A WITNESS TO THE UNITY OF DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE WITHIN THE SECOND CENTURY CHURCH

irenaeus

 

“The Church having received this preaching and this faith although scattered throughout the whole world yet as if occupying one house carefully preserves it. She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had one soul and one and the same heart and proclaims and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony as if she only possessed one mouth. For the churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain or Gaul. . . But as the sun, that creature of God is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shines everywhere and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth”

So wrote Irenaeus (AD130-202 – pictured), acknowledged by many to be the major theologian of the second century, having been instructed by Polycarp a disciple of John the Evangelist. Such a depiction of universal doctrinal uniformity may be somewhat exaggerated but equally it could not have been the case that the essential doctrines concerning the nature of faith and salvation could have uniformly be in error given that each of the churches he refers to could trace its origins just two or three generations back to the apostles. They cannot all have interpreted Paul’s teaching wrongly yet none of their surviving writings bear much resemblance to the Reformers’ distinctive teachings on faith, works, law and grace or indeed the distinctive teachings of Augustine, who, particularly following his disputation with Pelagius came to reject entirely the principles of (so-called) natural law or innate spiritual enlightenment that I have been outlining. It is clear from their writing that such principles were understood by Irenaeus himself and fellow second century spiritual masters including Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr [1]. In terms of the essentials it is not that all the second century churches will have come to agreement through a sublimity of biblical exegesis, it is because a good number of these assemblies will have been founded and superintended by the great apostle to the Gentiles himself or his direct appointees. These leaders knew what Paul was writing about because they or their leaders had heard him and talked to him; they did not have to rely entirely upon his pastoral epistles that even his fellow apostle Peter observed were “hard to understand” and already being misunderstood by many (2Pet3:16). Such an historical affirmation with the earliest Church Fathers cannot be provided for ALL the assertions I make in my book, for as the blessed Origen (third century) later observed, certain mysteries were left to be explored and resolved over the course of the Church’s pilgrimage; but I say again that cannot apply to the means of obtaining eternal life through Jesus Christ which was made clear from the start and has always been adequately set forth within the Apostolic Church in East and West. The Holy Spirit is not so perverse as to leave the Church and therefore the world ignorant of His saving truth for centuries (as I once effectively believed), for our merciful, magnanimous God desires that all redeemable humanity be healed and come to a knowledge of the Truth. To that end He has elected a people to form a messianic community, informed by divine teaching and empowered by His Spirit to bring light, healing and salvation to the world that He loves:

“For the grace of God has appeared FOR THE SALVATION OF THE HUMAN RACE teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts to live sensibly, righteously and devoutly in the current age, anticipating the blessed hope and Shekinah of our Great God and the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sake so that we should be delivered from lawlessness and be purified as a SPECIALLY CHOSEN PEOPLE FOR HIMSELF BURNING WITH ZEAL TO DO GOOD WORKS. This is what you (Titus) are to say, rebuking with authority; let no man despise you” (Paul’s letter to Titus ch2:11-15)

Note
[1] Irenaeus recognised that God in His providence is present with all “who attend to moral discipline, paying heed to the natural precepts of the law by which man can be justified” [“Irenaeus against heresies” Book IV chap 13 para 1] whilst Justin Martyr spoke of God’s benevolence towards those who walk uprightly and in accordance with right reason ; “a God who accepts those who imitate His own qualities of temperance, fairness and philanthropy and who exercise their free will in choosing what is pleasing to Him” [first apology of Justin chaps. 43 & 46]. Such a perspective on free will and a role for natural law is affirmed by the witness of Eusebius AD260-340. Known as the Father of Church History, Eusebius documented the succession of the apostolic sees in East and West, commenting on the faithfulness (or otherwise) of some of their bishops, providing in the process an invaluable perspective on the doctrinal understanding of his time. In view of his own perspective on the matter, Eusebius indicates that natural law, essential to the case I am making, was subsumed within the theological/anthropological perspective of the early Church:
“The Creator of all things has impressed a natural law upon the soul of every man, as an assistant and ally in his conduct, pointing out to him the right way by this law; but, by the free liberty with which he is endowed, making the choice of what is best worthy of praise and acceptance, because he has acted rightly, not by force, but from his own free-will, when he had it in his power to act otherwise, As, again, making him who chooses what is worst, deserving of blame and punishment, as having by his own motion neglected the natural law, and becoming the origin and fountain of wickedness, and misusing himself, not from any extraneous necessity, but from free will and judgment. The fault is in him who chooses, not in God. For God has not made nature or the substance of the soul bad; for he who is good can make nothing but what is good”. [quotation from “The Christian Examiner”, Volume One, published by James Miller, 1824 Edition, p. 66 – my highlighting]