Tuesday, June 28, 2005
St Irenaeus (130 - 202)
Yesterday was the feast of St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in the late 2nd century. Universalis and Catholic Exchange had nice and short articles on him. Unfortunately I cannot cut and paste what was written in their pages, so I'll try to repeat them here in my own words. For more depth, the Catholic Encyclopedia has a longer discussion about him. According to Universalis, St. Irenaeus was instrumental to the Catholic faith in having undertaken the study of all the texts that were variably being treated as God-breathed or not in his day. He critiqued each candidate, providing a valuable resource for subsequent discussions on the canon of Scripture, even those that occur in these modern days. He was also a staunch defender of orthodoxy against the heresies of Gnosticism and the Valentinians. The Catholic Exchange brief on St. Irenaeus includes among his contributions his development of the concept of apostolic succession. This was an effective method to refute the Gnostics, who claimed that some secret knowledge was necessary to salvation. It wasn't as simple as citing Scripture in those days since the canon had not yet been established. Even in St. Paul's epistles, it was necessary to cite orthodoxy, reminding the faithful to go back to the first time the gospel was preached to them. This approach basically asks the fundamental question: is this faithful to the gospel as was taught by the apostles? We can only be thankful that the canon was finally fixed in the fourth century, allowing us relative peace and tranquility. But what of Gnostics and their ilk who disregard the canon? Some today, for example, weigh in on the authority of modern scholarship, theirs anyway, when they water down the synoptic gospels and present a Jesus who was a travelling rabbi, a wise man who made no claims to divinity. They also cite gnostic concepts in their version of the gospel, including the gnostic Gospel of Thomas in their version of the Bible. What does a Christian do when heretics disbelieve and challenge the very canon of Scriptures? There can be no dialog about what the gospels say if there is no agreement as to which books and epistles are inspired by the Holy Spirit. In those centuries before the fourth century councils that determined the canon of Scripture we have today, the ordinary faithful would have indeed been easy prey to gnostic teachers. Bold and apparently full of knowledge, perhaps as suave as the modern scholar of this day and age, they could cite this gospel or that proto-gospel, this apocalypse and that epistle. They would have taught with knowledge and authority, too -- they'd be full of it, I'm sure. Thank God for the Church Fathers. Thank God for St. Irenaeus, and the work of the councils of the fourth century, who fixed the canon of Scripture for us. Tongue in cheek, I also declare eternal gratitude to the Catholic Church, by whose authority I confidently open my Bible knowing that I have an infallible collection of inerrant and inspired literature.