The Teachers of the Church: Irenaeus of Lyons (Part 1)

[audio https://www.buzzsprout.com/19288/198026-the-teachers-of-the-church-irenaeus-of-lyons-part-1.mp3]

The History of Christianity #45

Our Scripture verse today is 1 Corinthians 4:20 which reads: “For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.”

Our quote today is from Irenaeus of Lyons. He said: “He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man … might become the son of God.”

Today, we are looking at “The Teachers of the Church” (Part 2) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Irenaeus was a native of Asia Minor – probably Smyrna – where he was born around the year 130. There he was a disciple of Polycarp, of whose martyrdom we have already told in a previous broadcast. Throughout his life, Irenaeus was a fervent admirer of Polycarp, and in his writings he often speaks of an “old man” – or a presbyter – whose name is not given, but who is probably Polycarp. In any case, unknown reasons led Irenaeus to migrate to Lyons, in what is today southern France. There he became a presbyter, and as such was sent to Rome with a message for the bishop of that city. While he was in Rome, persecution broke out in Lyons and nearby Vienne and Bishop Photinus perished. Upon his return to Lyons, Irenaeus was elected bishop of the church in that city. He served as such until his death, probably as a martyr, in 202 AD.

Irenaeus was above all a pastor. He was not particularly interested in philosophical speculation nor in delving into mysteries hitherto unsolved, but rather in leading his flock in Christian life and faith. Therefore, in his writings he did not seek to rise in great speculative flights, but simply to refute heresy and instruct believers. Only two of his works survive: Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching, and Exposure and Refutation of Knowledge Falsely So-Called (also known as Against Heresies). In the first of these, he instructs his flock on some points of Christian doctrine. In the latter, he seeks to refute Gnosticism. In both, his goal is to expound the faith that he has received from his teachers, without adorning it with his own speculations. Therefore, the writings of Irenaeus are an excellent witness to the faith of the church toward the end of the second century.

Irenaeus, who sees himself as a shepherd, also sees God as above all a shepherd. God is a loving being who creates the world and humankind, not out of necessity nor by mistake – as Gnostics claimed – but out of a desire to have a creation to love and to lead, like the shepherd loves and leads the flock. From this perspective, the entirety of history appears as the process whereby the divine shepherd leads creation to its final goal.

The crown of creation is the human creature, made from the beginning as a free and therefore responsible being. That freedom is such that it allows us to become increasingly conformed to the divine will and nature, and thus to enjoy an ever-growing communion with our creator. But, on the other hand, the human creature was not made from the beginning in its final perfection. Like a true shepherd, God placed the first couple in Eden. They were not mature beings, but were rather “like children,” with their own perfection as such. This means that God’s purpose was that human beings would grow in communion with the divine, eventually surpassing even the angels.

The angels are above us only provisionally. When the divine purpose is fulfilled in the human creature, we shall be above the angels; for our communion with God will be closer than theirs. The function of angels is similar to that of a tutor guiding the first steps of a prince. Although the tutor is temporarily in charge of the prince, eventually the prince will rule even the tutor.

Humankind is to be instructed, not only by the angels, but also by the “two hands” of God: the Word and the Holy Spirit. Led by those two hands, humans are to receive instruction and growth, always with a view to an increasingly close communion with God. The goal of this process is what Irenaeus calls “divinization” – God’s purpose is to make us ever more like the divine. This does not mean, however, that we are somehow to be lost in the divine, nor that we shall ever be the same as God. On the contrary, God is so far above us that no matter how much we grow in our likeness to the divine we shall always have a long way to go.

But one of the angels was jealous of the high destiny reserved for humankind, and for that reason led Adam and Eve into sin. As a result of sin, the human creature was expelled from paradise, and its growth was thwarted. From that point on, history has unfolded under the mark of sin.

Next time, we will look at The Teachers of the Church: Irenaeus of Lyons (Part 2).

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