Sunday, June 28, 2020


Today is the feast of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, Bishop and Martyr, although, of course, in the actual liturgy Sunday takes precedence. St. Polycarp had sent St. Pothinus to be the first bishop of Lyon. In the persecution under Marcus Aurelius, St. Pothinus was killed; Irenaeus, who seems to have come with Pothinus because he was definitely born in Smyrna, became his successor. The period after that persecution was quite peaceful in comparison, so Irenaeus set himself to address a major problem, the proliferation of semi-Christian and pseudo-Christian Gnostic cults. His major work, Adversus Haereses, is one of our most significant sources of knowledge about Gnosticism as actually practiced; until the Nag Hammadi discoveries in 1945 it was almost our only source or knowledge at all, almost everything else being obscure references and allusions. An occasional anti-Catholic charge -- you still find it -- had been that Irenaeus had falsified the positions and practices of the Gnostics, but even in light of such new discoveries it is very difficult to point to anything that Irenaeus got definitely wrong, particularly since, unlike some of his critics, Irenaeus is obviously very aware of how diverse the Gnostics actually were. And for the most part, Irenaeus is still our major source for having any understanding of how the Gnostics themselves interpreted their texts.

Irenaeus seems to have died shortly around the beginning of the third century; he's generally presumed to have been a martyr, although we don't have any evidence for his having been so beyond the fact that this is generally presumed. He was buried under what became known as the Church of St. Irenaeus in Lyon, and there his body remained until Huguenots destroyed the church, his tomb, and his body in the sixteenth century. He was very influential on the next generations, but it's only by accident we have his works at all. He wrote in Greek, but we have no complete Greek copy of any of his works. We have Adversus Haereses in an early Latin translation and a lot of Syrian and Armenian fragments and we have The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching in an Armenian translation that was discovered in the twentieth century. Beyond occasional fragments of other works, that's all that's survived, despite the fact that we know he wrote several other works.

From Adversus Haereses III, 19:

But again, those who assert that He was simply a mere man, begotten by Joseph, remaining in the bondage of the old disobedience, are in a state of death having been not as yet joined to the Word of God the Father, nor receiving liberty through the Son, as He does Himself declare: "If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed." But, being ignorant of Him who from the Virgin is Emmanuel, they are deprived of His gift, which is eternal life; and not receiving the incorruptible Word, they remain in mortal flesh, and are debtors to death, not obtaining the antidote of life. To whom the Word says, mentioning His own gift of grace: "I said, You are all the sons of the Highest, and gods; but you shall die like men." He speaks undoubtedly these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but who despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God, defraud human nature of promotion into God, and prove themselves ungrateful to the Word of God, who became flesh for them. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?