Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Meet Irenaeus and Athanasius

Irenaeus (130 A.D. – 202 A.D.)

Bishop of Lyons, France and early church father during the persecutions of Marcus Aurelius in the second century, Irenaeus became the principle architect of the four gospel canon of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Just as the prophet Ezekiel had envisioned God’s throne borne up by four living creatures, he boldly declared, “It is not possible that there can be either more or fewer than four”. What made the four gospels trustworthy, he claimed, is that their authors actually witnessed the events they related. Few New Testament scholars would agree with that claim, but Irenaeus compelled his followers to accept it.

The problem was, there were other sects of Christianity all over the Middle East and into Africa in those days, many who had different beliefs. Even members of his own flock were splintered into various groups, often quarreling, all of them claiming to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. How could he sort out all the conflicting claims and impose some kind of order? He began by ridiculing those who claimed to be investigating “the deeper things of God” and seeking revelation on their own. He undertook his massive, five-volume On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis, vowing to track down all illegitimate writings which “have no truth, but are full of blasphemy” 

Yet Irenaeus recognized that even banishing heretical writings could not safeguard the Christian movement. What if someone read the right gospels the wrong way? What if well-meaning Christians could “cast truth aside” by spawning new heresies? This was happening even in his own congregation. So Irenaeus set out to construct even stricter guidelines for believers. It became heresy for anyone to assume they could discover truth about God by exploring their own experience. Christians had to accept his interpretation of the gospels as the only correct interpretation. Any who did would be called an “Orthodox” Christian – that is, one who thinks straight. He encountered resistance from those who said they had confessed the correct faith when they were baptized, but were following Jesus’ injunction to seek and find truth by which they could attain spiritual maturity. Irenaeus was appalled at such practice. Truth could only be attained by invoking the authority of the apostles from whom it was directly handed down. It therefore became a necessary requirement to obey the priests who followed in that line of succession. Irenaeus's instructions about which revelations to destroy and which ones to keep - and how to interpret them - became the basis for the formation of the New Testament. 

Athanasius (293 A.D. – 373 A.D.)

By the beginning of the 4th century Christianity had been declared a lawful religion and was tolerated throughout the Roman Empire. But within the Church, doctrine continued to be so unsettled, with bishop fighting against bishop, and believer fighting against believer, that the death toll actually exceeded that suffered during the persecutions. Word of the continuing dispute made its way to the newly converted Emperor Constantine the Great. "Division in the church," he told the bishops, "is worse than war." To settle the matter he convened The First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Bishops and church leaders were invited to fix an official party line, and to declare an edict that all "Christians" must believe. They argued, fought, and eventually fleshed out a document of “correct belief” known as the Nicene Creed. Henceforth it became "unlawful for any man to bring forward, or to compose a different faith as a rival to that established by the Holy Fathers of the Church who assembled with the Holy Ghost in Nicæa." 

Among those assembled Holy Fathers was a short, dark-skinned Egyptian named Athanasius. Bishop of Alexandria for 46 years, he was a devout believer in a unified Christian orthodoxy, and a Church appointed “canonical” bible.The Church, by this time, had reached an informal consensus about which books would be included in the New Testament, but he was the first to officially declare them. That declaration appeared in his 39th Festal Letter written in the year 367 AD. “Since, however, we have spoken of the heretics as dead, but of ourselves as possessors of the divine writings unto salvation, I hearby set forth those writings that have been put in the canon and confirmed as divine, in order that everyone who has been led astray may condemn his seducers, and that everyone who has remained stainless may rejoice. In these 27 writings alone is the doctrine of piety proclaimed. Let no man add anything to them or take anything away from them”.
A champion of orthodoxy, Athanasius had helped lay the foundation of Church doctrine for millenniums to come. John Henry Newman described him as a "principal instrument, after the Apostles, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world." Although he had many theological enemies, Athanasius had spent his life defending the Church against the onslaught of heretical teaching. In the end his enemies’ works were removed, condemned as heretical, and excluded from any ecclesiastical use.

In 381 Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire which insured its protection from further apostasy. 

No comments:

Post a Comment