This episode is titled, “Not Really an Apology.”
Anyone who embarks on a study of church history and starts at the beginning will soon run in to a pile of church leaders known as the Church Fathers. They’re often divided into the Ante-Nicean and Post-Nicean Fathers; meaning the church leaders who lived ante–before the First great Ecumenical Church Council of Nicea in AD 315, and those who lived during & after it.; thus the prefix – post.
The Fathers can further be broken up into 3 groups, based on the primary focus of their writings. Those 3 groups are the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists and the Theologians.
While there’s some overlap time-wise, we can say that generally the period of the Apostolic Fathers was from the end of the 1st to mid-2nd C. As we saw in a previous episode, the Apostolic Fathers weren’t Apostles; they were followers & students of the Apostles & had a close relationship with them.
Then from the mid-2nd C thru the end of the 3rd is the time of the Apologists. They’re called this because their work focused on defending the Faith against attacks both from without & within.
Following the Apologists were the Theologians who provided leadership of the Church from the beginning of the 4th thru the 6th C. Their work hammered out precisely what it was Christians believed regarding some of the more complex aspects of the Faith.
In the previous episode we considered the Apologist Justin Martyr who wrote 2 important defenses of the Faith and addressed them to 2 Roman Emperors, Antoninus Pious and Marcus Aurelius.
Now we look at another important Apologist, Irenaeus.
But before we dive into his story, let me be clear for those unfamiliar with the term ‘Apologist.’
The modern English word “apology” means to say you’re sorry for having made an error. It’s an acceptance of blame and a way to restore good will. That’s not what the Apologists gave. They had nothing to be sorry for. The word comes from the Greek word Apologia – which was a formal defense of one’s position. It’s a legal word. An apologia is something an attorney would prepare going into court. It was an attempt to prove something by use of evidence and reason. That’s why today Apologetics is the term used for defending the Faith. The tradition of Apologetics goes all the way back to the earliest days of Church History when the Christian Faith was emerging into a hostile pagan world.
The Apologists were those Early Church Fathers, usually pastors of local churches, who wrote up formal works to be given to Roman officials like the Emperor or a provincial governor, explaining why persecution was an inappropriate reaction to the followers of Jesus.
One of the premier Apologists who was also one of the earliest Theologians, was Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, in France. His career was spent battling the dangerous threat of Gnosticism.
Born in Asia Minor, probably the city of Smyrna about 135, he was influenced by the Apostolic Father & student of the Apostle John, Polycarp. Irenaeus was deeply affected by his mentor, saying he wrote down what he learned from him, not on paper but on his heart.
After attending school in Rome, Irenaeus went out as a missionary to Southern Gaul. He served as an elder in a couple churches that witnessed the heavy persecution born by the believers there during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.
It was during this time that the Montanist controversy broke. We talked about them in a previous episode. Here’s where we find out it was an issue many churches weighed in on. One faction thought the Montanists ought to be declared heretical and banned. Others found their theology aberrant but didn’t qualify as heresy. They thought the Montanists ought to be reined in, not kicked out.
The churches of Southern Gaul were of this second persuasion and in AD 178 sent Irenaeus to Rome to voice their opinion. When Irenaeus returned to Lyon, he learned its Bishop had been martyred. He was selected to fill his place.
From then till his death in 14 yrs later, Irenaeus stayed a busy man. He was a prolific writer and tireless pastor & missionary.
Irenæus proved to be a great asset for the Church in the later 2nd C and provided a solid foundation for the Church of the next 2 centuries. While he struggles w/the native language of Gaul, he was a master of Greek. He was adept at using Greek culture, language and thought forms in the defense of the Faith and helped lay a philosophical & theological foundation later church leaders drew on.
And don’t forget, Irenaeus’ connection back to Christ was close, though he lived toward the end of the 2nd C. His teacher was the long-lived Polycarp, who’d been the disciple of the aged John – direct disciple of Jesus!
This helps us put his emphasis on apostolic succession in perspective. This became a key concept in his writing. Irenaeus didn’t argue for some kind of dynastic principle in Church leadership so much as the idea that the Faith itself; its doctrines, tenets, values & mission where drawn from the original Apostles, passed on to their followers, then passed on to the next generation, and so forth. Church leaders obtain authority only to the degree they were loyal to the foundation the Apostles laid. Their authority was derived directly from their adherence to what was already given, it did not originate with them or merely with the office they held.
Okay è Personal Comment Alert: What follows is my personal commentary.
Church leaders today would do well to remember this when they’re pressed to compromise with the World on moral & spiritual issues. The authority of pastors and church leaders comes from one place – God. It does not adhere to some office in the Church. A title means nothing, no matter how big the hat or fancy the label. God gives authority to fulfill HIS calling and mission for that person. When they step outside that role, they possess no real authority. The authority of the minister is derived and directly proportional to their loyalty to the Apostolic message & Mission.
That’s what Irenaeus was saying in his writings. And while there was an extension of this principle into the realm of church leadership, Irenaeus didn’t advocate some kind of spiritual dynastic principle whereby Church leadership & hierarchy was bequeathed by one leader to the next.
Irenæus was a fierce opponent of error & schism, and the most orthodox of the ante-Nicene fathers. It may be of interest to some listeners that Irenaeus, along with the Church Father, Papias and most of his contemporaries, were pre-millennarian in their eschatological views. Those views were later abandoned by the Church as too Jewish in origin. While laboring hard for the spread & defense of the Faith on Earth, Irenaeus was à “gazing up into heaven,” like the original disciples, anxiously waiting for the return of the Lord and the establishment of his kingdom.
Irenæus was the first of the Church Fathers to make full use of the NT. While the Gnostics he spent much of his time refuting wanted to carve up the Bible, whittling it down to just a handful of texts, Irenaeus referred to all 4 Gospels and nearly all the epistles as Scripture.
Though he had great zeal for essential doctrine, Irenæus was tolerant toward differences over non-essentials. He urged the bishop of Rome to lighten up in his demands about how & when people could celebrate the Resurrection.
2 major works of Irenaeus have survived. Against Heresies & The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.
Against Heresies was written about 185, while he was bishop of Lyon. It’s aimed at the error of Gnosticism we’ve already considered. Against Heresies has 5 parts.
Book 1 is an historical sketch of various Gnostic sects alongside a statement of Christian faith.
Book 2 is a philosophical critique of Gnosticism.
Book 3 is a Scriptural critique of it, while …
Book 4 answers Gnosticism from the words of Christ Himself.
It wraps up with Book 5; a vindication of the resurrection against Gnostic arguments denying it.
In a quote from early in the work, Irenaeus says, “Error is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced (ridiculous as the expression may seem) more true than the truth itself.”
Irenaeus has been called “Father of Church Dogmatics” because he sought to formulate the principles of Christian theology and provide an exposition of the church’s beliefs. That was especially clear in his other writing, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. There he laid down the premise that the Christian faith finds its revelation & authority in the Scriptures. He refers to both the Old & New Testaments to prove this and as I said earlier, quotes from all but 4 of the NT books.
Irenaeus is an important figure for the development of Christian theology because in his battle with Gnosticism, he lays down the principle of recapitulation, that is, that Jesus Christ is the core & essence of all true theology. He’s both Creator & Redeemer. What was lost in Adam is regained in Christ. What he says about Jesus, as drawn from the Scriptures, would be used later by the Theologians when they had their discussion & debates over the nature of Christ.
Besides these 2 works we know were authored by Irenaeus, there are several other fragments and some works attributed to him by people like Eusebius. We’ll skip reviewing all those except one that deserves mention. In the Epistle to Florinus, Irenaeus writes to a friend who’d at one time served with him in ministry. In fact, they’d both grown up in the Faith, side by side at the feet of Polycarp. Florinus became an elder at the Church in Rome, but was deposed when he embraced Gnosticism. Irenæus reminded him touchingly of their friendship & past. You can hear the ache in Irenaeus’ words that someone who’d been so close and so clear on the things of God, could throw it all aside for such silliness as the error of the Gnostics. Irenaeus dissects that error so skillfully, it’s difficult to imagine anyone could read the letter and not return to the faith of his youth. But we don’t know what came of Florinus.
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