Today is the memorial of the martyr St Irenaeus (*130 +200). He is perhaps best known for a phrase that features in today’s Divine Office: God’s greatest glory is man fully alive [living one’s humanity to the full] and full life for men is the vision of God [which we will have in heaven].
The Church is fortunate that he was a leading figure in much of its controversy in the second century. He was a student, well trained, exercised great patience in investigating and was greatly protective of apostolic teaching that was not completely captured in the works of the New Testament. In disputation however he was prompted more by a desire to win over his opponents than to prove them wrong.
As bishop of Lyon he was especially concerned with the Gnostics whose teaching was attracting and confusing many of his flock. (Gnosticism is not unlike the New Age Movement of our times.) After a thorough examination of the various Gnostic sects and their ‘secrets’, he set about showing the logical conclusions their beliefs led to. These he contrasted with salvation through incorporation into the life, death and resurrection of Christ as found in the teaching of the Apostles and the texts of Holy Scripture. His enduring legacy was a total of 5 books and a system of theology that is of great importance even to the present time. His work which was widely used and translated into Latin and Armenian gradually ended the influence of the Gnostics.
A deep and genuine concern for others will remind us that the discovery of truth is not to be a victory for some and a defeat for others. Unless all can claim some share in that victory, truth itself will continue to be rejected by the losers as it is linked with the yoke of defeat. (The Peace Agreement in the North of Ireland is perhaps an example of the dynamics involved.) Therefore confrontation, controversy, etc must yield to a genuine united search for God’s truth and how it can best be served.
Irenaeus (a name which means ‘lover of peace’) once interceded for a group of Asia Minor Christians who had been excommunicated by the Pope for not agreeing to the Western date for celebrating Easter. He said that this was not an essential matter and that these Christians were merely following an old tradition that such men as St Polycarp (a disciple of St John the Evangelist) and Pope Anicetus were happy to overlook. The pope agreed and the rift was healed. Some one hundred years later the Asia Minor Christians voluntarily adopted the standard date for Easter.