Fr. Bloomfield's Blog

I am a Roman Catholic Priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit, currently assigned to Divine Child Parish in Dearborn, Michigan. When I manage to keep the page updated, hopefully something interesting can be found here!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Faith Seeking Understanding for September 17, 2006

St. Irenaeus is perhaps the most important theologian of the second century. As we have seen with the Letters of St. Ignatius, and even the works of St. Justin Martyr, the Church was in her infancy and was suffering persecution throughout the Roman Empire. As such, their works tended to be exhortations to holiness or defense of the Faith. The development of theology, however, was just about to begin. Along with this growth in exploring the Faith came the danger of heresy. Irenaeus responded to the heresies of his time with clarity and firmness.

He was born in the first half of the second century, between 115 and 125 A.D., to a Christian family, most likely near Smyrna in Asia. He seems to have been a disciple of St. Polycarp there; owing to the lively trade with Gaul (modern-day France), the bishop Pothinus was sent as a missionary to Lyons and Irenaeus accompanied him as a young priest. Pothinus was martyred by the Romans, whereupon Irenaeus became the bishop of Lyons. The Roman persecutions were not the only danger to the Church at this time: heresies had also begun to spread. St. Irenaeus of Lyons then began his great work to stamp out heresy and to defend the true Faith until his death sometime around 202 A.D. We celebrate his feast day on June 28th.

Two works remain of great importance: Against the Heresies (Adversus Hæreses) and the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Against the Heresies is a monumental work of five volumes intended to expose and refute the various Gnostic heresies of the time. As we have seen before, gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge; the Gnostic heresies were different ways of searching for a hidden or secret knowledge that would bring salvation. These heresies would appear to use some elements of Christianity, but their beliefs were completely opposed to the Gospel. Since his work is so important, we will spend a few weeks exploring the teaching of St. Irenaeus and the theology that he develops to refute the errors of Gnosticism.

He begins with clarity about error: “These men falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretense of knowledge [gnosis]” (bk. 1, preface). Continuing, “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 more true than the truth itself” (ibid.). How often, even today, are the truths of Christianity mocked by the culture, which would present a more attractive “truth” in its place?

What was Irenaeus’ plan? “I intend, then, to the best of my ability, with brevity and clearness to set forth the opinions of those who are now promulgating heresy. … I shall also endeavor, according to my moderate ability, to furnish the means of overthrowing them, by showing how absurd and inconsistent with the truth are their statements” (ibid.).

In the first few chapters of his first volume, he describes the very strange and esoteric beliefs of the Valentinian Gnostics. What becomes alarmingly clear is that the Gnostics used the Scriptures to their own ends, interpreting everything according to their own erroneous doctrines. Foundational to their belief is the dichotomy that must exist between matter and spirit. Irenaeus clearly describes the war that exists between spirit and matter for them: “it is impossible that material substance should partake of salvation, so again it is impossible that spiritual substance should ever come under the power of corruption” (ch. 6, n. 3).

If this were the case, Irenaeus explains, then Jesus Christ could not be “the Word made flesh,” because spiritual beings cannot associate with the material; and as such, this would prevent Christ from saving men by the shedding of His blood. In fact, however, spirit and matter are united in each human person.

The Church is the guardian of the truth of the Faith: “The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith” (ch. 10, n. 1). Moreover, “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 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” (ch. 10, n. 2).

We will continue learning from this great theologian next week. God bless you all!