Category Archives: The Saints

love without limits: boundless love

 
 

Written by the Very Rev. John Breck

Archimandrite Lev Gillet, “A Monk of the Eastern Church”


“My child,” God declares, “you have seen the Bush that burns without being consumed. You have recognized Love, which is a consuming fire that desires you completely. The ‘great vision’ of the Burning Bush can help you give Me a new name. That name will not replace the name or names you have used until now. Nevertheless, like a lightening flash in the night, the radiance of this new name can enlighten your entire surroundings.

“Many times you called Me by a name that was not mine. Or, rather, that eternal name, although it was indeed mine, failed to express clearly the most intense manifestations of divine life. It could not adequately express what I wanted to reveal of myself in your times of prayer: that particular aspect of my Being by which you might have spoken to Me.

“You call me God. This traditional name has been worshiped and blessed by countless souls, to whom it has given, and never ceases to give, depths of feeling and strength. Foolish are those who would depreciate it, and ungodly those who would reject it! It is for you, rather, to worship me precisely as God, and to venerate that name by which I am known.

“Nevertheless, without lessening that veneration, you recognize that, from the point of view of the word itself, this name, “God,” does not have a specific content; it is lacking in precision. Those meanings people have attached to it were not all direct expressions of the word “God.” For that word is so vast, so open to elaboration, that at times, because of human weakness, it can somehow seem empty.

“In your prayer you call me ‘God,’ ‘my God,’ ‘You who are God,’ and ‘Lord God.’ In this ancient designation, this sacred name ‘God,’ you can surely find new strength. But you can also find a fresh source of enlightenment in calling me by names that correspond more closely to your immediate experience or your immediate need. You can appeal to those aspects of my Being that are revealed by present circumstances. For example, depending on what is happening in your life, you can call me ‘You who are Beauty,’ or ‘You who are Truth,’ or ‘You who are my Purity, my Light, my Strength.’ You can also call me, ‘You who are Love.’

“This last expression will draw your language more closely to my heart. You can say to me, ‘Lord of Love.’ Or more simply, you can simply speak the name ‘Love.’

“Here I would set before you, in your reflection and your prayer, a term which, if you so desire, can become like the sun, the sun that knows no setting, the sun of your life. My beloved ones, I am ‘Boundless Love,’ ‘Love without limits.’

“Love without limits… I am above and beyond every name. The qualification ‘without limits’ expresses precisely the truth that my Person and my Love are beyond every category known to the human mind. I am ‘Supreme Love,’ ‘Universal Love,’ ‘Absolute Love,’ ‘Infinite Love.’

“If I now insist on the words ‘without limits,’ it is to evoke in your mind the image of barriers that have been overturned. It is to call up for you the image of something unlimited, boundless: a Love that, like some violent wind or hurricane, breaks down every obstacle. I am that Love that nothing can stop, nothing can contain, nothing can impede.

“The enemy we need to conquer is not death. It is rather human denial of my Love. Yet nothing can destroy or diminish either the purpose or the action of that Love whose source is the Almighty God.

“My beloved children, I am not teaching you anything new. I am not offering you some definition or doctrine. I am doing nothing other than repeating what has been declared since the beginning. I am showing you a pathway. Yet every pathway is good that leads to Me.”

The Source


“Love received a personal name. It took the form of a man. It walked along our roadways; it became one of us, without ceasing to be divinely itself. ‘Jesus-Love’…

“Our present reflection goes ‘beyond’ a Person or the divine Persons. It concerns what those Persons are in their depth, their common inner Being, rather than what is proper to each one individually. In this moment we are contemplating ‘the divine essence.’ We are daring to explore the reality of God, to seek out the original generating emotion of all things. That emotion we have called Love, ‘Love without limits.’

“We need to return to the origins, to the Source itself. Certainly it would be inspiring to discern and elaborate in this Source particular aspects, specific characteristics. For example, we could contemplate the three symbolic figures, equally young and beautiful, seated at Abraham’s table beneath the Oak of Mambre. We could listen to their song, in three voices and each with its own modulation, that sings the one and the same Love. But of that, the personal relationships within the divine Essence, we will not speak here. That would go well beyond our present concern and our capacities. We will speak, rather, of the Lord of Love, without making any personal distinctions.

“We will speak of Love in the simplest way possible. We will speak of it in its simplest aspects. With this initial approach, we will find ourselves on a path with all those other simple souls who, leaving aside various theological theories, know only how to love: persons who long for an encounter between the beloved and the Lover, between the soul and Love.

“Is it true, my child, that you desire nothing other than Love? ‘Yes, Lord,’ you reply, ‘it’s true.’ Truly you desire nothing other than to love and to be loved? ‘Yes, Lord, that is true.’ Well then, my child,” Love replies, “because you experience this thirst, come to the water. Come to the Living Water. Come drink at the Source itself.”

Quote of the Day

     “God wanted to unite people among themselves. So He made things in such a way that the good of one is inseparably bound to being useful to others. It is in this way that the world is united.”

-St John Chrysotom

Saint Theodosia and Saint Anthousa:Defenders of Icons

***This weekend i decided to feature some bios on women saints of the Church.***

Between approximately the years 726 and 843, the Byzantine world was rocked by the controversy of iconoclasm. Pious Orthodox believers argued over whether venerating icons was an allowable Christian practice or whether it amounted to idolatry. A series of Byzantine emperors came down in support of iconoclasm or the “breaking of images.”

Countless icons were destroyed during this period and many iconodules, or “lovers of icons,” becamemartyrs and confessors. Their position is captured by Saint John of Damascus, one of the great apologists for icons: “In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake . . .” (Saint John of Damscus, On the Divine Images). Among the many who suffered during the iconoclastic period were pious laywomen and nuns. Two of the most well-known of these saints were Theodosia of Constantinople and Anthousa of Mantineon. One became a martyr and the other a confessor for their heroic defense of icons.

Saint Theodosia was a nun who became one of the first martyrs of the iconoclast period. She was placed in a convent at the age of seven, sometime in the early eighth century. Saint Theodosia came from a wealthy family and eventually received a generous inheritance. She used a portion of the money to commission elaborate icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and Saint Anastasia. In 726, the emperor Leo III ordered that the famous and beloved icon of Christ which hung over the palace’s main gate be destroyed. A huge crowd of local people gathered to defend the icon and among them was a group of “pious women” which included the nun Theodosia. The Synaxarion of Constantinople, a collection of saints’ lives written in the tenth century, describes how an imperial guardsman climbed a ladder to reach the icon of Christ in order to destroy it. Saint Theodosia and the other women grasped and pulled down the ladder on which the soldier was standing. Many of the women involved were taken away and decapitated but Theodosia, as the perceived “ringleader,” was brutally stabbed in the throat with a ram’s horn. After the veneration of icons was restored some eighty years after her martyrdom, Saint Theodosia’s relics were placed in a Constantinople convent. The remains were carried in church processions several times a year and hundreds of years after her death, there are records of miraculous cures effected by Saint Theodosia’s relics.

Saint Anthousa of Mantineon, like Saint Theodosia, was a nun. She was born in the early eighth century and around 740 founded a small monastic community near Mantineon. The community eventually grew into a huge double monastery that housed about 900 monks and nuns, according to one contemporary source. (Double monasteries were adjacent communities of monks and nuns.)

At Mantineon, the men’s monastery was located on the shores of a lake while the convent was situated on an island. The monks and nuns had a mutually helpful relationship in which the nuns wove cloth and sewed for the monks while the male monastics brought food to the convent so that the nuns would not have to leave their island home to get provisions. Interestingly, Saint Anthousa apparently served as superior for both the monastery and the convent although her nephew, who was also her assistant, was primarily responsible for the monks.

Constantine V (741–775) was among the most fanatically iconoclastic emperors of the period and he took a strong dislike to Abbess Anthousa and her thriving monastic community. Monks and nuns were in general strong supporters of icons. Constantine V decided to make an example of Anthousa and her nephew. The emperor made a public visit to Mantineon and ordered the nephew publically whipped. Leaving the monk barely alive, Constantine V next ordered Saint Anthousa to be whipped. After this torture, burning icons were placed on her head. Hot embers from the icons fell all over her body. Miraculously, Saint Anthousa survived her ordeal and was even able to soften Constantine’s hatred of icons by prophesying that his wife, who was then in the midst of a difficu

lt pregnancy, would give birth to healthy twins. The prophesy proved true and the empress was so grateful to the abbess that she placed the monastery at Mantineon under her personal protection. Saint Anthousa continued to serve as abbess of her community until her death.

Sources:
Talbot, Alice-Mary, ed. Byzantine Defenders of Images: Eight Saints’ Lives in English
Translation.
Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks

Saint Theodosia and Saint Anthousa:Defenders of Icons was originally published in the “Heroines of the Faith” column in the volume 7 number 4 issue of The Handmaiden.

St Benedict of Nursia

Another one of my favs. the saint of hospitality and founder of western monasticism.

This year marks the l500th anniversary of the birth of one of the great Orthodox monastic fathers of the West

In the year 480 a twin boy and girl were. born into a noble Roman family in southern Italy. Sharing the same womb, they were also destined to share the struggle for virtue and, at the end, their bodies were to share the same tomb while their souls dwelt together in Paradise. Of their infancy little is known, but even as youths St. Benedict and St. Scholastica began to turn their backs on the amusements of the world.

At the age of 14 his parents sent Benedict to Rome to be educated in the fine arts. In the capital the boy discovered that most of his peers had given themselves up to lives of silliness, vanity, and vice. The shallowness of this frightened him, and so he left Rome, vowing to seek his salvation in solitude.

About 40 miles from Rome, in a remote desert-like place called Subiaeo. he was sent by a monk, St. Romanus, who understood his longing for salvation and offered to help him. He encouraged the boy to settle in a nearby cave where, for three years, he lived in complete anonymity, solitude, and silence. On certain days the monks would lower a loaf of bread on a rope, but otherwise St. Benedict had no contact with the outside world.

Eventually, shepherds discovered him. Seeing that he was a servant of the true God, many of them converted to Christianity. According to the Saint’s life, “by this means his life began to be famous in the country, and many did resort unto him, bringing with them necessaries for his body, while they received from his lips the food of life.”

But true victory does not come without struggle and warfare, and soon the enemy of our salvation drew close to St. Benedict, tempting him more strongly than anything he had ever before experienced: “For the remembrance of a woman he had once seen was presented to his fancy by the Wicked Spirit, and so strongly was he inflamed with lustful desires that, nearly overcome, he was about to leave the wilderness. Suddenly, through God’s grace, he came to himself and, seeing nearby a thicket of nettles and briars, he threw off his garments and cast himself naked into the midst of those sharp thorns, where he roiled himself so long that, when he rose up, his body was pitifully torn. Thus, by means of wounds in his flesh be cured the wounds of his soul. From that time forth, as he himself told his followers, he was free of this temptation. Henceforth, many began to leave the world and place themselves under his direction. Being now free from vice, he worthily deserved to be made a master of: virtue.”

In time, St. Benedict established no fewer than 12 monasteries, the most famous of which is Mount Cassino. Here, a temple to the pagan god Apollo had stood. A multitude of heathen offered sacrifice until the Saint approached, threw down the idol, and built a chapel. On Mount Cassino, through continual preaching and prayer, he was able to bring many people to Christ.

Not only was St. Benedict a great missionary, man of prayer, and spiritual director of souls, but God also vouchsafed him the grace of wonderworking. Thus, he was able to cast out demons from those possessed, had the gift of prophecy, could read human hearts and thoughts, cure the sick, and miraculously provide money for the poor, but most wonderful of all, he also raised the dead! However, one miracle performed by his sister St. Scholastica should be related in full, as it demonstrates the simplicity and single mindedness of these twin saints:

“His sister Scholastica, who was consecrated to God from her very childhood, used to come once a year to see him, unto whom the Saint would go to a house not far from the gate. She came one day, according to her custom, and her venerable brother likewise came, with his disciples. After they had spent the whole day in the praise of God and pious conversation, the night drawing on they took their meal together. As they were yet sitting at table, his sister entreated him saying, I beseech you, leave me not this night, that we may talk until morning of the joys of the heavenly life.’ To this he answered, ‘What is this you say, sister? By no means can I stay out of my monastery.’

“At this moment the sky was calm, and not a cloud was to be seen. The holy woman, therefore, hearing her brother’s refusal, clasped her hands together upon the table and, bowing her head upon them, she prayed to Almighty God. As she raised up her head from the table there began such a violent lightning and thunder, with such abundant rain, that neither venerable Benedict nor his brethren could put foot out of doors…

“Then the man of God… was sad and began to say, ‘God Almighty forgive you, sister; what is this you have done?” She answered, “I prayed you to stay and you would not hear me; I prayed to Almighty God and He heard me. Now, therefore, if you can, go forth to the monastery and leave me.’ But he, not able to go forth, was forced to stay. Thus it happened that they spent the night in vigil and were content with spiritual conversation about heavenly matters.

“The next day the venerable woman returned to her cloister and the man of God to his monastery. Three days later, while standing in his cell, he saw the soul of his sister depart out of her body and, in the form of a dove, ascend and enter into the celestial mansions. Rejoicing to see her great glory, he gave thanks to God in hymns and praises and announced her death to the brethren. He sent them to bring her body to the monastery and caused it to be buried in the same tomb that he had prepared for himself. By means of this it happened that, as their minds were always one in God, so also their bodies were not separated in their burial.”

St. Benedict, the great patriarch of Western monks, reposed on March 21, 543. Six days earlier he foretold his death and asked that his grave be prepared. On the sixth day he asked to be carried into the chapel “where he armed himself for his going forth by receiving the Body and Blood of the Lord.” Then, showing the power of his soul over his body, even at the last moment, “he stood up, his hands lifted towards heaven, and with words of prayer at last breathed forth his soul.”

That same day, two monks at different places saw a path stretching from the Saint’s cell towards heaven, and shining with innumerable lights. A beautiful man (apparently an angel) stood above and said to them: “This is the path by which the beloved of the Lord, Benedict, ascended to heaven.”

St. Benedict was a brilliant light to the world not only because of his miracles and the asceticism of his life, but also because of his teachings. He wrote a rule for monks “which is distinguished for its wonderful discretion and clearness of thought.” The purpose of this “Rule” was to order the spiritual and physical activities of a monk so that he might be a true soldier of Christ. But in addition, the “Rule” describes twelve degrees or “steps” to humility. Those familiar with the ascetic writings of Eastern saints and Fathers–particularly the “Ladder” of St. John–will naturally find this quite familiar. But St. Benedict’s “ladder” should be briefly outlined here because of its suitability for all true Christian men and women, regardless of their station, for all Christians wish to ascend the ladder of salvation to Christ.

  1. The first step towards humility is fear of God and remembrance of Him in all things that we do.

  2. Secondly, the struggler must not love to do his own will, but follow instead the example of the Saviour: “I have come not to do My own will, but the will of Him Who sent Me.”

  3. We must be obedient to God and His Church, in all things great and small.

  4. The struggler must be patient, enduring everything that comes to him.

  5. We must not hide our sins, but eagerly confess them.

  6. One who seeks humility must be content with the poorest and worst of everything,

  7. We must consider ourselves as lower than anyone else.

  8. We should not seek to be “different” from others; we should do only what is needful, following the example of the saints.

  9. The humble man learns to restrain his tongue.

  10. We must be serious-minded, not frivolous or silly.

  11. Our words to others should be few, and covered with gentleness.

  12. Real humility appears first in the heart; then it shows itself in our outward behaviour, whether we are working or resting.

Among Orthodox Christians there was never any need to use the “Rule” of St. Benedict, for the teachings of this “Rule” were always alive in the monastic tradition of the East, from where, indeed, they originally came to St. Benedict. Therefore, one may say that St. Benedict’s Rule was preserved in spirit in the Orthodox east, just as was the memory of the Saint himself, whose feast is still kept by the Orthodox on March 14. The ideal of a hidden life of labor and solitude remained continually alive in the Orthodox Church, blossoming like a flower in the desert. In this same spirit, St. Benedict’s Rule, with its emphasis on virtue and repentance rather than organization, contained the very essence of Christ’s teachings about other-worldliness.

Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it. (Luke 17:33).

St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, recorded the life of St. Benedict from which we have quoted above. St. Benedict reposed when St. Gregory was only three years old, but the monastic Saint’s successor. Abbot Constantine, as well as three other abbots. all of them disciples of Bt. Benedict, shared their eyewitness accounts with St. Grocery.

St Elizabeth the New Martyr


one of my favorite saints is St Elizabeth.  she has an amazing story:

   One of the brightest stars in the celestial array of Russia’s New Martyrs is holy Grand Duchess Elizabeth. A convert to Orthodoxy, she outshone many of those whose Faith she had so ardently embraced. She was like a sun whose penetrating rays warm hearts grown cold and renew the lost faith of a fallen and despairing humanity, as if to say that not all have succumbed to an egotistical self love, that there are still those servants of Love, whose example points the way to the true path, tom happiness both on this earth and for aIl eternity. She placed a law in her heart: that the strong bear the frailties of the weak. Love was the cornerstone of her life and all her activities. This love made easy for her what was difficult, it made serving her fellowman a plea sure, and through it the forgiveness of enemies was made possible. For the sake of this Love she sacrificed herself for others, thereby fulfilling that greatest of commandments according to the Apostle of love, that “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I John3:16).

    There exists perhaps no more eloquent tribute to the holy Grand Duchess than the spiritual portrait so finely drawn by the late Metropolitan Anastassy:

    “She was a rare combination of exalted Christian spirit, moral nobility, enlightened mind, gentle heart, and refined taste. She possessed an extremely delicate and multifaceted spiritual composition and her outward appearance reflected the beauty and greatness of her spirit. Upon her brow lay the seal of an inborn, elevated dignity which set her apart from those around her. Under the cover of modesty, she often strove – though in vain, to conceal herself from the gaze of others, but one could not mistake her for another. Wherever she appeared, one would always ask: “Who is she who looketh forth as the morning, clear as the sun” (Song of Solomon 6:10)? Wherever she would go she emanated the pure fragrance of the lily. Perhaps it was for this reason that she loved the color white–it was the reflection of her heart. All of her spiritual qualities were strictly balanced, one against another, never giving an impression of one-sidedness. Femininity was joined in her to a courageous character; her goodness never led to weakness and blind, unconditional trust of people. Even in her finest heartfelt inspirations she exhibited that gift of discernment which has always been so highly esteemed by Christian ascetics…”

     The Grand Duchess was born on October 20, 186l, the daughter of Princess Alice of Hesse and the granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England, under whose strict tutelage she received both an extensive and a practical education. Her mother died when she was still young, the first tragedy in a life marked by inner suffering. But through, greatness of spirit, her sorrow at the absence of maternal love was later transformed into a tender and solicitous compassion for others who lacked this love.

     Chosen as the future wife of the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the Grand Duchess arrived in Moscow and set about learning all she could about her newly adopted homeland, its people and its culture. Her heart was soon captured by the beauty and spiritual depth of Orthodoxy which she discovered so tightly interwoven into the rich fabric of the Russian soul. It was not mere formality that prompted her decision to become Orthodox, but a strong inner conviction. In Orthodoxy she found full expression for the natural spiritual cast of her character. Social obligations at the palace, however, prevented this disposition from blossoming, although in keeping with her new position she was able to dedicate much time to philanthropic activities. It was only with the tragic assassination of her husband in 1905 that Providence granted her the opportunity to withdraw from the tumult of a world which her soul found so wearisome. But through her patient endurance she had already achieved a measure of Christian perfection. This was manifest in her ready forgiveness of her husband’s murderer whom she even went to visit in hopes of softening his heart. On the memorial cross erected upon the site of her husband’s death, she had inscribed the Gospel words, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do…’ She had already begun the ascent up the ladder of Christian virtue.

    Ignoring the scandal caused by such a move, the Grand Duchess left the royal apartments and settled in a building which she had acquired at Ordinka. Here, with the counsel of the eiders of the Zosima Hermitage under whom she had placed herself in total obedience, she laid the foundation for a sisterhood which combined in itself the ascetic labors of the monastic life and works of charity. This quiet haven in the midst of a bustling city was named in honor of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, whose two natures of service and prayer were so beautifully intertwined in the mission of the new community. “To be not of this world and at the same time to live and act in the world in order to transform it–this was the foundation upon which she desired to establish her convent.”

     The Grand Duchess was personally involved in all the plans for the buildings of the community, and they reflected her refined aesthetic sensibilities. The main church was built in the traditional Novgorod-Pskov style and painted by the well-known Russian artist Nesterov. The austere white walls were balanced with exquisite sculptured ornamentation. The architectural harmony of the buildings, the peaceful atmosphere, the beauty of the church services–all combined to lift the tired soul from its earthly cares and give it a glimpse of paradise. Even members of the unchurchly contemporary Russian society, whose spiritual re-education was of such concern to the Grand Duchess, were drawn to this unique community.

    “It is not surprising that the convent quickly blossomed and attracted many sisters from the aristocracy as well as the common people. Nearly monastic order reigned within the inner life of the community and both within and without the convent the activities of the Grand Duchess consisted in the care of those who visited the sick who were lodged in the convent, in the material and moral help given to the poor, and in the almshouse for those orphans and abandoned children found in every large city. The Grand Duchess paid special attention to the unfortunate children who bore within themselves the curse of their fathers’ sins, the children born in the turbid slums of Moscow only to wither before they had a chance to blossom. Many of them were taken into the orphanage built for them where they were quickly revived spiritually and physically. For others, constant supervision at their place of residence was established. The spirit of initiative and moral sensitivity which accompanied the Grand Duchess in all her activities, inspired and impelled her to search out new paths and forms of philanthropic activity, which sometimes reflected the influence of her first, western homeland, and its advanced organizations for social improvement and mutual aid…”

    Wherever there was a need the Grand Duchess would try to answer it, and only her strong spirit was able to keep her from being entirely overcome physically by all that she in her willingness was ready to undertake. All her activities, however, did not cause her to wander from the “one thing needful,” and while serving the least of Christ’ s brethren, she was ever at Christ’s feet, listening to His words.

    The sorrowful tribulations which visited Russia as the Revolution spread its shadow over the land only caused her virtues of love and self-sacrifice to shine more brightly. Together with her younger sister, Tsaritsa Alexandra, she was slandered on account of her German blood. But she harbored neither bitterness nor hatred towards her enemies, and even the revolutionaries recognized her greatness of spirit and spared her and her community for a time,

     Finally, however, the martyr’s crown was brought within her reach. On Pascha, 1918, the Grand Duchess was suddenly arrested and taken first to Ekaterinburg and then to Alopaevsk where, with her ever-faithful companion Sister Barbara, she was imprisoned in one of the city schools. On the fateful night of July 5/18, together with other royal captives, she was taken in an automobile outside the city and buried alive in a mine shaft. Even here, in the bowels of the earth, she did not cease to manifest her sacrificing love. Excavations have shown that until the last moment she strove to serve the grand dukes who were severely injured by the fall.

At last her precious remains – which, according to eye-witnesses were found in the mine shaft completely untouched by corruption – were received with triumph in Jerusalem and laid to rest in a sepulchre of the church of St. Mary Magdalen, just over the hill from Bethany where the sisters, Sts. Martha and Mary, served and glorified the Lord. 

(Quotations from “The Holy New Martyr, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna,” by Metropolitan Anastassy, in Orthodox Life, Sept.-Oct., 1981)

Christ is Everything

by the Elder Porphyrios of Milesi

“This is the way we should see Christ. He is our friend, our brother; He is whatever is good and beautiful. He is everything. Yet, He is still a friend and He shouts it out, You’re my friends, don’t you understand that? We’re brothers. I’m not…I don’t hold hell in my hands. I am not threatening you. I love you. I want you to enjoy life together with me.

Christ is Everything. He is joy, He is life, He is light. He is the true light who makes man joyful, makes him soar with happiness; makes him see everything, everybody; makes him feel for everyone, to want everyone with him, everyone with Christ.

Love Christ and put nothing before His Love. Christ is Everything. He is the source of life, the ultimate desire, He is everything. Everything beautiful is in Christ.

Somebody who is Christ’s must love Christ, and when he loves Christ he is delivered from the Devil, from hell and from death.”

IRENAEUS OF LYONS: Contending for the Faith Once Delivered

By Robert K. Arakaki +++St. Irenaeus is considered by many to be the greatest Christian theologian of the second century. Irenaeus is well known for Against the Heretics—a theological classic in which he defended the Christian Faith against the heresy of gnosticism. He was a third-generation Christian, a disciple of Polycarp, disciple of the Apostle John. Born between 130 and 140 and dying sometime after 200, he lived early enough to see the four Gospels become part of the biblical canon. His proximity to the original Apostles makes Irenaeus an invaluable window for Christians interested in the early Church.

Many Protestants believe that soon after the last of the Apostles died, the early Church—assumed to resemble modern Protestantism—fell from the simplicity of the pure Gospel and turned into a religious institution that would become the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholics assume that a fundamental continuity exists between the early Church and contemporary Catholicism. However, a careful reading of Irenaeus shows that the early Church was neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic in its doctrine and worship. Also, a process was in place for passing on traditions, with safeguards built in to protect the integrity of the Christian Faith—what we might call a “traditioning” process.

 

The “Traditioning” Process

Irenaeus held a high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. He referred to Scripture as “the foundation and pillar of our faith” and spoke of its being “perfect.” He was one of the first Church Fathers to construct a biblical theology making use of both the Old and the New Testaments. However, it should be noted that Irenaeus did not hold to the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, “the Bible alone.” His interpretation of the Bible was not based on an inductive method, but was guided by the “rule of faith” he had received from Polycarp.

Irenaeus saw Tradition as consisting of a written and an oral component: the two complementing and supporting each other. Living in Gaul, where he did missionary work among preliterate peoples, Irenaeus was familiar with the effectiveness of oral tradition:

 

Even if the apostles had not left their Writings to us, ought we not to follow the rule of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they committed the churches? Many barbarian peoples who believed in Christ follow this rule, having [the message of their] salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit without paper and ink.

 

This understanding of tradition as both written and oral is consistent with Paul’s admonition: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

 

Evangelical and Catholic

Irenaeus’s theology was both evangelical and catholic. The evangelical side can be seen in his high regard for the authority of Scripture. It can also be seen in his affirmation of God as Trinity and his endorsement of Christ’s Divine Nature. He writes: “Unlike all men of the past, the Christ is properly proclaimed as God, Lord, eternal King, Only-begotten, and incarnate Word, by all the prophets and apostles and the Spirit itself. The scriptures would not give this testimony to him if he were a mere man like all others.”

His evangelical zeal can also be seen in his firm belief that Christ came to save the world, and his willingness to be a missionary bishop on the western frontiers of the Roman Empire.

Many evangelicals today would feel quite at home with his teaching on the end times. Irenaeus held to a literal understanding of biblical prophecy. He believed in the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, and the physical resurrection of the dead as actual events. He also believed in the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of all flesh, and the final judgment.

The catholic side of Irenaeus’s theology can be seen in his high view of the sacraments. In his time, baptism was not a mere symbol, but a sacrament that conferred the Holy Spirit and spiritual rebirth.

 

For this reason the baptism of our regeneration takes place through these three articles (belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), granting us regeneration unto God the Father through His Son by the Holy Spirit: for those who bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son, while the Son presents [them] to the Father, and the Father furnishes incorruptibility.

 

Baptism was also closely linked to the catechumenate. Those who desired to join the Church were given “the rule of truth”—a body of doctrine—that would guide them in their understanding of Scripture and protect them from the heresy of gnosticism. We also find in Irenaeus one of the earliest witnesses to infant baptism in the early Church.

The early Church believed that in the Lord’s Supper, we partake of the actual Body and Blood of Christ. The gnostics, on the other hand, believing that the material and fleshly were corrupt and inferior, rejected the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In response to the gnostic heresy, Irenaeus wrote:

 

For when the mixed cup and the bread that has been prepared receive the Word of God, and become the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, and by these our flesh grows and is confirmed, how can they say that flesh cannot receive the free gift of God, which is eternal life since it is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and made a member of him?

The catholic side of Irenaeus’ theology can also be seen in his high view of Mary. In Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15, Paul wrote about Christ being the Second Adam who came to reverse the first Adam’s tragic error. Irenaeus expanded on Paul’s teaching when he described the Virgin Mary as the Second Eve. He wrote:

 

So the second [Eve] was given the good news by the word of an angel to bear God and obey his work; and as the first [Eve] was seduced into disobeying God, so the second [Eve] was persuaded to obey God so that the virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve.

 

Irenaeus saw Mary as the second Eve who made possible the salvation of the human race; the Incarnation of the Son of God would not have happened without her consent. He wrote that through her obedience, Mary became “the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.” He also described Mary as the advocate for Eve, an implicit reference to the intercession of the saints.

 

Our Salvation in Christ

Irenaeus is well known for his description of salvation in terms of “recapitulation.” To recapitulate means “to repeat the principal points or stages of” or “to summarize” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Tenth Edition). The term was used by the Apostle Paul. In Ephesians 1:10, Paul describes salvation in cosmic terms: “that . . . He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him.”

Irenaeus’s understanding of salvation took as its starting point the Incarnation. The Son of God became Man so that we would be saved through His life, His death on the cross, and His rising from the dead. As the Second Adam, Christ lived out the principal stages of human existence, perfectly reversing the tragic error of the first Adam:

 

And the transgression which occurred through the tree was undone by the obedience of the tree—which [was shown when] the Son of Man, obeying God, was nailed to the tree, destroying the knowledge of evil, and introducing and providing the knowledge of good.

 

Irenaeus’s understanding of salvation is quite different from that found in Western Christianity, which understands salvation in terms of Christ’s atoning death to placate God’s wrath against man’s sin. For Irenaeus, salvation means the restoration of communion with God.

 

For this the Word of God became man, and the Son of God Son of man, that man, mingled with the Word and thus receiving adoption, might become a son of God. We could not receive imperishability and immortality unless we had been united to imperishability and immortality. And how could we have been united with imperishability and immortality unless imperishability and immortality had first been made what we are, so that what was perishable might be absorbed by imperishability and what was mortal by immortality “that we might receive adoption as sons”?

 

Through the Incarnation, human nature was joined to the Divine Nature in order to restore humanity to full relationship with God. This forms the basis for the Orthodox doctrine of theosis, salvation as participation in the Divine Nature (see 2 Peter 1:3).

 

The Gnostic Challenge

Gnosticism was one of the earliest and most dangerous heresies the early Church faced. It challenged Christianity in two ways. Firstly, it claimed a secret knowledge superior to that of the Church—in effect challenging the teaching authority of the bishops. Secondly, it held that the spiritual was superior to the physical and that the true Christ was a pure spirit being—thereby rejecting the Incarnation. As a heresy, gnosticism threatened the Christian Faith not by outright rejection, but by distorting and redefining the essential meaning of the Faith. It denied the Virgin Birth. Gnostics believed that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, but was superior to other men because of the purity of his soul. They were moral relativists, insisting that good and evil are a matter of perception. And they denied that Christ really suffered on the Cross.

Of course, the gnostic heresy is still very much alive and with us today. Its influence can be seen in liberal Protestantism. A friend of mine sent an e-mail describing a conference she had just attended: “At the Earl Lectures 2005 sponsored by the UCC-supported Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA, a minister stood up and declared he didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I asked him if he didn’t think it was possible. ‘Oh, it was possible, just not necessary.’”

My friend, being a theologically astute evangelical, recognized the minister’s statement as a form of gnosticism. Robert J. Sanders wrote an article in which he describes the de facto theology of the Episcopal Church as gnostic. He points to the denomination’s “gospel” of radical inclusion, which rejects the distinction between good and evil, regards creeds and morality as secondary, and practices open communion—inviting those of other denominations and even non-Christians to the Eucharist.

The tendency towards gnosticism can also be seen among evangelicals. A seminary friend of mine has expressed deep concern over evangelicalism’s low view of the Church, symbolic understanding of the sacraments, low view of the creeds, faith in Christ as a personal experience, and emotional worship. He sees all this having a striking similarity to gnosticism’s mind/body dualism and its giving priority to mystical experience over doctrine and structure.

Irenaeus’s defense of the Christian Gospel was multipronged. Although the gnostics claimed to be Christian, Irenaeus pointed out that none of them could trace a line of succession back to the original Apostles of Christ through the bishops. In other words, the gnostics’ version of Christianity was a made-up religion, just the personal opinion of individuals. Another line of defense was the unity and catholicity (universality) of the Faith. Irenaeus boasted that no matter where one traveled throughout the vast Roman Empire, one would find the same faith being confessed everywhere:

 

Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house. She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth.

 

Truth for Irenaeus was not pluriform—taking many differing, even contradictory expressions, which vary from one place to the next. Christianity is grounded in the historical reality of the Incarnation of the Divine Son of God, and this is true in all places and for all time. The Christian faith is a corporate faith, a consequence of the Church being the Body of Christ, the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Irenaeus played a key role in defeating the gnostic heresy and articulating a theological framework that would preserve intact the Christian Faith for generations to come. For this he is honored today as a saint and a Father of the Church.



 

Robert Arakaki has an M.S. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He recently earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

 

This article originally appeared in AGAIN Vol. 27 No. 3, Fall 2005.

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