On St. Irenaeus of Lyons

"The First Great Theologian of the Church"

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 28, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at the general audience today in St. Peter's Square. The reflection focused on St. Irenaeus of Lyons.



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Dear Brothers and Sisters!

In the catechesis on the great figures of the Church during the first centuries, today we reach the figure of an eminent personality, Irenaeus of Lyons. His biographical information comes from his own testimony, sent down to us by Eusebius in the fifth book of the "Storia Ecclesiastica."

Irenaeus was most probably born in Smyrna (today Izmir, in Turkey) between the years 135 and 140. There, while still a youth, he attended the school of Bishop Polycarp, for his part, a disciple of the apostle John. We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but the move must have coincided with the first developments of the Christian community in Lyons: There, in 177, we find Irenaeus mentioned among the college of presbyters.

That year he was sent to Rome, bearer of a letter from the community of Lyons to Pope Eleutherius. The Roman mission took Irenaeus away from the persecution by Marcus Aurelius, in which at least 48 martyrs died, among them the bishop of Lyons himself, the 90-year-old Pothinus, who died of mistreatment in jail. Thus, on his return, Irenaeus was elected bishop of the city. The new pastor dedicated himself entirely to his episcopal ministry, which ended around 202-203, perhaps by martyrdom.

Irenaeus is above all a man of faith and a pastor. Like the Good Shepherd, he has prudence, a richness of doctrine, and missionary zeal. As a writer, he aims for a twofold objective: to defend true doctrine from the attacks of the heretics, and to clearly expound the truth of the faith. His two works still in existence correspond exactly to the fulfillment of these two objectives: the five books "Against Heresies," and the "Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching" (which could be called the oldest "catechism of Christian doctrine"). Without a doubt, Irenaeus is the champion in the fight against heresies.

The Church of the second century was threatened by so-called gnosticism, a doctrine which claimed that the faith taught by the Church was nothing more than symbolism for the simpleminded, those unable to grasp more difficult things. Instead, the initiated, the intellectuals -- they called themselves gnostics -- could understand what was behind the symbolism, and thus would form an elite, intellectual Christianity.

Obviously, this intellectual Christianity became more and more fragmented with different currents of thought, often strange and extravagant, yet attractive to many. A common element within these various currents was dualism, that is, a denial of faith in the only God, Father of all, creator and savior of humanity and of the world. To explain the evil in the world, they asserted the existence of a negative principle, next to the good God. This negative principle had created matter, material things.

Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of Creation, Irenaeus refuted dualism and the gnostic pessimism that devalued corporal realities. He decisively affirmed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the flesh, as well as of the spirit. But his work goes far beyond the refutation of heresies: In fact, one can say that he presents himself as the first great theologian of the Church, who established systematic theology. He himself speaks about the system of theology, that is, the internal coherence of the faith.

The question of the "rule of faith" and its transmission lies at the heart of his doctrine. For Irenaeus, the "rule of faith" coincides in practice with the Apostles' Creed, and gives us the key to interpret the Gospel, to interpret the creed in light of the Gospel. The apostolic symbol, a sort of synthesis of the Gospel, helps us understand what the Gospel means, how we must read the Gospel itself.

In fact, the Gospel preached by St. Irenaeus is the one he received from Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and the Gospel of Polycarp goes back to the apostle John, Polycarp having been John's disciple. Thus, the true teaching is not that invented by the intellectuals, rising above the simple faith of the Church. The true Gospel is preached by the bishops who have received it thanks to an uninterrupted chain from the apostles.

These men have taught nothing but the simple faith, which is also the true depth of the revelation of God. Thus, says Irenaeus, there is no secret doctrine behind the common creed of the Church. There is no superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly professed by the Church is the faith common to all. Only this faith is apostolic, coming from the apostles, that is, from Jesus and from God.

To adhere to this faith publicly taught by the apostles to their successors, Christians must observe what the bishops say. They must specifically consider the teaching of the Church of Rome, pre-eminent and ancient. This Church, because of its age, has the greatest apostolicity; in fact its origins come from the columns of the apostolic college, Peter and Paul. All the Churches must be in harmony with the Church of Rome, recognizing in it the measure of the true apostolic tradition and the only faith common to the Church.

With these arguments, very briefly summarized here, Irenaeus refutes the very foundation of the aims of the gnostics, of these intellectuals: First of all, they do not possess a truth that would be superior to the common faith, given that what they say is not of apostolic origin, but invented by them. Second, truth and salvation are not a privilege monopolized by a few, but something that everyone can reach through the preaching of the apostles' successors, and, above all, that of the Bishop of Rome.

By taking issue with the "secret" character of the gnostic tradition and by contesting its multiple intrinsic contradictions, Irenaeus concerns himself with illustrating the genuine concept of Apostolic Tradition, that we could summarize in three points.

a) The Apostolic Tradition is "public," 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, for one who wishes to know the true doctrine, it is enough to know "the Tradition that comes from the Apostles and the faith announced to men": tradition and faith that "have reached us through the succession of bishops" ("Adv. Haer." 3,3,3-4). Thus, the succession of bishops, personal principle, Apostolic Tradition, and doctrinal principle all coincide.

b) 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 "regula fidei" or "veritatis." And given that it is one, it creates unity among peoples, different cultures and different communities. It has a common content like that of truth, despite different languages and cultures.

There is a beautiful expression that Irenaeus uses in the book "Against Heresies": "The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points (of doctrine) just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world."

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

c) Finally, the Apostolic Tradition is, as he says in Greek, the language in which he wrote his book, "pneumatic," that is, spiritual, led by the Holy Spirit. In Greek, spirit is "pneuma." It is not a transmission entrusted to the abilities of more or less educated men, but the Spirit of God who guarantees faithfulness in the transmission of the faith.

This is the "life" of the Church, that which makes the Church always young, that is, fruitful with many charisms. Church and Spirit are inseparable for Irenaeus. This faith, we read in the third book of "Against Heresies," "which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth, as if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also. … 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" (3,24,1).

As we can see, Irenaeus does not stop at defining the concept of Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not traditionalism, because this Tradition is always internally vivified by the Holy Spirit, which makes it alive again, allows it to be interpreted and understood in the vitality of the Church.

According to his teaching, the Church's faith must be preached in such a way that it appears as it must appear, that is "public," "one," "pneumatic," "spiritual." From each of these characteristics, one can glean a fruitful discernment of the authentic transmission of the faith in the Church of today.

More generally, in the doctrine of Irenaeus, human dignity, body and soul, is firmly rooted in Divine Creation, in the image of Christ and in the permanent work of sanctification of the Spirit. This doctrine is like the "main road" to clarify to all people of good will, the object and the limits of dialogue on values, and to give an ever new impulse to the missionary activities of the Church, to the strength of truth which is the source of all the true values in the world.

[Translation by ZENIT]

[After the audience, Benedict XVI greeted visitors in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Continuing our catechesis on the Church Fathers, we turn now to Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, a great theologian and bishop at the end of the second century. In his writings, Irenaeus clearly sets forth the contents of the apostolic faith and appeals to the Church's living tradition in order to defend that faith from false teachings. He thus emphasizes the regula fidei: the "rule of faith" contained in the Apostles' Creed and in the Gospel proclaimed by the Church's Bishops. The Gospel Irenaeus preached was the Gospel preached by his teacher Polycarp, who in turn received it from the Apostle John in an unbroken line of succession going back to Christ himself. Irenaeus also writes of the unique authority of the Church of Rome as founded on the Apostles. This zealous pastor illustrates for us three important characteristics of the Apostolic Tradition: it is "public", because it is available to all through the teaching of the Bishops; it is "one", because its content remains the same despite the variety of languages and cultures; and it is "pneumatic", because, through it, the Holy Spirit continues to enliven and renew the Church even today.

I am pleased to welcome the many English-speaking pilgrims present. In a special way, I offer cordial greetings to the priests from the Institute for Continuing Theological Education and to the students of the NATO Defense College. Upon all of you I invoke God's blessings of peace and joy.

© Copyright 2007 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana