Thursday, June 28, 2018

Irenaeus

Today is the feast of St. Irenaeus. He is thought to have been born in Smyrna. The young Irenaeus was a priest during the persecution under Marcus Aurelius; his predecessor in the episcopacy of Lyon (Lugdunum, as it was called at the time) was martyred toward the end of that persecution. As a new bishop he had to perform the hard work of consolidation, which he did admirably. He wrote a number of works, all in Greek, but of the original Greek only fragments remain. His major works, Against Heresies and Proof of the Apostolic Preaching are, however, known in very early Latin translation. His tomb was completely destroyed in the sixteenth century by the Huguenots. It was at one time charged against him that he exaggerated in his descriptions of the Gnostics, erecting straw men to knock down, but further discoveries have consistently shown the charges to be exaggerated; even if one disagrees with him about certain matters, he clearly made a serious effort to be accurate. He has traditionally been listed as a martyr, but we have very little information about his late life, and the first extant attributions of martyrdom to him are several centuries later. From Adversus Haereses, Book I, Preface:

Error, indeed, 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. One far superior to me has well said, in reference to this point, "A clever imitation in glass casts contempt, as it were, on that precious jewel the emerald (which is most highly esteemed by some), unless it come under the eye of one able to test and expose the counterfeit. Or, again, what inexperienced person can with ease detect the presence of brass when it has been mixed up with silver?" Lest, therefore, through my neglect, some should be carried off, even as sheep are by wolves, while they perceive not the true character of these men, -because they outwardly are covered with sheep's clothing (against whom the Lord has enjoined us to be on our guard), and because their language resembles ours, while their sentiments are very different,-I have deemed it my duty (after reading some of the Commentaries, as they call them, of the disciples of Valentinus, and after making myself acquainted with their tenets through personal intercourse with some of them) to unfold to thee, my friend, these portentous and profound mysteries, which do not fall within the range of every intellect, because all have not sufficiently purged their brains. I do this, in order that thou, obtaining an acquaintance with these things, mayest in turn explain them to all those with whom thou art connected, and exhort them to avoid such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ.

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