August 23, 2021

The Life and Works of Saint Irenaeus of Lyon (Fr. George Florovsky)

By Fr. George Florovsky
St Irenaeus of Lyons was probably born in Asia Minor between 125 and 145, perhaps in Smyrna — in his letter to the Roman presbyter Florinus St. Irenaeus tells us that in his early youth he had listened to the sermons of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna: "When I was still a boy, I knew you, Florinus, in lower Asia, in Polycarp’s house I remember the events of those days more clearly than those, which happened recently so that I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourses, which he made to the people, how he reported his relationship with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord, which he had heard from them, and about their miracles, and about their teachings, and how Polycarp had received them from the eye-witnesses of the Logos of Life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures. I listened eagerly even then to these things through the mercy of God, which was given me, and made notes of them, not on paper, but in my heart, and ever by the grace of God do I truly ruminate on them." This text is preserved by Eusebius in his Εκκλησιαστική ιστορία 5, 20. But the fact that St. Irenaeus was in Smyrna as a boy does not necessitate that he was born there.
St. Irenaeus is one of the most important theologians or Church writers of the second century. Some scholars consider him "the most important of the theologians" of the second century. Nygren in his Agape and Eros asserts that "Irenaeus is chief of the anti-Gnostic Fathers." The fact remains that his importance is enormous. It is not known why St. Irenaeus left Asia Minor and went to Gaul. One conjecture is that he accompanied St. Polycarp to Rome in 155, stayed for a while, and then from Rome went to Gaul. What is known is that through Polycarp St. Irenaeus was in contact with the Apostolic Age.
The first historical mention of St. Irenaeus is in the year 177. At that time he was a priest of the Church of Lyons [Lugdunum] under the elder bishop, St. Pothinus. A certain group of Christians coming from Phrygia had come to Lyons with the news that, according to the Phrygian prophets, the second coming of Christ was at hand. At this time, Pope Eleutherius (175-189) had been solicited to confirm the condemnations, which the bishops of Asia had passed on the Montanists. The Church of Lyons wrote a letter on this subject to the pope and entrusted it to St. Irenaeus who was to take it to Rome. The letter contained an excellent recommendation, as found in Eusebius: "We have asked our brother and companion Irenaeus to bring this letter to you, and we beg you to hold him in esteem, for he is zealous for the covenant of Christ." It was fortuitous for St. Irenaeus because while he was gone a persecution broke out in Lyons (177-178), one of the victims of which was St. Pothinus. On his return from Rome St. Irenaeus was chosen to succeed St. Pothinus as bishop.
St. Irenaeus became involved with Rome once again when Pope Victor I (189-198) took a strong stand against the Church of Asia Minor — Proconsular Asia, the metropolis of which was Ephesus — in the Paschal controversy. The Church in Asia Minor, following a tradition alleged to come from St. John, celebrated the feast of the Christian Passover, Easter, on the day of the Paschal full moon; whether that day fell on a Sunday or on any other day of the week. The rest of the Church, both East and West, celebrated the Christian Pascha on the Sunday following the Paschal full moon. The Church at Rome, as the capital of the empire, had Christians living or visiting there from all parts of the empire. The Christians from Asia Minor celebrated Easter according to their tradition in Rome. This created disharmony in the liturgical life of the Church but it was tolerated by five popes from about 118 to 165 — Xystus, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius, and Anicetus. It was this liturgical and calendrical issue, which was discussed in Rome in 155 by St. Polycarp and Pope Anicetus without a resolution of the problem. It appears that Pope Soter, who followed Anicetus, required all Christians in Rome to celebrate Easter simultaneously. But Pope Soter did not interfere with the custom in Asia Minor where that tradition continued. Pope Victor determined to bring uniformity to the entire Church. Such a step required the suppression of the custom of Asia Minor. It appears that Pope Victor sent letters from the Church of Rome to the metropolitans in Asia Minor requesting them to summon local councils to discuss the proper day for the celebration of Easter. That Pope Victor requested rather than commanded seems to be the meaning that Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, attaches to the word ... his letter to Pope Victor, although άξιόω can be used in the sense of “to require.” In compliance with the request from the Roman Church, councils were held in many provinces — in Palestine, in Asia, in Pontus, in Osrhoene, in Gaul and elsewhere. Pope Victor held his own council in Rome. The decision was unanimous — except for Polycrates’ province — that Easter should be celebrated on Sunday. It appears that Pope Victor, in communicating the result of his council to Polycrates, threatened to excommunicate the Church in Asia if they continued in their custom. Polycrates’ reply is historical interesting in shedding light on the attitude of other churches to Rome at this time; it is also defiant. Eusebius relates that Pope Victor then "endeavoured" to cut off the churches "of all Asia, along with their neighbouring churches, as heterodox, from the common unity." Eusebius also relates that Victor sent letters to the other churches proclaiming that the Church in Asia was "utterly — άρδην — separated from communion.” Victor received letters from other bishops exhorting him to pursue a policy of unity, peace, and love. Some of these letters sharply upbraid Victor. St. Irenaeus entered the conflict, admonishing Pope Victor. Eusebius relates that Irenaeus lived up to his name, for he was a real "peace" maker — ειρηνοποιός. After this incident St. Irenaeus is not heard about again — even the date of his death is unknown, although tradition fixes it about 202 or 203.
St. Irenaeus had a breadth of knowledge, a depth of faith, and a love and knowledge of Scripture. In addition to his Episcopal duties, he was, as Tertullian writes about him, "a curious explorer of all doctrines." He made it a kind of official duty to know all the heresies with the explicit purpose of refuting them so that the received faith, the faith from the tradition of the Apostles would triumph. He was highly educated and had read numerous Greek writers, both literary and philosophical. But he was not attracted to abstract speculation, precisely because he believed this to be the main source of Gnosticism, which at that time was ravaging Gaul as it was also ravaging Italy and the East. For him, the very fact of revealing the system of the Gnostics "was to vanquish them." In addition to his Episcopal duties and his writings, St. Irenaeus worked to spread Christianity in the provinces adjacent to Lyons. The Churches at Besangon and at Valence claim that St. Irenaeus was the first to announce the Gospel to them.
St. Irenaeus’ main work is έλεγχος και άνατροπή της ψενδονόμου γνώσεως — The Detection and Overthrow of the Pretended but False Gnosis, more commonly known as the Adversus Haereses. This work has been preserved not in its Greek original but in a Latin translation which was in circulation soon after the original Greek because not only St. Cyprian worked from it but also Tertullian. Fragments of the Greek original have been preserved by Eusebius, Hippolytus, and Epiphanius. From these three writers almost the entire text can be re-established. A literal translation of the fourth and fifth books exists in an Armenian translation and fragments also exist in Syrian translations. From Eusebius we knew that another work of his, the Επίδειξις του Αποστολικού κηρύγματος [The Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching], had been written by St. Irenaeus but nothing more than the title was known until 1904 when the entire text was discovered in an Armenian translation. Only fragments exist of the other works by St. Irenaeus. Eusebius mentions a work called Περι έπιοτήμητς [On Knowledge], which he considers a "short but necessary book." A substantial fragment from his work On the Monarchy or How God is Not the Cause of Evil is preserved by Eusebius. This work was directed against Florinus, a former friend who had become a Gnostic. St. Irenaeus wrote another work against his former friend Florinus, the closing words from which are preserved by Eusebius — On the Ogdoad [of Valentinus]. The title of a letter St. Irenaeus wrote to Blastus, On Schism, is found in Eusebius. A fragment is extant in Syrian of a letter he wrote to Pope Victor requesting that he takes measures against Florinus and suppresses Florinus writings. Eusebius has preserved excepts from St. Irenaeus’ letter to Pope Victor on the Paschal controversy.
St. Irenaeus clearly enunciates both his position of "apostolic faith" and the Church’s Trinitarian faith early on in Adversus Haereses. "Now the Church, although scattered over the whole civilized world to the end of the earth, received from the apostles and their disciples its faith in one God, the Father Almighty and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit Having received this preaching and this faith the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house. She believes these things everywhere alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth. For the languages of the world are different but the meaning of the tradition is one and the same For since the faith is one and the same, he who can say much about it does not add to it, nor does he who can say little diminish it… the real Church has one and the same faith everywhere in the world" (I, 10), "For we learned the plan of salvation from no others but from those through whom the gospel came to us, they first preached it abroad, and then later handed it down to us in writings" (III, 1). How important the "received tradition" is for St. Irenaeus is clear when he discusses "the writings." The Gnostic heretics attack "the writings," saying they are "nor correct, or authoritative." St. Irenaeus then turns to his defence from the received and preserved tradition, a defence, which becomes the crucial test for orthodoxy and heterodoxy. He must present a specific defence because, as he writes, "what it comes to is that they will not agree with either Scripture or tradition" (III, 2). "The tradition of the apostles, made clear in the entire world, can be clearly seen in every church by those who wish to behold the truth. We can enumerate those who were established by the apostles as bishops in the churches, and their successors down to our time, none of whom taught or thought anything like their mad ideas. Even if the apostles had known of hidden mysteries, which they taught to the perfect secretly and apart from others, they would have handed them down especially to those to whom they were entrusting the churches themselves… But since it would be very long in such a volume as this to enumerate the successions of all the churches, I can by pointing out the tradition which that very great, oldest, and well-known Church, founded and established at Rome by those two most glorious apostles Peter and Paul, received from the apostles, and its faith known among men, which comes down to us through the successions of bishops, put to shame all of those who in any way... gather as they should not. For every church must be in harmony with [or resort to] this Church because of its outstanding pre-eminence, that is, the faithful from everywhere, since the apostolic tradition is preserved in it by those from everywhere" (III, 20). St. Irenaeus uses the Church of Rome as the example because it was founded by Peter and Paul and was hence apostolic, because it possessed some type of "pre-eminence" or primacy, and because it was visited, as the capital city of the empire, by Christians from everywhere and therefore possessed the existential reality of knowing the faith of those from all parts of the world, a faith, which was the same as that of Rome. He then continues by using the Church at Smyrna and the Church at Ephesus as further examples of the "apostolic tradition." "Since there are so many clear testimonies, we should not seek from others for the truth, which can easily be received from the Church. There the apostles, like a rich man making a deposit, fully bestowed upon her all that belongs to the truth, so that whoever wishes may receive from her the water of life" (III, 2). St. Irenaeus raises the vital issue addressed by St. Ignatius, the issue about, which Karl Adam has written — what if there were no Scriptures? "Even if the apostles had not left their writings to us, ought we not to follow the rule of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches?" St. Irenaeus gives an example of where this actually applies — among "many barbarian people" who follow the rule of tradition "written in their hearts by the Spirit without paper and ink." These Christians "diligently follow the old tradition." He then briefly summarizes the essence of this "old tradition:" "they believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth and of all that is in them, through Christ Jesus the Son of God, who on account of his abundant love for his creation submitted to be born of a Virgin, himself by himself uniting man to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and risen. Those who believe in this faith without written documents are barbarians if anyone should preach to them the inventions of the heretics they would at once stop their ears and run far, far away, not enduring even to listen to such blasphemous speech." It is, writes St. Irenaeus, "the old tradition of the apostles" that preserves them in the true faith.
St. Irenaeus describes how the heretical Gnostics taught about Jesus — "according to none of the views of the heretics was the Logos of God made flesh" (III, 11). "Some say that this Jesus incarnate and suffered, and that he had passed through Mary like water through a tube. Others say that it was the son of the Demiurge, on whom the Jesus descended. Others again say that Jesus indeed was born of Joseph and Mary, and that Christ who came from above descended on him, being without flesh and free from suffering If one should read over all their credal statements, he would find that they always bring in the Logos of God and the Christ who is from above as without flesh and free from suffering. Some think that he was manifested as a transfigured man but say that he was neither born nor incarnate. Others say that he did not even take the form of a man, but descended like a dove on that Jesus who was born of Mary" (III, 11). "Vain also are the Ebionites, who do not accept in their souls by faith the union of God and man, but remain in the old leaven of human birth — not wishing to understand that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her, and so what was born of her is holy and the Son of God Most High, the Father of all who thus brought about his Incarnation and displayed the new birth so that as we by the former birth were heirs of death, by this birth we should be heirs of life" (V, 3).
St. Irenaeus delineates the legitimate areas of theology in his Adversus Haereses. The "basic idea" remains the same — by this he means that the original deposit remains always one and the same. Theology consists of "working out the things that have been said," of "building them into the foundation of faith." This is done by "expounding the activity and dispensation of God for the sake of mankind," by "showing clearly" God’s long-suffering, by "declaring why one and the same God made some things subject to time, others eternal," by "understanding why God, being invisible, appeared to the prophets, not in one form, but differently to different ones," by "showing why there were a number of covenants with mankind," by "teaching the character of each of the covenants," by "searching out why God shut up all in disobedience that he might have mercy on all," by "giving thanks that the Logos of God was made flesh, and suffered," by "declaring why the coming of the Son of God was at the last times," by "unfolding what is found in the prophets about the end and the things to come," by "not being silent that God has made the forsaken Gentiles fellow heirs and of the same body and partners with the saints," and by "stating how this mortal and fleshly body will put on immortality, and this corruptible incorruption" (I, 10). Clearly St. Irenaeus does not consider this enumeration to be exhaustive and comprehensive. Rather, it is no more than a sketch, a guide of some of the areas in which speculative theology can be utilized. He himself discusses far more areas of theological concern.
God, for St. Irenaeus, is the Creator, the "Father of all," the "Source of all goodness." He is "simple, uncompounded, without diversity of parts, completely identical and consistent, beyond the emotions and passions" of created existence (II, 13). God as Creator gives existence to everything; creation was an act of his freedom, a free act, for "he was not moved by anything" (I, 1). God in his "greatness" cannot be known to man, he cannot be "measured" (IV, 20). It is God’s love, which brings man within the grasp of knowledge of God but this knowledge is limited, it is not knowledge of God’s "greatness" or his "true being." Our knowledge of God comes from the revelation of the Logos of God (IV, 20; III, 24). God is without need. He did not create because he had need of man and creation. Neither does he need our love, obedience, and service. God gives, confers, and grants (IV, 14).
God is "absolute and eternal." Creation is "contingent" and, being contingent, having their beginning in time, created beings "fall short of their maker’s perfection" (IV, 38). Akin to the thought of Theophilus of Alexandria and other Apologists, St. Irenaeus thinks of man at creation as "immature" — "being newly created they are therefore childlike and immature, and not yet fully trained for an adult way of life. And just as a mother is able to offer food to an infant, but the infant is not yet able to receive food unsuited to its age, so also God could have offered perfection to man at the beginning, but man, being yet an infant, could not have absorbed it" (IV, 38).
Not only is man’s participation in the redemptive work of Christ a process but the very plan of redemption is a process and — moreover, the very Incarnation, the reality of God becoming man, begins a process in the life of the God-Man that sanctifies every aspect and stage in the life of man. This is his well-known teaching of "recapitulation," of άνακεφαλαίωσις: There is no notion in the thought of St. Irenaeus of any form of passive holiness or passive righteousness. Everything is process, everything is dynamic, and everything is moving toward the goal of rebirth in Christ, of rebirth into incorruptibility, of rebirth into eternality, of rebirth leading to a vision and knowledge of God, of rebirth leading to transfiguration. The theme of the later Greek and then Byzantine fathers of the vision of God and of deification is also the thought of St. Irenaeus. As St. Irenaeus asks, what is the deification of created beings if not their participation in the divine life? Men will "see God in order to live; men will become immortal by the vision and will progress on the path to God" — per visionem immortales facti et peregrinantes usque in Deum. St. Irenaeus writes that "it is impossible to live without life, and the foundation or existence — ΰπαρξις — of life comes from participating — μετοχή — in God. To participate in God is to know — γιγνοσκειν — him and to enjoy his goodness” (III, 20). In the thought of St. Irenaeus everything is accomplished by God and by the will of God and yet man participates by a spiritually free acceptance of everything accomplished and revealed by God.
Since God is the cause of the being of all things, these created things, in order to participate in "incorruptibility," must remain "subject to God." Subjection and obedience to God conveys incorruptibility and "continuance in incorruptibility is the glory of eternity." "Through such obedience and discipline and training, man, who is contingent and created, grows into the image and likeness of the eternal God. This process the Father approves and commands; the Son carries out the Father’s plan, the Spirit supports and hastens the process — while man gradually advances and mounts towards perfection; that is, he approaches the eternal. The eternal is perfect and this is God. Man has first to come into being, then to progress, and by progressing come to manhood, and having reached manhood to increase, and thus increasing to persevere, and by persevering be glorified, and thus see his Lord. For it is God’s intention that he should be seen: and the vision of God is the acquisition of immortality; and immortality brings man near to God" (IV, 38). It has been observed and commented upon that St. Irenaeus taught in The Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching (15) that man before the Fall was immortal by nature. What appears to be contradictory is not necessarily the case if one analyzes the two different perspectives from which St. Irenaeus was writing in the respective texts. The interpretation involves that important "if" in St. Irenaeus — if man had kept the commandments of God if man had remained subject to incorruptibility. But in his thought, it is clear that this "if" is completely speculative and theoretical, not real and existential. The very nature of created existence and the depth of spiritual freedom in his thought render this "if" existentially meaningless.
God, invisible by nature, reveals himself, manifests himself to man by the Logos, the principle of all manifestation. And here there is simultaneity and reciprocity of knowledge and vision, for the Logos reveals God to man while simultaneously revealing man to God. And the Logos has become man so that men might become gods (V, preface).
Eternally the Son is the "Only-Begotten" of the Father. "His Begetting" is "in truth indescribable… Only the Father knows who begat him, and the Son who was Begotten" (II, 28). "The Son always co-exists with the Father" (II, 30). The "Son of God did not begin to be" (III, 18). "Through the Son who is in the Father and who has the Father in himself, He Who Is has been revealed" (III, 6). "The Son is the measure of the Father because he contains the Father" (IV, 4). "All saw the Father in the Son, for the Father is the invisible of the Son, the Son the visible of the Father" (IV, 6).
"There is one God, who by his Logos and Wisdom made and ordered all things His Logos is our Lord Jesus Christ who in these last times became man among men so that he might unite the end with the beginning, that is, Man with God" (IV, 20). "God became man and it was the Lord himself who saved us" (III, 21). "He united man to God If he had overcome man’s adversary as man, the enemy would not have been justly overcome. If it had not been God, who granted salvation, we should not have it as a secure possession. And if man had not been united to God, man could not have become a partaker of immortality. For the mediator between God and man had to bring both parties into friendship and harmony through his kinship with both, and to present man to God and to make God known to man. In what way could we share in the adoption of the sons of God unless through the Son we had received the fellowship with the Father, unless the Logos of God made flesh had entered into communion with us?" (III, 18). "The Lord redeemed us by his blood and gave his life for our life, his flesh for our flesh, and poured out the Spirit of the Father to unite us and reconcile God and man, bringing God down to man through the Spirit, and raising man to God through his Incarnation" (V, 1).
The Holy Spirit, the "unction," is referred to constantly by St. Irenaeus not only in credal forms but in terms of his activity — the "Spirit prepares man for the Son of God," the "Spirit supplies knowledge of the truth," the "Spirit has revealed the oikonomiai of the Father and the Son towards man," the Spirit is the "living water" which the Lord pours forth.
From The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century, ch. 5.