Today we celebrate the feast of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Doctor of the Church. Martyred in 202 in Lyons, France, he was a disciple of St. Polycarp bishop of Smyrna, who was taught by the apostle, John the Evangelist.
Irenaeus is best known for his refutation of heresies, particularly Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that the material world was evil and the only way to salvation was through discovering the “secrets” of the universe through knowledge – quite a difference from the Catholic view of the goodness of God’s creation and the revelation of the Truth through Christ & the Church. The Gnostics borrowed ideas from Christianity and Judaism which led to confusion and schism in the Church.
We who live 2000 years after Christ have been handed on a very rich doctrine. We, for example, believe in the hypostatic union – Jesus was one person with two natures completely divine & completely human. It took centuries to define this, with heresies denying his divinity & others denying his humanity. What we take for granted caused schism in the Church. It was people like St. Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, St. Polycarp, and St. Augustine, among others, who helped discern the apostles’ teaching. These men are known as the Church Fathers.
1Tim 3:15 tells us that the “pillar and foundation of Truth” is the Church. It was almost 400 years before the canon of scripture was codified. So, if not the Bible, then what guided the Church for the first few centuries? The teaching of the Church and the Sacred Tradition handed on by the Fathers did. The Fathers were taught by the apostles, and what they learned was passed on to their successors. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the bishops were, & still are today, preserved from teaching error in matters of faith & morals. (Mt 16:18; 28:18-20, Jn 14, 15, 16, 1Tm 3:14-15 & Acts 15:28)
The Protestant belief in sola scriptura, or scripture alone as the sole authority of faith, is contrary to the experience of the early Church. Catholics believe in the authority of and obedience to Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. To better understand why, we look to the Church Fathers, who were instructed by the apostles and their successors. Their writings help us to better understand what was preached & taught in the early church – during the time when the Bible was not clearly defined.
Irenaeus is one of those Fathers. He is called the Father of Tradition. Few of his writings have survived, save 2: Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) 180AD) and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching, an Armenian translation discovered in 1907. Let’s take a look at some of his writings (Quoted from EWTN’s website):
* ‘The apostles at that time FIRST PREACHED the Gospel but later by the will of God, they delivered it to us in the Scriptures, that it might be the foundation and pillar of our faith’ Against Heresies 3,1
* ‘Since, therefore, the TRADITION from the apostles DOES thus EXIST in the Church, and is PERMANENT AMONG US, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, and that no lie is in Him’ AH 3,5,1
* For Irenaeus tradition included three things:
1) the faith that was handed on-oral or in writing
“For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us their writings? Would it not be necessary to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those whom they did commit the Churches?’ Against Heresies 3,4:1
2) a living authority
“Wherefore it is incumbent to obey the presbyters who are in the Church…those who, together with the succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth…” Against Heresies 26:2
3) transmission and preservation by succession.
“In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is MOST abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the Apostles until now, and handed in truth” Against Heresies 3,3:3
*”Then I have pointed out the truth, and shown the preaching of the Church, which the prophets proclaimed(as I have already demonstrated), but which Christ brought to perfection, and the apostles have handed down , from which the Church, receiving [these truths], and throughout all the world alone preserving them in their integrity, has transmitted them to her sons. Then also-having disposed of all questions which the heretics propose to us, and having explained the doctrine of the apostles, and clearly set forth many of those things which were said and done by the Lord in parables–I shall endeavor, in this fifth book of the entire work which treats of the exposure and refutation of knowledge falsely so-called, to exhibit proofs from the rest of the Lord’s doctrine and apostolic epistles; [thus] complying with demand, as thou didst request of me(since indeed I have been assigned a place in ministry of the word); and, labouring by every means…and convert them to the Church of God…that they may preserve steadfast the faith which they have received, guarded by the Church in its integrity, in order that they be in no way perverted by those who endeavor to teach them false doctrine…” AH V Preface
From early on, guarding the Truth was paramount. It still is.
So today, let us pray in thanksgiving for the wisdom and courage of the Church Fathers, St. Irenaeus in particular. Let us also pray for their intercession – that we will faithfully hand on what has been given to us, that we will study, learn, and love the Truth and that we will be living witnesses to it in a world crying out in search for it.
Heavenly Harmony, The Voice of Truth by Casting Crowns.