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St. Irenaeus, defender of the four-fold Gospel and apostolic diversity
Posted By Eric Sammons On June 28, 2011 @ 9:20 am In Saints,Scripture | Comments Disabled
Today is the feast of St. Irenaeus, the 2nd century bishop of Lyons and the first great Western theologian of the Church. St. Irenaeus had to defend and explain the Faith in the face of many attacks, both internally and externally.
One of the greatest issues facing the 2nd century Church was how to unify the various apostolic traditions within the Church. There were some who felt that one or another particular apostle was the “true” apostle who was most faithful to Christ’s teachings and that only he should be followed. For example, the heretic Marcion in the middle of the 2nd century taught that only St. Paul was to be trusted, and that the other apostles had diverged from the deposit of faith. Marcion even went so far as to create a biblical canon that only included Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Luke, which of course was written by Paul’s faithful companion.
But the tension between the followers of the various apostles occurred within the Church as well. We see it in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, when the apostle scolds the Corinthian Christians for claiming to be followers of Apollos or of Paul (1 Cor. 3:4). This continued in the 2nd century with the Quartodeciman controversy. This was the debate between the Church of Rome and the Churches in Asia Minor over the dating of Easter. The Church of Rome, following the Petrine example, always celebrated Easter on a Sunday. But in Asia Minor, Easter was celebrated according to the date of Passover on the Jewish calendar, even if it was not a Sunday, and this was a practice they inherited from John the Apostle. Each was an apostolic practice, and the debate threatened to throw the Church into its first schism.
It is in this environment that St. Irenaeus served as bishop. The saint was a firm defender of apostolic diversity – that the Church should assimilate and accept all legitimate apostolic practices and teachings. He convinced the Pope not to excommunicate the Christians in Asia Minor over the dating of Easter, arguing that it was not a matter over which the Church should be split. He also advocated the acceptance of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, rather than only accepting one Gospel or attempting to harmonize the four into one single writing. As he writes in his great work, Against the Heresies,
For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia. (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 1)
As you can see, St. Irenaeus accepted each Gospel as apostolic and each one as a legitimate retelling of the story of Jesus. In many ways, it would be easier to only accept one apostolic strain or to harmonize them into a single composition. But this would not be faithful to the fullness of the Gospel message. Each written Gospel – and each apostolic witness – tells us something different about God’s plan of salvation in Christ, and the Church would be much poorer if not for the work of men like St. Irenaeus to preserve the totality of the apostolic preaching.
St. Irenaeus, pray for us!
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