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Tag: tradition

Feast of Polycarp of Smyrna

Today (February 23) is the Feast of Polycarp of Smyrna in both the Western and the Eastern churches. We read Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians and the account of his martyrdom in our first week back in December.

How old, you might ask, is the practice commemorating the saints and martyrs who have gone on to their reward? The answer is, at least since the death of Polycarp, either circa 155–56 or circa 166–67. The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom records that the Roman official who ordered Polycarp’s death at first refused to turn over his bodies to the Christians, for fear that they would abandon the worship of Jesus in favor of the worship of Polycarp. The Christians thought his fear patently absurd (ch. 17):

This he said at the suggestion and urgent persuasion of the Jews, who also watched us, as we sought to take him out of the fire, being ignorant of this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow-disciples! 1

But though the body of Polycarp was burned by the centurion, the Christians gathered his bones and commemorated the anniversary of his death (ch. 18):

The centurion then, seeing the strife excited by the Jews, placed the body in the midst of the fire, and consumed it. Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.

There you have a very early example of Christians marking their calendars to remember they are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [martyrs].”

Irenaeus and the Development of the Creeds

We’ve been quiet here on the Read the Fathers blog for the last few weeks. If Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and e-mail subscriptions are any indication, though, many of you are still reading, and maybe some new folks have joined us. In the past few weeks, we’ve had a big accomplishment: we finished the long and demanding text Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons. We’ve also finished the first of the volumes in the Ante-Nicene Fathers; only thirty-six more volumes to go! Right now we’re in the midst of a few minor authors: The Shepherd of Hermas (not so minor, actually), Tatian the Assyrian, Theophilus of Antioch, and Athenagoras the Athenian. After that we tackle Clement of Alexandia, for whom we’ll have a proper introductory post. I might be able to work something up about the Shepherd of Hermas (see Scholiast’s post).

I’d be remiss to let Irenaeus pass without so much as a word. We have Scholiast’s introduction to Irenaeus, but I’d like to point out Irenaeus’s contributions to our creeds.

Against Heresies was a tough book to read because so much of it was spent detailing the Gnostic heresies. Nevertheless, Irenaeus is brimful with positive statements of Christian doctrine. The most interesting of these are the creedal statements that Irenaeus makes.

In the first instance, Irenaeus describes the creedal statement as having been “received from the apostles and their disciples” (bk. 1 ch. 10):

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.

In the second place where Irenaeus sums up the faith of the church, he again emphasizes that the church is holds the deposit of the faith, “since the apostles, like a rich man [depositing his money] in a bank, lodged in her hands most copiously all things pertaining to the truth: so that every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life” (bk. 3 ch. 4):

To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom.

In the third and final place where Irenaeus makes a creedal statement, the emphasis is on the creedal statement as being the judge of who belongs to the church and who does not (bk. 4 ch. 33):

He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons, or any kind of reason which occurs to them, cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, [positively] destroy it,—men who prate of peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel. For no reformation of so great importance can be effected by them, as will compensate for the mischief arising from their schism. He shall also judge all those who are beyond the pale of the truth, that is, who are outside the Church; but he himself shall be judged by no one. For to him all things are consistent: he has a full faith in one God Almighty, of whom are all things; and in the Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, by whom are all things, and in the dispensations connected with Him, by means of which the Son of God became man; and a firm belief in the Spirit of God, who furnishes us with a knowledge of the truth, and has set forth the dispensations of the Father and the Son, in virtue of which He dwells with every generation of men, according to the will of the Father.

Philip Schaff, in his work The Creeds of Christendom, has a chart of Irenaeus’s creedal statements arranged into the component doctrines that parallel the Apostles’ Creed. He also has another chart that compares the development of the Apostles’ Creed among many of the fathers.

There are two points to be made from these observations. First, the content of the Apostles’ Creed is of great antiquity, since it appears in a well developed form by c. 170–180 in Irenaeus. Second, these creedal statements were very early treated as the authentic, authoritative statement of the essentials of the Christian faith.

 

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