Faith of our Fathers: Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching (pt. 1)

“Faith of our Fathers” is a new series from The Humanist Lens authored by Jens Zimmermann, Canada Research Chair in Interpretation, Religion and Culture. The goal of the series is to emphasize the importance of understanding the church fathers for contemporary Christians of all stripes–especially when it comes to the difficult task of biblical interpretation. Even beyond Christians, this series could be of interest to anyone curious about the religious foundations of Western culture. The following is a reflection on Irenaeus’ text, On the Apostolic Preaching.

Saint Irenaeus, Church Fathers, Incarnation, Humanism

Saint Irenaeus is one of the Church Fathers who left a profound legacy for Christianity

1. The Interconnectedness of Truth, Belief, and Life

Irenaeus writes this short text as a “summary memorandum” for his friend and fellow Christian Marcianus, so that he may keep and proclaim the Christian faith “in all boldness” (39).  This introduction already attunes the reader to important themes in patristic theology. The first is that Christianity’s goal is “union with God.”  There are two paths of life among human beings, Irenaeus says: one leading to union with God, and another leading to separation from God (the Didache an early summary of apostolic teaching also refers to these “two ways”).  Christians must pursue the way toward union with God by faith, but this pursuit also includes the body. We will meet with quite surprising affirmations of the (everlasting!) unity of body and soul in Irenaeus later in his writing, but here already he asks: “For what use is it to know the truth in words, only to defile the body and perform evil deed? Or what profit indeed can come from holiness of body, if truth is not in the soul? For these rejoice together and join forces that lead man to the presence of God” (40). Irenaeus understands that we are psychosomatic beings, a composite of body and spirit, so that our physical conditions affect our thinking and vice versa.

Finally, we also learn from Irenaeus that enduring in the faith requires an interpretive framework by which to read the scriptures, a “rule of faith.” In Against Heresies, Irenaeus frequently uses another term for the same idea, namely “the rule of truth” (regula veritatis/ὁ κανὼν τῆς ἀληθείας), reminding us that e aims at an objective, coherent interpretive framework by which we can measure how to read the scriptures. The rule of faith is itself rooted in Christ, the interpretive key and centre of the Christian message. Hence, as he puts it, “faith is established upon things truly real, that we may believe what really is, as it is, and believing what really is, as it is, we may always keep our conviction firm” (41). For Irenaeus, faith includes belief in a historical truth, passed on by an unbroken chain of witnesses beginning with the apostles who learned from Christ himself the basic contours of the Christian faith. For Irenaeus, “faith” refers both to an existential mode of being and its content. Keeping that faith means living it out, for “action, then, comes by faith.”  Truth, belief, and life are thus inseparably interwoven for the Christian, a holistic tapestry of being that is motivated by the promise of union with God.

Continue reading with Part 2

Or go back and read the Intro to the Series

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