thus, Irenaeus tells us, there is no secret doctrine behind the Church’s creed that we all share. There is no superior form of Christianity for intellectuals. The faith that the Church publicly professes is the faith that we all share. Only this faith is the apostolic faith that comes from the apostles — that is, from Jesus and from God.

“In adhering to this faith that the apostles publicly passed on to their successors, Christians must follow what the bishops say. They must especially consider the teaching of the Church of Rome, which is preeminent and the oldest.

“This Church, because of its age, has the greatest degree of apostolicity; in fact, its origins date back to those two pillars of the apostolic college, Peter and Paul. All the churches must be in harmony with the Church of Rome, recognizing in it the measure for true apostolic tradition and the one, common faith of the Church.

“With these arguments, which I have very briefly summarized here, Irenaeus refuted the very foundation of the claims of the Gnostics, of these intellectuals. First of all, they did not possess a truth that was superior to the common faith because everything they say is not of apostolic origin but is something that they invented.

“Second, truth and salvation are not the privilege and the monopoly of a few, but something that everyone can attain through the preaching of the apostles’ successors, and, above all, that of the Bishop of Rome.”

Apostolic Tradition

“By taking issue with the “secret” nature of the Gnostic tradition and pointing out its multiple intrinsic contradictions, Irenaeus carefully portrayed a genuine concept of the Apostolic Tradition, which we can summarize in three points.

“First, the Apostolic Tradition is ‘public’ and not private or secret. For Irenaeus, there is no doubt that the content of the faith transmitted by the Church is that received from the apostles and from Jesus, the Son of God. There is no teaching aside from this. “Therefore, it is sufficient for anyone who wishes to know true doctrine to know ‘the tradition that comes from the apostles and the faith proclaimed to men,’ a tradition and faith that ‘have been handed down to us through the succession of bishops’ (Adversus Haereses 3, 3:3-4). Thus, the succession of bishops, personal principle, Apostolic Tradition and doctrinal principle all coincide.

“Second, the Apostolic Tradition is ‘one.’ While Gnosticism is divided into many sects, the Church’s Tradition is one in its fundamental contents, which, as we have seen, Irenaeus calls the regula fidei or veritatis. Moreover, since it is one, it creates unity among peoples — among different cultures and different nations.

“Despite different languages and cultures, its content is something we all share, like truth. There is a beautiful expression that Irenaeus uses in his book Against Heresies: ‘The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, though scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes in these truths just as if she had but one soul and one heart; she proclaims them, teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. Even though the languages of the world are diverse, the power of tradition is one and the same: The Churches that have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down a faith that is different, and neither do those in Spain, in Gaul, in the East, in Egypt or in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world’ (Adversus Haereses 1, 10:1-2).

“We can already see at this time, the year 200, the universality of the Church, its catholicity and the unifying force of the truth that unites these very different realities — ranging from Germany, to Spain, to Italy, to Egypt, to Libya — in the common truth revealed to us by Christ.

“Finally, the Apostolic Tradition is, as he says in Greek, the language in which he wrote his book, ‘pneumatic,’ that is, spiritual, guided by the Holy Spirit. In Greek, the word for spirit is pneuma. Its transmission does not depend on the abilities of more or less educated men, but on the Spirit of God, who guarantees the faithful manner in which the faith is transmitted. This is the ‘life’ of the Church that makes the Church forever fresh, young and fruitful in its many charisms.

“For Irenaeus, Church and Spirit are inseparable. As we read in the third book of Against Heresies, ‘We have received this faith from the Church and we preserve it. Faith, through the work of the Spirit of God, is constantly being renewed and, like some precious deposit in a priceless vessel, even renews the vessel itself. … For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace’ (Adversus Haereses 3, 24:1).

“As we can see, Irenaeus does not limit himself to defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always being renewed internally by the Holy Spirit, who makes it alive again, allowing it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church.

“According to his teaching, the Church’s faith is transmitted in such a way that it appears as it should — that is, ‘public, one, pneumatic and spiritual.’ From each of these characteristics, one can glean a fruitful discernment of the authentic transmission of the faith in the Church of today.

“In a more general way, according to Irenaeus’ teaching, human dignity — body and soul — is firmly rooted in divine creation, in the image of Christ and in the Spirit’s ongoing work of sanctification. This doctrine is like a ‘main road’ that makes clear to all people of good will the goal and the limits of dialogue on values, and that gives a new impulse to the Church’s missionary work and to the strength of truth that is the source of all the world’s true values.   

Register translation