05 September 2009

'O Star of the Universe & Companion of Bishops'—St Irenaeus of Lyons


I’m a bit late liturgically, but earlier today, 23 August on the Church’s calendar, we celebrated the memory of Hieromartyr Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (130-203). Fr John McGuckin calls him an ‘important theologian’ (‘Irenaeus of Lyons’, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology, by Fr John A. McGuckin [London: SCM, 2005], p. 184). Robert Grant further specifies, ‘Irenaeus of Lyons was the most important Christian controversialist and theologian between the apostles and the third-century genius Origen’ (Irenaeus of Lyons [London: Routledge, 1997], p. 1). Here is the brief account of his life in the Prologue (St Nicholas [Velimirović], The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 3, trans. Mother Maria [Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986], p. 229):

He was in his youth a disciple of St Polycarp, the disciple of the apostles, who sent him to preach in Gaul. After St Pothinus’s death by martyrdom, Ireneaus was made bishop. In his numerous writings, Ireneaus both expounded the Orthodox Faith and defended it against heretics. He suffered for Christ in the time of the Emperor Severus, in 202, along with nineteen thousand Christians.

At the very beginning of his study, Grant summarises the achievement and significance of St Irenaeus rather well:

He gathered up and combined the traditions of predecessors from Asia Minor, Syria, and Rome and used them to refute the Gnostics who were subverting the Gospel. He built up a body of Christian theology that resembled a French Gothic cathedral, strongly supported by columns of biblical faith and tradition, illuminated by vast expanses of exegetical and logical argument, and upheld by flying buttresses of rehotrical and philosophical considerations from the outside. In his own person he united the major traditions of Christendom from Asia Minor, Syria, Rome, and Gaul, although his acquaintance with Palestine, Greece, and Egypt was minimal. We cannot say that he represents the whole of second-century Christianity, but he does represent the majority views outside Alexandria, where Christian speculative thought was closer to the Gnosticism he fought [incidentally, Douglas Burton-Christie argues against this view in his The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (NY: Oxford U, 1993), pp. 37-9, where he points out on p. 39 that ‘there is now growing evidence pointing to the Jewish character of earliest Christianity in Egypt’]. He represents the literary categories of his predecessors as well as the areas through which he had passed. (p. 1)

St Irenaeus himself writes movingly of his youthful encounter with St Polycarp of Smyrna in a letter to Florinus, partially preserved in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History V.xx.5-7 (The Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1, trans. Kirsopp Lake [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1959], pp. 497-98):

For while I was still a boy I knew you in lower Asia in Polycarp’s house when you were a man of rank in the royal hall and endeavouring to stand well with him. I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which happened recently, for what we learn as children grows up with the soul and is united to it, 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 intercourse 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 teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word 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 . . . .

Here is an excerpt from Grant’s translation of Book III.11.8 of St Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, or On the Detection and Refutation of Knowledge Falsely So Called:

There cannot be either more or fewer gospels than there are. Since there are four regions of the world in which we exist, and four principal winds, and since the church, spread out over all the world has for a column and support (1 Tim 3:15) the Gospel and the Spirit of life, consequently it has four columns, from all sides breathing imperishability and making men live. From this it is evident that the Word, artisan of the universe, who sits above the Cherubim and encloses everything, when manifest to men gave us a fourfold Gospel, enclosed by one Spirit. Thus David, asking for his coming, says, ‘You who sit above the Cherubim, appear’ (Ps 79:2). For the Cherubim have four forms (Ezek 1:6,10) and their forms are images of the constitution of the Son of God. ‘For the first animal,’ it says, ‘is like a lion,’ referring to the power, primacy, and royalty of the Son of God; ‘the second is like a young bull,’ indicating his function as sacrificer and priest; ‘the third has a face like that of a man’, clearly describing his human coming; ‘the fourth is like a flying eagle,’ indicating the gift of the Spirit flying upon the church.

The Gospels then are in accord with these animals on whom sits Christ Jesus. Thus the one according to John which tells of his primal, powerful, and glorious generation from the Father, speaks thus: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God,’ and ‘Everything was made through him, and without him was made nothing’ (Jn 1:1,3). Therefore this Gospel is full of open declaration; such is its chief aspect. And that according to Luke, since it is of priestly character, begins with the priest Zechariah sacrificing incense to God (Lk 1:9), for the fatted calf was already prepared, to be sacrificed for the recovery of the younger son (15:23,30). Matthew tells of his human generation, saying, ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’ (Mt 1:1), and again, ‘The generation of Christ took place thus’ (1:18). Therefore this Gospel is in human form and throughout the whole of it he remains a man of gentleness and humble thoughts (11:29). But Mark began from the prophetic Spirit coming to men from on high, saying, ‘The beginning of the Gospel, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet’ (Mk 1:1-2), thus showing the winged image of the Gospel, and this is why he made a brief and rapid announcement, for this is the prophetic character. The same traits are found in the Word of God himself when speaking in his deity and glory to the patriarchs who lived before Moses; to those under the law he offered a priestly and ministerial order; and after this, becoming man for us, he sent the gift of the celestial Spirit on the whole earth, protecting us with his wings. What, then, the disposition of the Son of God was, such was the form of the animals; and what the form of the animals was, such was the character of the Gospel. Four forms of animals; four forms of the Gospel; four forms of the activity of the Lord. (Grant, pp. 131-32)
In conclusion, here is the Troparion for St Irenaeus in Tone 4:
Thou hast shown thyself, O God inspired Irenaeus as a guide to the Orthodox Faith, a teacher of true worship and purity, O star of the universe and companion of Bishops, O wise one. Through thy light thou hast enlightened all, O harp of the Spirit. Therefore, intercede with Christ God to save our souls.

4 comments:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Oh, oh! Another opportunity for autokeraphonia!

I have posted a (reworked by myself) translation of St Irenaios' Dialogue with Trypho the Jew right here for you-all's delectation! It's a lesson in Patristic Biblical interpretation, including also evidence of how the Jews were interpreting the Bible in the first half of the second century AD. It's fascinating!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

That's what I get for not thinking before typing! The Dialogue with Trypho is by St Ireneus' contemporary with a slightly similar life story, St Justin Martyr! Sheesh. The Dialogue is still an excellent example of early Patristic Biblical interpretation, even if I can't keep names straight in my head!

aaronandbrighid said...

I thought there was something odd about that ascription! If I'd had time to sit and think about it, I may well have realised your error...

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

If I'd even thought in the slightest it wouldn't have been a problem! See how big the name is on the top of the page? That's what I get for juggling so many things at once!