The unchanging faith that we have
April 25, 2019
I am, for the present, somewhat of a half-baked scholar.
I am working towards a doctorate, and so have been tasked with reading a small mountain of books (alas, I am as yet only in the foothills of that mountain) and it will only be after I have gained some mastery of those books that I will begin to be considered—by some—to be a scholar.
This much is actually just an impressive-sounding preface, as a way to explain why it is that I was listening to an audio book on Irenaeus of Lyons’ work Against All Heresies (written around the 170s), while simultaneously hauling off the winter’s deadfall from my back yard, and mowing. (Others who know me better might point out that it’s no good offering that kind of excuse, as I am a hopeless geek, and probably would have gotten around to Irenaeus sooner or later— a truth that I am also embarrassed to admit.)
Nevertheless, listening to an academic work about one of our early apologists against heresy can actually be rewarding. Truly. And not just as a clever aid to beat insomnia.
What was striking to me, at this point, was not necessarily the heresies that he was combating themselves, but the clear points that he articulated, that were basic to the Christian faith.
For example, he was clearly describing Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, born of the virgin Mary, as the one and only Son of Man that the church has recognized. He was also clearly articulating that this same Jesus was God. He makes numerous references to the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as to the acts and words of the apostles as recorded in the book of Acts—and he clearly recognizes these as authoritative: the very words of God.
I could go on at great length about the other points that Irenaeus made, in laying out what the true Christian faith taught, based on the Scriptures—but that would belabor the point I am making here.
We continue to see and hear articles now and again about how much the church at some point ‘changed’ the faith, ‘changed’ what the bible contained, or even ‘added to’ the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. People out there keep trying to say that the miracle accounts of the Bible were later legends, added on, in order to make some point, or to further add to the majesty of God. Irenaeus’ work shows that, since the 170s at least, the basics of the Christian faith does not seem to have changed much, if at all. Irenaeus himself wrote that he had known and listened to the teachings of the earlier church father Polycarp, who had himself known the Apostle John. The author of the work on Irenaeus that I was listening to pointed out that there is good reason to believe that this was, indeed, the truth. He also made no indication that anyone really doubts the reliability of Irenaeus’ teaching; there is no reason to believe that some conspiracy of people trying to ‘change’ church doctrine also ‘changed’ Irenaeus’ work.
The faith that we have, that we celebrate; the faith that records relatively few miracle accounts (read the Bible and count them!) the faith in God become a human being, being incarnate from the virgin Mary—this is the faith that seems to have been proclaimed from the beginning, and has been faithfully described and defended over centuries. I don’t base my reliance on the Scriptures on this; I believe they are true, regardless of what else I may be shown. At the same time, I find considerable comfort in the study of history, where Jesus’ words are proven sure: that ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away.’ – Matthew 24:35