Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Irenaeus of Lyons
"The First Great Theologian of the Church"
H.H. Benedict XVI
March 28, 2007
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
In the catechesis on the great figures of the Church during the first
centuries, today we reach the figure of an eminent personality, Irenaeus
of Lyons. His biographical information comes from his own testimony,
sent down to us by Eusebius in the fifth book of the "Storia
Irenaeus was most probably born in Smyrna (today Izmir, in Turkey)
between the years 135 and 140. There, while still a youth, he attended
the school of Bishop Polycarp, for his part, a disciple of the apostle
John. We do not know when he moved from Asia Minor to Gaul, but the move
must have coincided with the first developments of the Christian
community in Lyons: There, in 177, we find Irenaeus mentioned among the
college of presbyters.
That year he was sent to Rome, bearer of a letter from the community of
Lyons to Pope Eleutherius. The Roman mission took Irenaeus away from the
persecution by Marcus Aurelius, in which at least 48 martyrs died, among
them the bishop of Lyons himself, the 90-year-old Pothinus, who died of
mistreatment in jail. Thus, on his return, Irenaeus was elected bishop
of the city. The new pastor dedicated himself entirely to his episcopal
ministry, which ended around 202-203, perhaps by martyrdom.
Irenaeus is above all a man of faith and a pastor. Like the Good
Shepherd, he has prudence, a richness of doctrine, and missionary zeal.
As a writer, he aims for a twofold objective: to defend true doctrine
from the attacks of the heretics, and to clearly expound the truth of
the faith. His two works still in existence correspond exactly to the
fulfillment of these two objectives: the five books "Against Heresies,"
and the "Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching" (which could be called
the oldest "catechism of Christian doctrine"). Without a doubt, Irenaeus
is the champion in the fight against heresies.
The Church of the second century was threatened by so-called gnosticism,
a doctrine which claimed that the faith taught by the Church was nothing
more than symbolism for the simpleminded, those unable to grasp more
difficult things. Instead, the initiated, the intellectuals -- they
called themselves gnostics -- could understand what was behind the
symbolism, and thus would form an elite, intellectual Christianity.
Obviously, this intellectual Christianity became more and more
fragmented with different currents of thought, often strange and
extravagant, yet attractive to many. A common element within these
various currents was dualism, that is, a denial of faith in the only
God, Father of all, creator and savior of humanity and of the world. To
explain the evil in the world, they asserted the existence of a negative
principle, next to the good God. This negative principle had created
matter, material things.
Firmly rooted in the biblical doctrine of Creation, Irenaeus refuted
dualism and the gnostic pessimism that devalued corporal realities. He
decisively affirmed the original holiness of matter, of the body, of the
flesh, as well as of the spirit. But his work goes far beyond the
refutation of heresies: In fact, one can say that he presents himself as
the first great theologian of the Church, who established systematic
theology. He himself speaks about the system of theology, that is, the
internal coherence of the faith.
The question of the "rule of faith" and its transmission lies at the
heart of his doctrine. For Irenaeus, the "rule of faith" coincides in
practice with the Apostles' Creed, and gives us the key to interpret the
Gospel, to interpret the creed in light of the Gospel. The apostolic
symbol, a sort of synthesis of the Gospel, helps us understand what the
Gospel means, how we must read the Gospel itself.
In fact, the Gospel preached by St. Irenaeus is the one he received from
Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, and the Gospel of Polycarp goes back to the
apostle John, Polycarp having been John's disciple. Thus, the true
teaching is not that invented by the intellectuals, rising above the
simple faith of the Church. The true Gospel is preached by the bishops
who have received it thanks to an uninterrupted chain from the apostles.
These men have taught nothing but the simple faith, which is also the
true depth of the revelation of God. Thus, says Irenaeus, there is no
secret doctrine behind the common creed of the Church. There is no
superior Christianity for intellectuals. The faith publicly professed by
the Church is the faith common to all. Only this faith is apostolic,
coming from the apostles, that is, from Jesus and from God.
To adhere to this faith publicly taught by the apostles to their
successors, Christians must observe what the bishops say. They must
specifically consider the teaching of the Church of Rome, pre-eminent
and ancient. This Church, because of its age, has the greatest
apostolicity; in fact its origins come from the columns of the apostolic
college, Peter and Paul. All the Churches must be in harmony with the
Church of Rome, recognizing in it the measure of the true apostolic
tradition and the only faith common to the Church.
With these arguments, very briefly summarized here, Irenaeus refutes the
very foundation of the aims of the gnostics, of these intellectuals:
First of all, they do not possess a truth that would be superior to the
common faith, given that what they say is not of apostolic origin, but
invented by them. Second, truth and salvation are not a privilege
monopolized by a few, but something that everyone can reach through the
preaching of the apostles' successors, and, above all, that of the
Bishop of Rome.
By taking issue with the "secret" character of the gnostic tradition and
by contesting its multiple intrinsic contradictions, Irenaeus concerns
himself with illustrating the genuine concept of Apostolic Tradition,
that we could summarize in three points.
a) The Apostolic Tradition is "public," not private or secret. For
Irenaeus, there is no doubt that the content of the faith transmitted by
the Church is that received from the apostles and from Jesus, the Son of
God. There is no teaching aside from this. Therefore, for one who wishes
to know the true doctrine, it is enough to know "the Tradition that
comes from the Apostles and the faith announced to men": tradition and
faith that "have reached us through the succession of bishops" ("Adv.
Haer." 3,3,3-4). Thus, the succession of bishops, personal principle,
Apostolic Tradition, and doctrinal principle all coincide.
b) The Apostolic Tradition is "one." While gnosticism is divided into
many sects, the Church's Tradition is one in its fundamental contents,
which -- as we have seen -- Irenaeus calls "regula fidei" or "veritatis."
And given that it is one, it creates unity among peoples, different
cultures and different communities. It has a common content like that of
truth, despite different languages and cultures.
There is a beautiful expression that Irenaeus uses in the book "Against
Heresies": "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 (of
doctrine) 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. For, although the
languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition
is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany
do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain,
nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those
in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions
of the world."
We can already see at this time -- we are in the year 200 -- the
universality of the Church, its catholicity and the unifying force of
truth, which unites these so-very-different realities, from Germany, to
Spain, to Italy, to Egypt, to Libya, in the common truth revealed to us
c) Finally, the Apostolic Tradition is, as he says in Greek, the
language in which he wrote his book, "pneumatic," that is, spiritual,
led by the Holy Spirit. In Greek, spirit is "pneuma." It is not a
transmission entrusted to the abilities of more or less educated men,
but the Spirit of God who guarantees faithfulness in the transmission of
This is the "life" of the Church, that which makes the Church always
young, that is, fruitful with many charisms. Church and Spirit are
inseparable for Irenaeus. This faith, we read in the third book of
"Against Heresies," "which, having been received from the Church, we do
preserve, and which always, by the Spirit of God, renewing its youth, as
if it were some precious deposit in an excellent vessel, causes the
vessel itself containing it to renew its youth also. … For where the
Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is,
there is the Church, and every kind of grace" (3,24,1).
As we can see, Irenaeus does not stop at defining the concept of
Tradition. His tradition, uninterrupted Tradition, is not
traditionalism, because this Tradition is always internally vivified by
the Holy Spirit, which makes it alive again, allows it to be interpreted
and understood in the vitality of the Church.
According to his teaching, the Church's faith must be preached in such a
way that it appears as it must appear, that is "public," "one,"
"pneumatic," "spiritual." From each of these characteristics, one can
glean a fruitful discernment of the authentic transmission of the faith
in the Church of today.
More generally, in the doctrine of Irenaeus, human dignity, body and
soul, is firmly rooted in Divine Creation, in the image of Christ and in
the permanent work of sanctification of the Spirit. This doctrine is
like the "main road" to clarify to all people of good will, the object
and the limits of dialogue on values, and to give an ever new impulse to
the missionary activities of the Church, to the strength of truth which
is the source of all the true values in the world.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[After the audience, Benedict XVI greeted visitors in various languages.
In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Continuing our catechesis on the Church Fathers, we turn now to Saint
Irenaeus of Lyons, a great theologian and bishop at the end of the
second century. In his writings, Irenaeus clearly sets forth the
contents of the apostolic faith and appeals to the Church's living
tradition in order to defend that faith from false teachings. He thus
emphasizes the regula fidei: the "rule of faith" contained in the
Apostles' Creed and in the Gospel proclaimed by the Church's Bishops.
The Gospel Irenaeus preached was the Gospel preached by his teacher
Polycarp, who in turn received it from the Apostle John in an unbroken
line of succession going back to Christ himself. Irenaeus also writes of
the unique authority of the Church of Rome as founded on the Apostles.
This zealous pastor illustrates for us three important characteristics
of the Apostolic Tradition: it is "public", because it is available to
all through the teaching of the Bishops; it is "one", because its
content remains the same despite the variety of languages and cultures;
and it is "pneumatic", because, through it, the Holy Spirit continues to
enliven and renew the Church even today.
I am pleased to welcome the many English-speaking pilgrims present. In a
special way, I offer cordial greetings to the priests from the Institute
for Continuing Theological Education and to the students of the NATO
Defense College. Upon all of you I invoke God's blessings of peace and
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